It’s worth leaving your ringside seat to watch Akuna Mattata in the warm-up before a big class. The mare can be counted upon to execute a series of athletic leaps and bounds, inspiring gasps from onlookers. Her rider, Nicole Shahinian-Simpson, appears calm, cool and collected from her spot atop the spirited mare. It’s a trusted partnership, developed since “Nahla” was a baby.
Shahinian-Simpson and Nahla have experienced a variety of victories over their career together, competing for Team USA in 2019 and earning several top placings this year, including winning two classes at the Palm Beach Masters CSI4*-W in Wellington, Florida.
In the middle of the Florida season, Nahla developed guttural pouch mycosis that could’ve killed her. She underwent a life-saving surgery to place plugs in her carotid artery.
After a careful rehab, she’s back on form and most recently won the $137,000 Horseware Ireland CSI3* Grand Prix at Tryon International Equestrian Center’s Tryon Summer 4 show in Tryon, North Carolina, on July 4.
So, what makes this mare tick? And what makes her such a valuable competitor?
• The 12-year-old Holsteiner (Quinar—M-Dragonfly, Landwind II) was “born” into the family. “I had the ride on her mother, SRF Dragonfly De Joter,” said Shahinian-Simpson, “and Carol Rosenstein and Silver Raven Farms owned her too. Before Dragonfly was sent to me they did an embryo transfer, and three of them took. They artificially inseminated them into three surrogates, so Nahla is actually a triplet!”
• Nahla took a bit longer to get going than her siblings April Moon and Abbey Road. “She was probably a year behind the others,” said Shahinian-Simpson. “They got started, and Nahla just needed a little bit more time.”
After the Midwestern 6-Year-Old Young Jumper Championships (Kentucky) in 2014, where they finished third, something clicked, and Nahla never looked back. “She was so careful. She was kind of a freak as a young horse, and that’s why it was a slow process,” Shahinian-Simpson said. “She would jump a meter like it was five feet. I didn’t know how she would end up using her scope, and I never wanted to put her in a bad situation.”
• Most everything has to be Nahla’s idea, which Shahinian-Simpson is OK with. “That’s what makes her competitive and a fighter in the ring,” she said. “Personality-wise, all of the foals had the show horse trait. They were just born with this instinct, a real show horse mentality, and they were real competitors in the ring.”
• When it comes to Nahla’s routine at home, Shahinian-Simpson says it’s pretty uncomplicated. “She goes out every morning; she loves her paddock time,” she said. “[Her groom] Beto [Gutierrez] rides her, and I try to stay on her a bit at home, so it’s not just me getting on when we are about to compete. She goes out on the trails, so she stays naturally fit, fortunately. She doesn’t do a lot of ‘training’ at home. Her personality is such that she’s not really into gymnastics; you have to really be careful because she is a thinker, and she is an over-achiever. Even at the shows, it’s really hard to just plan on doing a schooling class with her because she’s a show horse, and she knows, so it can be challenging to find that rhythm.”
• She’s a completely different horse at home and in the barn, versus when she goes into the show ring. “My groom Beto has been with her for about 5 1/2 years now,” said Shahinian-Simpson. “He rides her bareback around the farm, takes her out on the trail in her halter, etc. She’s very much a personality. Even at the show, she knows when she’s competing and when it’s a day off. She’s kind of too smart for her own good, but that’s what makes her such a great competitor.”
• Little things set her off. “I can ride her for three days in a row at home, and then on the fourth day if we change the jumps she gets excited,” Shahinian-Simpson said. “It’s mild, and it’s in no way like her excitement at the show. At the show, we can flat her in the morning, and she’ll be fine, but we can take her out of her stall to get her ready for a class, and she instantly knows that that’s where she’s going. She turns it on as soon as I get on in that situation.”
• Nahla’s exuberance before heading into the ring can get dangerous, and in the past, Shahinian-Simpson has struggled to get into the arena at all. She’s come up with a routine that involves taking Nahla out several times and going through the motions of going up to the ring at a show before she actually competes. This repetition helps make the process of getting her in and out of the ring less fraught with excitement. “It’s just about keeping her adrenaline contained and keeping her focused,” Shahinian-Simpson said. “We started using a rope halter over her bridle, leading her to the entrance and away from it after her round. It keeps her brain together and is a little bit of a safety blanket. She does rely on it and knows the routine now. I never say the issue is fixed, but this helps us keep a better handle on it, and it’s something we are training for daily. It’s hard to explain to people, and I get a lot of suggestions about it. I’m open to a lot, but I also know her and her personality, and we’ll never win by fighting or strong-arming her, so it is about coming up with a different system.”
How does Shahinian-Simpson explain the pre- and post-show ring behavior? “It’s like a surge that goes through her,” she said. “It’s an adrenaline rush; it’s almost like an out of body experience. It’s not her trying to be naughty or trying to be malicious. It’s a lot of patience; it’s a lot of trust on our end with Beto on the ground. You certainly don’t want it in the wrong hands. There’s a lot that goes into it, keeping her channeled. Once she’s in the ring, she knows the game.”
• Nahla is tuned in to the energy around her. “When things were getting to the point where we hadn’t addressed it, it was stressful because I never wanted anyone to get hurt, and I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way,” Shahinian-Simpson said. “I would panic about it, and I still don’t take that lightly, but I just try to keep everything as relaxed and calm and controlled as I can up there.”