By Nicki Shahinian-Simpson
Nicki Shahinian-Simpson had a successful career as a junior rider in the East, where she won both the ASPCA Maclay National Championship and the U.S. Medal Championship. After moving to the West Coast, Nicki continued to place well in major Grand Prix events and has competed in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Europe with major wins and placings, culminating in nearly 35 career Grand Prix victories thus far. Some of her career highlights include: winning the U.S. Trials for the 2010 World Equestrian Games; being a member of the U.S. Team at the 2002 FEI World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain; being short-listed for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team; and receiving a Leading Rider Award at Spruce Meadows in Canada. Throughout her career, Nicki has competed in seven FEI World Cup Finals.
Nicki currently offers personalized training and care from the barn to the ring through her business, Riffle Hitch LLC, while competing at the highest level herself. Riding Silver Raven Farms’ Akuna Mattata, Nicki rode to top finishes throughout 2020, placing in nearly two-thirds of the classes they competed in and winning the 2* Welcome in Split Rock and 3* Grand Prix in Tryon.
How do you handle stress when you’re about to go into the ring?
Growing up catch riding, I learned to become better under pressure, so these days I find myself learning to deal more with the adrenaline rather than stress. I typically get a feeling about each class that I’m riding in, and when that adrenaline isn’t there, I start to feel like it will be a 4-fault class. I have to keep that out of my mind by trying not to let my subconscious and my superstitions get in the way. I keep myself focused by sticking to the basics, keeping it simple, and visualizing my round. I don’t do anything different than I normally would to help keep my psyche out of the picture.
When competing Akuna Mattata, my mind is always on different things like keeping calm in the schooling area or not running into anyone. She has her own antics, but she’s also very predictable — when we go into the ring, I look around and catch my breath before she starts her spins each way and once the buzzer goes, she picks up her canter like she’s coming out of the start gate and she’s off! I rarely have to worry about a specific question on course. As long as I’m keeping myself focused and relaxed, I’m able to have confidence that she will do her thing on course. Keeping my focus on her also keeps me from overthinking things, which is nice. It actually calms me, so we help to balance each other in that sense.
What’s your process when you get a new horse?
It all revolves around the relationship and getting to know that horse. My first instinct is to adapt myself to what that horse is going to need by spending a lot of time on the flat to learn them and what their buttons are. These are things that you keep establishing over time as you move up through the divisions. When you reach the higher 1.50m and Grand Prix classes, knowing the horse and having that chemistry really helps to gel that combination of horse and rider. I’m very comfortable getting on, feeling out what the horse wants from me and being able to produce quickly the horse in its best fashion through feeling out what they need. Over time, you can start to work on a weakness, but it’s a gradual process.
How do you juggle family and riding?
My dad comes from a very big family and my mom’s side is very small, so family was a big part of my upbringing. I always wanted to have kids at a young age, and that was very important to me. It can be so difficult within our sport, with timing being such an important factor — major events happening in different years or horses that you feel like you can’t take a break from because of their window of potential. I was very fortunate when I had my kids, Sophie and Ty, that I had family around me: My mom was our barn manager and my grandmother was also there to help take care of them. I had a lot of support, and that’s always been a big factor in making it possible. I never wanted to miss out on the opportunity to have a family and kids — it’s important for myself and what I need out of life. It’s something I still place a lot of value on to this day, especially now that I’m a grandmother. There have been times I will make a 24-hour trip and think nothing of it. I will do whatever it takes to stay connected.
Do you ever compete against your children and how do you handle that?
Our whole family has competed against each other, especially once my kids aged out and we were in more of the same classes. Even with Will, my ex-husband — when we were doing those classes, you always felt like if it was all in the family, it’s good. If we finished first and second, it didn’t really matter who was first; memories like that are special to have. You’re doing your thing when you’re in the ring, but the support is just as strong for the family, despite it being an individual sport. I think it’s exciting and fun — I can’t wait for the day that Ty has a bigger string and we’re really doing it together.
Nicki Simpson, riding Akuna Mattata, talks with her son Ty.
Photo by Barre Dukes, Four Oaks Creative