Growing up in Newark, Delaware, and learning to ride in the Unionville, Pennsylvania, countryside, Erika Nesler is familiar with the Horse Park Of New Jersey through their horse trials and dressage shows, but this weekend she’s making her Jersey Fresh International debut aboard No Doubt DSF in the mare’s first CIC**.
Nesler, 36, has a long history in the sport, but she just moved up to advanced last year aboard Doug and Cindy Howe’s Right Above It. The 10-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding was entered at Jersey Fresh this weekend, but he picked up an injury recently that will require some time off.
Nesler started eventing when she was 10 as a member of the Brandywine Pony Club (Pennsylvania). She met Bonnie Mosser through the Pony Club and worked for her on weekends and during the summer, traveling to events and learning the ins and outs of the sport.
Nesler went on to work for Heidi White for eight years while she was based out of Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm. She groomed at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials CCI**** (England) and kept White’s top horses Northern Spy, Buzby and Greenwood fit at home. Nesler also took odd jobs at Dutton’s to make ends meet, including as nanny to his young daughters.
“I was a jack of all trades because I was a floater,” she said. “I didn’t work for Phillip, and Heidi only ever had four or five horses, so I was the person who would be setting fences. It was a very unique situation at Phillip’s. I got to work side by side with [groom] Colby Saddington. Between Pony Club and Colby, I learned a lot about horse management and care.”
At 23, Nesler got burned out on the groom’s life. She’d ridden through prelim and was trying to figure out her next step.
“I had a few lessons here and there and was always teaching, always making a buck,” she said. “Heidi was great to me, but the working student doesn’t really pay well. I was in college part time studying bio chemistry at the University of Delaware. At that point it was, ‘What do I do? Do I finish school and do real life, or what do I do?’ ”
As luck would have it, a student’s parents bought a farm and asked Nesler to come teach her. She started a small boarding business there for two years, then moved to another farm in Unionville.
Nesler had her son LJ, now 12, when she was 24. She had to sell her training level horses because she didn’t have anyone to keep them going, and after she was back to riding she started up a training facility for children.
Nesler made a living producing and selling lower-level event horses, until she met the Howes 10 years ago while teaching their son Blake.
Nesler knew she wanted to pursue the upper levels, but she didn’t have the horse power. The Howes, who were part of several of Boyd Martin’s syndicates, wanted to help her out.
“Doug and Cindy probably had more confidence in me than I had in myself,” said Nesler. “It had been almost eight years since I’d gone prelim. I wanted to compete at the upper levels, but I wasn’t sure if I had it in me, having a kid and responsibilities. I was riding with Boyd, and he helped me [by letting me ride] a bunch of sale horses he had to try them out and see if all I needed to do was jump a couple of big fences, and I loved it. I was like, ‘OK, this is awesome.’ I reached out to Courtney Cooper, told her we were looking for a prospect that had gone prelim and had four-star potential. I’m a very competitive, goal-oriented person, as are Doug and Cindy. They wanted to put something special underneath me, and Courtney put me in touch with Jennie Brannigan.”
Brannigan had brought Right Above It, or “Carter,” up to the preliminary level. Nesler wasn’t sure she was worthy of such a talented horse, but Martin and the Howes thought it was a good match.
“I fell in love with him from the beginning,” she said. “If you ever see him, he’s a bit of a goober—very unique in his characteristics. You can’t not love him. To say that I was overhorsed would be an understatement. Being trained by Jennie, he was super. He’s massive, 17.3. I rode him a few times and had a few lessons with her, and she liked what she saw. I reached out to Boyd and knew I needed his blessing. We took him over to Windurra for a cross-country school, and I’ll never forget I almost fell off. It was offset houses on a one-stride, and if you’ve seen Carter jump you know he’s got springs for legs, and I’m all of 5’2”. I rode, but I was a horrible rider back then! I almost fell off, and there was a big chuckle, and Doug was there. It’s kind of been a fairy tale ever since then.”
Two years ago the pair spent four months in Ocala, Florida, training with Scott Keach to work on Nesler’s show jumping. Carter took her to her first FEI events, and the pair moved up to advanced last year. They completed the Plantation Field CIC*** (Pennsylvania) and the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI** (Maryland).
No Doubt DSF, or “Vera,” an 8-year-old Oldenburg mare (Novalis—Pacifica), is a product of a partnership between the Howes and Canadian breeders Armin and Jennifer Arnoldt at Dreamscape Farm.
The Howes and Nesler get several horses from them as yearlings, and occasionally 2- and 3-year-olds. Nesler loves starting babies, but she’s given up backing them after a few too many close calls. Carter is the only horse in the barn that she has that came to her with eventing experience.
“Dressage is not [Vera’s] favorite part, but I’ve got a trick up my sleeve for the weekend with the double bridle, so we’ll see,” said Nesler with a laugh. “She usually does well at the pure dressage shows, but she’s a smart little mare and knows when there’s cross-country, so we’ll see! I’m holding my breath, but I’m not really holding my breath. She’s a great jumper.”
Nesler is very close with the Howes, and says they’re hands-on owners. She foxhunts some of their horses, including Vera, who enjoys going out with the Cheshire Hunt (Pennsylvania).
“No Doubt foxhunts most of the winter,” she said. “She loves it. For as tough as she is in the dressage, I can stand on the buckle at a check, and she won’t move. I hunt [5-year-old] Bon Voyage DSF as well. We’ve tried to hunt Carter, but that resulted in more rearing than anything!”
Nesler has big goals for the future, including getting a string of upper-level horses going and maybe spending some time in Europe to train and compete, but her son keeps things in perspective. He’ll be at the Horse Park this weekend cheering on his mom.
“He’s my life,” she said. “It’s him and me. We live on the farm. He’s as involved with the horse’s care as I am. He keeps me in line. He’ll foxhunt with me. Vera is his favorite, so he wants to be here to see her do her first CIC**. I’d be lost without him. He grounded me. I’m glad I had him at an early age, because you forget there’s life outside of horses as well.”
While Nesler is sad that Carter will miss the season, she sees a silver lining. “He’s a special horse,” she said. “He’s got everything that a four-star horse needs, so I’m told. In talking it over with Boyd and the vets, we’re not in a hurry, and time and patience is my friend for multiple reasons. It gets me more mileage with Vera and gives him a little break as a 10-year-old.”
Nesler sometimes can’t believe she’s competing at the top of the sport among people she’s grown up working for and training with.
“It’s wild,” she said. “It’s very nice. I’ll never forget, I fell off in the warm-up at Fair Hill for the CIC*, and Jan Byyny comes out and picks me up, brushes me off, before I know what’s going on, throws me on top of Carter and continues to warm me up. What I find very heartwarming is all these riders that I worked next to with Heidi, they’re so helpful. They’ll give you the shirt off their back if you need it. I like the camaraderie. Bonnie Mosser stops and sees me at every event. This is why we do this sport. This is why we do what we do, for the people who are around us.”
The Chronicle will be on site this weekend at the Jersey Fresh International to bring you news and photos from the spring CCI championship. Check back at coth.com and look for more from Jersey Fresh in our June 4 print edition.