Spot On partnered in the High Performance Hunters with Nick at the HITS Thermal Desert Circuit earlier this year. | © Holly Casner photo
Early one morning at this year’s Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida, Maryland-based trainer Kim Stewart was waiting for her catch rider, Nick Haness, to show up. He was slated to ride a sale horse, Persuasion, in the first class of the day, the High Performance Working Hunter Stake, but he was cutting it close. Kim remembers, “Nick was off getting his Starbucks® and I was going to help somebody with another horse, so I couldn’t wait to see if he showed up on time.”
If Kim didn’t know Nick so well, this might have been nerve-wracking. But, she says with a laugh, “It didn’t make me nervous at all. I know he doesn’t want to sit there and watch a lot and overthink because that makes him nervous. Sometimes hanging back a little bit works in his favor.” Sure enough, Nick showed up in time to put in an excellent performance, placing fourth. “He had a great round,” says Kim. “He got an 85 on an unknown horse. Actually, we got him sold pretty much because of Nick’s riding.”
That’s how this 28-year-old Southern Californian operates. He may play it cool on the outside, says Kim, “but he’s pretty intense underneath it all. He’s also very competitive.” In his 20-plus years of showing, that competitiveness has earned him first place at the 2006 USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals West, fourth in the 2006 ASPCA Maclay National Championship, countless hunter championships and even a few top ribbons in the grand prix ring. Nick is what Kim calls a triple threat: “He can do the equitation, the jumpers and the hunters. Many riders can’t. They have their specialty but can’t do it all.”
Nick Haness competed Zeppelin in the 1.40-meter jumpers at the Blenheim Spring Classic II in 2013. | © Amy McCool Photography
Have Saddle, Will Ride
Of the five boys in his family, Nick was the only one bitten by the horse bug. “Everyone else played soccer or football or baseball or something else,” he says. “It was sort of a foreign idea for me to want to go to the stables and ride.” He started taking lessons at age 4 at the local stable in Coto de Caza, California. Within a few years, he says, “I was spending every moment I had free at the stable. I would ride my bike to the barn and be there all day long. It was like my second home.”
At age 6, Nick started showing on the local level. “I did a lot of yahoo county jumper classes where you basically had to run as fast as you could to get a ribbon.” Meanwhile, he began to dream of competing in the national equitation championships. His family supported his riding by paying for lessons and reasonably priced horses, but they couldn’t afford the fancy horses and expensive show schedule required to achieve that goal. So he did what he could to create opportunities for himself. “When I was about 10, I put my saddle on my bike handles and rode around the barn asking people, ‘Do you have a horse I can ride?’ I spent all day riding other people’s horses.” As his experience grew, people began to offer him catch rides at horse shows, too. “There were a lot of naughty horses, but I liked riding and I liked showing, so it was fun for me.”
Nick’s first big break came when he was 12. He was taking a lesson with his trainer, Michael Croopnick, when another trainer, Wendy Carter, walked by the ring and noticed him. “I had a really tall horse and I was a really small boy at the time,” he remembers. Wendy was looking for a small rider to show a very green sale pony in the Small Pony Hunters at the HITS Indio Series. This catch ride launched the careers of both Nick and the pony, Buffalo Soldier, who went on to win major championships for many riders. Nick says, “It was my first A show and it was eye-opening. I saw my idols, like Hap Hansen and Richard Spooner, and all these other people. I knew that was what I wanted my life to be like. From that point forward, I did whatever I could to make it possible to go to all the A shows.”
Over the next several years, Nick picked up more and more catch rides in the equitation and Junior Hunter divisions. “I worked my tailbone off to make it happen,” he says. Once a year, his parents treated him to a week of showing in Indio. “That was my Christmas present.” When he turned 16, they gave him an even bigger surprise. His trainer at the time, Alison Sherred, was selling a beautiful hunter named Carson for a client who was heading to college. Nick thought Carson was well out of his family’s price range, but the sellers, wanting to avoid the hassle of sending him to Indio to be sold, agreed to a deeply discounted price. “It was a real shock to me,” he says, “because he was the nicest horse I’d ever owned.”
