By Britney Grover
Portraits by SAS Equestrian
When Nayel Nassar competed in the Tokyo Olympic Games, he had people cheering him on from all around the globe. His now-wife, Jennifer Gates, and in-laws, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, shared their support on Instagram from the United States, where Nayel has built a name for himself as a professional show jumper. In Tokyo, Nayel was with his coach, Rob Hoekstra, and Evergate Stables teammate Dutch Olympian Harrie Smolders, both from Europe, but it was his family whose flag Nayel wore on his Olympic jacket.
“It means a lot to me to represent Egypt on the world stage; we don’t have a huge group of riders competing at a really high level, so wherever I go, I feel like I’m representing a larger group of people—almost the entire Arab world, really,” Nayel said. “I grew up in Kuwait, so the Middle East has always had a place in my heart. All my family’s in Egypt, so I go back and visit once in a while. It’s special—I feel like I have a really unique opportunity in front of me, a chance to represent my country on the biggest stage.”
As we all know, however, the Tokyo Games weren’t exactly the Olympics anyone dreamed of. “It was a lifelong dream come true to be at the Olympics, let alone to make the individual final and jump for a medal,” Nayel said. “It was definitely a little different than what I expected: There were empty stadiums; we couldn’t go watch other sports; we didn’t stay in the Village. So I still feel like I’ve missed out on some Olympic experience—but it keeps me hungry for the next time.”
A New Sport
Nayel was born in Chicago, Illinois, but most of his family lives in Egypt. “I’m the only one in my family with a U.S. passport,” he said. “My parents fled the country during the Gulf War in Kuwait when my mom was pregnant with me. They came to the States because my dad had some previous connections in Chicago, so I was born there and we went right back once the war was over.”
Back in Kuwait, Nayel’s parents wanted him and his brother to get involved in as many hobbies as possible. They had some friends who were starting up a riding school, and signed the boys up. Right away, Nayel “got bit hard by the bug,” drawn in by the objectivity and adrenaline. Even as a child, the perfectionism of the sport, where one mistake is so costly when riding a horse at high speeds, appealed to him.
“When I started riding, horse sport wasn’t far along in Kuwait: You could show jump or work with show Arabians,” he said. “We didn’t even have ponies back then, so I started on horses right away and my legs couldn’t even reach beyond the saddle. We had a really tightly knit group of riders at the barn, and as the sport grew we would compete against other clubs. Riding with that group and representing our club was really special.”
As Nayel started high school, the full tour had begun to develop in the Middle East, giving him the opportunity to travel to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain to compete. During the summers, his parents would take him to Europe to train and be exposed to the highest levels of the sport. “I think my parents realized how much horses have to teach us: patience, perseverance, time management, responsibility, empathy, all the things that you end up really needing later on in life can be taught through horses,” Nayel said. “I’m really grateful that they recognized that and really pushed us to keep going, because there was definitely a point where there were cooler things to do!”
Despite how competitive he was in high school, Nayel never thought horses would be his career. His older brother “trailblazed” the path to California for university, giving up horses as he did so—and while Nayel decided to follow him to California, he wasn’t quite ready to give up riding. Nayel prioritized a school with a barn on campus, which led him to Stanford University.
Going Pro—Why Not?
Shortly after Nayel moved to the States to pursue his education in 2009, he met the horse that changed the course of his life. Lordan was a just 6-year-old in Europe when Nayel bought him, and joined Nayel in California the following year. It didn’t take long for Nayel and Lordan to advance through the levels together, and by Nayel’s junior year, they were stepping up into some of the country’s largest Grand Prix—even winning the prestigious HITS $1 Million Grand Prix at Saugerties, New York.
“At that point, the lightbulb kind of went off and I thought, Well, shoot—if I can manage to do this full time, why not? You know, I really can’t see myself living without horses anyway,” Nayel said. “That’s when I really went full-on horses and decided to pursue riding professionally.”
The next year, Lordan took Nayel to his first World Equestrian Games, as well as his second World Cup Final. “Lordan is definitely one of my most special horses—my horse of a lifetime, in a sense, mainly because he started me on this path,” Nayel said. “He taught me what the highest level of the sport was all about, and we got to do it together, which is just so special. He’s the one who taught me to believe in the first place.”
After graduating from Stanford with his degree in economics, Nayel decided to stay in the U.S.—taking advantage of both his U.S. passport and the opportunities to start and grow his business. In 2017, Hardin Towell was working with Evergate Stables and approached Nayel about being on a new Global Champions League team. Nayel was concerned that he only had Lordan competing at that level—but Hardin knew they were such a strong team, they’d be able to pull their weight.
