By Jackie McFarland
High-pressure situations are not new to Nicole Shahinian Simpson. Her reputation for catch riding began during her successful junior years, which culminated with winning both the AHSA (now USEF) and ASPCA Maclay Medal Finals. As a professional she continues to win at the highest levels, including competing in seven World Cup Finals and as a member of the 2002 WEG Team.
As we connect with these top-level riders and try to tap into what makes them successful, we find that they tend to possess an uncanny skill to get ‘in the zone’. Some may have developed this skill, but most simply have it. It is innate and gives them the ability to perform with supreme focus in a calm, cool and collected state of mind. Nicki Simpson has this innate talent in spades. She is not only a naturally beautiful rider, but she can make a 1.60m course look like her ASPCA Medal Final win.
Technically, Nicki and Tristan ‘won’ the WEG trials at WEF this year. That means that aside from the three riders given bys – McLain Ward, Laura Kraut and Lauren Hough – who didn’t have to complete trials but took the three top spots on the long list, Nicki had the lowest overall faults after the trials were complete. Although many factors go into the Selection Committee’s decision, this one should be considered. Also it is notable that although Tristan may have all the scope, she made him a world-class competitor. The very skill mentioned above – that uncanny ability to ride a 1.60m course in a smooth and unwavering way – brings out the best in the horse. And Tristan is now at his best.
Having just returned from the second leg of the European Tour, we spent some time talking with Nicki about the experience and about her business with her husband, Olympic Gold Medalist Will Simpson.
Eqsol: What shows did you attend on your tour?
NS: On the second leg we competed in two Nations Cups – Rotterdam and Aachen. I also went to Chantilly (seventh stop of the Global Champions Tour) on my own; Laura Kraut and Lauren Hough were there but we weren’t on a team.
EqSol: Was this the first time you had shown at these venues?
NS: Yes. I’ve been to watch but not competed. Aachen is so steeped in tradition; I believe they celebrated 100 years last year. It is quite magnificent. Of course the field rode beautifully and the jumps were fabulous. There were 50,000 people in the stands waving white handkerchiefs during the closing ceremony – it was truly surreal.
EqSol: How were the courses? How were they different from and similar to courses you competed in for the WEG trials?
NS: The courses were what they should be. You know its funny, I don’t get too caught up in the specifics of the difficulty of the course. They build, you walk and you find a way to jump it clean. The courses designers are the best in the world, they know how to build a course that’s not gimmicky but fair, tough enough, but not out to kill anyone and ultimately produce a good result.
Each venue is different – Aachen is on an enormous grass field that requires a lot of galloping, it has a Spruce feel. Rotterdam’s arena is smaller than the one at WEF. Yet each event produces unique results because of both the venue itself and the course designer matched with it. It’s been really fair everywhere.
EqSol: The competition – is the ‘feeling’ different when competing in Europe at CSIO 5* shows on a Nations Cups Team as well as a potential WEG Team member?
NS: As a competitor when you walk through the gate – you go out to produce the best round that you can no matter what. There is secondary pressure of being on a team where your score is that much more important in other ways. On the competitive side it’s the same – still your best effort – but it is a little extra pressure when you are part of a team.
Competing in Europe is exciting in many ways. From the language to how the shows are run. Certain aspects are very different. The first time I went was a World Cup Final – don’t know how many years ago – that was a big eye opener. You get into the groove of their system a bit faster every time you go.
EqSol: And the tour results?
NS: Winning the Nations Cup in Rotterdam was great of course. It was fun to win as an all-girls team – they called us ‘George’s girls’. We all rode well and the horses were great; it was a nice way to start. We had great scores again in Aachen – I had 4 in the first round and went clean in the second, Laura had just one rail in each round and both Candice and Lauren were clean in the first with 4 in the second. We were only 3 faults from second place team.
