In the fall 2013, Nayel Nassar (EGY) was at a turning point. Just months away from graduating Stanford University, the then 22-year-old was torn between horses and a professional life. Then they won The Million… As told to Carley Sparks. 

No one expected me to win the HITS Million in Saugerties.

It was 2013. My horse was young, he was only nine at the time. I was 22. I wasn’t thinking I was going to win it. I had only ridden in a million dollar grand prix once before and it was on a different horse.

But I definitely knew if things went right there was a chance. You have to believe when you walk in that ring or there’s no point really.

And Lordan, god, he’s the horse of a lifetime. He’s an angel. He’s so sweet. Okay, he’s a little spooky. He’s always been that way. But he’s a trier. There’s nothing he doesn’t think he’s capable of and that makes it easy for me.

That week in Saugerties, I was coming off two of the best weeks of my career. Lordan and I were second in the World Cup Qualifier at Thunderbird in B.C. The following week, we won the Qualifier in San Diego. Saugerites was to be our last show before I went back to finish my final quarter at Stanford.

And it was decision time.

At that point, you’re supposed to have job interviews lined up. All my friends knew what they were going to do out of school. I was contemplating the whole riding thing. I knew it was a unique opportunity and that I was blessed just to be in the sport. But I wasn’t sure.

Olaf Petersen Jr set an extremely tough course that day. I just kept walking it over and over and over again—I must have walked it eight times.

Lordan is a little funny with open water and, of course, there was an open water with a 1.60m vertical in the middle of it. I was freaking out. I was taking pictures of the jump and sending it to people saying this is the end of me. There’s no getting over this jump.

Luckily, it came towards the end of the course. There was a nice hedge set in front of it, so you couldn’t really tell it was a water element until you were right there. By the time we got to the water, we were already in the flow of things and Lordan just flew over it.

We came home clean.

Todd Minikus was the only other rider to leave all the fences up. He’s fast, really fast. You don’t want to be in a position where you have to chase Todd’s time in a jump off. I went first, which I think was a good thing. I rode an efficient round and banked on him having a rail with only two of us in the jump off.

And it happened.

I jumped clean again.

I was in the warm up ring walking around by myself when someone in the crowd turned around and told me, “Hey, you won!” I was the new kid from the west coast, so nobody really knew who I was. There I was celebrating by myself with my groom. Okay, a couple of riders came and congratulated me. But it definitely wasn’t the influx of traffic that happens after most major victories.

But to me, I loved it. It was so intimate—just me and my horse and Linda, my groom of 12 years. We’re a real family.

That was the click.

That was the okay, we’re capable of this. The horse is incredible. We need to keep it going and set goals. I thought, if I can win a million dollar grand prix without doing this full time, then I think I owe it to myself and my horse to give it my undivided attention. That was the beginning of it all.

That night, we went out for dinner. I’m not much of a celebrator, I guess. I will say it was pretty cool to hold that giant check for $350,000. I still have it. I had to fold it to get it to fit in the luggage so it didn’t come out that nicely. But it’s hanging up somewhere.

My phone blew up over the next few days. The press calling. My Facebook flooded with hundreds of requests. I had to make a new account because I couldn’t keep track of everyone and didn’t want to be that guy declining everyone. It was a little overwhelming.

With all the media attention, it was a bit of a coming out party for me.

The next HITS Million was in Thermal the following March. I was a lot more nervous for it. With results come expectations, not necessarily from other people but from yourself. I felt like I could do it. Now there was no excuse.

My parents and my brother came to watch. All my friends from school came. There was a water element again, but it was a friendly one. It came at the end of the course, it wasn’t very big, it came on a straight line. I wasn’t as concerned but I definitely thought about it.

The class went by qualifying order. Since we won the last million and had a couple of good weeks in Thermal, I went second to last. For a million-dollar class there were a lot of clear rounds. A lot more riders came out from the east than the year prior. Those guys were unbelievable. By the time I went, there were six clear already and a few more with just time faults.

The last few were West Coast riders. Rich Fellers went clear on Flexible. I jumped a clear round. Ashlee Bond jumped a clear round.

There ended up being eight horses in the jump off. Most of them ran into trouble on the roll back to a huge AIG vertical. A lot of people were having it down. There was only one rider clear when I went in and just Ashlee and I to go. I knew I didn’t have to do anything too crazy to be near the top. I just had to leave the fences up.

I did a few turns to be efficient, but I definitely left the door open a little bit. I thought, it’d be better to guarantee second than to risk it all and end up fifth of sixth where the paycheck is a lot smaller.

Ashlee smoked me by a good three seconds.

Usually I’m pretty bummed about being second but I was really happy that day. I put a lot of pressure on myself, I was stoked to come through and just really proud of my team and my horse and myself. To finish second in a million five months after winning one, it was quite an accomplishment. Very validating.

When I look back on that class it’s the feeling that I remember most. That sweet taste of coming through under pressure. Now I’ve won a few more and come through under pressure more often.  But whenever I go in a big Grand Prix, I try to remind myself how good it feels to pull it out at the top, most elite level of the sport.

Because that feeling? That’s what keeps your dreams alive.