By Kathryn McMackin
Portraits by Kristie Nichols
Becoming a professional rider and trainer was never part of the long-term plan for Nicki Wilcox. But it wasn’t not part of the plan, either.
Nicki is the namesake and founder of Nicki Wilcox Show Jumping, a full-service facility based out of Parker, Colorado. Horse-crazy for as long as she can remember, she dabbled with the idea of a career in the horse business, yet pursued a journalism degree and had lofty dreams of impacting the world through reporting. Having seen the tough slog to make it in horses, she wanted to have options.
“In journalism, there’s always a story; everyone has a story,” Nicki said. “It’s the same with horses and riders. If you can open your mind to understanding and asking the right questions, you can get the most out of your horses and your riders.”
In the end, the horses won out. For Nicki, they have their own compelling tale to tell.
Sneaking Into Paddocks
Little could stop young Nicki from being near a horse. Horses were hard to come by in Arvada, Colorado, the Denver suburb where she grew up, so she’d satisfy her pony cravings when visiting family friends in South Dakota.
“We would visit them and all I wanted to do was play with the horses,” she remembered. “Even when I was about two years old, I would be out in the field with the foals, and would even wander under the hot wire into the stallion paddock.”
She got her start in a Western saddle, but switched to English when she got the itch to jump. Soon, Nicki was developing under the watchful eye of the late Dion Dana, progressing from ponies to the junior jumpers, before riding for Dion as a part-time professional while in college. Horses were the perfect complement to Nicki’s shy personality.
“I was always a little bit introverted when I was growing up,” she said. “And horses are the most simple and loyal creatures, so it was always easy for me to communicate with them through my body language. They’ve taught me so many lessons.”
Not allowing her bashful personality to limit her dreams, Nicki enrolled in the University of Colorado Boulder, graduating with a degree in journalism and mass communication. She continued to ride as a part-time professional during college but a full-time career as a rider and trainer wasn’t necessarily the end game.
“I was up in the air at the time,” Nicki said. “I was working a little bit for the Boulder Daily Camera in the journalism field. I thought I was going to make the world a better place through my writing — I had all these grandiose ideas. In reality, I ended up covering a lot of stories about prairie dogs.”
From Writing to Riding
And then, at a horse show in Tucson, Arizona, Nicki met Frank Selinger. At the time, Nicki had a talented young Andalusian/Thoroughbred she was developing, and asked Frank for guidance. At the end of the circuit, Frank offered her a working student position at his St. George’s Stables in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
“When Frank was helping me, things became clear for me,” Nicki said, adding that she saw her career path shifting. “I didn’t even think about the opportunity; I just said yes when he asked me to be a working student.”
Heading to Calgary, Nicki had a single goal: to be able to call herself a bona fide grand prix rider. While her background included one or two soft grand prix, she considered herself a total rookie in the grand prix ring. Nicki wanted to learn what it took to ride at an international level, as well as develop horses to consistently perform at that level.
“Coming from the States, I had a lifetime of riding hunters and it impacted the way I rode,” Nicki commented. “If you’re going to ride into an oxer that’s really tall and really wide, you don’t want to look for that gap. I had to learn and teach young horses to ride up with pace to the base of the jump — to approach jumps with adrenalin, but to also be calm and cool.”
Nicki couldn’t get enough. In addition to developing grand prix prospects with Frank, she developed her Andalusian/Thoroughbred into a regular competitor in the 1.40m division at Spruce Meadows, a few miles from Frank’s farm. During the Spruce Meadows Summer Series, she would flex her writing skills in the venue’s media center, where she reported on the international competitions for Phelps Media.
“Everything about Nicki struck me the right way,” Frank said. “She’s always been a student of the game. She would pick up new ideas and tips, then apply them to her riding to see if they made a difference.”
The longer she worked with Frank, the more Nicki realized that riding and training was turning into a full-time gig. “She was the best,” Frank gushed. “As far as I’m concerned, she left me far too soon.”
Do What You Love. Now.
In 2010, tragedy spurred Nicki to consider a return to Colorado. Her sister, Shantel, lost her long-time partner, Alexander Gilmer, in a plane collision. Nicki made the permanent move back to her home state by early 2012.
