Nicole Harris, Returing to the Saddle after 30 Years Away


Like most equestrians Nicole Harris of Memphis, Tenn., started riding as a child. She rode Hunter/ Jumpers and competed as a junior rider. Many things have changed in the Hunter/ Jumper world over the last 30 years. When she was younger the Thoroughbred was the top horse in the Hunter ring, now Warmbloods rule the ring.

Photo by William Laurence Bell

Riders rode in full length chaps and rust colored breeches. Now, even while schooling, Hunter/Jumper riders practice in tall boots and breeches. And while the rust breeches have reappeared here and there at Hunter shows, they are few and far between compared to the 70’s and 80’s.

However, when Nicole grew older, got married and had her son, riding and showing took a back seat. Like many female, amateur riders who become mothers, once her son was born she focused her time entirely on him. She was involved with every aspect of his day-to-day, supporting him completely with his sports and extracurricular activities. When he set off for college at Vanderbilt University, Nicole had time for herself again. She started to think about her time with horses and decided to revive her life as a barn rat.

When she was seeking a trainer to start taking lessons again she remembered Jason Schnelle, owner and head trainer at Autumn Chase Farm in Collierville, Tenn. “I remembered Jason as a kid with his pony. He was always a wonderful rider, always so polite but serious. I felt he would be the ideal trainer for me to work with,” Nicole described.

Nicole recalled her first ride after a long hiatus. She rode a school horse named “Leo,” show name: Muddy Waters. She trotted around the ring one time and she was exhausted. It was very physically tough, and she knew if she was truly going to return to riding she would have to commit 100% and get back into shape. 

She began leasing a horse. This allowed her to ride multiple times a week. That escalated quickly, and when her 30 year wedding anniversary rolled around she told her husband she wanted a horse as her gift. Luckily, her husband was on board and they started their search for Nicole’s match.

Nicole began imagining her new horse. She pictured a big beautiful and fancy dappled gray. She knew she wanted a gelding because that is what she always rode. She trusted Jason completely during their search and recalled, “Jason is great at picking the right horse for his riders.” 

Not too long into their search, Jason sent Nicole a video. It was a “plain bay” mare. It was not anything Nicole envisioned. However, once she pressed play and watched the video she booked a flight, got on a plane and met her girl, Girl Crush, known as “Käte.”  “Käte” is a 14 year old Holsteiner mare.  Nicole fell in love with her immediately. She was in Wilmington, Ohio. “Käte” was owned by Jeff Gogul, who was, at the time, the personal trainer to the Roberts Family, owners of the World Equestrian Centers. She was living at their personal barn at the World Equestrian Center. For Nicole, it was the best decision she ever made, purchasing her new “Girl Crush” and bringing her home to Collierville, Tenn.

Girl Crush and Nicole Harris Competing at Lamplight Equestrian Center, Chicago

Käte taught Nicole how to jump again, and in November of 2019 they showed in their first Hunter Derby. They became a consistent pair in the Adult Amateur 50+ showring. As they schooled and prepared for competitions Nicole said, “Overall, I wanted more time in the saddle.” Soon Jason was searching for a second horse for Nicole. The process was a long one, but again, Nicole was confident Jason would find the right horse. 

Finally, there was a video of a prospect. Le Diplomate known as “Gooch” is a 12 year old Deutsches Sportpferd. Nicole was smitten and the gelding was going to be at the Kentucky Horse Park for a show. It was the perfect setting for Nicole to try him. She first saw “Gooch” in person while he was standing on the grass side of the ring. She recalled, “he was the most beautiful horse I ever saw. He was just striking!” “Gooch” was purchased in June 2021 from Michelle Gauchet, who was riding him in the 3’6” Amateur Owners with Amanda Lyerly and Madison Hills Farm based in Gates Mills, Ohio. Nicole said, “I’d say that Ohio has been very good to me!”

Nicole competing Gooch at 2022 North American League Adult Amateur Hunter Finals - Prince George’s Equestrian Center, Upper Marlboro, Maryland

Fast forward, Nicole had her mare and her gelding and they soon were traveling to places she dreamed of as a child. They showed at WEC, Tryon, Lamplight in Chicago, Wellington, Gulf Port, and Brownland Farms just to name a few. 

