Amateurs Like Us: One Last Time

Aug 24, 2016 - 2:45 AM

“Let’s take a break tonight and then we’ll teach them how to say goodbye.”

How do you write a blog post to commemorate the end of a 10-year show career with a superfreak of a mare who changed your life? Every fairy tale has its happily ever after, and I wish I could start this off with completing that for everyone by saying that we won our last grand prix.

I’m really, truly sorry that I couldn’t write that ending for you all. I feel like it’s such a disappointment since Nikki has been the little mare that could, and did, but I never managed to get out of her way enough to make that winning jump-off happen in a prix. I’m beyond thrilled with the journey we had, and although I regret not pulling it off in a prix, I’m more sorry that I let a lot of people down by not making that happen.

So. We’re done. After a remarkable 10 years in the ring together, which wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing team behind us, Nikki and I move on to the next chapter; her “retirement” that consists of trail rides with my mom and still working on a regular schedule (Nikki is not one for just hanging out; she’s happiest when she has a job), and vet school for me. 

I deliberately didn’t plan when Nikki’s last class would be, knowing it would make me an emotional mess, but after we had a great round at the end of the first week of the Two Rivers Summer Festival, I knew we should end on that.

Let’s get this out of the way, since I’d like to pretend that I was cool and composed the whole time, but the reality is that when I got off after our last class, I hugged Nikki and looked a little something like this:

For a fully accurate mental picture, imagine that with Nikki snapping at me because she is definitely not on the hug bandwagon, but she’ll grudgingly put up with it for the right bribes.

“Our fate lives within us.  You only have to be brave enough to see it.”

Nikki and I wound up with each other in 2005. I was supposed to have another year on my large pony before moving on to horses. I didn’t want to ever jump bigger than 3’6”, and I didn’t want to do the jumpers ever.

I discovered a common theme throughout our time together: Nikki frequently has other plans, and Nikki makes her plans happen.

Nikki hadn’t really impressed anyone at Benchmark before my lesson on her. She’s pretty picky about the ride she likes, and she was being good but not great for other people. But she liked having a peanut riding her, and she liked that I stayed out of her way, and started jumping better than she had been, despite some really interesting distance choices by my 13-year-old self who was thinking jumping a horse was pretty scary.

So Nikki decided that she wanted her “puppy” (my mom and I say that Nikki thinks I’m a stupid puppy because she loves me, but I constantly demonstrate to her that I’m not very smart) and got it. Well played, Nikk-Nikk.

Here are some clips from when Nikki tried me:

Nikki taught me a lot more than just how to perform in the show ring.  My first winter with her was my crash course in Chestnut Mares 101, which we also could call, “Emily cries on the way home from every lesson because this learning curve is crazy steep and Nikki is not an easy horse to figure out.” She was worth every struggle, but man, she did put emphasis on the tears part of the mantra “blood, sweat, and tears.”

Nikki doesn’t like flatwork. Nikki had to learn to deal with it. Kip always called her a meat and potatoes kind of girl, where jumping was her meat and potatoes. She doesn’t think she has much use for the salad course of flatwork. 

All that flatwork paid off in spades, and the process certainly taught baby me a lot about perseverance and tricking a smart mare into thinking something is her idea. I don’t miss those days, but I recognize how much they contributed to our success. We had a good, if short, season and a half in the junior hunters before Nikki had colic surgery and our plans for what to do on our return to the ring changed.

“So prepare for the chance of a lifetime.”

Let’s revisit the beginning of the story. Remember, I didn’t want to jump bigger than 3’6”, and I didn’t want to do the jumpers. So when my mom and Kip thought that perhaps Nikki was better suited to the jumper ring, the choice was either to do jumpers and stay with Nikki, or try to sell her and get a different horse to accomplish my goals on.

Clearly, that one was a no-brainer.

Nikki took me to places I didn’t know I wanted to go. Our first jumper show was in the 1.20-meter junior jumpers at Saratoga, where I puked in the in-gate from nerves, desperately tried to remember that many jumps in a row, went too slow, and grabbed a lot of mane. Nikki was as confused as I was, but she was pretty sure this new game was far better than our previous one. Here’s our very first attempt at this jumper thing. You can see Nikki was already thinking she’d like to do more…

At the end of that first year, we went to indoors when the National Horse Show was still held in Syracuse, N.Y.  Somehow, Nikki managed to finish second in the low junior jumper classic despite my repeated (and impressive) attempts to kill her at half the jumps. The amount of PopTarts she got after that class bordered on diabetes-inducing. She deserved it. She always does.

“I am on my way, I can go the distance.”

We moved into the 1.40-meter high junior/amateur-owner classes about a year after we started showing in the jumpers, and it took both of us some time to figure out how to do it. In retrospect, we did a lot with Nikki that only worked out because she’s freakishly smart and trusted me, even though I gave her a lot of opportunities to lose it. She’s just that special. 

We finally found the right rhythm in a class showing in the pouring rain; I rode more assertively and sat back more, which helped Nikki to find the scope for the oxers, even though I was getting jumped completely out of my soaking wet tack over each one. That class was the lightbulb for both of us, and we started to be consistent contenders.

“You can fly! You can fly! You can fly!”

Because Nikki has a certain cockiness and a seemingly endless amount of scope, she inspired me to want to do the bigger classes, and I set my sights on doing our first grand prix in 2010—two years after we started doing the jumpers. It was a lofty goal, but Kip thought we could handle it, and so our first “big” prix was at the Boston Jumper Classic:

Where we used all of the lucky rubs for the rest of our jumper career. Nikki is nothing if not all heart and all try. In the wise words of Winnie the Pooh, “you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Nikki is a freaky mare, and I still can’t believe that I was the one along for the ride. 

