Dear Nikki, my Princess, Nik-Nik, Nikkidoo,
I hope you are reading this while munching on an unlimited amount of Pop-Tarts—brown sugar cinnamon only, of course, and obviously only the brand name. None of that store-brand stuff where you are.
You had so many wonderful things about you. So many virtues. Patience was never one of your strong points, my little chili pepper, my hot tamale. And I wish I could have held you back one more time, had one more of those (rare, in your opinion) moments where I had the RIGHT idea to wait and not immediately go for it. But that wasn’t your style. You always had to give 200 percent. You always had to be fiercely independent and sometimes impatient, whether it was at the jumps or in the barn. You were usually right.
I can only think of two times where you were wrong at a jump, and both times, it was because you were just so excited that you couldn’t hear me telling you to wait (or chose not to listen). And both times, you grudgingly acknowledged your mistake while I dusted the sand off my clothes.
I wish I could have suggested that you wait, and maybe you would have listened. You were so tough, and so brave, to ask for help when you weren’t feeling good. You always were so stoic, but you allowed a few people to get to know you well, and I’m so glad that you had someone as dedicated and amazing as my mom taking care of you. She knew you weren’t right. And, sweet girl, I’m so proud of you for making it through a tough, long surgery. You were always such a fighter.
I just wish you’d waited.
But you wanted to get up. You knew people were waiting for you to get up and even though you were still weak and woozy, you tried.
I never thought my ringtone sounded ominous until my phone rang at 1:11 in the morning. I’d been getting text updates from the wonderful vets taking care of you throughout the surgery. I knew you’d been moved to recovery. My stomach dropped when the phone rang.
Because in your 200 percent trier way, your strong, independent woman way, you didn’t want to wait for help to get up. You didn’t think you needed it—you get up at home all the time after you roll in the mud, right? And this wasn’t any different. But it was, and you weren’t quite ready, and you tried, and broke your leg and my heart, and from 1,500 miles away, I sent you home.
You always hated it when I cried. You wanted to fix it. It must have pained you, if you were watching, seeing me and my mom, connected by a phone call, saying no words and just crying together. You weren’t even 16 hands, but you’ve left a hole so much bigger than you were. We loved you so, so much.
We cried for a long time before thinking about all of your quirks and all of the small, wonderful moments with you. We relive your show career all the time (don’t worry, I watch the videos of you all the time and remember how incredible it was to play your favorite game), but we never really focused on the smaller things before. We didn’t expect that their last time would be so soon.
My mom was the one who started it. Remember that time we were at HITS Saugerties (New York), and I gave you an abysmally bad ride? That’s probably not specific enough; I did that plenty of times in your opinion, but you saved me from myself. This was the time where I was sitting on the braiding stool afterward, crying because I’d done you such an injustice (no, not the time where I gave you such a bad ride to that oxer that you bit me afterward), and you were licking my face. Now you know which time I’m talking about? The time where I pushed your nose away because my face was getting covered in spit (you were always kind of a sloppy kisser, no offense), and you got SO ANGRY because you were MAKING ME FEEL BETTER, and I was BEING A BRAT, and you bared your teeth and rammed them into my forehead so hard I got a goose egg there. And then resumed licking me.
I don’t know if my mom ever cried in front of you, but I know you would have tried to cheer her up. I like to think you wouldn’t slam your teeth into her head, but you’d probably argue that she wouldn’t get in the way of your cheering-up efforts. You did always think I was pretty stupid. But I was YOUR stupid—like the puppy you choose to take home, and it’s maybe not the brightest, but it’s your puppy and you love it.
Thank you for choosing me, sweet girl. What a hell of an adventure we had. We experienced a lot in our almost 14 years together. You jumped your last grand prix at 20 years old, and you were amazing in it. We met when I was a freshman in high school. You were my junior hunter, my junior jumper, my grand prix horse—but most importantly, you were my best friend. Kip always said that we were soulmates.