Riding Landano, Nick took home a fourth-place ribbon in the 2006 ASPCA Maclay National Championship. | ©Nancy Jaffer
Although Carson had the quality to win at the top shows, he wasn’t the easiest horse to ride, Nick adds. “He was a little bit intimidating. He could be really good or he could bolt off running really fast. But he liked me and I liked him.”
Nick showed Carson at Indio only a few weeks after purchasing him. “I was sort of a no-one kid—unpolished with dirty boots and the wrong tie and an ugly helmet. But the horse was great. I showed him for two weeks in the younger Junior Hunters and ended up being reserve champion. Then someone made us a big offer to buy him.”
The offering price was more than $150,000 higher than the amount Nick’s family had paid for the horse. “My mom gave me the choice: If I sold the horse, I could keep the profits and use them to show.” If he kept Carson, his parents wouldn’t be able to support his dream of competing in the equitation finals. Nick decided to sell. “I wanted nothing more than to qualify for [the USEF National Hunter Seat] Medal finals and go east. I’d always heard of the horse shows like Devon and Harrisburg.” Giving up such a special horse was bittersweet, he adds, “but it was the best decision of my life. It opened up so many opportunities for me.”
Being flush with cash was fun, he says, and he decided to go to Europe to buy an investment horse. Since he was still only 16 and had never been abroad before, his mother asked his older brother to accompany him. “I had no idea where I was going,” he says. “I just knew a person through Facebook. I look back now and laugh at myself because I think I got lucky. We went to a lot of barns and I just tried a lot of horses. I picked one I could buy and brought it home.”
Nick showed the horse at Indio that year and sold him to a trainer from Texas, making another profit. “Then I just tried to keep doing that as many times as I could. I had to pick good horses to be able to sell good horses to be able to keep competing.”
Nick and Delilah earned top honors at the inaugural $25,000 CPHA West Coast Pre-Green Hunter Finals last year. September. | ©Amy McCool Photography
Dream Come True
Nick used a portion of his sales profits to buy his own equitation horse, a 15-year-old retired grand prix jumper named Ramon, who had been a breeding stallion for many years before being gelded. “He was inexpensive because he didn’t pass the vet. He had big lumps on his legs and a lot of wear and tear. But I liked riding him and knew he would be serviceably sound. He was the first really quality equitation horse that I ever had. I didn’t have to practice a lot with him—I just basically pulled him out for the shows. We won a lot of Medal and Maclay classes.”
Ramon was the first horse Nick took to the East Coast to show in Indoors, under the guidance of trainer Jim Hagman. “It was a dream come true. I walked in with no expectations other than to just not make a fool of myself. And it ended up a lot better than I expected.” He and Ramon finished second in a class at The Capital Challenge in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
Riding on the East Coast wasn’t easy at first, Nick says. “I was very surprised by the technicality of the courses. Coming from California, we don’t typically have a lot of indoor shows so having more difficult courses and tighter spaces was definitely an adjustment. I like to gallop the jumps on a big grass field. So I had to focus on reeling it in a little bit, being patient and having composure.”
Nick retired Ramon the following year and found a good home for him. “He’s been living in a pasture ever since,” he says. “He’s still alive and almost 30 now. Because of him, I got recognized by other professionals and got so many catch rides my last Junior year. It got to the point where I didn’t have to show my own horses anymore. Owners paid me to show and campaign all year.”
During Nick’s last Junior year, Don Stewart invited him to show for him in Ocala, Florida, and at the Devon Horse Show in Pennsylvania. John Bragg also gave him many top hunters and equitation horses to ride in California and on the East Coast, including Danielle Korsh’s Caracas, who carried the young rider to victory at the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search West Finals.