We had an incredible six years in the grand prix ring together, showing from Vermont to Iowa and Minnesota, and although we both made some mistakes, Nikki never, ever let me down. I didn’t think I ever wanted to do a grand prix, or would be able to, but Nikki taught me how to fly. When she takes off over a big oxer, you think you’ll never come down.

When we moved to the Midwest, we found a consistency that meant I needed to ride assertively in grand prix jump-offs because we could be in the hunt for the win. It took a lot of lessons with Heidi to get me to be that brave in the prix; I would take bigger risks in the welcome stakes and open classes than I would in the prix, and I never quite got to the point of winning. But we were still getting better together, and just missed the winning time in our last prix jump-off.

Nikki’s last big prix didn’t involve a jump-off because of a rider error in the first round, but she jumped it incredibly, and as far as I’m concerned, it was a perfect last prix for her.

“Now, think of the happiest things.  It’s the same as having wings.”

I think part of the reason that people love watching Nikki is because she so clearly has a blast doing her job. I’ve never ridden a horse who loves to jump as much as she does, and you can feel that when you get on.


Nikki in full flight. Photo by Allie Harris

Nikki tends to rush through the in-gate at shows, not because she’s spooky or because I need to chase her into the ring, but because she can’t wait to get in there. She’ll bounce and fuss when she’s waiting on deck, and although she’s happy to come out of the ring to get her cookies, if you’re not careful, she’ll try to duck back in afterward and go jump again. 

Similarly, if you turn her out in a ring with jumps in it, she’ll go jump them. She lives for jumping, and nothing makes me happier than watching videos of her and seeing how thrilled she looks going around. We switched to the jumpers to make Nikki happy, and by all accounts, she is. 

She’s been the little mare that could (and she really is little!  She looks big when you only see her with me because I’m the height and build of your average 10-year-old child, but when you see her next to other horses, you realize she’s pretty small).


Nikki and I on the left, a normal-sized horse on the right!

Nikki was on the verge of being donated when my parents bought her. She almost fell through the cracks, and I sometimes find myself wondering how many others like her are out there. I’m just grateful that we were able to have so much fun together for so long, and that she’s retiring still at the top of her game. 

She’ll tell us what she wants to do in her retirement, whether that’s trail riding or staying in her routine of working every day. She’s already tried to drag me to some jumps when I’ve been hacking her, something that I don’t think will ever change. I love that she still wants to do it at this point in her life. That’s exactly how I wanted her showing career to wrap up, with her still having the will, the heart, and still being physically able to do whatever she wants to do.

“You ain’t never had a friend like me.”

Most of my blogs focused on our showing and preparation, but the reality is that even though we played in the grand prix ring for so long, I’m just another horse-crazy barn rat. I give Nikki too many kisses on the nose, or on the double whorls on her forehead. I play games with her when she’s turned out in the ring, and I go into her stall and cuddle with her when she’s lying down sleeping. 

She’s been so much more than just a show horse; she’s been my best friend. My favorite time at horse shows was doing night check, when I would check on Nikki, give her more hay and water, and be greeted with a sleepy nicker (or a wide-eyed “I’M STARVING TO DEATH” one if she felt she needed more hay).

She’d sometimes sample my breakfast, particularly if I had a Panera bagel—she loves the cinnamon crunch topping on them, and she’d carefully gnaw that off my bagel before deciding she didn’t want the bagel itself—and we’d share watermelon on hot afternoons. She certainly isn’t a “work in the ring all the time” type of horse, and we spent a lot of time trail riding, galloping balls to the wall in fields, or just generally messing around.

We had many moments at our summer shows this year where I’d take her out for grass at night check, and hand-graze her until the sun went down and the fireflies came out. I’m going to miss those moments so much.

“All of our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”

Let’s talk about the future for a moment. My parents moved to California, and Nikki is retiring with them at home, so that’s the best situation I could ever dream of. She’ll be spoiled rotten and live the dream, since she made so many dreams for me. I couldn’t be happier that she’ll spend the rest of her life with us.


Mom, me and Nikki. Photo by Alison Hartwell

We are pursuing embryo transfer; I don’t want to reveal what sire we’re using until I get a repro exam done on Nikki to see if it’s even going to happen. But I’m very, very excited for the possibility.

I begin the whirlwind of my DVM/PhD program on September 6. And now, although I’ve stalled as long as possible, it’s time to come to the end.

I decided to bring Nikki’s career full circle at our last show, and so our very last class together was a hunter derby.  We hadn’t played hunter in nine years, so my expectations were pretty low, and although the round we had wasn’t the winner, it sure as hell shocked me. Nikki had fun playing over the hunter jumps, and it was fun to have that be our last round. I could almost hear her giggling as she went around—I know I was.

The video of it is best watched with the sound on because the commentary really completes it:

“What a cool mare. She just makes me smile.”

Me, too.

Thank you, Nikki.


Photo by Alison Hartwell

Emily Pope, 24, started her relationship with Seize The Moment, an off-the-track Thoroughbred and a chestnut mare, in 2006 and they began in the junior hunters. Emily quickly realized “Nikki’s” talents lay in the jumper ranks, and they worked their way from the junior jumpers to the grand prix.  

Emily graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2013 with a B.S. in animal science, spent a semester studying aboard in Madagascar, and now works in cancer research. She’s about to start graduate school in pursuit of her DVM/PhD. Read Emily’s introductory blog, “Taming My Inner Gecko.”

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