Nathan Harvey is a para equestrian who has everything going for him, having just returned from the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi with two gold medals for dressage and a bronze for show jumping!
At age two, Nathan was diagnosed with autism, and he never said a word until he was given a pony called Tommy for his fifth birthday. On that day, when it came time to blow out the candles, Nathan was nowhere to be found. He had snuck away to the stables, where he was reading aloud, telling Tommy a bedtime story!
A progressive eye disease slowly decreased Nathan’s vision and he is now legally blind, his vision ending about a metre in front of him. He relies entirely on his horses to keep him safe and on course while riding, leading to a deep and reciprocal bond between Nathan and his equine team. ‘I don’t feel disabled when I’m with my horses’, he says. ‘When I ride, the world disappears… it’s like the best dream in the world.’
Nathan’s love of horses and riding has led him to incredible heights. Having ticked the Special Olympics World Games off his bucket list, he’s already looking to the future. Read on to find out more about Nathan, what went down at the Games, and what’s next!
How long have you been riding horses?
I have been riding since I was seven years old, so 25 years. My first horse was a black 12 hand high pony named Tommy. I loved him so much. My mum took my sister and I to Jerry’s Plains Pony Club every weekend. We later joined Denman Pony Club and I became addicted to show jumping and dressage.
What is it about riding or being with horses that you love?
I love hugging my horses and being with them in their paddocks, but mostly I love riding them. I don’t feel ‘disabled’ when I am riding. When I am at competitions, other riders say hello and I fit in. Now that my eyesight has deteriorated, I can no longer show jump as much as I used to, although I do still jump my horse Summer. Summer is an amazing show jumper. I rode her during the lead-up to the Special Olympics, and she taught me so much. I ride with the feeling of the animal. Mum says if I could ‘see’ how high we jumped, I would not do it, but I think I would.
Of all the horses you’ve ridden, is there one who is/was especially important to you?
Of all the horses I have ridden, I have a soft spot for Robbie the Wonder Horse, my first Para Equestrian horse. And I would have to say, I do have a very strong connection with my Black Trakehner stallion, Dom. I hear him in the paddock, he calls out to me when he sees me, and I feel him all the time. Dom is my favourite riding horse. He is not easy to ride – the spring in his trot and canter is very difficult to sit, but once I give him my complete trust, Dom gives me his back and he softens, and then the feeling is magical.
What does a typical day at the stables look like for you?
Every morning Steff, my stepdad, wakes me at 6am. I feed and water eight horses: two retired horses, BB and Robbie; one trainer, Fifi; one broodmare, Sweetie Pie; and four competition horses, Dom, Flip, Summer and Bruno. After breakfast mum and I clean the gear, yards and feed shed. By then it’s time to feed out lunch. Mum is not so well, so I also help in the house. After lunch, I ride the competition horses. Then Mum and Steff help feed up in the afternoon, and we water and rug the horses for the night.
What was your best moment at the Special Olympics World Games?
I think my best moment at the Special Olympics was walking into the Abu Dhabi Stadium with the entire Australian team at the opening ceremony. I felt like we had already won as a team, with the roar from the crowd, the flame… everything was mind blowing, I felt like this was our starting line.
The following days were hard work, preparing and training for the show jumping. I was feeling a bit under the weather, but I went on, and I am so glad – I won my first medal, a bronze. I phoned home to Mum to tell her the news, which was very emotional. The second day was dressage, and my horse was very responsive. She did lift her head to look at the dressage judges’ table at one stage, and I thought I had blown it. But then I was called to the podium to win gold! I was numb. My coach, Chris Nott, phoned Mum to let her know I won gold because I could not speak.
The third day I rode in English equitation and I knew the ride felt strong; I felt good and so did my mare, but I was competing against 47 of the best riders in the world. After completing my ride, I watched the rider from United Emirates – he was ranked number one in the world and was an amazing. When everyone had ridden, I heard the names being called for the podium, and again I walked out and was placed in the lead to win gold! This was a feeling that I had never experienced, but I was very proud – I was so proud to be an Australian. So much went through my mind: watching my mum fundraise, Steff coming home with a truckload of hay, my horses at home, my teammates and coach, and my supporters, who all helped get me to the Special Olympics. My eyes welled with tears of joy; I will never forget that moment.
What’s next for you and your team?
Now that I am back home, I am training hard to qualify for the New South Wales State Dressage Championships, and then on to the Nationals in Melbourne. My goal is to qualify for the World Para Equestrian Games in 2024. This takes all my time, between training myself and preparing my horses. Mum works 24/7 to keep my plan in motion. Steff works so hard and buys nothing for himself – he gives everything to me and the horses. One day I would like to be able to do something for Mum and Steff in return.
What can we do to support you and your team?
Because I am a disabled person, some professional riders don’t take me seriously. I want to qualify riding beside these riders and show that I too can ride clients’ horses, I can train horses, and eventually earn my own independent income. I do need help to find a place to work from. To bring in an independent wage, I would need a property to rent or work – with a dressage arena, stables and room to take in clients’ horses for training. This is my dream and my destination. I have the ability to do this and I want to show others with different abilities that they too can mould a future from their dreams. I would love to teach riders with disabilities to compete in open competition. There is so much more I have to do!
At the moment, my team and I are focussing on getting me to the Nationals in Melbourne. There I want to compete in the Open Spring CD1, proving again that people with disabilities can compete against able-bodied riders and hopefully bringing me a bit closer to the 2024 World Para Equestrian Games. We live in Brisbane, and the journey to Melbourne is a 3,200km round trip. My team and I are raising funds to help me get there, as I can’t do it alone. We’ve set up a Facebook auction group where group members can bid on items and experiences kindly donated by our sponsors – things like equine supplements, equestrian apparel, tack, accommodation vouchers… you name it. This way, people can get something in return for their generosity.
To support Nathan and his team, you can join their auction group to bid on items of interest, or donate directly here. You can also follow Nathan’s journey and learn more about him on his website and his Facebook page.
Image credits: Kim Harvey.