That summer, Nick spotted a beautiful stallion in the jumpers named Landano. He suggested to the horse’s trainers, Christa and Mike Endicott, that they geld him and let Nick try him in the equitation ring. “It was kind of a risk. He had never done an equitation class before, but he needed to get sold. He wasn’t working out for the owner.” He and Landano did well enough in their first shows in California to convince the Endicotts to send them to Indoors and the Maclay final, where they finished fourth.
Nick and Spot On finished fourth in the HITS Desert Circuit’s $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby in March. | © ESI Photography
For the next two years, Nick worked full-time for John. At the time, John was expanding his Northern California business. He hired Nick to set up a Southern California satellite barn in Orange County. “My goal then was to ride and show as many horses as possible and be good at it. We started off with like seven horses and within a short amount of time had 30 horses in training. John had about 30 or 40 horses at every show, and I probably rode 30 of them. So I got to show a lot!”
By the time Nick was 20, though, he was beginning to burn out. “I had
done a lot really quick and I just hit a point when I was not necessarily enjoying it. So I decided to take a break from horses for a year. I traveled the world—went to San Francisco, Canada, Amsterdam, Paris, Florence. I always knew I’d come back to horses and I wanted to have my own business and be my own boss, but I needed the mental break to figure out exactly how to do it.”
In 2009, after turning 21, Nick found a small 12-stall barn to run in Orange County. Some of his previous clients moved to the barn and before he knew it, his new business, Hunterbrook Farm, had grown to more than 30 horses. His success in shows on both coasts continued as before on his own sales projects as well as clients’ horses. In 2010, he won the $10,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at the Del Mar Horse Park with Gelato, owned by Conor Perrin. In 2011, he finished second overall in the richest hunter show in the country, the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix in Saugerties, New York, riding Cruise, owned by trainer Archie Cox’s client, Jessica Singer. The same year, he coached Conor to victory at the California Professional Horsemen’s Association Foundation Equitation Championships and 10th place in the ASPCA final. The following two years, he scored back-to-back wins in the WCHR Handy Hunter Challenge at The Capital Challenge Horse Show, on Gelato in 2012 and Lexie Looker’s 7-year-old Winfield in 2013.
Nick also continued to import young horses from Europe and sell them in the States. One particularly special prospect was Exclusive, a gelding he bought as a 5-year-old. “His barn name was Blink because we found out he was blind in one eye.” The problem didn’t interfere at all with the horse’s jumping ability. “He trusted me and he won and won and won. I took him to Capital Challenge and he had a 92 in the first class and ended up winning both classes in the Young Hunter 3-foot-3 division. Scott Stewart bought him the next day.”
Building trust with young horses is one of Nick’s favorite jobs. “I really believe in them and I think they believe in me. It’s important to take your time with horses, but at the same time, they go a lot further in a way faster time frame when they’re happy and they trust the rider.” For instance, he says, when a green horse makes a mistake in the show ring, “I don’t dwell on the idea. I just move forward. And they forget about it, too.”
Over the years, Nick has also dabbled in the jumper ring whenever he has had the opportunity. In 2013, Conor’s sister, Kendall, offered him the ride on a young jumper he’d found for her in Holland, a mare named Zeppelin. He and the mare won three classes in the CashCall Mortgage Futurity Series, a 1.40-meter division for horses under 10. “That was a lot of fun,” he says. “A lot of jumper riders had never seen me ride a jumper before. They had always known me as ‘Nick the Hunter Guy.’ I think they were surprised that I was able to cross over into that as well. I kind of surprised myself, too.”
In 2014, Nick and his mother went to a horse show in Oliva, Spain, to visit his best friend, Jett Martin, and celebrate his 26th birthday. When they arrived, Jett said there was a jumper he could compete. “I was immediately excited for the opportunity,” says Nick, “and also eager to shop for a whole wardrobe of clothes.” Just before he entered his warm-up class, a 1.40-meter on the grass grand prix field, the trainer told him that the horse, Carlchen 52, had never competed on grass before. Undaunted, Nick rode the horse to a third-place finish. That Sunday, they won the grand prix. “It was by far the most exciting and memorable weekend of my life.”
