Riders’ stories: a chat with Nayel Nassar. "Being a horseman is what comes first".

When did you start riding? And why and when did you decide this would be your career?

I started riding very young. I grew up in Kuwait in the Middle East. My parents had a friend who was starting a riding school and they signed us up for lessons just like any kid who starts to ride. So it started just for fun, showing up to twice a week for a lesson on the lead and then as I got older the sport started to grow a little bit in the Middle East as well. There started to be more shows like an Arab Tour in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and Qatar and Saudi and so the sport was moving in the right direction. When I was in high school in Kuwait, I started to compete a lot more. I started to travel to some of those shows and just competed in the Junior Classes really. Then when I went to university at Stanford I actually took a break from riding because it was a big change for me to move from the Middle East out to California and I wanted really to take my time to be in school and get settled. So my first year I didn’t really ride. During my second year I only brought one horse to jump in some small classes and then in my third year - actually in the summer - I went to Europe and I thought ‘okay now I’ve been riding quite a long time, I’ve been jumping 1,40-1,45 classes for quite a long time, it would be great if I could take the next step.’ And so we found a great stallion, his name was Raging Bull Vangelis S, a long name, he was an experienced stallion who had jumped with Robert Smith at a high level. He was a bit older, so we were able to buy him.

A very good start!

Yes exactly, and so we were able to buy the horse and I started to jump in some big events and it actually went very quickly. I went from 2*, 3*to 4* and I was clear, double clear, third and then I finally won a 2* Grand Prix in the Middle East at the end of the year. And that winter I went to Hungary actually, to look for some young horses because I had one older horse and wanted one younger horse. So I bought a horse called Lordan on that occasion. He was only seven years old and then I went back to school actually and I took my horses with me  and I went to Wellington for the first time in 2012. So, I had my stallion who was an older horse, I got to jump the Grand Prix and I had Lordan who was an eight-year-old starting to come up through the ranks. I had a very good year there, I went to Calgary for the first time and I won a good class there. I was training with Laura Kraut at the time and she was an unbelievable motivator and really believed in me and in my riding and she made a good plan for me for the whole year regards to where to go with my horses.

And then I went to the World Cup final for the first time, so that also really opened my eyes to the sport a little bit and then by the end of 2013, I had won the Million Dollar Grand Prix in New York on Lordan who was 9 years old at the time. So that was the year I was graduating from college, and it was a very big win for me. I had a horse that was the perfect age, a horse I had developed myself and I really felt I owed it to this horse to try to do this full-time. Until then I had always been coming and going from school and horses were on the road and I wasn’t riding, I was going straight to shows and so I thought, you know, how great would it be to really do the sport full time and that’s how I started.


And now you are at the top.

Now I’m at the top, yes, ten years later

Now you are here in Aachen, one of the most important shows in the world.

Unbelievable, yes, really amazing. Actually, I remember when I got an email saying that I had been invited here, we had already made plans to go to Calgary for the summer etc, but I spoke with my team and we decided that if you get into Aachen you have to go to Aachen. So we changed our schedule a bit. We made sure we could keep two horses ready to come back to and sent two other horses over for the show and actually next week I go back to Calgary and compete there. But it has always been a dream to compete here, it’s the best show in the world for sure and so far I’m having a pretty good week. So, yes, it’s been good.

Who were your coaches?

Laura Kraut trained me for a long time, for a year or so. Now Rob Hoekstra is my trainer, Harrie Smolders also helps me a lot because we are part of the same team, we ride in the same barn. But I’ve had a few trainers along the way who have really believed in me and taught me things that allowed me to reach this level of the sport.

What do horses represent in your life?

Oh, they are everything. They are what I wake up for every morning. I have a good team of horses now, I have five or six horses which are very good for the sport and that I’m really lucky to be riding them. We have a great team at Evergate Stables who are huge supporters for me and Harrie and our goal is to have two riders at the top of the sport and so we are always looking for horses who can help us get there. And we’re blessed to have a great team of horses right now that are all different, all very unique and excellent at what they do.

I love my life and I wouldn't have it any other way. And I tried, I worked for a bank for a while for a few months in the summer but I like to be outdoors and I like to be with the animals and what’s great about riding too is that you’re always learning, you know. You are always trying to improve and there is always something to look forward to, new goals, new challenges. So, you never get bored really and there are not many careers that are like that.

What is your dream?

My dream? I have a lot of dreams. In my career my dream is just to keep representing my country at major championships, and hopefully be able to win a medal for Egypt at a major championship, that would be a first for our country. I also dream that I can continue to compete at these amazing events like the Rolex Grand Slam. This is only my second Rolex show. I jumped in Calgary last year at the Masters, that was my first Rolex Grand Prix, so I’d love to make this more permanent. I’d love to make that a permanent part of my schedule and just keep improving as a rider, keep on trying to make my horses better and improve myself. And then I guess my goals in life are to have a happy family, a healthy family, to stay passionate about what I'm doing. I think that’s important as we do this over and over and we do it for so many years; it's easy to lose your way a little and so I'm just hopeful that I remain passionate about what I'm doing and that I will always love the horses the way I love them now.

What advice would you like to give to a young rider who would like to follow in your footsteps? What qualities do they need?

I think patience is really important. Nothing happens overnight in this sport; the horses take a long time to learn and we riders take a long time to build a partnership with a horse. So, I think patience is very important, as is listening to your horse. I think it's easy for riders to put their goals and their ambitions ahead of what's best for the horse and I think that's one of the most important things we need to pay attention to. It is something that I always try to do, putting the horses first and never putting them in situations they can’t handle. So, those are two pieces of advice I guess that I would give to younger riders.

To be a horseman is the first thing. It’s the first thing absolutely, being able to understand your horse and understand how to work with it and of course ask questions. Go and watch the warm-up ring, go and take any opportunity you can to learn from anyone really and treasure what makes sense to you and forget what doesn't. I think that the more you put yourself out there and try to learn from other people, the faster your trajectory is going to be.

And finally, which is your best memory?

The Tokyo Olympics. We qualified the team for our country for the first time in 60 years, so that was a very proud moment for us as Egyptians. We had a team at the Olympic Games that was huge. And then I’ve had plenty of beautiful Grand Prix wins that are all special in their own way, but really I mean my memories are the horses that have come through my career. They have all been so special in one way or another and they have all taught me different things. They have all taken me around the world, so my best memories are from my best horses.


Image@/ Bret St.ClairLaura Lemon/ /Ashleyneuhofphotography