“That was my first interaction with Evergate Stables, and then they kind of had a spare horse lying around, so they gave me that mare to jump on the tour as well,” Nayel said. “As the year progressed, Jenn and I got a lot closer. We started dating, and then it seemed like a very natural transition for me to ride with Evergate. And here we are, four years later.”
Rings, Engagement & Olympic
Nayel first met Jenn, founder of Evergate Stables, several years before they began working together, when Nayel was just finishing at Stanford and Jenn was about to start there. “We actually met in the prize giving at Thunderbird—she beat me in a class,” Nayel admitted. “It was a 1.30m class and she came out ahead; we were just kind of chit-chatting in the prize giving. We exchanged numbers and were just friends for a couple of years. I told her to reach out if she ever had any questions about school or riding or whatever.”
Jenn and Nayel were engaged in January 2020 and married October 2021. While medical school keeps Jenn too busy to ride as much as she might like, she enjoys getting to live vicariously through Nayel. “It’s really fun to be able to share that, to have a shared passion and really put the horses first in what we do—what he does,” Jenn said. “He loves the sport, and every aspect of it. I just couldn’t imagine a better partner and person to have in my life than Nayel.”
“It’s so special to share something we’re both equally passionate about with horses,” Nayel echoed. “It just adds another layer to our relationship; we see eye to eye about horses and get to talk about them and experience everything that they have to offer us, together. Jenn’s been doing this a long time, as have I, and horses are really part of our life. It’s nice not to have to explain to one another why they’re taking up so much of our time.”
Jenn rides when she can—including taking Lordan on trail rides while he’s taking it easy in North Salem, New York, less than two hours from her school in New York City. At 17 and after 11 years of partnership with Nayel, Lordan no longer travels as extensively as Nayel does, though he continues to compete sparingly. In the meantime, Nayel’s success has continued on Evergate Stables horses like Igor van de Wittemoere, his Olympic mount.
“I wouldn’t have guessed that Igor would be my Olympic horse, even six months before—but he’s developed so much,” Nayel said. The Evergate team thought Igor would best handle the climate, extensive travel and multiple rounds of demanding courses. The lack of crowds may have been a good thing for Igor, who is very sensitive—and was very fresh the first few days after sitting around for two weeks of quarantine.
The weeks leading up to the competition were very different for Nayel, too. “There was a lot of mindfulness training, just trying to stay focused and not overdo my flatwork—to not start focusing on things that I normally wouldn’t if I wasn’t, you know, sitting on the other side of the world with only one horse to ride for two weeks,” he said.
With so many things new to both horse and rider, Nayel was happy with how things went—qualifying for the individual medal final after an exacting course that got the better of many top riders. “I was really proud of Igor; just to make that individual final was a big deal. I felt like I rode well, and he jumped great. He really stepped up to the occasion for me,” Nayel said. “It was tough, but it tells us what to expect next time. It’s always tough when you go to the first one: You don’t expect the jumps to be so big, you don’t expect everything to be so spooky. But once you’ve done it, you kind of know what to expect. It was an unbelievable learning experience for us, and the fact that it went so well, too, is just the cherry on top.”
Learning and Looking Forward
Rather than a destination, his first Olympics have been just a stepping stone for Nayel and his career. “I always dreamed that one day I could do this at a really high level, and have a great group of horses that I could compete week in and week out with the best of the world,” he said. “But you never really expect to reach the top of your sport until you’ve gotten there, and I still have a lot of boxes to check off—so there’s some work to be done.”
In addition to his coach, Rob Hoekstra, Nayel learns all he can from Evergate teammate Harrie Smolders. “There’s always something to learn just by watching Harrie ride,” Nayel said. “We have an amazing team.”
Supporting Nayel’s goals of developing top horses is his new project, JUMPR. “I watched so many other sports, and I play fantasy sports, too,” he said. “I’m a technical sportsman, I would say—I like to have numbers to support the facts. I’m kind of a stats geek in that sense; I think numbers give you a more comprehensive understanding. And it’s always felt like there was such a void in our industry for data-driven analytics and statistics.”
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and break from competition, Nayel finally had the time to make his dream a reality by creating an app, with the help of a software engineer friend. He hopes that someday JUMPR will be the go-to platform for results and analytics, helping everyone from those searching for a horse to chefs d’equipe. For now, JUMPR already helps Nayel and Evergate keep doing what they love: finding and developing horses so they can continue to compete at the highest level.
“I’ve always felt the most comfortable on the back of a horse, and I had no problem sacrificing social time or other opportunities to go to a horse show or to travel for riding,” Nayel said. “Competing in championships has been extra special; I’ve been to a couple of World Cup Finals, WEG and now the Olympics. Those stand out just because of the magnitude of the moment and competition, but in general, you know… I’m always just happy to go to a horse show.”
For more information, visit nayelnassar.com
Photos by SAS Equestrian, sasequestrian.com @sasequestrian