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Page last updated at 08:25 GMT, Wednesday, 10 October 2007 09:25 UK

Show jumping's new breed

By Andrew Fraser

Daniel Neilson in action on High Tone Z
Daniel Neilson and High Tone Z have their sights set firmly on 2012

If you conducted a straw poll of miners' sons in the north-east of England, the chances are that horseriding would not feature high on their list of favourite sports.

But, in a region where football is king, Daniel Neilson has bucked the trend by establishing himself as one of the rising stars of British show jumping.

The 17-year-old from Cleveland has made such an impact at junior level that he has been identified by the British Equestrian Federation as a potential London 2012 Olympic medallist.

Neilson is not exactly a Billy Elliott figure. It was his mother who first took him riding at the age of six, and his father - who used to work in a Cleveland mine and had trials for Sunderland when he was younger - fully supports his choice of sporting career.

He admits, however, that he was the only one of his schoolmates to have show jumping great John Whitaker as a sporting hero.

My friends used to say to me at school 'what's so hard about jumping over a few sticks?' But it's a living animal you have to control, not just a bit of leather

"As far as I can remember, I always wanted to ride," Neilson told BBC Sport.

"In my area it was quite unusual. All the lads either played football or did sports like rugby, boxing or kickboxing.

"When you go to shows there are a lot of lads taking part, but in my area and at my school it was quite a strange thing to be doing.

"I was quite lucky. You hear about people who get the mickey taken out of them, but because I played for the football team and did boxing as well, they were always alright with it. They would mess around a bit but never take it further than that."

Neilson has progressed from riding a Shetland pony called Lofty to competing at international level in a world where top horses change hands for more than £1m.

Daniel Neilson
Age: 17
From: Cleveland, now based in Brent, Essex
2006: Individual and team gold, Pony European Championships; Hickstead Pony Masters winner
2007: Individual silver, Junior European Championships
Left school with eight GCSEs
Selected for the British Equestrian Federation's World Class Programme
Played football to county level until he was 14; also a keen amateur boxer

Having claimed individual and team gold medals at last year's Pony European Championships, he made an impressive transition from ponies (up to 148cm high) to horses (about 168cm in Neilson's case) by winning silver at the Junior European Championships in July on his horse, High Tone Z.

He is now competing at senior level and living full-time in Essex under the care of trainers Jason and Katrina Moore. In return for coaching, board and lodging, and the chance to practise every day, he works in their yard and helps to school their horses.

The arrangement also offers Neilson the chance to indulge in his other passion, boxing, as the Moore's house used to be owned by Frank Bruno and still boasts a gym worthy of a former world champion.

In recent years, many of British show jumping's heavyweights have come from the Whitaker family.

Ellen Whitaker, 21, is the latest in the show jumping dynasty to hit the big time, and she could join her uncles John and Michael in the Olympic team for Beijing next summer.

But Neilson believes the new generation of riders are ready to add to the jumping gene pool.

Great Britain will have a full quota of eventing, show jumping and dressage riders at next year's Beijing Olympics
British eventers won individual gold and bronze, plus team silver, at the Athens Olympics in 2004; Zara Phillips is the current world champion
The GB show jumping team won bronze at the recent European championships
The dressage team finished fifth at their European championships
GB's dominant Paralympic dressage riders won eight medals in Athens

"In the last few years there have been more and more riders coming through, like my friends Brett Gardner, Matthew Sampson and Joe Clayton, who are from backgrounds like mine," he said.

"A lot of people might say 'it's always a Whitaker who ends up on top', but I think the times are changing and there is more new talent coming through."

Neilson, who has already been knocked unconscious in a fall and kicked in the head by a horse during his fledgling career, is also keen to dispel the perception that show jumping is easy.

"My friends used to say to me at school 'what's so hard about jumping over a few sticks?'. But it's a living animal you have to control, not just a bit of leather," he said.

"It's stronger than you, more powerful than you and to get them to do the things they do is very technical."

Andy F, BBC Sport

Neilson's priorities now are to win the European junior title next year, establish himself in the senior ranks, and put himself firmly in the frame for London 2012.

"When I knew I was going to the Junior Europeans this year, every time I got on the horse I got a shiver down my spine just thinking about it," he said.

"The week before I was thinking 'this time next week I'll be cantering into the ring and representing my country with the chance to win a medal'. The feeling I'd get from 2012 would be amazing."

Daniel Neilson is among the British athletes who BBC Sport will be following during the countdown to London 2012.

see also
GB team qualifies for 2008 Games
17 Aug 07 |  Equestrian
Equestrian sport on the BBC
05 Sep 07 |  Equestrian
Equestrian UK results
24 May 06 |  Equestrian

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