It was a dark, damp and cold in the Cotswolds with the still of the early morning interrupted only by an early tractor sending a pheasant whirring out of the hedgerow and by the first bunch of Nigel Twiston Davies gallopers spinning up out of the gloom. But over in the sand arena the picture was much clearer. A master was at work.
Andrew Nicholson is one of the greatest and most decorated event riders to ever swing a leg across a horse. This summer he won a record third consecutive victory at the Burghley Horse trials and even at 53 is at the very pinnacle of his sport. But thoroughbreds have always been part of his DNA. Horses from off the track were what he had to work with in his native New Zealand and when he first came up to UK in 1980 his day job was as a stable lad with Derek Kent and the then ageing star chaser Grand Canyon in Sussex.
“The boys have always joked at me that I am just a frustrated event rider who was too big to have been a jockey,” he says in his dry, now only slightly accented tones. He is tall, lean, broken nosed, bandy legged and completely cool and commanding in the saddle. “I love jumping thoroughbreds,” he says with the enthusiasm breaking through the quiet, almost lisply spoken voice, “they are much more exciting than eventers.” In the arena a five year old called Rally is going to learn to love jumping too.
Last season Rally was a winning hurdler with Nicky Henderson. This time he is set to try his luck over fences under the Twiston Davies banner. As Andrew Nicholson got the trainer and the willowy, white bobble-hatted Willie Twiston Davies to set up two show jumping type obstacles on either side of the arena you realized that luck was not a part of it. When Andrew Nicholson was legged into Rally’s saddle and clamped his long legs in there was never going to be anything optional in the learning process.
Anyone who has ever wondered what riding instructors are on about when they bark instructions about getting a horse “between hand and leg” should have seen Andrew Nicholson during our morning at Naunton. His hands were low and unmoving on Rally’s neck, his feet compressed firmly down in the irons and his legs and body becoming as much a part of the five year old as if he had been a centaur.
There was no flicking of whip or pirouetting preamble, Andrew and Rally just cantered steadily and purposefully up to the first obstacle and jumped over it. Andrew’s body hardly changed position during the leap but then you would not expect that because it was part of it already. They circled round the arena and jumped the obstacle on the other side with equal aplomb.
Nigel clucked approvingly. His two little daughters and partner Katie waved happily from their pony Bandit on the bank as Andrew rode over to supervise a raising of the poles and a widening of the spread and a deeper angle of the two extra poles which are set in a “V” shape on to the top bar to aid take off. “Show jumpers use this all the time,” explains Andrew, “it draws the horse’s eye into the middle of the jump and to the height of the top line. This horse doesn’t need it because he seems to jump very easily but it helps with those who find it a struggle.”
For Rally it’s only a success story. The fences go up. The rider takes him in different directions and every time the horse not only soars over but gives every indication of enjoying every moment of it. “This is so good you should have a jump on it,” Andrew calls across to Carl Llewellyn who has ridden up with a second candidate for a Nicholson tutorial. Nigel’s assistant and formerly long time stable and Grand National jockey is having none of it, “the horse has not been born good enough,” he says.
What Carl hands over would be in absolutely no danger of tempting him out of retirement. Speed Master did win a chase for the yard last season but has been pulled up on both his last two runs after some shambolic jumping an example of which he obligingly gives now by ploughing through the poles with a clatter that had the watching pigeons swooping off in alarm and startling assembled by standers on two legs and on four.
Nicholson oversees the remaking of the jump, having the V Pole a bit narrower and the spread a little less wide. As he turns and canters Speed Master in a second time there is no drama or raising of tension but you notice an extra firmness in the way the body is clamped into the horse beneath. Speed Master makes a better effort this time merely knocking the top pole off. Over ten minutes the process is repeated and repeated and gradually the knots that have tied up mind and limbs become loosened.
Finally Andrew has built up enough momentum that he not only sends the horse over a fence with a stack of royal blue oil barrels on the landing side but then tackles the barrels head on. As he does so there is a delicious moment when Speed Master’s nerve temporarily fails only to find himself swept up and forward by the rider on top.
“Of course I am very strong between hand and leg,” says Andrew with no silly pretence of false modesty, “but that is the beauty of going at a slower speed and being too heavy to be a jump jockey. I am there to give them confidence because they don’t learn anything if you go crashing through every time. It’s not rocket science, just the simple repetitive thing to make even the moderate jumper get the idea of putting the front feet over first before the back ones.”
His connection with the yard goes back many years to a horse he had brought up from New Zealand who wanted to go too fast at his event jumping but proved a successful chaser with Twiston Davies. However the link took on a whole new dimension when the 2004 Sun Alliance Hurdle winner Fundamentalist fell in three out of his four races over fences and was despatched to Nicholson’s Wiltshire yard for a fortnight’s instruction.
“It was like he was obsessed with galloping and not a lot with self preservation,” recalls Andrew. “With the poles and the slower speed he got a bit of an idea about putting those front legs over in front of the back. We had quite a few others like Ballyfitz who was a good hurdler but made howling mistakes over fences. With some of them it seems as if they shut their eyes and throw themselves over and I wonder if it is because they have lost their confidence. I try and get that back but I don’t make any con that you can teach them all to be immaculate jumpers. All you can do is to give the jockeys a chance that the horse might stay on its feet when it does make a mistake.”
There is a professorial simplicity in the explanation and a generous tribute to the riders in the faster discipline. He sighs at Ruby Walsh’s “beautiful eye for a stride” and is fascinated by the way AP McCoy likes to run moderate jumpers up close and “pop” over in the early part of the race so that “at the last three fences when he has them by the ears and wants 110 % out of them, they come up for him as he hasn’t asked them before.”
But while believing there is greater strength in depth than ever before he has never seen anyone to match John Francome. “The first year they had the Blenheim Trials, one of our major events,” says Andrew, “John rode someone else’s horse round the cross country course with a camera on his head, gave a commentary on what he was doing and he was immaculate. He left the start box and rode in a beautiful rhythm round a very big cross-country course on a stranger’s horse. He made all the rest of us look like beginners.
Sam Twiston Davies was not at his father’s yard last week but speaking on Thursday at the end of the long drive back from a winner at Wetherby he was unstinting in his praise. “He’s a genius,” he says of Andrew, “it’s amazing to spend a morning with him. You can learn a lot from the positive way he goes about it all. He has jumped on lots of horses like Mahogany Blaze and given them their confidence back and it’s pleasure to ride after he has been on them. He has such control, all the momentum is going forward and nothing ever looks messy. We jockeys are often flapping and kicking and the confidence Andrew has in himself and the signals he sends down the reins is something we can only aspire to and learn from.”
Such admiration did not extend to giving Nicholson a full briefing when he was legged up on the family star Baby Run the week after the then 16 year old Willie Twiston Davies had been dumped out the side at the second last in the Cheltenham Foxhunters three years ago. “Willie was going to then ride it at Aintree,” remembers Andrew, “so Nigel said I had better get on it as his son’s life was on the line. I walked towards the end of the arena and it whipped round and dumped me on the sand. Apparently it always did that. Sam was there, and Willie and Nigel and they all laughed their heads off. Typical.”
Baby Run duly skipped round the Grand National fences. Last week’s horses will have learnt their lessons just as well.