He is one of the most gifted show jumpers of the era, with team and individual Olympic gold medals to his name.
His owners Beverley and Gary Widdowson speak of feeling like Hollywood A-listers when they were introduced to Bruce Springsteen and other celebrities as “the people with the horse everyone wants to buy.” His extraordinary talent and success coupled with his infectious enthusiasm for the job means he really lives up to his name—Big Star.
Last year the 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion helped Nick Skelton to achieve the one dream that had eluded him during his 43-year career—an Olympic individual gold medal. Skelton, 59, has made several attempts to retire from the ring, mainly owing to serious injury including a broken neck he sustained in 2000.
Aside from his yearning for a gold medal, Skelton says his inspiration him to battle against adversity came in the form of two horses—Arko and Big Star. As well as winning the individual gold in Rio, Big Star and Skelton were a part of the British gold medal-winning team at the 2012 London Olympic Games and has won five-star grand prix classes at such prestigious venues as Aachen (Germany), Hamburg (Germany) and Rome (Italy).
“There will never be another Big Star. When he is ready to retire so will I,” Skelton has proclaimed.
When he’s not jetting around the world in the fashion that elite show jumpers are accustomed to, Big Star is based at Skelton’s yard, a picture-perfect set-up deep in the heart of rural Warwickshire—close to William Shakespeare’s birthplace.
On meeting Big Star, it is clear he has a big personality. Only his imposing presence gives away that he is a stallion and on the mention of his stable name of “Henry,” as we enter the barn, a huge friendly face appears with a hearty whinny.
Whilst he exudes that inner confidence and “look at me” expression that so many top horses display, Henry is largely laid back and uncomplicated in his character, according to his groom Mark Beever. There is a huggable, pony-like quality about his disposition and his big, honest eyes. It’s hard not to fall in love.
Beever has worked for Skelton for 30 years. During this time he has looked after no fewer than seven Olympic show jumpers for Skelton. The first was Apollo, who he groomed at the 1988 Seoul Olympics; then came other great horses such as Dollar Girl, Arko, Russell and Carlo. Now he is a faithful servant to Big Star, who he has looked after since the Widdowsons bought him as a 5-year-old from Holland.
Beever reveals the personality traits, quirks and characteristics that give Big Star the amazing star quality:
• He hates walking through water—particularly puddles. Beever thinks this is probably a good thing as it means he knows that water is for jumping.
• Despite his loathing for the above, Henry will happily stand in a whirlpool spa for at least an hour a day.
When they are traveling, Beever makes his “home-made spa” consisting of a mucking-out bucket filled with water with the hose left running to create a whirlpool effect and therefore increase circulation. Henry will calmly place his legs in it and stand there for hours on end.
• Skelton’s son Dan is a well-respected racehorse trainer. His race yard is next door to Nick’s jumping yard and offers state-of-the-art facilities. When at home, Henry goes there every day to use the spa and the equine vibration platform that also helps increase circulation. It is no secret that the horse has suffered a number of injuries so management is key.
• He likes variety in his work regime. This means a lot of hacking, which Beever does, and he enjoys using the gallops at Dan’s race yard.
He is so laidback that he even hacks out with the racehorses and other mares. He never flinches in traffic—“you could ride him up a motorway,” said Beever.
• Henry has become a local hero and Beever explains that a ride that would normally take him 45 minutes took him 2½ hours soon after he returned from Rio, where everyone wanted to stop for selfies.
“He was quite happy to stand there and pose all day,” laughed Beever, who relays the story of a young disabled girl approaching him at [the Royal Winter Fair] in Toronto. “He just put his head down for her to pat him and was so gentle with her.”
• “He likes routine and gets funny if you change it,” said Beever. At home he is fed at 7:30 a.m., goes on the walker for an hour at 8:30 and after that either Beever will hack him or Nick will ride him.
•Henry thoroughly enjoys being pampered and groomed. As well as his daily spa treatment and use of an electro-magnetic rug, Beever is a big fan of old fashioned grooming methods such as “strapping” where he uses a cloth to pound the muscles and improve their density and strength.
• Henry always yawns when you put the bridle on. “He is trying to con you into thinking he’s too tired to work,” Beever said affectionately.
• He loves ambling around and doubles up as an office for Nick, who will often make phone calls from his back, just walking around the school.
• When he goes to events, he can be a little more obstinate about proceedings until he gets to the ring. “If it’s 15 minutes from the stables, it will take me 45 minutes,” said Beever. “There’s no nastiness—he just stops every few strides and plants himself. In Rio, I had to take the vet everywhere with me, just to walk behind him to encourage him forward.”
• When Nick first gets on him on the collecting ring, he starts off in a lazy fashion and will always empty his bladder before they start jumping. “But as soon as he starts jumping he springs into action,” Beever said.
• Before entering the ring, Henry always whinnies in anticipation for taking on the course. This is a trait he has showed since the beginning of his career.
• Beever thinks Henry’s relaxed attitude is part of the key to his success. “He’s always had the right brain. He doesn’t get upset about anything and conserves energy until he needs it for the ring,” he said.
“Then after his round he goes back to being totally chilled. “He usually has a drink straight after his round but won’t drink much before. On the flight to Rio, he hardly drank more than half a bucket of water,” revealed Beever.
• “Nick absolutely loves this horse,” said Beever. “He will always pat him and talk to him when he walks in the stable, before he does anything else.”
• Beever, who looks after him seven days a week, understandably also shares a deep bond with the horse. “I love coming in in the morning. I always find myself saying ‘Morning Henry!’ and he always whickers back,” said Beever with a smile.
• Nick never jumps him big at home or in the warm-up before a class—1.45-meter at most and small but wide oxers.
• The saddle Nick used on Henry in Rio was the same saddle he jumped Apollo in at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. “I hardly clean it for fear of it falling apart,” said Beever.
• Henry shares his stable with a giant swede, or rutabaga (a type of turnip), which he loves to chew on. He’s also partial to parsnips and most fruit but cites his favorite as bananas.
• Whilst Henry is enjoying some quite time off the jumping circuit, he is thinking about the future of the sport and making regular visits to the local stud. With his sporting prowess and the best of lineage (sired by Quick Star and grandsire Nimmerdor) his stud fee could prove a bargain for those wishing to breed a champion.