After suffering a broken neck from a riding accident in 2000, and being forced into an early retirement, Olympic show jumping champion Nick Skelton of Great Britain showed enormous perseverance by returning to the show ring only three years later to continue living out his exceptional career, in which he competed in seven Olympic Games and medaled in five World Championships and nine European Championships. In 2010, Skelton formed a special partnership with a 2003 KWPN stallion by the name of Big Star (Quick Star–Jolanda, Nimmerdor), owned by Gary and Beverley Widdowson and Oliver Robertson. The pair went on to earn two Olympic gold medals, as well as numerous other achievements, throughout their career together, overcoming many obstacles along the way. On May 14, the global equestrian community rallied together to say goodbye to these two legendary athletes as they retired from the sport in top form at the Royal Windsor Horse Show. In this column, Skelton’s partner, American show jumper Laura Kraut, shares her insight on the journey of Skelton and Big Star.
The whole story of Nick Skelton and Big Star is remarkable, and truly one of the most extraordinary journeys in the sport of show jumping. I cheered them on from the sidelines as they won Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016 and I was honored to be onsite at the Royal Windsor Horse Show and support the both of them at their retirement ceremony two weeks ago. Through the ups and downs, it’s been an incredible ride and I’m so proud of what they’ve been able to achieve and overcome.
When you’re living it, you’re not really aware of it until it’s over and then you sit back and reflect on all they’ve accomplished.
At the start, when Nick bought Big Star, and within the first year as a 6-year-old, he said to me, ‘This horse is going to win the Aachen grand prix one day.’ Then to have him three years later be in the winner’s circle in Aachen — not many horses hold that title. That was an incredible moment.
During the London Olympics, Big Star was by far the best horse of the whole competition. He sadly had the rail down in the final or he would have won individual gold that year. After London, Big Star sustained a suspensory injury, which was very frustrating. The original injury was not so bad, but then the comeback didn’t work as well as we wanted. Then he got another injury, which resulted in more time off. It felt as if every time we’d get him back up and running something little would occur and it would set him back. I think the hardest part about Big Star is that he’s so rambunctious. We say he’s hard on himself because he just tries so hard. He gives 1,000 percent in everything he does so he’s hard on his legs. Thankfully in 2016, between the vets, the blacksmiths, his groom and Nick — everyone’s input and expertise — it all came back together at the right moment, which, really, was nothing short of a miracle.
All along, ever since Nick decided it would be time to retire both Big Star and himself, it’s been a difficult decision. Nick is still physically fit and able to go out and win and continue to be one of the best riders there has ever been. He had made the statement that when Big Star would retire, he would retire, and that’s exactly what he did.
When we were preparing for the spring for him to go and show through the summer — do Rome, Aachen, Calgary — Nick thought, ‘I just want to triple check that all of his legs are good and he’s sound.’ The outcome was that the vets felt he looked great and could probably go and jump, but they felt at some stage the injury would come back and it could potentially be worse than before. After the Olympics, Nick decided that it was not worth the risk of the injury. We’ve been at home riding Big Star every day since then and he looks like a million dollars. Every day we’ve been asking ourselves, ‘Are we sure we’re making the right decision?’
That’s been the hardest part because Nick had to call it quits even though the horse looked and felt great. It was a bittersweet decision on both of their parts. In the end, I’m sure it is the right one. It’s definitely in the best interest of the horse. I don’t think it’ll take Nick long to get accustomed to being retired either.
When I retired Cedric earlier this year, it was a completely different scenario. It was definitely time for Cedric to retire. I don’t feel like we left anything undone. He’s 19, he’s sound and it was time to stop. For Nick, it was a little bit of a different story.
It was definitely an emotional week. There was a lot of built-up anticipation around the entire event just knowing it was coming. We were all sort of dreading it and when it actually occurred I think it was really, really nice. It was sad, but it was nicely done. To have his former teammates ride into the ring was a nice surprise. That was almost as tear-jerking as anything.
Big Star was hilarious. He performed and spoke to the crowd, which was really funny. I think all in all it went really well. Nick was really appreciative to the Royal Windsor Horse Show for hosting it. To have Her Majesty The Queen there too was extra special.
The response from the people has also been overwhelming. People traveled from all over just to see them retire. England is such a horse country and I think people who have never even met Nick or seen Big Star came to see it, and it was a really exciting event because of that.
Nick will still be very involved in the sport and still riding at home and working horses on a daily basis. It’s been hard having two major retirements in one year for our team, but Nick and I both consider ourselves very lucky to have had the opportunity to compete and share partnerships with such outstanding athletes in our sport. Thank you to everyone who has played a role — big or small — in Nick and Big Star’s journey, we couldn’t have done it without you!
Photo courtesy of the Royal Windsor Horse Show