Nicki Thorne is a galloping success
PUBLISHED: 17:00 25 April 2016
She races on horseback through desert, canyon, forest and prairie, but Europe’s top endurance rider loves Norfolk best of all, writes Rowan Mantell
NICKI THORNE has been besotted by horses for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Norfolk she longed for a pony of her own. Every time she met someone with a horse she would offer to help – mucking out, grooming, exercising, and learning to ride on ponies which might be extra mischievous or energetic or demanding (and, on the annual family holiday to a Cornish farm, on cows!)
“I would ride anything... I was horse-mad, obsessed with horses, I read all the pony books, and every time I saw someone with horses in the village I would be there, asking if I could help!” she says.
Today Nicki has horses of her own all over the world – at her home near Shipdham in Norfolk, and at ranches in Argentina, the United States and South Africa.
And the little girl who grew up in Wicklewood, near Wymondham, where her parents ran the village stores, is now Europe’s number one endurance rider. In 2014 she was number one in the world.
“Endurance riding is an incredibly ancient thing to do with an Arab horse, but a modern sport,” explains Nicki.
She chanced upon it after getting a horse of her own in her twenties, saving money from her job with a removals company to buy a chestnut mare called Akala.
“She was the best horse you could ever, ever wish for,” says Nicki. “I showed her in hand, I rode her in shows, I did Western riding with her and jumps, but mainly I rode her through the forest, on long circuits around Saham Toney and along the Peddars Way. When someone asked me how far I was riding I got an Ordnance Survey map and a bit of string, and found I was doing rides of 30km!”
And so Nicki began entering endurance rides – firstly pleasure rides and then competitions.
“It’s orienteering on horseback,” she says. “A mix of walking, trotting, cantering and flying!”
Rides are held all over the country, and competitions take place world-wide, governed by the Federation Equestre Internationale, which is also in charge of all the Olympic equestrian disciplines.
Each endurance event includes strict rules on the wellbeing of the horse, including very thorough vet checks throughout each ride.
She began competing in 2011, training her horses, and herself, to be able to tackle 100 miles in a single day. She won second place in her first ever 100-mile ride in 2013 and by the following year was the top endurance rider in the world.
“It’s all about the relationship with the horse. I’m always conscious that we’re asking them to do this unbelievable thing. I talk to the horse all the way through.” And each race is such a partnership that if Nicki is unsure of the terrain she will dismount and run alongside the horse. She has run up canyons, waded across rivers ahead of her horse and dismounted on slippery grass hillside almost at the end of a race, losing the lead she had held all day.
“You make difficult decisions. It’s a really tough sport. But I would never have risked my horse. I’m not going to ride a horse into something that I’m unsure about.”
At each race she is supported by a team headed by her husband Andy. “It’s a little bit like the pit crew in Formula One,” explains Nicki. She and Andy originally met through work. She travelled the world, devising and launching new food products. He had built up a successful international shipping company, and as Nicki began winning race after race and climbing up national and international rankings he took two years out to support her dream.
“There have been people doing endurance all their lives and Nicki beats them!” says Andy. Together they have travelled the world with their horses, sometimes driving across Europe for a competition, sometimes flying out horses.
This New Year they were in Dubai, where Nicki competed alongside Arabian royalty in a 100-mile ride across the desert.
“We were riding past camel stations as the sun was setting, just me and my mare Bolena (and the camels) in this amazing landscape,” she says.
But despite riding in Arabian deserts, American mountains, and along banks of the River Danube when she represented Great Britain in the European Championships in Slovakia last year, it is riding in Norfolk that she loves the most.
She now has 22 horses in Norfolk, including 11 retired racehorses.
The farm is also home to Andy’s falcons. Just as Nicki had dreamed of owning her own horse, he dreamed of flying a falcon.
“I ended up in shipping by mistake. I wanted to be a gamekeeper!” says Andy. Instead, he left school at 16 and began work on the docks, eventually transforming a small shipping company into the UK’s leading independent liner agency - called Kestrel Shipping.
Kestrel Shipping will be sponsoring one of Nicki’s favourite endurance rides – in King’s Forest, between Bury St Edmunds and Thetford, over the weekend of April 15 to 17.
“I think it’s the best endurance ride in the UK,” says Nicki, who will be participating in events ranging from a 32km ride with a novice horse to races against some of the world’s top endurance riders. “I love Norfolk, I really do. I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world that is better. I love the countryside and the coast and I especially love the forests and woodland.”
Some of her favourite rides are through Thetford Forest. “You can see amazing things when it is just you and your horse. I think wildlife sees you as part of the horse if you are riding.”
The little girl who once longed for a horse of her own is now a world class horsewoman.
“I love endurance rides because it’s a mix of your relationship with the horse and a challenge which seems almost impossible. You are out there in vast open spaces on your own with your horse,” says Nicki. “There isn’t a 100-mile ride that I haven’t cried at the end of it. It’s just really humbling, what the horses will do with us.”