You always had this commanding presence and a quiet, elegant charisma to you. My lovely, sweet girl with your little troll tuft forelock that stood straight up when you were cantering around, and your reverse-ombre tail that got darker from the top down. You were so polite and wonderful to work with—as long as you weren’t being blanketed. You always hated clothes! You had such a beautiful face, but man, you could make some unpleasant expressions with it for clothes and tack. You were always so expressive. I remember when we were taking my high school senior photos, and it was hot, and the bugs were out, and you were so annoyed that in almost 200 frames of pictures, you had your ears up in … zero of them. You looked so unimpressed, and sulky, and those pictures make me laugh every time I look at them.
You had the Mare Glare down to a science. You could shoot a horse a withering side-eye that would make them shrink by two hands. You had such a kind eye otherwise. You always were so focused when we were going to head into the ring. Kip called it the look of eagles. And when you were on course, your ears were so far forward the whole time. I’m so glad that we found a job that you loved so much and did so well. You loved to jump, and I loved to do it with you.
I still laugh remembering when we came out of the welcome stake at Mason City (Iowa), and there was an open gate, and you’d had your cookies from my mom, but we were talking about the round, and you grabbed the bit and tried to gallop back into the ring. You always wanted to jump.
Even when you were “retired” (and you didn’t really retire; you always wanted to work, even if that was just going on a trail ride some days and working in the ring other days), you made me and my mom laugh with your carefully timed “spooks” that would conveniently place you where a jump just happened to be in the way, and you had to jump it unless whomever was sitting on you was savvy to that little trick and was ready with their inside leg to keep you from doing that. You always thought you could jump anything. You could jump the moon, as far as I could tell. I remember jumping 1.65-meters on you once (taller than you were!), and it didn’t even feel hard for you.
The only hard part about that was on my end staying on over that effort was a challenge. Staying on through your celebratory squeal-and-buck routine on the other side was even harder. You were so delighted with yourself, and you would have been so annoyed if I’d fallen off and ruined your moment.
And for some reason, you thought walking jumps was the funniest thing ever. I’ve never met a horse who was that tickled by walking a jump, but you did it every time I’d let you. You were always so funny that way. You’d always give it a good, proper jump too and land and canter three strides before walking again. You got such a kick out of that.
I know my mom never got to experience jumping a grand prix on you, but I’m so glad you shared with her the feeling of jumping 1.40-meters on a little superball. You brought both of us so many smiles. My mom loved having you living at home these last few years. You know that, right? I know you trained her—who else would have made the night check routine start off with getting a big handful of Frosted Mini Wheats? You had the best care, and I know you felt that it was her job as your chief of staff, but I hope you let her know how much you loved and appreciated her.
Mom’s going through a lot right now with you and Duckie both leaving so soon. Please go visit her. She misses you both so much. Let her know that you’re still there for her. I know you two are busy being the equine Statler and Waldorf and are spending a lot of time snarking at each other and uniting in your judgment of everyone else, but take some time to let her know you’re there once in a while.
You always seemed like you understood English. Did you, sweet girl? You sure acted like it—right down to when I asked you one day if you were pawing in the crossties and turned around to see you standing with your foot just above the ground, looking at me with a wide-eyed expression like “Me? No! I’m looking at my pedicure!” And you had so many well-timed sighs when my mom and I were talking. You could sound so long-suffering when you sighed. You didn’t talk very often, but I always loved how when I came home to see you, you’d nicker so quietly that I wouldn’t hear it, but I could see your nostrils moving. It was more of a wuffle than a nicker, and it made me smile every time.
You weren’t a cuddler—except when you were. But it had to be your idea, and it went on for as long as you wanted it to, and when you were done, you were done. And I know you used snuggles as a stalling system. It was brilliant, really, because you knew I’d fall for it every single time since you wouldn’t snuggle with me normally. But if you knew it was bath time, or blanketing time, or anything you weren’t looking forward to, you’d just gently lean your head against my shoulder, knowing I’d melt and stand there with you as long as you’d let me.
I love and miss the game you’d play with me where you wouldn’t let me kiss your nose, but would only move it just slightly out of the way, and expect me to try to get you. And eventually either I would or you’d let me, but only after I chased your nose for a while. You always thought it was funny to keep putting your head down to see how low you could make me go—limbo Nikki-style. You much preferred a kiss on your double whorls, but you did enjoy the nose kiss game. You always loved rubbing your nose in my hair too, and playing with it. I remember once when I changed shampoos and you didn’t like the smell of the new one and made sure to let me know. I went back to the old shampoo.
