Those of us who grew up learning to ride at lesson barns know the glue that keeps the program together is the horse show mom. Always ready with a snack, a word of encouragement and a fix for errant braids, many of us had non-horsey moms who adapted to the brave new world we dragged them into.
Nicole Lakin, 30, believes she had a particularly good support system when she and her two sisters first began attending pony camp and taking regular lessons. Lakin’s mother Maralyn shuttled the girls from the bus stop to the barn, went back to work and returned a few hours later to help them tidy up their ponies.
“She was very fashionable, so she was always dressed super cute,” Nicole said. “My friends were always obsessed with my mom and her style. She’d change into clogs and a dress and be right there in the wash stall with us doing everything. Despite the lack of background with horses, she always got her hands dirty no matter how long the day was.”
Nicole began showing in the local short stirrup and hunter divisions and qualified for USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky) before slowly working her way up to the A-level shows in Zone 2. For Maralyn, the horse show world was a foreign one—although she grew up in Houston, she thinks she took a couple of western trail rides as a child. Like so many parents, she found the prospect of watching her girls leaping over fences aboard 1,000-pound animals a little unnerving.
“I can never sit at a horse show. Every show, to this day, I’m a wreck when she goes in the ring,” said Maralyn. “It’s not that I don’t have confidence in her. It’s just that as a parent you want them to be safe; you want them to be happy; you want them to win. You want them to do everything they want to do. Without saying anything, of course.”
Nicole began training with Max Amaya at Beacon Hill and Stonehenge Stables in Colts Neck, New Jersey, and progressed to equitation and jumpers. She took an individual silver medal at the 2006 North American Young Rider Championships (Kentucky) and traveled to Wellington, Florida, in the winters with a tutor to continue competing.
After a fall from her junior jumper Alaska, Nicole went in for a chest x-ray and was stunned to learn she not only had broken several ribs, but also had stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She underwent surgery and four months of chemotherapy and through it all went to the barn as much as possible. Then and now, horses provided immersive relaxation, pushing all other stresses from her mind.
“My parents’ support, their unwavering dedication to my and my siblings’ well-being didn’t falter,” she said. “They understood along the way how important it was to keep horses in my life. To this day I think that’s part of why horses are so important in our lives.”
Nicole returned to riding throughout her studies at New York University, and she launched a cloud-based software system called BarnManager. After several years as a working student for Amaya, she identified the need for a centralized system for managing horses’ records, instructor schedules and communication with barn employees.
Along the way, Alaska came up with a minor injury necessitating his retirement, and Nicole picked up the ride on a 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood named Wannabe (Guidam—Suddenlytaire, Hemmingway).
“I remember when I tried him immediately knowing it was such a good feeling,” she remembered. “I’d had mostly big, slow horses, and he was little and fast and really careful. It took us a little while to click. It was just such a different ride for me. After six or eight months I think we finally found something that worked. Every single time that horse went in the ring, he wanted to win. He’s such a trier.
“I put my cousins who are infants on his back, and he just stands there, but I take him in the ring, and he’s fast and clever and careful,” she continued. “There’s something about a horse who knows what he needs to do when he needs to do it.”
Wannabe and Nicole kept showing together as she pursued a graduate degree in entrepreneurship from the F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College (Massachusetts).
After six years, Nicole began noticing a few quirks from Wannabe. He still tried hard, but he was a little hesitant. The pair took home ribbons in the low jumpers at Kentucky Summer in 2017, but after Wannabe ran by a jump, Nicole realized it might be time to give him a break and an easier job. That’s when she called Maralyn.
Maralyn, then 60, had recently retired. She routinely did CrossFit and spinning and was starting to realize she needed to find more than workout classes to fill her time. After her years spent in wash stalls with ponies and an interest in fitness, Nicole suggested she give riding lessons a try.
“Nicole looked at me and said, ‘Mom, you’ll never find a horse this wonderful to teach you to ride,’ ” said Maralyn, who at first insisted Nicole sell Wannabe and put the money toward another horse. “It was so important to her that I find a horse that was safe and could teach me. She sort of gave up one of her own for me.”
Maralyn was surprised to learn all her cross training really did little to prepare her for riding, besides giving her core strength.
“I used to say to Nicole I’ve watched her for so many years, and it always look so easy, but it’s not. Just trotting—that’s hard work!” Maralyn said. “I have to tell you the riding was so difficult for me. Even just breathing—I might have core fitness, but it doesn’t help you when you’re trying to catch your breath. It was really interesting to me because when I finally learned how to canter after probably six months, just going around the ring a couple times I was like, ‘I have to catch my breath.’ It’s a completely different breathing mechanism.”
Nicole and Maralyn agree that Maralyn’s new hobby created a role reversal for them. After just six weeks of training, Maralyn was ready to enter the older crossrail hunter division at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida). Nicole took her mom shopping for her first set of show clothes and turned up at the barn early on show mornings to get both Wannabe and her new horse, Captain, ready for their classes.
“I said to her, after 20-plus years of you driving to shows and sitting on the sidelines and watching me, I get it, and I’m sorry,” Nicole said with a laugh. “I understand the nerves and the anxiety that you feel every single time I go in the ring.”
Although Maralyn and Nicole compete at different levels and therefore don’t lesson together, they agree the experience has brought them closer together. Nicole can describe her rides to her mom in detail, and now Maralyn has a frame of reference. They’ve also noticed a phenomenon that holds true across all disciplines: Horses bring people together across generations.
“When moms and daughters are together, and you do it together it’s a completely different element than being mother/daughter. You’re supporting each other as friends,” Maralyn said. “We’re always mother/daughter, but when it comes to riding, that falls to the wayside. She’s the expert, and I’m the student.”
For Nicole, watching Maralyn’s journey has changed the way she looks at her own riding experience.
“Throughout my riding career and my professional life I try to remind myself why I got into this in the first place,” she said. “It’s really easy, especially when you’re competing, to get caught up in the world of seeing what everybody else posts on Instagram and comparing yourself and feeling like you’re not doing enough. It’s easy to get into a place where you lose sight of why we’re doing this. Having my mom doing this has been a huge reminder every day of exactly why I do this, because it’s fun and because horses bring the best out in you, and it’s so cool we can share that together.”
Family obligations have kept Maralyn out of the saddle more than she would like recently, but Maralyn expects to be back in full training in time for the start of WEF in 2019.
“I think that passion is important, and there have been things I was passionate about in my life, but I probably didn’t understand Nicole’s passion that she felt,” said Maralyn. “I knew that she had it, and we wanted to support it because we believe in that, but her passion led me to my new passion. It’s the greatest gift my daughter has ever given me.”