By Lyssette Williams
Portraits by Lori Ovanessian
Ever since he was a small child, Nick Haness dreamed of a life filled with animals. “I wanted every animal growing up,” Nick said. “We owned a few dogs — but having five boys in the house was probably enough for my parents.”
After years of leasing and working at other facilities, the prominent California rider made his inner child happy by purchasing a facility in 2014. Located in Temecula, California, Hunterbrook Farms was a canvas on which Nick could make this lifelong dream a reality — including not just 25 show horses but also more than 50 rescue animals.
The animals range from the commonplace — dogs, cats, goats, miniature horses and donkeys — to the more exotic: alpacas, parrots and even a zebra. Though each animal has their dedicated place on the farm, they’re often let loose to roam the property in the afternoons. An aura of calm settles on the ranch when they interact with each other. Sidelines photographer Lori Ovanessian felt the magic as soon as she arrived to photograph Nick on his property. “I’ve never experienced anything like this in all the years I’ve been around animals,” Lori said. “It was like I was on Noah’s ark. You can tell Nick’s animals love and respect him.”
Nick, 32, can’t imagine doing anything else anywhere else. “The horses and animals occupy my agenda every day – even on my off days,” Nick said. “I love being a part of the whole process. My partner, Ryan May, and I are very involved in the daily operations at the farm, from hauling horses to shows or designing a customized feeding program for each animal every day. This is my dream and the only life I’ve ever wanted.”
A Curious Observer
Growing up, Nick lived just two miles from the Coto Equestrian Center in Coto de Caza, California. Often, his family would take him down to the equestrian center to feed carrots to the horses. At the age of 4, he began to take lessons and spent most of his early years riding and showing with trainer Michael Croopnick.
“My parents wanted me and my brothers to be well rounded, so we played other sports like soccer and football,” Nick said. “I’m the only horse person in my family. I lived and breathed to be at the barn and would beg for more riding lessons. When I was 10, I’d ride my bike to the barn on Saturday mornings to turn out, groom and help with chores.”
Nick started catch-riding at a young age. “I would balance my saddle on the handlebars and bike around the center asking if anyone needed horses ridden,” he said. He rode up to twelve horses a day as a result. Nick’s first horse was a grey Percheron-Thoroughbred cross named Duncan McCloud. Duncan was 15.1 hands and Nick was a bit small for him. “He was a kind horse and a great teacher,” Nick said. “I started off showing locally and spent a lot of time watching from the rail or the bleachers. I learned a lot by observing.”
At the time, Nick’s dream was to compete in the 3’6” equitation finals. His mother, Shawna Haness-Dakides, was instrumental in giving him a leg up on that dream. Before the 2004 show season started, she procured S&L Whistler at a good price from longtime friends and neighbors whose daughter was leaving for college.
For Christmas that year, Nick’s parents gifted him one week at the Indio horse show. “I rode consistently well and ended up reserve champion in the junior hunters behind a very prominent young rider at the time,” Nick said. “That’s when people really saw me for the first time.”
Afterwards, a buyer interested in Whistler approached the Haness family. “I loved Whistler,” Nick said. “He was the nicest horse I’d ever owned. Ultimately, my mom let me make the decision – it was a lot of money and she said I could keep all the profit if I sold him.”
It was a huge decision for a teenager. “I thought about it for days,” Nick said. “I knew if I kept Whistler, I couldn’t afford to show him. If I sold him, then I could buy another horse and campaign it.”
Selling Whistler was bittersweet, but that moment was pivotal to Nick’s career. “Because Whistler came into my life, I was able to lease a more experienced equitation horse,” Nick said. “I was able to go to more than one or two horse shows a year. I was able to catch-ride for prominent trainers and build up my resume. I also had a little fun with the money and paid for my close friends to have mani-pedis!”
The lease horse helped Nick qualify for the equitation medal finals he had longed to participate in most of his junior career. In 2006, Nick won the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-West and placed fourth in the ASPCA Maclay Finals.
“I never had the financial backing to buy something that was already winning,” Nick said. “I learned to create horses. I enjoy the process and I’ve experienced not only success but a lot of fun along the way. I think that sets me apart from many professionals and people my age.”
Success is Created
After his junior career was over, Nick opted to go professional instead of attending college. He worked as an assistant trainer for a well-known Southern California stable. “The barn was huge,” Nick said. “We had 30-plus horses at every show and we showed a lot.” Over the years, Nick kept fostering his intuition and continued to import young horses that he would develop into winners.
Years of working hard dedicating his life to horses took its toll. Nick needed a mental break and decided to see more of the outside world. After a year of traveling, he returned to the horse industry from his sabbatical reinvigorated with a clear desire to open his own stable — Hunterbrook Farms. Nick’s passion, tenacity and feel for horses helped his business thrive and soon he and his clients were winning hunter and equitation classes on both coasts. Nick refocused his business again to primarily importing and developing horses for the American show market after acquiring his property in Temecula.
