Forty-six year old Nick Skelton from England really needs no introduction to fans of show jumping. In his twenty-eight years of competing at international level, he has represented Great Britain in four Olympic Games, won ten European Championship medals, six World Championship medals, a World Cup title (with Dollar Girl) and over $9.2 million (CDN) in prize money in almost 1300 classes. He also still holds the record for the highest jump in history, which he established at the age of 28, jumping over 7’7”.
Nick Skelton began riding at an early age. His first pony, Oxo, was a Welsh Mountain Pony who lived to the grand old age of 39 (and was still a member of the Skelton family at the time of his death). By the age of 18, Skelton had become Junior European Champion riding Okay. This was his first major victory and he never looked back.
Over the years Skelton rode a number of incredible horses, who became stars in show jumping history. Maybe, St. James, Apollo, Grand Slam and Dollar Girl are just a few in a long string of talented equine partners to this quiet, focused man. He has represented his country more times then any other rider in the history of the sport.
Skelton’s brilliant career was halted suddenly in September 2000. A fall at the Park Gate Horse Show in Cheshire, England resulted in Skelton breaking the top vertebrae in his neck in two places.
The ligaments that support the bones snapped and tore away a piece of bone. After almost a year in a neck brace, he was told he must give up riding completely or risk fatal injury if he fell again.
In 2002, against all odds, Skelton received a clean bill of health from his specialist in Germany. The piece of bone has reattached and Nick picked up the reins once more. He returned to the international arena riding Arko, Russell and Pandur. With Arko, the bay Oldenburg stallion by Argentinus, he was soon back in top form, winning the grand prix in Lazerias, Portugal, and posting a number of top-five placings, thrilling his fans worldwide.
Recently in an interview via the internet, I asked Nick Skelton about his injury, his recovery, and his return to top level show jumping.
SH: I am going to show my age right off the top by saying that one of my all-time favourite horses is Apollo. I remember the thrill of seeing him competing here almost 20 years ago. You have a large fan base in Canada, particularly in Calgary. How did it feel to return to the International Ring at Spruce Meadows?
NS: I’ve had some of my greatest wins there and the spectators are brilliant. Spruce Meadows has been very good to me over the years. It’s always great to come to Calgary and I really enjoy the International Ring there.
SH: Sometimes it is easier to recuperate physically rather than mentally. How did you keep a positive attitude throughout this traumatic time, when you had been told you would never ride again?
NS: I was devastated at the beginning but as time went on my neck felt better and stronger every week, and then I started to think maybe I would ride again. And I kept having regular scans to see how the neck was healing.
SH: Returning to the saddle is difficult for any rider who has suffered a fall and/or injury. What advice would you give to people who are finding it difficult to regain their confidence?
NS: Try not to think about the fall and what happened. Try and think about the good times.
SH: As a result of the accident, have you changed the equipment you use or wear, or the way you ride or train?
NS: No. I just think my fall was an accident and it can happen anytime; a risk of the job really!
SH: Do you have any after-effects from your injury? Do you need regular massage therapy, chiropractic, or other treatments?
NS: I occasionally get cramp in my neck now, which I never had before, and it doesn’t turn the way it used to.
SH: Like many parents, you have watched both of your sons, Daniel and Harry, compete in the jumpers. I understand that Daniel is now doing point-to-points and Harry works in a racing yard with hopes of becoming a jockey. As a parent, how do you and your partner, Bettina, handle watching your children compete in dangerous and highly-competitive sports?
NS: I think that if they want to ride and enjoy it you have to go along with their dreams and support them as much as possible, but if they didn’t want to ride I wouldn’t make them. Daniel, my eldest, had his first ride in a Point-to-Point race on the 18th January and he won!! First time out!! He owns the horse, trains it himself, does all the exercise and work on it and then rode it in the race as well. That day was probably the best day of my life. Watching him win was better than any Grand Prix win of my own.
SH: As a photo-journalist, I spend many hours at ringside (shows and private farms). I see an incredible number of riders who only ever put on a helmet when they enter a show ring. At home they school on the flat, over fences and hack with just a baseball cap on. Any thoughts or comments on this?
NS: I’m sorry to say that I’m one of those riders! But you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. If I was made to wear a helmet as a kid I probably would wear one every day now. My children wear them whenever they get on a horse, I insist.
SH:. I look forward to seeing you again at Spruce Meadows this September for The Masters. Thank you, Nick, and all the best to you in 2004.
NS: I hope to be there in September and hope to win the Grand Prix for a fourth time!! Thanks for asking to interview me. It has been a pleasure answering your questions.