Nick believes these jumper successes result from his strong foundation in the other two disciplines. “I think equitation and hunter riding helped me be a better jumper rider, understanding track and figuring out the best way to approach jumps to make the tightest turns. I prefer to gallop and have a bit more of a forward pace, so the jumper ring came naturally for me. I could see the distances really far away and be really efficient in the jump-offs.”
Such a forward mentality helps Nick do well in hunter derbies, too. However, says Kim, who began giving Nick catch rides on the East Coast about seven years ago, “I was always telling him to slow down. He sees distances so far away, like out of the turn, but sometimes when you do that, you lose your horse’s shape, the impulsion from behind and he gets flat over the jumps.” She advised him, “Even though you can see it 25 strides back, maybe you shouldn’t start running from back there. Keep it a little more organized and try to be smoother.”
Kim also encouraged Nick to aim more for consistency than brilliance. “Ride for an 88 every time instead of going for the 95,” she says. “Sometimes an 88 turns into a 95. But sometimes when you go for the 95, it turns into a 68 because you’re taking too much of a chance. You’ve got to know where to take your chances and use judgment.”
“She’s probably the best communicator with me,” Nick says of Kim. “I like to have her at the back gate. I have a lot of success when she’s around!”
Kim especially appreciates Nick’s constant desire to improve. “Even if he thinks it’s a great round, he always wants to make it better. He will ask me, ‘What did you think? What could I have done differently?’” She chooses him to show her horses because of his excellent showmanship. “He has a flair that reminds me of John French, Scott Stewart and Peter Pletcher. He understands how to show off a horse’s strengths and hide the weaknesses so he can make the horse look better than it is. And he has a feel for how to get the best jumps out of a particular horse.”
Banderas, a horse trained by Archie Cox, competed with Nick at the 2016 HITS Thermal Desert Circuit. The pair has earned several top ribbons in the High Performance Hunter divisions for the past few years. | ©ESI Photography
After two years of running his own training business, Nick began to feel overwhelmed again. “It was hard to be a rider and manage my own business and have 30 horses in training and give everyone what they needed. So I decided to downshift. My lifelong goal has always been to have my own farm.” A year and a half ago, he made that dream a reality by buying his own place in Temecula, where he’s surrounded himself not only with horses, but also a wide variety of pets. “I have goats and alpacas and pigs and miniature ponies.”
He now works for just two clients: Karina Sanchez, who partners on many investment horses with him, and Shari Roseboom, who competes in the hunters. Nick also coaches Shari’s daughter, Shiloh, in the ponies.
As he’s done from the beginning of his professional career, he continues to import horses from Europe and sells 15 to 20 horses each year. “I love that process, picking the horse out myself and buying it, then being able to compete it here and have it be a top winner.” A recent example is Technicolor, one of the investments he collaborated on with Karina. “I imported him the end of last year and was mid-circuit champion in one of the biggest, hardest divisions, the First Year Green Hunters [at HITS Thermal Desert Circuit in California]. He ended up being sold to a really good client of Archie Cox’s.”
Nick still catch rides for trainers such as Kim, Archie and Sheri Rose. And his prowess in the hunter ring continues to grow. In the past few years, he’s won multiple hunters prix and hunter derbies (often with horses as young as 5), and countless championships. He recently guided two youngsters, Ilene Kurtzman’s Delilah and Ashley Weiman’s Weekend Romance, to champion and reserve champion, respectively, in the 2015 CPHA West Coast Pre-Green Hunter Finals. And this spring, he finished fourth in the HITS Desert Circuit’s $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby on a Thoroughbred named Spot On, owned by West Coast Equine Partners, LLC.
Now 28, Nick has learned how to balance his busy show life with quality downtime. He’s trained his miniature pony to drive a cart around the farm and often throws a Western saddle on a horse to go on a trail ride. “It’s fun to not worry about being prim and proper with my boots polished and everything perfect. It’s a nice balance for me.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.