In the Grand Prix of Aachen, Tristan and I had only the first jump down but were clear otherwise. The jump was just a vertical on the rail, it was too easy in some ways and a lot had it down. It was a careful jump so you couldn’t ride at it too hard. If it had been a giant oxer it would’ve been different, that was the trap.
We were 8th in the Speed Class and 15th in the Grand Prix in Chantilly. I’m really pleased with our overall results.
EqSol: Your favorite horse and rider post-tour?
NS: I have to say that Hickstead and Eric Lamaze are an amazing combination. Hickstead is just a machine and Eric competed and even won with a broken foot in Aachen. Watching them win at Spruce and then watching them do the same at Aachen was pretty incredible.
EqSol: So… Tristan. He wasn’t a big name until this year. Can you tell us a bit more about the match?
NS: Ilan Ferder asked me to start riding Tristan and a few others in May of 2009. Tristan was a nine-year-old then, just coming along. He jumped in his own way but had talent and was ready to go the next level. We took it one step at a time. He definitely had all the scope and just needed to get more seasoned and mature a bit. He certainly has achieved that now and will continue. There’s not a jump I’ve jumped where he’s been at his max.
EqSol: What is next for you and for the family business, Simpson Show Jumping?
NS: We’ve got 20 horses in training. We do teach a few select riding clients that have similar goals, which works well in our program. It’s fun to have a few serious riders. We have some nice young horses that we are bringing along. The key is to keep developing top prospects for the future. Our ultimate goal is to continually establish international level horses along with owners who have a sincere interest in seeing their horses compete at the highest levels and potentially represent our country on teams both nationally and internationally.
So I thought we were just taking a few to Menlo, but a few turned into 15 horses. Our next major event is the Masters at Spruce. Of course we don’t know if I’ll be going to Kentucky – we’ll know after August 16th.
The family is doing well. Will had a great Spruce – Black Cherry and Archie Bunker both did well. They are getting ready for the Masters. Sophie moved up to the 1.20m at Spruce. She’s totally dedicated and very serious about her riding, and loves it. Yes, she reminds me of me. She will so some Equitation, but we have her ride the jumpers like you would ride an Equitation course. Ty is very athletic and into sports. He really likes to work with the horses around the barn and loves to build things. He can sit down with a 2,000 piece Lego set and use each piece in his building. It’s interesting that he loves to watch the crew build the courses and often he talks with the course designers.
Thanks so much Nicki. It would be great to see you on the WEG Team and we congratulate you on your tremendous success, especially with developing Tristan into an International horse.
August 11, 2010 – POST INTERVIEW UPDATE:
Tristan doesn’t return from Europe. Naturally we asked…
EqSol: What happened?
NS: The USEF picked the team yesterday and so we had to know if Tristan was coming back beforehand. So I called to find out and was told he was not returning, which meant he would not be available for the team. I had to withdraw.
EqSol: What happened previous to this?
NS: Tristan didn’t return on the original flight booked on July 28th, but I didn’t know anything about it until right before the horses were supposed to fly. At that point when I called Ilan he assured me the horse would be home if a few weeks. So that is what I believed. And when we did the interview I didn’t want to say anything, as I hoped he was coming back.
Then I got a call last Friday (August 6th) from another US rider that the horse was competing with another rider in Belgium, Samantha McIntosh. She works for Ilan’s partner, Tal Millstein, and rides for New Zealand. That was a surprise.
EqSol: And your statement on this situation?
NS: The facts say enough. I’m very disappointed and not happy with how things were handled. But it is what it is. One rumor I’ve heard that is completely untrue is that I quit. Why would I do that at the 11th hour?
Although it was completely out of my hands, I feel I had a sense of responsibility to the team and now can’t commit to it.
Will Tristan compete at the WEG with Samantha McIntosh? Will he be sold? Even after Nicki’s fabulous results up through Chantilly, he now won’t be on the US Team. We are sorry for Nicki and all others who are effected by this decision.