For years, Nick put his clients’ dreams and goals before his own. He passed on pursuing different personal goals, like the hunter derby finals in Kentucky. But 2019 would be a huge year for Nick and Hunterbrook Farms. Things came full circle when Nick’s first trainer, Michael Croopnick, had a horse named Verdict for Nick to campaign in the hunter derbies.
“I usually stay in California for the August CPHA Medal Finals,” Nick said. “In 2019 I didn’t have any clients who wanted to go, so I could take Verdict back east for the derby final in Lexington, Kentucky. It was an amazing experience. Riding in the Rolex stadium was incredibly special — the ambiance and atmosphere.
“The first day I wanted consistency,” Nick continued. “The jumps were beautiful and a bit spooky. I thought, Do I go for a nice round and play it safe by going for the low options? I was comfortable and confident on Verdict, so I took risks and rode the high options.” After putting in a beautiful round, Nick and Verdict were sitting second after the first day.
Day two was the handy round. Nick’s prowess in the handy hunter classes has earned him the nickname ‘Handy Haness’ from his peers. Still, there was immense pressure to succeed. “It was getting dark,” Nick said. “The weather had changed, and the event was livestreamed — eyes across the nation are on you. I sat in the bleachers by myself for a few hours, got a couple of different views of the ring and planned my track.” His plan worked, and Verdict and Nick were named Overall Reserve Champion and Section B Tier Two Champions.
Two months after his great placings in the hunter derby finals, Nick received a letter from US Equestrian. “I had won the Emerson Burr Perpetual Trophy to be awarded at the year-end Pegasus Award banquet in January,” Nick said. Winning this award put Nick in contention for USEF National Equestrian of the Year, an honor voted upon by US Equestrian members.
“After we arrived, one of the coordinators showed us our seats and how to proceed through the ceremony,” Nick said. “I tried to read over her shoulder to sneak a peek at the national award winner.” He read someone else’s name printed on the sheet.
“I was naturally a little bummed,” Nick said. “But I was still so happy and grateful for the Emerson Burr Trophy and it was a huge honor to be there. I was so shocked when they called my name for National Equestrian of the Year that I almost fell out of my chair!” Nick hadn’t prepared a speech, so instead he spoke straight from his heart and let his emotions and gratitude do the talking for him.
“I’m at a loss for words on what it means to be granted these honors,” Nick said. “It neatly sums up all that I’ve worked hard for over the years. Our community is a close one, and the fact I was nominated and voted to win by peers is a huge honor. You can pay a lot of money for horses, but you can’t buy the respect of other horse people.”
The pandemic changed the rhythm of Hunterbrook’s operations. “I try to find the bright side of every situation,” Nick said. “We had just returned from the eight-week circuit at Desert Horse Park when horse shows shut down. We were pretty exhausted, so it was a good time to reset and rest.” Nick began campaigning his horses again in June, adapting to new rules and different protocols for each show. He’s also relied on friends in Europe to try horses for him before importing them while travel restrictions have kept him stateside.
But Nick has taken all the adjustments in stride and 2021 looks bright, including campaigning 7-year-old Reese’s toward international derbies and developing Nick’s personal favorite horse, Fair Play, in hopes of someday competing Grand Prix. “We’ll be camping out at Desert Horse Park for the winter with 25 horses,” Nick said. “I have a great group of horses and clients right now.”
The horses and clients aren’t the only things that make Hunterbrook special. Acquiring the farm enabled Nick to open not only his home but his big heart to animals in need.
“I love all animals,” Nick said. “So, I started rescuing them because I wanted to provide them with a loving, forever home.” Some of the animals he’s found online; other times Nick has received calls asking if he had a soft place for an animal to land.
“They end up finding their way to you,” Nick said. Beyond horses, Nick’s menagerie includes 11 alpacas, three pigs, nine goats, four parrots, two dogs, 13 miniature horses, two miniature donkeys, a cow and a zebra. “All of our rescue animals have celebrity names,” Nick said. “When I first met my partner, Ryan, I knew we’d get along great because his dog is named Halle Berry.”
The zebra is the most exotic animal on the farm. “When the pandemic first shut everything down, we stayed home and watched ‘Tiger King’ on Netflix,” Nick said. “Afterward I went online and found the zebra for sale in Texas — we named him Joe Exotic. He’s a bit feral, but he leads and jumps small jumps in-hand — including the liverpool!”
The laugh of the zebra, the squawk of the parrots, the brays of the donkeys and the love and support of family and friends are all key components to the magic that helps Nick create success and lasting happiness, even with the loss in 2020 of Nick’s father, Mark Haness, to cancer. “He admired that I followed my dreams of owning a farm and having success in the horse industry,” Nick said. “His last message to me was to keep living my dream, keep doing what I do.”
With his eyes set firmly on the future, Nick plans to do just that. “I’ve created my own personal haven,” Nick said. “It’s my slice of paradise!”
For more information, follow Hunterbrook Farms on Facebook and Instagram
Photos by Lori Ovanessian, simpleefocused.com