Derby Day – Nicole Horwood talks training, derby elements and show nerves

Nicole and Mark White Nissan Capital Don Cumarco have won the Derby four times

The South African Derby is a timeless favourite, sure to be marked on the calendar of equestrian homes all over the country. The event sees riders and horses make the trip to Kyalami Park Club for a week of competition across all the disciplines. The highlight of the week is positively the South African Derby class on the Sunday. Grandstands are packed to capacity with spectators eager to watch each rider’s round. For the riders who qualify, the class is certainly not a time to kick back and relax.

Although the course always stays the same, except for a few technical changes, the Derby is still a true test of both horse and rider. This month, HQ sat down with Nicole Horwood – four-time winner – to talk about derby prep for both her and her two rides, Mark White Nissan Capital Don Cumarco and Mark White Nissan Capital Hitoshi.

What preparation will you do ahead of Derby?

Don Cumarco is an ‘old hat’ when it comes to the Derby. I don’t have to do that much prep in terms of the actual jumping or the derby fences. Two weeks before Derby I’ll go to Bryce’s and we jump his track because he’s got everything there. We do that once, and if I feel that Don Cumarco is uncomfortable with something, I’ll go back and just practise that specific jump or element. The fitness prep I’ll start quite a long way ahead of Derby. We have a track at KPC that I used to use a lot but I don’t use much anymore because we haven’t had rain and the ground is a little bit hard. If the track is too hard then I’ll just do fitness at home with them. Essentially, all the horses are very fit.

Gonda comes up to teach twice a month. I’ll do one practice with Don Cumarco, but I’ll go back for two practices with Hitoshi because he’s still new at the Derby. You also have to be careful – you don’t want to get the horses too fit. When they’re too fit they’re a little too keen and a little too strong.

Are there elements that you have to be careful of?

Nicole Horwood (first), pictured with Graham Winn (second) and Lisa Williams (third) on the podium at the close of the 2016 South African Derby

The dyke used to be Don Cumarco’s weakness. It’s right next to the crowd as well. I had to practise it quite a bit before, but last year I only had to practise it once. Hitoshi also doesn’t like the dyke, and specifically the ditch in the middle. The white oxer is normally one of the biggest jumps on the track, and they never have a problem with it. Hitoshi used to have an issue with the bank, but he seems to have come out of that. He came down it fine in the big Derby last year, but in the year before when I rode him in the Mini Derby he stepped back. He’s overcome that though.

How do your horses perform as the show progresses?

Hitoshi performs better towards the end of the show. He’s very aware of his surroundings at the beginning of the show and then he seems to settle towards the end of a long show. By the last day he’s fully focused and relaxed. Don Cumarco is pretty consistent. He was the second-highest qualifier twice in a row and then the second-highest again last year. Hitoshi can be slightly inconsistent, but he always seems to perform well on the last day. With stallions, you don’t have issues with energy levels. They can be a little too energetic at the beginning of a show. With stallions, it’s more about focus.

I definitely feel that Don Cumarco rises to the occasion on the last day because he feeds off the atmosphere. When he walks into the arena and there’s all the people sitting in the stand – he just knows.

The full article appears in the September issue (126) of HQ > Shop now