Nicole Shahinian-Simpson was the “catch riding kid” as a junior and is one of the only 11 riders to capture both the ASPCA Maclay National Championship and the AHSA/Medal Championship. Now she’s helping shape the next generation of young riders—with a grassroots school string. As told to Carley Sparks.

I was a complete barn rat, as a kid.

I grew up about 10 minutes outside of New York City. My family had a stable called Overpeck Farm in Leonia, New Jersey. It was a county-owned facility in the middle of a huge park. My parents worked for the county, then later privately leased the farm but, to me, it was all the same. Ours.

We had 60 stalls that connected to a big indoor ring. We held horse shows. My mom and dad did the show barn and the school string program. My dad did the racehorses as well, so I had all these different areas available to me right outside our front door.

It was wonderful.

Overpeck was open from 7am and closed at 10pm because all the adults would come and ride after work. I was there right after school and all day on the weekends. My mom would have to call me over the loudspeaker to get me out of the barn: “Nikki, get home!”

I had some ponies and whatnot but I always thought it was great fun to take lessons on the school horses. There were two—Dudley and Trogee—that were particularly dear to me.

Trogee had a mind of his own. He’d stand in the middle of ring during flat classes. Or if he got tired in the group lesson, he’d just go plant himself in the middle of the group. He was like a big overgrown Thelwell Pony. Dudley was one I started competing on a little bit. I eventually went on to show seriously as a junior, but he was the beginning of it all.

There were all these volunteers involved at Overpeck—many who became lifelong friends.

Then you’d have the times when there’d be a big snowfall and no one could get to work, so it’d be my parents and I and my little sister and frozen buckets and broken pipes, feeding all the horses—there was nothing better. It was just magical.

Part of me wishes that my kids could have had that experience growing up. Sophie, my daughter, she’s 19 and has ridden her whole life. My son is 15. He just started riding last summer. Boys always seem to start a little later. Their father and I are international show jumpers, so they were born into it at a higher level of competition.

I always tried, to the best of my ability, to have Sophie be very involved in the care of the horses and she is. But at this level, it’s much harder to tell the grooms, “Don’t take care of the pony, let her do it” whereas when I grew up, we didn’t have grooms. It was normal to clean the stalls and tack them up and all those things.

When kids miss that stage, it’s a lot harder to get back. And a lot of kids are missing that stage. The grassroots program—the school string—is neglected in our sport. It’s a bit of a missing link.

My childhood is one that I cherish, so I’ve always dreamed of creating a place where kids who don’t grow up in a barn or have parents in the business, like I did, can have the full experience. Where they can be barn rats too.

Last year, Mary Rivas, along with my partner Angel Károlyi, decided to fulfill that dream. We established Cherokee Riding Club, a grassroots program in Wellington, Florida that offers everything from school horse lessons to pony camp to showing. We have a really nice group of ponies and horses—about 10—and quickly had a dozen or so students.

Our goal is to create an environment where parents and kids want to spend time. Part of the lesson is to come a little early and help tack up. After their lesson, they bathe the horses and graze them. We encourage them to hang out in the barn, learn about feeding, to muck stalls, and do as much as they’d like. We also do little camps on the weekend where we’ll do a clipping lesson or a braiding lesson, stuff like that.

But mostly, it’s just fun! We do fun things at the farm in an environment that we create ourselves. That’s what is exciting for me. That’s what brings it back to my childhood.

When I’m in Wellington, I go back and forth between the Riding Club and the show horse stable. I’ll teach the lesson kids then leave for a few weeks to compete. It’s so rewarding to come back and see their progress. And it’s a breath of fresh air dealing with parents who are new to this. They don’t know yet how to go spend tons of money and maybe that’s never in the cards for them. The kids have access to do on whatever level they can do it.

The funny thing is I think the Riding Club is helping my riding as much as it does theirs.

Working in this industry, you can get jaded. It’s such a demanding job—the business of it, the pressure of it. Whether you’re riding or training, there is always internal pressure and that’s okay. I have no complaints about my profession. I have loved my career. But it’s nice to take a deep breath and go to Cherokee Riding Club.

For me, it just balances things. It puts your feet on the ground. It brings you right back down to your roots and reminds you why you do this—and to really enjoy it along the way.

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