Nada Wise had an inauspicious start to USHJA International Hunter Derby competition.
In one of her first classes aboard a horse named Sneeky Pete, she donned a gift from a client: an Hermès belt with an “H” shaped buckle. As she jumped into a four-stride to two-stride line, her belt buckle caught the martingale.
“I couldn’t get up,” she recalled. “I remember jumping out. I put one hand down and kept cantering while I grabbed the belt and jerked it off and dropped it in the middle of the ring. I actually got decent scores, but I had to run back in and get that belt after the round. I never wore that stupid belt again.”
These days Wise is turning heads in the ring for a different reason: She’s been dominating the derby circuit in Texas. She’s won two classes this season, one at Pin Oak I (Texas) aboard Samantha Brown’s Stevie Ray, and one at Great Southwest Winter Series II (Texas) on Stacey Thompson’s Chesterfield. Those two horses, plus her third derby mount, Kristen Pribilski’s Next Chapter, have been consistent performers this season.
Wise started working with all three as young horses—Next Chapter and Chesterfield are just 7 now—and developed them all herself.
“I think she’s probably the most underrated hunter rider in the country because she keeps a low profile,” said Britt McCormick, who serves as Wise’s eyes on the ground. “I don’t know anybody that rides as well as she does, and she’s competing with horses that are two and three years younger and less experienced than anyone she goes up against.”
An Accidental Winner
The last couple years Wise’s name has been climbing the WCHR South Central leaderboard, culminating in topping both the WCHR South Central Professional and WCHR South Central Developing Professional standings in 2022. This year she’s sitting second in the WCHR South Central Professional standings. While some riders carefully select their shows for their WHCR affiliation and plan carefully for their rides in the WCHR Professional and Developing Professional Challenge, that wasn’t the case for Wise when she started.
“To be honest I didn’t even know what [WCHR] was until [assistant] Sophie [Rueben] started working for me,” said Wise, 42. “I got to Capital Challenge [Maryland], and I had no idea. Sophie’s like, ‘You’ve got to do [the WCHR Developing Professional Challenge].’ I’m like, ‘What class?’ ”
She placed 10th in the WCHR Developing Professional Challenge her first year, in 2021, and last year she picked up sixth.
Last year’s win in her region’s developing pro standings bumped her out of the division and firmly into the professional ranks, and she now sits 20th nationally.
Her standings in the USHJA International Hunter Derby ranks are just as notable, and she will go into this week’s Platinum Performance USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship (Kentucky) ranked fourth nationally and on top of her region. She made her first trip to derby finals in 2021.
“It was nerve wracking, but it was so fun,” she said. “I had two horses that—OK, were they big contenders? Maybe not. But they were good horses, solid horses, and what you want to step in that ring with. You knew you’d be able to canter around and give it the best ride possible, and that they would try as hard as they could for you. It was special. It was really cool to be able to do that.”
She’s planning a trip back to Kentucky for this year’s edition, and she’ll have Chesterfield, Next Chapter and Stevie Ray with her.
“I want to go and do the best I can for my horses,” said Wise, Hempstead, Texas. “I have some good ones. They’re all relatively green—I’ve got two young ones—but they’re good horses. Every time they walk in the ring, they just seem to get better and better.”
From Doubt To Confidence
Wise’s childhood hometown of Kaysville, Utah, wasn’t exactly a hotbed of hunter/jumper training and competition, but her father, Harold Wise, was a calf roper on the rodeo circuit, so horses were in her life from an early age. (Harold has since switched to team roping and is still at it at 81 years old.) When a neighbor introduced her to Pony Club, Nada told her father that she wanted to jump.
“I don’t come from parents with money,” said Nada. “We had our own little barn at home. My dad would rope, and he’d set my jumps up so I could jump; then we’d take the jumps down, and he’d rope. He was awe- some—took me to every horse show in his roping rig. He figured it out because he had to.”
She dabbled in eventing and Pony Club, eventually finding her way to Barbara Wicks and showing on the Utah B circuit. When she was 16, she traveled to California, where she was a working student for Nancy and Kenny Nordstrom, and after getting a taste of big-time horse shows, she knew that’s where her heart was.
After aging out, she did a stint working for Jessie Lang in Jackson, Wyoming, but then self-doubt started creeping in, and she hung up her hard hat.
“I felt like I wasn’t ever going to make it,” she said. “I took a break and got my real estate license.”
She also got married and had her daughter, now 18-year-old Samora Withers. But before long she started missing riding, and when a friend called her asking for help with horses she was taking to a show in Arizona, Nada agreed. That led to a string of riding jobs from Tennessee to Missouri to Florida to Texas.
In Texas she met her current husband, equine veterinarian Kurt Heite, DVM. When her job in Texas fell apart, she took a break from the business for two years, but she didn’t stay away from horses entirely. Through her husband she met equestrians in the Quarter Horse and Paint world, and she rode hunters a bit on those circuits. And eventually when a friend called her asking her to do some training again, she decided to ease back in.
“Every time I quit, I was miserable,” said Nada.
So she started a small business at the same stable as Sherre Sims, and the two quickly became friends. When Sims was re-diagnosed with breast cancer, she recruited Nada to help with riding some of her clients’ horses. And while Nada had sworn she was going to keep a small business and not live on the road, when Sims died of cancer in 2015, Nada carried on her Rendezvous Farm, keeping the barn colors gray and lavender in Sims’ honor.
A Winning Attitude
In January 2022 amateur rider Kirby McCool, who started as Sims’ client and now rides with Nada, bought the farm in Tomball, Texas, where Rendezvous is based.
“Nada and I have this mutual respect,” said McCool. “I had been taught from the beginning it’s all about the horse; it’s all about their welfare and wellbeing, and there’s always another show. That’s how I’ve looked it, and Nada too. It’s about the horse.
“We don’t have a huge name show barn that competes every week with 20-plus horses, but what we do have are great clients with talented horses— almost all of which Nada picked out—a dedicated team and a very talented trainer that works hard and loves the process,” she added.
Rendezvous has about 25 horses, and Nada relies on owner McCool, assistant Rueben, and Elias Cordoba and Ivan Hernandez, who lead the barn staff, to keep things running smoothly. Nada has about equal amateur and junior clients, but her real niche is young hunters, and she estimates that half her barn is under the age of 8.
“[She’ll have a] 4-year-old in the 3′ [greens] and a 6-year-old in the 3’6″ [greens], competing right there like everyone else,” said McCormick. “She does it a little bit old school where that’s the process. She gets as much or more out of those young horses than those guys that are importing horses and changing them [from jumpers into hunters]. Nada and I train ours from the day they jump their first couple of jumps all the way to the derby ring. We’re not buying premade jumpers and transitioning to the hunter ring. We’re actually creating hunters from scratch.”
Both McCool and McCormick appreciate Nada for her composed outlook, which focuses on the training rather than ribbons.
“The biggest thing with Nada is no matter where we are, whether it’s a show in Texas or the [derby] finals in Kentucky, we almost always can be laughing our way to the in-gate and having a great time,” said McCormick. “We’re just good friends. It’s literally the most enjoyable experience ever. Everything we do we have a good time doing it. I think the results show that. It’s not a stressful situation, even if everything falls apart, we still manage to find something good in it and have a good time in it. Her whole team is like that. That’s what makes it fun. It’s a little bit like family.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.