By Jennifer Cooke
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Nikki Scarpino has a knack for working with difficult horses. Somehow, the challenging, quirky, oddball horses seem to find their way to her. Nikki’s approach to these horses is both sympathetic and pragmatic, and she solves behavioral problems by working through physical weaknesses first.
As a U25 dressage Grand Prix competitor and a doctoral student in physical therapy, Nikki is immersing herself in the study of biomechanics. Her days are filled with riding and caring for horses, and her evenings are spent studying. With a perspective and maturity beyond her 23 years, Nikki understands that becoming a great rider and trainer is a lifelong process.
Nikki is in the horse world for the long haul. For her, dressage is about figuring out a complex puzzle. She specializes in working through the physical challenges of both horse and rider to create a strong, athletic horse-and-rider pair. She has already competed at the top levels of the sport, being named to the Young Rider team in 2018 and 2019 and qualifying for the Brentina Cup in April on her Hanoverian mare Lambada 224, or Lamb. Competition is just part of the journey for Nikki, and she has a clear vision of where she is, where she wants to go and how to get there. Her words to live by are: “Always be a student of the game. Always want to learn and get better.”
Problem Solving with Biomechanics
Nikki has found that fixing the physical issue will fix the behavioral issue. “PT (physical therapy) gives you a good understanding of biomechanics. If you’re sore, you compensate. Horses do the same thing,” Nikki said. “I want to have a better understanding of rider biomechanics and how the human body works, so I could be more effective in helping riders as well as horses. When you get sore, you compensate. We need to be sympathetic to that. As riders, we need to understand what a horse’s weakness is. And we need to help them strengthen, without pushing them to a point where they get sore or resentful.”
Her scientific approach to dressage also helps with teaching riders. “If you see someone leaning to one side, or having trouble getting the bend, you can see that it’s the rider, not the horse,” Nikki said.
Lamb has been an influential teacher. For the first several years after Nikki bought her, the mare often expressed herself through quirky antics such as leaping through the air or with an opinionated buck. “For the first several years after I had her, she wasn’t the easiest to ride. She tried to buck me off every day for a solid year,” Nikki said. “It took me a while to figure out saddle fit. She is so particular and so sensitive. She taught me how to manage a horse from start to finish. She’s tough and will fight for you and give you her all. When you tack up, it’s game time.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Nikki. At the North American Youth Championships (NAYC) in 2019, she was the anchor rider for her team. Their training and preparation went well, but something changed during the test. Knowing something wasn’t right, Nikki made the decision to withdraw. Her instincts were correct: The mare had an SI (sacroiliac) injury and needed time and care to rehabilitate. “That was hard—you work so hard to get someplace, and on the biggest stage of that year, all of the sudden it ends and there’s nothing you can do except choose the best interests of the horse,” Nikki said.
Nikki admits she puts a lot of pressure on herself to be perfect, both in school and with riding. Figuring out a healthy balance is a challenge and she draws on her family for support. Her father, the athletic director for Palm Beach State College, was influential in training her with an athlete’s mindset. His mantra sticks with her: “If you want it, you work hard for it.”
Her father instilled in her that there are a lot of pains in life, including physical and emotional pain. “But the biggest pain is the pain of regret,” Nikki said. “Even if you do it and you fail, at least you know. Try to never have the pain of regret. That has stuck with me and has helped me get through times when I’m busy and things are chaotic.”
Nikki has had her own rehab journey. Two years ago, she was riding a young, reactive horse. The horse’s antics didn’t unseat Nikki, but she injured her hip and had to have surgery. The recovery took place as she was applying to graduate programs in physical therapy, cementing her resolve to learn more about biomechanics.
How It All Started
Nikki’s mom purchased two Connemara foals when Nikki was a baby, and she grew up riding the ponies. Her first competition was as a 4-year-old in a leadline class on a 4-year-old pony named Shadow. She laughs, knowing now what a bold move that was.
Connemaras are known for their jumping ability, but not her pony Shadow. “I probably had the one Connemara pony in the world that didn’t like to jump,” Nikki said. “She set me on this dressage path, and I really enjoyed dressage from a young age.” A typical stubborn pony, Shadow taught Nikki a lot about perseverance. “I still have Shadow and she’s out in the field, living her best life,” Nikki said.
The 2010 Kentucky World Equestrian Games were pivotal for Nikki, then 11 years old. She watched the jumping events, but it was the dressage freestyle competition that impacted her the most. Seeing Totilas and Fuego II compete made a lasting impression on Nikki. “I already wanted to compete in the horse world, but this was the moment I knew what I wanted to do.”
Going into her freshman year of high school, Nikki took lessons at Knoll Dressage with Tamra Brown and Anne Gribbons, riding lesson horses. She wanted a horse that she could do the Juniors and Young Riders with. Anne was working with Alyssa Pitts and Lambada in Washington state. Anne was impressed with the mare’s abilities but suggested that for Alyssa, who is 6 feet tall, the match wasn’t an ideal fit, so the decision was made to sell the 15.3-hand mare. At the same time, Nikki had mentioned to Anne that she was looking for her next dressage partner. On Anne’s suggestion, the 5’2” Nikki flew to Seattle to try Lambada out, and the two hit it off. “It was the perfect timing,” said Nikki. She tried her, loved her and brought her home to Florida.
Anne also trains Anna Marek, and when Nikki was in her first year at the University of Florida, Anne made the connection with Anna so that Nikki could continue her dressage training while earning her undergraduate degree.
She continued training with Tamra, Anne and Anna, and brought Lamb up to Grand Prix. “She is the sweetest horse ever on the ground. But as soon as you tack her up, it’s game time, it’s go time, it’s all business,” said Nikki. “Lamb is very special to me because I’ve had her since she was a 6-year-old, and we’ve come up the levels together.”
This is their first season at U25 Grand Prix, and the pair is experiencing many “firsts” together as they train and compete at this level. Her long-term goal? To consistently produce horses through the levels from 3-year-olds to Grand Prix.
Outside of the dressage world, Nikki is a horse racing fan. Jockey Mike Smith is a figure that she looks up to. Two of her favorite Mike Smith quotes are: “It takes that long to get that good,” and, “You’re not going to become a good rider until your 30s.” For the 23-year old Nikki, already competing at Grand Prix, these are words to live by. For her, it’s clear that the end game isn’t competition. It’s developing a strong bond and close connection with the horse.
Follow Nikki on Instagram @nikki_scarpino
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com