“My sister was grieving; my whole family was grieving,” Nicki said. “To have someone alive and well and perfect one minute, then gone the next — family became very important to me. And I realized that things can change in an instant.”
Following the loss, Nicki said her family banded together for support. The family mantra became: Do what you love and do it now.
Nicki got to work building Nicki Wilcox Show Jumping when she arrived in Colorado and, in 2016, with her parents as investors, purchased property in Parker, Colorado. Nicki and her parents reside on the property. Her sister lives in the nearby community of Evergreen.
“Through the grief process, we all became really close, so investing in the business together became a no-brainer,” she said. “My mom is everyone’s horse show mom. And my dad takes care of those juniors as though they are his own daughters. It’s become an extended family.”
Even Frank makes the trek to Colorado once or twice a year to put on a clinic for Nicki and her team.
“It’s an easy job for me,” he said. “She’s done well for herself, and I know how hard this business can be. She hasn’t taken any missteps, as far as I can see. She’s built an appreciative team and has a family who supports her wholeheartedly.”
Nicki’s excitement about coaching surprised her. She admits that her first vision for Nicki Wilcox Show Jumping was more based on developing, showing and selling horses. While she knew she loved the riding part of the gig, she was astounded by how much joy she got out of teaching junior and amateur riders.
“As I’ve grown, it’s been amazing to watch horses teach about every aspect of life,” she said. “Helping people and their horses through that journey is incredible to me. You have moments with juniors and amateurs when they get frustrated. They may feel there are other competitors out there who have more than them, or less than them. But it’s about each person playing their cards the best they can. And life’s that way, too. It’s about being happy and doing the best you can with what you have.”
Kings and Queens
As with most adventures in entrepreneurship, building Nicki Wilcox Show Jumping wasn’t without its struggles. Nicki had to re-establish herself on the Colorado horse show scene. She found, after six years in Canada, that she had to prove herself a more experienced and developed rider.
“It took time for people to recognize that I had grown,” she said. “Luckily, I’ve always invested in having horses to compete, so that people could see my riding in the show ring. I wanted to catch people’s eyes and have them recognize that I was developing horses up to a grand prix level. It was important to me that I didn’t just go back to Colorado to teach lessons.”
Nicki urges aspiring professionals to learn the ins and outs of each aspect of the business, from cleaning stalls to breaking horses, to competing, to accounting. She encourages budding equestrians to take their time and put in the hard work.
“There are riders going to the Olympics who are in their seventies,” she laughed. “So try not to get too ahead of yourself. You could be working at this for a long time.”
Don’t get ahead of yourself — it’s a tactic Nicki employs with business, and with developing horses. She’s not one to set big dreams to conquer; instead, she focuses on listening to her horses and working towards small goals on the way to larger success. She doesn’t want a timeline to get in the way of establishing a relationship with the horse.
“Not all horses come with the heart to jump for us and work to please us every day,” she explained. “But when you find one who does, you should work to preserve that heart. Challenge those horses in a way they can appreciate, and also be able to take a step back if you feel them starting to gulp. Treat them like kings and queens in their daily care. Treat them like precious living creatures instead of machines.”
Expect to see Nicki on the grand prix field with her king, J.E.S. Quito, and her queen, Danique du Lys, in 2019.
The year promises to be a busy one for Nicki Wilcox Show Jumping with a number of talented prospects heading into work and a few hardworking juniors and amateurs who are starting to climb the ranks. But Nicki’s never been afraid of a busy schedule.
She works hard, but she plays hard, too. An avid outdoorsman, Nicki tries to dedicate her wintery Mondays to the ski hill. Even in Calgary, she’d take a week off to explore the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the wintertime. And she enjoys camping, although she admits it’s difficult for her to get away with her busy show schedule.
“The hard work is worth it,” she said. “Not just for achieving your goals, but for happiness. I don’t think it’s possible to be happy without having to work hard to achieve something.”
For more information, visit Nicki Wilcox Show Jumping on Facebook and Instagram.
Photos by Kristie Nichols, moonfyrephotography.com, unless noted otherwise