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 did you adapt to different horses so quickly as a young catch-rider?
What I learned is that you have to really adapt at that moment you get on a horse for the first time — you meet them at the ring, get on, jump a few jumps to figure them out a little bit and then go show, so there isn’t time to transform them into your style. A lot of these horses were sale horses or needed points to qualify for their owners, so there was a lot of pressure. What I took most out of that experience is that it’s our job to get on and help a horse perform at their best, and I definitely worked to transform more to what they needed than the other way around. That simple realization was really beneficial growing up, and still to this day I’m more apt to adjust to a horse rather than have the horse adjust to me.
How have you applied the skills you learned as a catch-rider into your career as a trainer?
I think my experiences go a little bit hand in hand with teaching and training. My students may know their horse well but every time you go in the ring it’s a new venture, a new class, a new day — you’re riding an unpredictable animal, so the idea is to ride the horse that you have that day, that class, that moment. I find myself saying that often. That also brings it back to the basics: When students get nervous or dwell on what happened three classes ago, I remind them to just stay present and ride the horse that they have today. Always rely on your basics — your feel, your ride and your horse. That goes for all the way around the course: Things change and you have to know what’s happening under you in order to get to the jump.
What would you say to someone without a lot of money looking to get their foot in the door?
I am the most comfortable on a horse, and it was that way from day one. That helped a lot in developing my natural talent. I had horses growing up but not a lot of money, so I mainly did catch riding although I did have my junior hunter, Ghostbuster. He either won or was misbehaving, so I think my drive, determination and commitment really helped to get me noticed. Emerson Burr gave me my very first catch ride on a pony, which was quite special. Shortly after, Leslie Howard saw me competing at Fairfield Hunt Club where she trained, and talked to my mom about having me go under her wing, and that’s really how it all started.
I went on to catch ride for many amazing people in the industry and was fortunate enough to earn the title of “The Catch Riding Kid” for all of my accomplishments. I ended up getting the opportunity to ride something each year at indoors, where I won both the Maclay and Medal in Harrisburg, in addition to retiring the Best Child Rider trophy several times. I had a very fortunate Junior career and I’m very thankful for it and all the people that trusted me to do so.
To be able to have the opportunity to ride so many different horses — whether they’re difficult or easy or hot or cold or big, small — I think that was always my draw to the horses and the sport. It really comes back to the horses — what you’re doing and the animals you’re dealing with. It has always been very special to me.
Photo by Four Oaks Creative