You were always such a lady, but I loved your sassy side too. I loved how you figured out that I was storing treats in the bottom of the grooming bag, and you’d proudly ransack it and delightedly crunch on your prize. You thought it was funny to occasionally take the hose and spray me with it. You were so proud of yourself when I put you in your stall just to let you pee after you worked, and you walked out into your turnout and rolled in the mud. Wearing your show cooler. Oh, you were so pleased with yourself.
I imagine you were snickering that weekend where my mom was out of town, and my dad was taking care of you and Duckie (Sly wasn’t home yet), and you were so naughty when he was doing night check. You knew he wouldn’t know to close your door to outside just to put your blankets on, and you saw him pick up the first layer of blankets and slipped outside into your turnout in the night. He called me that night to recount how you evaded him for 20 minutes in the dark. So naughty! I was definitely more amused than he was. He didn’t know you as well as my mom and I did, but I know you thought he gave excellent neck scratches. He misses you too.
You always could bring a smile to my face. My mom told me that the last time she rode you, she wanted to lightly hack you on the hill behind the house, but you had other plans and decided you guys were going to flat-out gallop up it. I hope now you’re galloping around and whinnying when you “win,” just like you did here with me so many times. Even the last time I saw you, a day that was so sad and so awful because we were saying goodbye to Duckie, you still made me laugh. As soon as I swung a leg over your back to go for a walk, you were snorting like a fire-breathing dragon and porpoising. It was the bounciest, most powerful-feeling trail ride, and poor Sly kept having to trot to keep up with you! And because you always were a little mean to him, you kept wanting to trot off as soon as he’d catch up to you. You and Duckie did take some delight in tormenting him, the poor guy. He misses you both too.
You taught me so much that was way more than how to jump around a big course. You taught me patience (since one of us had to have it), finesse and tact. You taught me to compromise, like when I wanted to be able to ride you with a lighter contact and you wanted to always have a really strong contact, so we compromised and always had a really strong contact. You always wanted to do things your way, and you could be so passive-aggressive about that. You would have been a great Minnesotan. I laugh every time I think about when Kip wanted to make you to go straighter on the flat between jumps, and you were happy to do that but jumped every jump TERRIBLY.
Kip loved telling people that story—how she quickly put me back on you, told me to drop the reins and lope down to the jumps without touching your face or trying to keep you from getting crooked, and you jumped it beautifully for me every time. I don’t think she ever jumped you again! Or that time when she wanted you to go straight off the ground because you kept drifting to the right, so she leaned a rail on the standard to make a really big X, and you just drifted even farther over and jumped the entire standard. You had your way of doing things, and you were so good at it.
I’m so glad that the last time I saw you, I gave you as many treats as I did (still not enough in your book!) and hugged your neck even though you hated that and always snapped at me when I did it. Remember when we were at the National Horse Show and you were second in the junior jumper classic despite the drunken-monkey ride I gave you? And you had to wear a neck ribbon, and the presenter lady went to put it on you and you ground your teeth at her. I assured her that you wouldn’t actually bite her, and you watched her with this look that said “Who you going to believe, her or me? Try me.” And Kip ended up being the one to put your neck ribbon on, because she knew your snaps were all for show but that you liked to be told how fierce you were. I could keep going and talk about you enough to fill an entire book. You were the most special horse I’ll ever know.
I’m so, so sorry, sweet girl. We tried everything, and I would have moved heaven and earth for you. You did for me for so many years. There aren’t words for how much you’re loved and are missed. You truly were, and always will be, my Wondermare.
Emily Pope started her relationship with Seize The Moment, an off-the-track Thoroughbred and a chestnut mare, in 2006 and they began in the junior hunters. Emily quickly realized “Nikki’s” talents lay in the jumper ranks, and they worked their way from the junior jumpers to the grand prix.
Emily graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2013 with a B.S. in animal science, spent a semester studying abroad in Madagascar, and now works in cancer research. She’s currently in graduate school in pursuit of her DVM/PhD. Read Emily’s introductory blog, “Taming My Inner Gecko” and catch up on all of Emily’s COTH blogs.