November 2018 - Erin Nichols

horse people

Two sport star credits jumping and dressage success to bonds built through Pony Club and at-home horsekeeping.

by Kim F. Miller

Fifteen year old Erin Nichols is an inspiring and refreshing reminder that well-rounded horsemanship is alive and well among today’s young riders. She cares for three horses in her family’s backyard stable and excels in A circuit jumping, Second Level dressage and as a longtime, still-active U.S. Pony Clubber.

Chatter about choosing one discipline is coming her way lately, but “I love the way they work together,” Erin asserts. She has great admiration for Ben Ebeling, who competes successfully in jumping and dressage and she shares his aspiration to compete in the North American Young Riders Championships in both disciplines. (A college freshman this year, Ben almost pulled that off this past summer. He wound up contesting dressage successfully for USDF Region 7 and has more years of NAYC eligibility to fulfill the goal.)

nov2018 erin1Erin & Hindee. Photo: Sara Shier Photography

“Dressage helps with muscle development for jumping and jumping is a great way to get my dressage horse occasionally into a different environment,” Erin explains of her desire to continue with both. Balancing half-halts and pinpoint control schooled through dressage were on display when Erin and her jumper, Hindee, won the North American League Childrens Jumper Finals in September. “It’s really good for knowing the feel of my horse.”

nov2018 erin2Erin & Hindee. Photo: Regan Cutshall

Going the other way, Handsome Rob, the 6-year-old dressage mount Erin shares with her mom, enjoyed his recent introduction to jumping. On an easy work day following a show, Erin popped him over a few small fences. “I didn’t know what his reaction would be, but he was very calm.” During the next day’s dressage lesson, “It was like he was a different horse. It seemed to really freshen his attitude.”

Following her mother Diane Nichols into the horse world, Erin began riding at 4 and progressed as a member of the Royal Riders Pony Club in Orange County’s Yorba Linda, where the Nichols live.

She’s grateful to that launch into self-sufficient horsemanship. In Pony Club competitions, called “Rallies,” members compete as a team and without any involvement from parents or other adults. “It really teaches horse management and got me off to a good start,” Erin notes. Strong bonds with like-minded friends are another Pony Club benefit.

nov2018 erin3Erin & Handsome Rob. Photo: Sarah Piferi

As her skills and interests advanced, Erin added regular dressage lessons with Cindy Jensen and jumping training with Edgar Pagan.  She keeps and cares for her horses at home and schools them on her own or with her mom’s help at the public Phillip Paxton Arena that is a 15-minute trail ride away. Cindy typically meets Erin a few days a week for dressage lessons. Another few days a week, the Nichols haul to Peacock Hill Stables in Irvine Regional Park to work with Edgar.     

Double Discipline

The schedule varies depending on whether Erin is prepping for a dressage or jumping show, and whether she or Diane is planning to compete Handsome Rob. Diane, a USDF Bronze medalist, will campaign Rob at Second Level this year, while Erin plans to compete him at Third Level. In September, Erin and Rob won the Dressage Seat Equitation Semi Finals at the California Dressage Society/USDF Region 7 Championships in Los Angeles. That followed a 2017 highlighted by earning Second Level Championship on her trainer’s retired Grand Prix horse, Wynn.

nov2018 erin4Erin with Top Tier and Hindee. Photo: Sarah Piferi

“Handsome Rob lives up to his name,” Erin laughs of her partner for the last year. They found him while shopping with the tall order of a young horse Erin and Diane could share and bring along with Cindy’s help. “Oh my goodness, he’s so fun!” was Erin’s first reaction when it was her turn during the test ride.

“When he’s relaxed, he flops his ears in a way that kind of explains his personality,” Erin explains. Getting him to relax was an early training challenge. “We’ve now figured out different exercises that get him back to relaxation and to flopping his ears.”

Erin’s response to a young horse moment during the CDS Junior Championships in August crystallized the nature of Erin’s horsemanship for coach Cindy Jensen. The Los Angeles Equestrian Center’s Equidome can be a scary place for horses of any age and young Rob was a little rattled for Erin’s ride. Plenty of students would have been rattled, too, but not Erin. Exiting the ring, she excitedly shared the places where Rob figured things out, rather than dwelling on points that went poorly. “Our goal with him is two to three years down the line and Erin gets that,” Cindy explains.

nov2018 erin5Erin with her parents, Gerry & Diane,

“Erin is also one of the hardest working students I’ve had,” the trainer continues. “I remember when she was 8, carrying buckets of water that almost outweighed her. She’s so bright and articulate and really enjoys everything about the day in and day out of horsemanship.”

A 2017 summer internship with Sarah Lockman Dressage was a big help in working through the early challenges with Rob and enhances her ongoing work with Cindy, Erin notes.

In the position, she handled and rode a variety of horses, including youngsters. “I learned a lot from that and it made me a better rider,” she says. The post included helping prepare horses for sales presentations, interacting with training clients and buyers and navigating the feed room at the busy barn. Riding different horses and lessoning with Sarah added significantly to Erin’s knowledge base.

A Great Listener & Learner

Erin’s show jumping progress parallels that in dressage.  She started training with Edgar four years ago on pony, Velvet, who “loved to stop,” Erin laughs. “You learn a lot about how to ride that kind of ride. You have to want to get across that jump!” Edgar taught her to handle the refusals effectively and to get the best from the two subsequent rides she’s had under his tutelage.

nov2018 erin6Erin with jumping coach Edgar Pagan

Edgar remembers that first pony well, as a stopper and a spinner. “Erin might have weighed 60 pounds soaking wet! She started with me over cross-rails and I began to teach her about distances. She’d often watch me jump and I would talk through what I was doing. She really picked it up.

“You can explain things to her and she can understand it and do it,” Edgar continues. “She listens so well.”

As in dressage, Erin has come a long way in the jumper ring. Last year’s highlight was earning a team bronze medal in the USHJA Zone 10 1.10M Jumper Championships, and she followed it up with a Grand Circuit Champion status at the HITS Thermal series early in 2018. This past summer, she and Hindee debuted at the 1.2M ranks with a win in an Open class at the Huntington Beach Surf Classic.

More recently, the pair won the $5,000 NAL Childrens Jumper Final Presented by EquiFit in San Juan Capistrano.

nov2018 erin7Erin with dressage coach Cindy Jensen.

Erin and the 11 year old Belgian Warmblood mare partnered up just shy of two years ago. The mare was imported from England with a successful 1.4M resume and suits Erin well. “Her character is very competitive and she likes to go,” the young rider says. “I have that same competitive spirit. I believe we were meant to find each other.” She plans to again contest the USHJA Zone 10 Jumper Championships set for this month’s Sunshine Circuit in Thermal, and hopefully ride in the USHJA Gold Star Clinic with Katie Prudent in January.

As a freshman at Esperanza High School in Yorba Linda, Erin juggles at-home horse care, riding and lessoning while embarking on increasingly busy teenage life. She sings in the school choir and aspires to a career in marine biology, a passion fueled by a family scuba diving vacation in Honduras. She’s grateful for her parents’ support. Her mom is equally horse crazy and her dad Jerry is a non-horse guy who is 100% supportive of Erin’s riding, and happy to pitch in with a pitchfork when needed at the end of long days.

“Our horses are literally in the backyard,” Erin explains. “I do just about everything. I feed them and make sure they’re all good before school and the same at night. I like how that enables me to create a bond with them that I might not have if I boarded them away.”

Inspiring words from an equestrian star of today and, very likely, many years to come.