Out on Top: Big Star and Nick Skelton Retire at the Royal Windsor Horse Show

Nick Skelton & Big Star leave the arena at Royal Windsor, flanked by their teammates John and Michael Whitaker. Ph. ©Jon Stroud.

To be in the company of Big Star is awe inspiring, especially when reminded of his accomplishments. With the 2016 Rio Olympics still fresh, it’s humbling to be in his presence, in flesh and blood, while remembering his step-perfect round with Great Britain’s Nick Skelton on their mad dash to individual gold.

But in the same second, it’s just as easy to briefly forget his superstar status—almost like if you met Brad Pitt at a friend’s dinner party and comfortably slipped into familiar conversation.

In the barn, “Big Star” is just “Henry.” And there, the big, bay, KWPN stallion (Quick Star x Nimmerdor) has a gentleness to his energy.

When I produced a camera to begin taking his photos, his shyness came out and he dipped his head beneath the stall door to furtively peek out with his warm, brown eyes. To draw him out of his shell, USA’s Laura Kraut proffered him cookies, which he eagerly accepted—in addition to the kisses from Kraut, Skelton’s longtime partner.

The retirement is at an unusually young age for a sound horse. Born June 2003, he’s only just turning 14 next month, an age when many other show jumpers are just reaching their peak performances.

“We’ve been watching him, riding him at home and riding him here and he’s never looked better,” said Kraut. “It’s been a very difficult decision because when you have a horse of that caliber that’s looking so well, and he’s only 14 years old you think, ‘Am I making the right decision?’

“But I think Nick is doing what’s best for the horse and [Big Star] owes him nothing. He’s won everything that he could and to push it and risk the horse getting injured just isn’t something Nick wants to do. It’s bittersweet. You hate to not see him in the sport.”

Skelton & Big Star rode to center ring with their Olympic gold medals, and wearing their Team GBR gear for the last time. Ph. ©Jon Stroud

In a sense, it feels like a loss—especially for the rising generation of riders that would have found value and influence from experiencing Skelton’s and Big Star’s combined talent and close partnership.

But in another light, there’s so much that feels right about Big Star’s retirement: that it’s alongside Skelton’s own retirement from the sport as well, that it’s from pure gratefulness on behalf of his rider and team, and that it’s in front of an adoring home crowd.

The Royal Windsor Horse Show, on the grounds of Windsor Castle, is a historic event that upholds the country’s equestrian traditions. It draws an educated crowd—the kind that tsk-tsks excessive noise in the middle of a show jumping round and doesn’t mind the heavy rainstorms that randomly pour through on show days—that undoubtedly appreciates the pride that Big Star and Skelton have brought home to the country.

“I think it’s the right thing to do. It will be emotional,” said Mark Beever, Skelton’s groom, the morning of the ceremony. “This is the best venue and crowd to do his retirement.”

Although Big Star was bred and started in the Netherlands, he is, to all concerned, a British horse. Purchased at the age of 5 by Gary and Beverley Widdowson for Skelton to produce, the stallion’s entire show record is with Skelton in the irons.

For the ceremony, which followed the Queen’s presentation to the weekend’s winners, Skelton and Big Star entered the ring while photos and videos of their accomplishments flashed across the big screens. Audible sounds of sadness came from the crowd when Skelton then took off his Team Great Britain jacket, trading it in for his everyday tweed. Big Star, also, gave back his Team Great Britain numna and began to leave the ring led by his rider.

At that point, their former teammates, John and Michael Whitaker and Scott Brash appeared, mounted on their horses, to usher the now officially retired Skelton and Big Star out of the arena.

It was a beautiful and emotional ceremony—a treat for the Sunday crowd that waited until nearly the show’s end (and through rain showers) to watch the momentous event.

In their seven years together in international competition, Skelton and Big Star have won major CSI5* grand prix events, including the €1,000,000 Rolex Grand Prix of Aachen and the Grand Prix of Rome. They also contributed to the win for Great Britain in the Nations Cup competition at the Dublin Horse Show in 2013.

But without question, their greatest achievements are the Olympic team gold and individual gold medals they won at the 2012 London Games and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, respectively.

A couple leg injuries between the two Olympics threatened the possibility that the horse could return to seek vindication, after a near miss for individual gold on home turf in 2012, but Skelton and his team expertly managed Big Star to peak perfectly in the summer of 2016.

“Nick has been one of my idols growing up in the sport,” said USA’s Kent Farrington, after he won the Rolex Grand Prix CSI5* earlier in the day. “When I was a kid, I didn’t have access to high level shows. I wanted to be a jockey and started off racing ponies. The first videotapes I had were of the World Cup classes, and I used to have this video called Nick Skelton, Riders of the World. I used to stand in front of the TV and pretend I was Nick and put my elbows up like him.”

One of the great things about our sport is that you can do it for a long time—and that’s what Nick showed the world,” Farrington added. “Through ups and downs, and injuries, and multiple horses, in the twilight of his career, he actually probably had the best horse in his career. That’s one of the unique things about our sport is that you’re never really out of it until you’ve decided you’ve done enough, or had enough. The way he’s finished his career is something we’d all like to do—in a style like that.”

Direct from the Royal Windsor Horse Show, Big Star will head to the breeding shed at a stud farm with his longtime groom Mark Beever, who arrived at the show earlier today for the ceremony. (A full stable of horses at home preparing for a busy summer schedule ahead had meant Beever stayed at home for most of the show while Kraut’s head groom Samantha Burrell kept watch over Big Star.)

Big Star seemed to know change was in the air. “Nick said today that Henry knows he’s not showing because he’s quieter than he would be, normally, than if he were,” said Burrell. “He’s well behaved. If he’s fresh or at stud, he’ll scream but he never puts a foot wrong.”

“Henry knows he’s not showing because he’s quieter than he would be, normally, than if he were.”

Their adoring fans will surely miss them at shows—although competitors may feel some relief to see a door opening to make their own marks on the sport. And while it’s an end of a public era, there are still many (private) happy days ahead.

“I think I’m definitely making the right decision,” said Skelton. “He’s 100 percent healthy now and I’d like for him to stay that way. If I did go back jumping with him, I wouldn’t want anything to happen to him so it’s best to stop while he’s in best form.”

“I’m still going to be doing a lot of riding at home,” he added. “We have young horses and I’m helping Laura with her horses. My sons do a lot of steeplechasing and we have a lot of horses there so I’ll be busy. We’ll keep riding, keep him fit—he needs to be in good order. We have a couple of his babies and his owners have a few foals by him.

“We live in a small hamlet and it’s right in the middle of the country so there’s a lot of places to ride: in the woods, in the gallops. There are a lot of places to ride. But I do think he will probably miss jumping—because he likes to jump.”

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