By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
For Nick Wagman, dressage is all about the journey. From his first ride at summer camp to going down centerline chasing Olympic dreams, Nick’s love for horses has always been top priority. By the middle of the 2020 winter season in Wellington, Nick and his mount Don John, owned by Beverly Gepfer, sat third in the ranks for the Olympic team. The future looked bright for the pair, until an injury forced an abrupt end to their campaign. Through the heartbreak, Nick stood resilient, reflecting on his journey through dressage and life.
Nick grew up with his parents and little brother just outside of Los Angeles, California. “There was nothing rural or agricultural about my childhood,” he said, “so to end up a professional horseman was certainly not expected!” Nick’s first encounter with horses was with his aunt, who rode dressage, though he was too young to understand what dressage was at that time.
While he was always fascinated with his aunt’s horses, Nick didn’t realize how deeply he was drawn to the animals until he went to summer camp. “The camp had every activity you could imagine, but I asked my parents to get me permission to spend my entire day with the horses. I was hooked.”
After a year of riding lessons, Nick’s parents purchased Sarah, a 14.2-hand Arabian mare, from a breeding farm for $800. “I’d only been taking hunter lessons, and Sarah didn’t want to jump, so the local trainer told me to try some dressage lessons,” Nick said. “I did and loved it. I ended up showing Sarah through fourth level — even at 6 feet tall. It wasn’t pretty, but I just wanted to ride. And dressage was it!”
In 1992, he spent a year as a working student for Guenter Siedel, a formative time for Nick as he got his first glimpse into the career of a dressage trainer. “Guenter was a great role model for me,” Nick said. “I got to see the training business from the other side and that helped me understand how to manage more than just my personal horse.”
The following year, Nick made the Region 7 NAYC team in the Young Riders division, giving him a taste of the team experience for the first time. “Our team did a tremendous amount of fundraising that year in order to fly the horses to Bromont, Canada,” he said. “It built a great deal of camaraderie amongst us and winning the team gold was just icing on the cake.”
Shortly before embarking on his journey as a professional, Nick spent a semester studying English and theater arts at Vassar College in New York, but soon realized he couldn’t live without the horses. “After much agonizing, I made the decision to leave school and pursue a career in dressage full time. I’ve never looked back since,” he said.
With his heart set on professional riding, Nick took a leap of faith and moved to Europe with his partner at the time, Gerard Hogervorst. “Gerard was Dutch, and he suggested we give Europe a try. I was open to a new experience and agreed,” said Nick. “I never thought it would turn into a seven-year stay, but it did.”
During his time in Europe, Nick trained with Danish Olympian Anne Von Olst while competing the stallion Krack C, before Anky Van Grunsven acquired him. “I learned so many things in Europe that I never would’ve had the chance to experience here. First and foremost, I was given the opportunity to ride so many amazing young horses,” Nick explained. “I also got to watch the best riders in the world compete. I’m a very visual person and I would spend hours at the warm-up ring soaking up everything I could. It was truly the most valuable experience of my life.”
Today, Nick enjoys the California sun at his home base, Clear Spring Farm, in Rancho Santa Fe. “The farm is owned by Liz Keadle, who has been a long-time client and friend of mine since before I moved to Europe,” Nick said. “Rancho Santa Fe is truly a unique horse community. It’s absolutely beautiful and is home to many top dressage and jumper trainers.”
Chasing the Olympic Dream
While California offers its own year-round sun, the 2020 winter season looked a bit different for Nick. After competing on the Nations Cup team in France and the Netherlands, Nick and his mount Don John returned home to capture the National Grand Prix title at the Festival of Champions. “It was then that I started contemplating trying out for Tokyo,” Nick said. “We learned that one of the requirements was a mandatory outing in Florida, so we put a trip together and went.”
Though it was Nick’s first time competing in Wellington, he quickly found his footing and sprung to the top of the Olympic rankings. “We had just finished second in the previous qualifier, and were ranked third overall in the Olympic standings. We were so ready to go for it,” Nick said. “Then, unfortunately, Don John injured himself right before the CDI5* and we had to withdraw.”
Despite the shock and heartbreak, Nick’s love for his horse rose above his own dream and goal. He decided to withdraw from his 2020 Olympic campaign, putting the needs of Don John first. At 47, Nick has gained a wise perspective on the nature of equestrian sport. “I think had this happened when I was in my 20s, I wouldn’t have been able to cope with it as well. But now, I see how precious life is and can embrace what I did accomplish, rather than dwell on what I didn’t,” he reflected.
“I am so proud to have developed a relationship so deep with Don John. I feel like I’ve won my own personal Olympics,” he said, remarking on the unique bond he has with the Dutch Warmblood gelding. “Don John is truly one of the most remarkable horses I’ve ever ridden. He’s as sensitive as they come, but truly a gentle and kind soul. We’ve been through a lot together. As corny as it sounds, he is my friend.”
Nick discovered Don John through his friend Gerard, who tried him as a 5-year-old in Belgium. “It was a risk to import him without seeing him, but Gerard knows me as a rider so well that I trusted him completely,” Nick said. Since he stepped off the plane, the sensitive gelding has never had another rider on his back, except for Nick. “Trust is definitely earned with him. I can’t explain it, but we know each other inside and out. I respect him and he respects me.”
Training, Free Time and the Future
Though it seemed to be the end of the road for Nick and Don John’s shot at the Tokyo Olympics, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a silver lining for the pair. With the Olympics now moved to 2021, Nick has a second chance to make the team. “I hate to gain this opportunity because of such a devastating pandemic, but what a gift to be able to try again,” Nick said. “Don John and I are quietly training and can’t wait until we can canter down centerline again!”
Until he is able to head to the show ring again, Nick is working daily to improve his horses, his students and himself. “I enjoy the journey and the training as much, if not more, than the competitions themselves,” he said.
With a special place in his heart for young horses, Nick enjoys bringing horses through the levels himself. “Of course, as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten a little pickier about which young horses I’ll get on, but I still prefer to train my own,” he said. “I’m happy teaching anyone as long as they’re truly open to learning. I have epiphanies all the time while I’m riding, and I love sharing them with my students.”
When Nick is not in the barn, which is a rare occurrence, he spends his down time finding balance: He likes spending time with friends, game nights, reading and creative writing. “I enjoy sleeping past 5 a.m. and binge watching the Real Housewives — but don’t tell anyone,” he laughed.
While balance is important, Nick’s heart stays with his horses and his mind on his next goal. As Don John recovers from his injury, Nick is looking forward to the future and is setting new goals each day. In addition to making the Olympic team for Tokyo, Nick hopes to bring Don John to the 2021 World Cup. Along with his goals for Don John, Nick is planning his future with his rising star, Ferano, owned by Liz Keadle, with whom he competed in the National Grand Prix in Wellington.
“Goals are great to have, but enjoying the moment is important too,” Nick said. “I would like to thank everyone who not only cheered me on while I was doing so well, but who also reached out when Don John and I had to pull out of the Olympic trials. It can feel lonely out there sometimes, so all the support was so very much appreciated. We are excited about the future and can’t wait to get out there again!”
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com, unless noted otherwise