My Dad told me: 'Stick to football, it's more manly'

Dan Neilson is the Billy Elliot of show jumping who swapped a boxing ring for the show ring and finally won over his sceptical father

Remember those halcyon days when show jumping was almost as big on the box as The X Factor? When Harvey Smith V-signed his way into public adoration and Colonel Harry Llewellyn's Olympic gold medal steed Foxhunter was the Red Rum of the show ring?

That was before the sport sold its soul to sponsorship, naming horses after washing machines and hi-fis, and the BBC lost interest.

It was a time when equestrianism was not so much the sport of kings but of a horse-mad princess named Anne. But, as HRH did in the Montreal Olympics, it took a tumble. Only now is it picking itself up and searching for a fresh image.

What it needs, say its followers, is a new kid in the saddle to ride for glory in 2012, someone with a bit of charisma who can appeal to a younger generation. It may well have found him in a 20-year-old six-footer from County Durham who is far removed from the rakish Rupert Campbell-Black, the aristo horseman in Jilly Cooper's Riders.

Dan Neilson, son of a potash miner, would be equally at home in a boxing manager's stable as the one in Essex where he spends his time mucking out, feeding and riding a string of horses while galloping towards his Olympic goal as Britain's best young show-jumper.

His journey from the boxing ring to the show ring, which he did initially to his dad John's displeasure, is a bizarre tale with a touch of the Billy Elliots about it. He explains: "My mum, Christine, had a horse when she was young, Pony Club stuff, and then some competitions. My dad is Scottish and is football crazy. He had played semi-professional in Scotland. I was brought up with my brothers and sisters in Cleveland and I suppose I inherited my mother's love of horses.

"I had a pony called Lofty in the back yard and went to Pony Club at weekends. I also played a lot of football, in fact anything to do with a ball. But I became more interested in horses and sold my quad bike so I could get another pony. This caused a bit of friction at home. Mum was pleased, of course, but dad wanted me to stick to football, which he obviously thought was more manly – a bit like the Billy Elliot scenario, I suppose."

So, to prove to his dad, and some sceptical classmates, he was no cissy, Neilson joined a local boxing club. "I had always liked boxing, watching it on TV. In the beginning all I wanted to do was train and get a bit more streetwise because some people looked on me as a bit of a softy.

"I used to mess around with some of the other lads and the trainer told us we should start taking it seriously. 'Is one of you fairies going to fight or just keep poncing around?' he said. So I gave it a go and within a month or two I really got the bug, and eventually boxed for the county.

"But as I grew older I was more drawn to show jumping, usually riding novice ponies. I became ranked third or fourth in Britain but the one which really grabbed my interest and took it away from football and boxing was called Micklow Madness. He was very difficult at the beginning, he didn't want to jump water or even go into the ring but we won the under-15s and team gold.

"I used to take my punch bag and skipping rope to horse shows and have a go on them for an hour or so between events. They actually worked quite well together because in both sports you have to be quite disciplined. They are both full-on sports."

He was 16 when he was offered a job at the stables run by Jason and Katrina Moore at Stondon Massey in Essex – by coincidence, it was formerly owned by Frank Bruno. "Frank's old gym and punchbag are still here so I use them to work out."

Neilson is furthering a career which has already seen him win a team bronze and individual silver at European under-18 level, riding against 100 of Europe's best youngsters. His most recent success was winning the Speed Horse event at the Horse of the Year Show soon after taking the Young Riders championship in Birmingham on his favourite mount, eight-year-old Chauvinist. "That really showed that him as a horse and me as a rider were capable of mixing it with the big names in the sport.

"I think show jumping is getting a bit better exposure now that Sky have picked it up. There's a little less formality about the way it is presented, which is good. It always used to have the image of being rather snobbish but I'm quite a normal kind of guy and there are others like me."

Now both his mother and father are ardent followers of his progress. "Dad has really come round and now acts as my video man at the main shows and sometimes drives the horse box. When I took up boxing my mum worried because she said, 'You'll get hurt'. But I've probably done more damage to myself riding than I ever did in the boxing ring. You take your tumbles, it is a dangerous sport but, touch wood, although I have had some falls, I've been lucky enough to escape any broken bones. The worst thing I did was to tear a tendon in my adductor. That kept me out for six weeks."

Neilson says that to be involved in 2012 would be "massive". "To even be there would be fantastic. Every day I look for the next thing, especially good horses and owners, which will make me that much better."

When the bell goes for the last round in show jumping, it is often as crucial a session as boxing. "In team events I am usually the last one out and often they tell me, 'Dan, you've got to jump clear, if you don't we don't win'. It's in my character to say, 'OK, let's go, let's do it'."

British Olympic Association

The British Olympic Association are the national Olympic committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympics, and deliver world-leading services to enable success for athletes and their national governing bodies. Go to olympics.org.uk

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