“My mom told me that the only time she’d get to ride was on the beach, Hua Hin, where there were these mountain ponies from the farms, and you could gallop along the beach,” explained Nina Ligon, 20 years old and the first female equestrian to represent an Asian country at the Olympic Games in the sport of equestrian eventing. “It was really nice because, at the time, it was still very quiet and local. There wasn’t a lot of tourism, so we could take the entire family and gallop. At the end of the ride, we’d go to the beach to get fresh coconuts. My mom, my sister, and I really loved the horses.”
For Nina, riding horses was part of her childhood and an activity that her entire family supported. It was a family activity, with its roots in Thailand, and it continued with her life in Virginia. At five, she began riding lessons, and her family invested in a farm of their own right outside Richmond, Virginia, eventually raising five horses. Once she started riding, Nina knew that she wanted to go to the Olympics—but she had no idea what it would take.
For Nina to pursue her Olympic dreams, she and her family had to make decisions very early. Sometime in 2007, when Nina was only fifteen, the selection process for 2012 began, mainly due to Thailand’s Olympic budget, which only allows for athletes who would be competitive at the Games to be sent. So, Nina’s first challenge for Olympic qualification was to win Gold at the Southeast Asian Games. She won both the gold individual and team medals at those Games, making her the first Asian female to ever win a medal in an international Eventing competition, and she later won the silver in the team event at the Asian Games.
However, two medals was still not a guarantee for an Olympic spot. For qualification, Nina also had to prove that she could compete in Olympic-level equestrian events, racking up points for rankings in the Federation Equestre Internationale by competing in scheduled Olympic qualifying events. She had to be ranked in the top 20 individually after these events for her to move forward. So, with the help of the Thai Olympic Counsel, Thai Equestrian Federation, her siblings, and her parents, Nina began the journey of competition and what Nina described as “points chasing” around the world.
After the Beijing Olympics, Nina and her family realized that the competition in London would be far greater, with London being the birthplace of the equestrian sport. In 2011, Nina, her four horses, and her family traveled from London to the Czech Republic and from California back to Virginia (the horses were taken on cargo planes). Right before the qualification set-up, unplanned Olympic qualification events were scheduled in Europe after a strong petition by Italy, Portugal, and Russia to qualify their athletes. Having run the horses hard all year, Nina did not want them to travel across the Atlantic again. Luckily, a last-minute final qualifying event was set up in the US that would save Nina a European trip. Nina described, “The whole competition, I kept thinking, ‘I have to win this, or else my horses have to fly across the world again.’ We never realized how difficult it would be, and we didn’t realize it was going to be that much traveling. It prepared me to think competitively from the start. It really helped teach me how to perform under pressure.”
“And did you win?” I asked her.
She replied with a nod, and then added, “The entire family has been preparing for this. My mom and I have been a team the whole way. We call her the CEO of Team Thailand. She organizes all of us, and she gets all the flights together. Nisha [Nina’s sister] was the media person for the US. My brother and dad helped with the points analysis, researching and trying to figure out how the system worked. The rules are so vague, so it’s hard for us not being an official federation on our own. My dad took that load off my mom and me, so we could focus on the horses.”
We then spoke at length about each of Nina’s horses, their personalities, their likes and dislikes, and tricks to keep them happy and performing. The horse Nina eventually took to London, Butts Leon, was an experienced show horse that competed in the Beijing Olympics with the experienced Andres Dibowski. Nina said, “At first, I really struggled to get a good rapport from him. His previous rider was completely different than me, so coming into April, I really didn’t think this was going to work. It took so long for us to build trust. I didn’t have the most consistent record with him. Somehow—it was amazing—everything just started coming together. A couple extra competitions really solidified our partnership. The more mistakes we made together, the stronger we became. He began to understand me and help me out; he became more forgiving. I was a little worried that the more mistakes, the worse our partnership would get. Every time I made a mistake with him, I would learn, I would ride better, and he trusted me to work hard in getting back. I was so happy when I crossed the finish-line with him here in London. It was the most we ever trusted one another. It was our best performance.”
I asked Nina what competing in the Olympics felt like, as the youngest Equestrian competitor and the first female Olympic representative of an Asian country in the sport of eventing. She replied, “It’s interesting to see how my goals changed. Going into it, I had given myself a ballpark goal. I wanted to make it into the top 25 in the show jumping. BBC was streamed in the barn, so I could see all the things that were happening during the Cross Country Event. There were just falls everywhere because the grass was a little wet. 20% of the field fell, and that was just completely unprecedented. Suddenly, my priorities changed: I decided that having a Cross Country round without jump penalties was my goal. I wanted a really safe round and didn’t worry about the time… It’s a sport where you can’t ride the horse you think you will have, but you have to ride in the moment and be able to change plans. Going on in the course, I tried to go too fast, and coming around the first turn, my horse slid out a little. I decided we were going for a safe clean round after that. In the end, I had a beautiful round, a few time penalties, but I was really happy with how it went… In the sport of eventing, experience is the best thing you can have there. That’s why a lot of riders are in their 30s or 40s. I had to lower my expectations knowing I was so young. It was really a learning experience.”
Nina’s events ended on July 31, and she came in an impressive 41 st out of 75 competitors in a co-ed field of experienced riders. The days since then, she transitioned from being a competitor at the Olympics to a spectator, traveling around London with her family and friends. I asked her about her future goals beyond competition. She explained that after these Olympic Games, she wanted to focus on her schoolwork. This fall, Nina will be attending Stanford University as a freshman. “I think it’s important to get the college experience and the education,” Nina said. “It’s always been my decision. I pushed so hard for these Games because the timing worked out so well with the timing of the Southeast Asian Games and the Asian Games. The opportunity opened and we pushed hard.” She paused and then continued, “I think it’s easy to burn out quickly when you push for one goal. I loved the journey, but it’s been stressful on all of us. I’m looking for an academic passion. It’s really exciting to look at classes. Plus, the good thing about this sport is that you don’t really age out of it, so I can come back to it if the timing is right.”
Nina then showed me a few photos her horses that she kept on her phone. We finished our cappuccinos and sat discussing her imminent, exciting move to California. Congratulations, Nina, on your first Olympics and your new journey at Stanford!
Photos courtesy of Nina Ligon and HorseMove Thailand, and Caroline G. Gannon.