By Karim Mekawi, Egypt.
The first time he sat on horse-back he was the size of any average five year old, but unlike most of the stories we hear, he soon asked his parents to let him get off because it was getting too "boring". But once he discovered that fences and speed would eventually come into play, he eagerly got back on with a renewed sense of purpose. Now, 16 years later, his biggest dream is an Olympic medal.
He's also the highest ranked Egyptian rider in the world, and you surely don't get there without flying against the clock, over 1m50 - 1m60 jumps. But more importantly, you don't get there without enjoying yourself!
To say the least, Nael Nassar is a tall, articulate young-man who is rational, knowledgeable and has a high propensity to succeed - with a few wins in the books, a Pan Arab Games team bronze around his neck, and a broad grin on his face.
Not only that, but this time's cavalier carried the red, white and black flag around medium classes during European summers, where he rode with big German names like Joerg Naeve and Markus Beerbaum. But now he's in for the kills at the biggest shows in America, going against whopping Olympic names like Beezie Madden, Mclain Ward and Mario Deslauriers - and occasionally beating them!
Currently a college student at Stanford, he flies to the shows to work his horses a bit, compete them, pick up some ribbons, then return home - It all sounds very laid-back, but surely its far from it.
Last season he won the 2* Grand Prix during Abu Dhabi's GCT Final. In Florida, our friend here won the overall Artisan young riders' Grand Prix series with his 8-year old gelding Lordan, who is self-produced. More recently, he won the 1m50 Progress Energy Cup at 5* Spruce Meadows, with his prodigious Stallion - Raging Bull Vangelis - who raises a lot of eyebrows due to his sheer power and technique.
Nael gives us some elaborate and exciting stories on how he started with horses, how he found his current ones, his past and current trainers...and the whole nine yards. Enjoy!
- Let's re-wind back a few years to your early days. Tell us how young Nael put his first steps in the horse world.
I was probably 5 or 6 when I started riding. I went to Kuwait riding centre here and there for some lessons. I didn’t start jumping until I was around 9 or 10, shortly before we purchased my first horse – a wild chestnut mare from Hungary called Romantika. She was 5 years old I believe.
- In the past, a lot of people realised your tendency to choose smaller, more compact horses. What was the reason behind that?
It’s funny that I developed that reputation in the Middle East. It’s not like I actively searched for smaller horses. We bought 5 and 6 year olds from Hungary, where horses tend to breed a bit smaller (and be a bit cheaper!). My brother and I produced them into 1m40/1m50 horses and we went on to compete them in the Arab League and in smaller summer shows in Germany. That said, small horses are often quick, handy and agile, which is exactly what you need when speeding through 1m40 classes. Then again, maybe I just had no idea how to ride big horses. Who knows?
- Training with a big German name like Markus Beerbaum must have been special. What did he focus with you on? And what was different about the Michaels-Beerbaum stables?
I started spending the summers with Markus in approx. year 2000. So I got to start training with him from a really young age, before I was even jumping 1m20 classes. Because Romantika (and a couple of other horses) had so much blood, I had a tendency to barely use my legs. I would push them to the front like I was riding a motorbike. And so he focused a lot on that, and also on my seat and hands. He always told me to sit in the saddle, which is why I still do, and made sure I didn’t get blocked with my hands.
Another thing is that I was put in a serious system from a young age and got to see how a world-class competition stable runs. It made me want to work hard because whatever I did reflected the Michaels & Beerbaum's name, and it obviously gave me great exposure !
- What is the inside story of your stallion Raging Bull Vangelis S (by Non-Stop)? And who's eyes spotted him for you?
Brutus is our spoiled champion! He’s my first Grand Prix horse, and since he’s already 14, I am blessed with each day I get to ride him. We bought him towards the end of July 2011 and we jumped our first GP together early September in Lanaken, where I had the last fence down. Joerg Naeve began coaching me while I lived in Germany from 2003-2005, since the Beerbaum stable was too far away from where we lived.
Joerg and I developed a great friendship and business relationship that we maintained over the years, and so I spent last June (2011) till January (2012) showing my new horses in Europe and the Middle East alongside him and his horses.
Anyway, he had heard that Vangelis was for sale and so we hopped on a plane to go try him. We knew he had jumped everything with Robert Smith so it was just a matter of whether we would fit together or not. We hopped around a 1m20 course, jumped 3 or 4 bigger fences, and I’m happy to say that we’ve been getting to know each other ever since. He’s really an unbelievable character.
- And your other 8-year old gelding Lordan (Lordanos x Landor) who you've had a spectacular season with in Wellington?
