Rory Nichols, 18, wasn’t always an open book about her life experiences, but when she applied for West Palms Event Management’s Michael Nyuis Grant, she decided to lay it all on the line.
In a heartfelt video application, the Thousand Oaks, California, teen told her story: Her father was in prison for child abuse and domestic violence. Her single mother worked hard to afford lessons, and most of her show experience was from the Interscholastic Equestrian Association, which did not require riders to own their own horses. While some scholarship applicants rode multiple horses at the highest levels of the sport, Nichols had never owned a horse or competed at an A-rated show.
Perhaps most compelling part of her application was Nichols’ reason why. As a participant in equine therapy, she had personally experienced the healing power of horses. She had made it her goal, she said, to help others access the same. Any knowledge or experience she was able to glean from the scholarship program, she hoped, would enable her to help others in the future.
“While Rory didn’t have as much show experience as some of the other applicants, the selection committee felt that she was not only deserving, but also committed to contributing to the larger equestrian community,” said Dale Harvey, CEO of West Palms, which runs horse shows across California. Harvey created the Michael Nyuis Grant program in honor of his late nephew, and the program has grown exponentially since its inception in 2009. Scholarship recipients receive thousands of dollars in show credit throughout the year as well as unique educational and leadership experiences.
“I think that being open about my story led to my getting the scholarship,” Nichols said. “When you express who you really are, people can relate to that.”
Nichols was only 4 when her parents divorced, and she was involved in lengthy court battles for the better part of a decade. She suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from her experiences but found some relief through an equine therapy program.
“As soon as I started doing equine therapy, I realized that horses can feed off your energy,” she said. “If you’re freaking out, the horse will freak out too. I learned to be more confident. I used to have a hard time expressing myself with people I didn’t know, but gaining confidence with horses also led to more confidence in my daily life.”
After being bitten by the horse bug, Nichols learned to be resourceful to gain access to horses and lessons. “Barns have different rules about how high you’re allowed to jump in lessons and whether you have to lease a horse to be able to jump,” recalled Nichols. “I researched all of the barns trying to find places I could go further without having to pay a full lease fee.”
While her mother, Jaimene Nichols, worked multiple jobs to support Rory and her two sisters, Rory volunteered for barn chores just to be near the horses. “When I was 12, I started working at the barn. I would go every day regardless of whether I was riding or not, and I helped groom and walk horses to and from their stalls. Sometimes I was able to get on and walk around or hack, and slowly I got more ride time.”
Whether in the saddle or out, Rory appreciated the solace provided by the barn. “Half the barns around here don’t even have reception, so the barn has always been somewhere I could go and just be alone and think,” she said.
At age 16, she was able to afford a lease horse for about a year and a half. “Gator was a saint. He was just the best horse ever,” she said. “I wasn’t able to show, but I took as many lessons as I could, and I babysat to help pay his expenses.”
After Gator’s lease ended she moved to Mark Watring Stables in Thousand Oaks, California, and found a welcoming barn family. “It was like a huge weight had lifted off me. My first week there, some of the girls invited me to dinner, and they talked to me like I was already part of the family. Everyone there accepted me for who I am.”
In fact, it was friends at the barn who suggested she apply for the West Palms Events scholarship. Thanks to the scholarship, Rory was able to participate in workshops with top riders including Laura Kraut, Ashlee Bond and Mandy Porter, and she was able to her attend her first A-circuit shows in 2021. It’s been a busy year for her as she also started college at UCLA where she is majoring in sociology and business.
Looking back on the year of opportunities, Rory said she is grateful to West Palms Event Management and Watring for the opportunities they have given her, and credited her mom and sisters for being so supportive and encouraging of her equestrian journey.
Appreciating what horses have done for her personally, Rory hopes to share that experience with more young people. She doesn’t know exactly how she will enact her plan yet, but she knows she wants to help other riders to feel like there are no barriers to riding or developing relationships with horses.
“I don’t want young people to be discouraged from participating in something they love because their parents can’t afford it,” said Rory. “It’s hard to be a swimmer if you don’t have access to a pool and hard to be a baseball player if you don’t have a bat. I stressed about so many things. I had to search out a used saddle and used boots and an affordable lease horse. I don’t want others to go through that.”
Rory is envisioning a place with horses where people can ride at a high level regardless of financial status or background. She wants to offer horses and tack and everything needed so that riders can focus solely on the horses and their relationships with them.
“It’s the best feeling to be around a horse, just being present around them. I want people interested in that to have that chance. I want to help in any way I can,” she said.