Lyme disease is no match for talented, positive & much-admired dressage trainer.
by Mikaela Kantorowski
Heads turn when Niki Clarke enters the dressage court. The grace and beauty of her riding reflects the highest-level sport’s gift for making the difficult look easy. In Niki’s case, the degree of difficulty is higher than for most due to a Lyme disease, but she’s found ample strength, support and motivation to continue her impressive and admired career.
Niki began as an eventer and maintains many connections to that discipline. She has trained with eventing greats such as David and Karen O’Connor and has spent as much time as possible learning about all aspects of equestrian sports. Her most influential coach was Amy Barrington. “She instilled a strong work ethic and how not to give up even when the struggles seem to overpower you,” says Niki. “She was my mentor and I would not be where I am without her.”
Niki took over Amy’s business in Arizona when Amy moved to North Carolina, but soon after was given an opportunity she could not turn down. A close friend offered her the chance to go anywhere in the world to train. She transitioned to a different discipline, dressage, and moved to Holland to train under former Dutch dressage chef d’equipe Bert Rutten.
When she returned home, she continued her dressage training and worked under Kathleen Raine and David Wightman of Adventure Farms. She took the dressage world by storm and progressed through the levels with success. She was reserve champion in the Brentina Cup in 2007, third in the same national competition for Young Adult Riders in 2010 and achieved success at various levels in the intervening years.
After moving to California, Niki met her husband Lyn Clarke. When it comes to equestrian families, the Clarkes could not be more involved or supportive. Her husband is a fifth-generation horseman from Australia and many of his family members are involved with her horses. Lyn is a gifted farrier who supports her always at her home barn in Temecula and at shows.
Her father-in-law, Allen Clarke, is a renowned horseman who Niki calls her “go to.”
“He has helped me so much and always comes to the farm when I need guidance with a tricky horse. I have learned to think outside the box. My mare, Roulette, would not be where she is today if I didn’t have his help.”
In California, Niki moved from not only competing but also teaching, working with both dressage and eventing riders. She’d been helping top eventer Tamie Smith for many years when an exciting opportunity came up.
“I was working out of my father-in-law’s farm down the road from Tamie’s and my business was growing to the point that I needed a bit more room. I knew everyone well at Tamie’s base, Tucalota Creek Ranch in Temecula, and when I learned they had space open, it all seemed to fall into place.”
Niki’s heart still lies in eventing so this created the perfect opportunity to have a foot in both worlds. “I love the people and the sport,” she explains. “My roots are there and I love being able to be involved in both disciplines. It is one big team and having the incredible support group has been huge for me.” She now coaches numerous eventers including Tamie, Heather Morris and Canadian Olympian Hawley Bennett-Awad.
When coaching and training her horses, Niki strives to create the best environment for success. Being based at Tucalota Creek Ranch, training alongside cutting horses and eventers, allows her dressage horses to see a variety of environments on a daily basis. Niki also places a strong emphasis on the importance of training out of the arena. She wants her horses going out on the trails or working alongside the other disciplines to mix up their training. These experiences enhance her horses’ dressage performances and create a fun atmosphere within her barn. Her training philosophy is rooted in allowing each horse to pick their pace while training and emphasizing their comfort and happiness. These are the keys to her success.
With her business growing, a solid training program and many top show finishes, 2015 was shaping up to be another good year. However, in May Niki began having odd symptoms with unknown causes. A friend recommended Niki get tested for Lyme disease, but she didn’t think much of it until her symptoms got worse quickly.
“I was having severe neurologic symptoms and it got to the point I couldn’t even read to my son. It was incredibly hard on my family and those around me.”
The disease is very serious and symptoms can continue despite treatment, making athletic endeavors all the more difficult. Niki persevered and despite all her symptoms continued to ride even when the doctor advised against it. “I had to journal every day and still do. I am still waiting on the day I get to hear the word ‘remission.’ I am not back to 100% yet but I am getting stronger every day.”
Her love for her horses and the sport motivated her no matter how she was feeling each day. “The horses were my barometer. I would see how I was feeling everyday based on what I could do, whether I could even get to the barn that day or how many horses I could ride. The doctors told me it would slow down the treatment but mentally I would have not been able to cope without the horses in my life and those around me.”
She has gone on to ride and train Quincy to Fourth Level USDF 2015 Horse of the Year and her business continues to flourish. She also continues coaching dressage and eventing riders, bringing all her trademark positive energy to the endeavor. She has coached eventing athletes to FEI wins, USEF national championships and world class training lists among many accomplishments.
With the support of her friends, family and students, Niki was able to fight this disease and come into 2016 stronger than ever. While she has not yet been declared in remission, she says she is on the road to recovery. Lyme disease is something that will always stay with a person, but it’s about how you manage and fight it, she emphasizes.
Niki believes that her support system and the setbacks have both contributed to her success. And she’s excited about the future for herself, her horses and her students. She hopes to travel to Lamplight Equestrian Center in the Chicago area this month to contest the Festival of Champions with her 6 year-old, Fling, and two developing Prix St. Georges horses. While the qualification period was still underway at presstime, she’s optimistic about her chances to be selected. “I am so lucky to have such a great group of horses and riders to work with. I want to take my time and go at the speed each horse needs and I am very excited for the future.”
Author Mikaela Kantorowski works for the equestrian sports marketing firm, Athletux, Inc.
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