In 2021 Nicole had the opportunity to show at Wellington. The first time she jumped a course at the pristine facility she enthusiastically stated, “you cannot create that experience anywhere else. Wellington is on a whole other level. I was literally pinching myself.”  

Nicole’s mounts are both very different. She describes Käte as a horse that is super broke on the flat. She has a big motor like a sports car. The biggest things they work on with her mare is straightness and lead changes.

Gooch, on the other hand, is the longest horse she has ever ridden. Nicole said, “Gooch is like driving a bus. Keeping him together with the leg is the top priority.” She focuses on straightness at home with him as well. Even though Nicole is constantly mindful of her leg while riding Gooch, she notes, “He is an incredible horse to sit on. He has a giant, rocking horse stride. He is so comfortable to ride.”

Nicole takes six lessons a week, riding each horse 3 times per week. They focus on their flat work. Jason will jump both horses early in the week, and Nicole will jump later that week. It is important to keep jumping at a minimum and refine their flatwork. 

At 55 years old, Nicole encourages anyone looking to get back into riding to just do it and without consideration to age. She remembers how physically exhausting it was when she started riding again. She honestly did not know if her body would be able to do it, but she committed to bringing her strength back. More time in the saddle helped her achieve this goal. She practices pilates for overall core and body strength. Walking was another way she was able to build up her endurance, and she said cardio pilates is most like riding. It is a full body workout that builds core strength and balance.

The 2022 show season was a season Nicole will never forget. She has not one, but two USEF Horses of the Year. 

2022’s competitive highlights include: 

Le Diplomate

USEF Zone 4 Horse Of The Year Champion - Adult Amateur Hunter 50+

WTHJA Year End Champion - Adult Amateur Hunter 50+

Winner of the 2022 WTHJA  Overseas Trophy as the overall high point Adult Amateur hunter 

Girl Crush

USEF Zone 4 Horse Of The Year Champion - Low Adult Amateur Hunters

WTHJA Year End Champion - Low Adult Amateur Hunters

To be a Zone Horse of the Year in the Adult Amateurs, a horse must exemplify not only great character, but also  great soundness of both mind and body throughout the competitive year. 

Nicole said she could have never dreamed of owning one Horse of the Year, let alone two. Looking back over the last four years, Nicole realizes how blessed she is to be able to show at a level to be considered as year end champions. She went from not riding for 30 years to fully committed and re-emerged as an Adult barn rat. 

“Although I didn’t ride in the Adults until I was in the ‘Champagne & Caviar’ age group, I have many friends who show in both the youngest (18-35) and middles (35-49) as well. Every age group has its own challenges. Of my Adult Amateur friends, I have friends who are still in college or just out of college and beginning their careers. I have several friends who have very young children and others with kids in middle and high school dealing with all of the challenges and time commitments that are involved. I still have other friends who have huge career commitments.

I also compete regularly with amazing people who are very much my seniors, such as the legendary Mrs. Betty Oare , who rides beautifully and wins at the highest levels in her 80’s.  I am constantly in awe of the talented group of people that I ride with and also compete with!  

The Adult Amateurs are wonderful divisions to ride in, as they are very competitive, and yet there is a lot of camaraderie. We all have a sense of humor about what happens in the ring. We all know that we are going to make mistakes, and we do! I think we as a group know how to wear them as a badge of honor! And of course, above all, we are eternally grateful to our horses. Adult Amateur horses are truly angels in disguise! I’ve said many times that both of mine frequently earn their ‘Ammy Rescue Patrol’ badges,” Nicole graciously describing her community of riders.


Lauren Abbott

Lauren is a lifelong equestrian. She was born and raised in Memphis, Tenn. Lauren has worked in Journalism for over 20 years and has served as a staff writer, designer, photographer, audience and business development consultant, & advertising senior executive. She is the Owner & Publisher of MSHR, and CEO of Ford Abbott Media, LLC, the parent company of the Horse Review and Hunt & Field Magazine.

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