Lordan means a lot to me because he’s the first proper 150 (hopefully 160) horse I produced. He was 6 when I tried him. We were in Hungary during the winter of 2010, looking for my first Grand Prix horse (still no Vangelis at the time). I think I tried 14 horses that day. All back to back in a small, freezing indoor ring. Instead of a ready-to-go horse, we spotted a relatively green 6-year old Hanoverian gelding, which we thought had all the potential.
Sadly, Lordan injured himself in the truck on the way over, so we couldn’t start working him until 6 months later. After finishing up the school year, I headed to Joerg’s stables in June 2011 where he had begun trotting again with Linda, our groom of 10 years. We took our time with him because when they lose 6 months at such a young age, you are almost starting again from scratch.
He was unbelievably spooky when he started jumping again, and was flying 1 meter over every little fence he faced at home. Things went quite fast though once he was 100% sound and slightly more educated. We jumped 1m20 one weekend, 1m30 the next (where we were almost eliminated), then went to the Young Horse Championships in Lanaken where he went on 4faults, 4faults and a clear over the 3 days as a 7 year old in his first international show - that’s when I knew he was going to be a great horse.
- Now we come to your current trainer, Olympic medallist Laura Kraut. What made you choose to train with her in specific? Does she stress more on flat work, jumping or a bit of both?
When we decided to do Wellington this year, we needed to find someone to help me with the new horses, because Joerg was spending the winter in Europe. We asked him for advice and he put us in touch with Laura whom he knew very well. He thought it would be a good fit because she wouldn’t try to come in and change our whole system, but rather give me tips and pointers that are essential when jumping bigger fences.
I believe that a fresh eye is always extremely helpful. But I have to say that Laura is an absolutely incredible person, which is more important than being an incredible rider, which she is anyway. To answer your last question, since she only saw me at the shows, we were mainly focused on the jumping side of things.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t join Laura this summer in Europe because of an internship, so I’ve been flying solo since June. I had gone without a coach before, so the transition wasn’t too bumpy, plus it’s important for riders to learn to think for themselves from time to time.
- What plan have you and Laura set for the remainder of the year and the next one?
As a matter of fact, things are still up in the air because of school, and we’ve kind of been taking this summer day by day. Laura wasn’t as big a part of the planning process because she’s so far away. Although I’m sure that if she was, we would have an elaborate plan by now, instead of whatever it is I’m putting together in my head as we speak.
However, we were thinking of heading to California for the fall and competing in the World Cup shows there - Sacramento, Del Mar, LA, Vegas, and possibly Thermal. They are all quite close in terms of distance, and hopefully it’ll be fun riding indoors again. After that, it’s either Thermal or Wellington for the winter, depending on how tough school gets and a bunch of other factors I don’t want to bore you with !
- We heard you play other sports as well such as basketball & volleyball, do you pursue that also on a high calibre such as show jumping?
Nah not really. It’s mainly because I enjoy sports, especially basketball. Don’t get me wrong, just because I don’t pursue them as much as I do riding, doesn’t mean I'm bad at them! It keeps me in shape, and allows me to stay competitive, even if it’s just a pick-up game with some friends. I always play to win, and I think that fuelling that fire makes going to the horse show a bit easier -- because you already have that competitive drive instilled in you.
- In your opinion, what is the difference between shows in the U.S, which have added a new edge to show jumping, opposed to the shows in Europe? And why don't we see you more often on the European scene?
You don’t see me there because I’ve been at Stanford for 3 years! But as I said, I was in Europe for several summers, but didn’t make much noise because I didn’t have the horses for big classes and shows.
Competitions in the U.S are becoming more and more like the ones in Europe. Many Europeans spend their winters in Wellington after all. I feel like the sport is growing, and there are better and better horses here. A lot of young talent and a bunch of veterans who are showing them how it’s done. It makes the sport very exciting. I also think that the media is doing a good job of promoting show jumping, especially in the U.S.
There is a lot of prize-money to be won over here, but shows are more expensive too. The organisers do a phenomenal job in garnering sponsors and crowds, but at the same time there are way less shows than there are in Europe. Oh and in the U.S., you get your own warm-up fence. Apparently the concept of sharing hasn’t quite caught on yet, but hey, I’m definitely not complaining!
- One piece of advice from Nael Nassar to riders who seek to move abroad to turn professional.
Well I’m not a professional, so I guess you don’t really need to listen to my advice. But if I could say one thing though, I’d say you should always appreciate what you have and be thankful for it. Horses are truly a blessing. Treat them well, keep them happy, and they will fight for you and last longer.