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

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Sport
footballLive: Latest news from Champions League draw
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?