By Jennifer Autry
As a life-long patron of the hunter ring, 22-year-old Nichole Fernandez never thought she would ride a Friesian, much less trade in her close contact saddle for the flashy world of saddle seat riding.
And even when she began her venture into saddle seat, she never in her wildest dreams imagined she would master the disciple so quickly and efficiently that claiming top honors in a world championship show would be a legitimate possibility.
But her wildest dreams became reality when Nichole rode in the International Friesian Horse Show Association World & Grand National Show Oct. 29-Nov. 2 in St. Louis, Mo. After a brilliant ride in the Friesian Country English Pleasure Saddle Seat Amateur class, she was named Reserve World Champion.
"They called the placings backwards, and all I remember thinking was, ‘Thank God I didn't get last.' Then when we were called for Reserve Champion I thought, ‘Oh my God, we actually did well.' I was so happy we didn't do badly," said the San Diego, Calif., native, who attends Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
Considering the rough trip with her mount, Floris, a six-year-old Friesian gelding, during their Nationals class at the show, she had a very appropriate reaction to winning Reserve World Champion. "We had a hard time picking up a lead in the Nationals class, and I was so worried that was going to happen again in the Worlds class," she said. "I was just happy we didn't get last."
Nichole remained on Cloud 9 as the ring stewards placed a wreath of flowers around Floris' neck and the victorious duo took a well-deserved victory pass around the arena. The experience was similar to her 2007 trip to the World and National show, when she and her mother, Joan Fernandez, won Reserve Champion and World Champion, respectively, in the Walk/Trot Saddle Seat class.
This year, Joan showed again in the Walk/Trot class, placing fourth with the Friesian gelding, Daen H. While she immensely enjoyed competing for a second year in a row at the World and National show, her proudest moment came while watching her daughter win Reserve Champion. "Like every other mother in the stadium, I held my breath and proudly watched," Joan recalled. "Nichole is so confident and calm when she rides. I wish I could be more like her."
Joan first became interested in Friesians six years ago when she noticed the beautiful, big-boned horses consistently beating her beloved, now-deceased American Saddlebred gelding, Cinnamon Cider, in her amateur saddle seat classes. "I would look down the line-up at the end of a class and think, ‘What are these horses and where can I get one?'"
At the time, her trainer, Lance Bennett, who also trains Nichole, had misconceptions about Friesians and was consequently "turned off by the breed." After extensive research, however, Joan discovered Bennett's apprehension toward the breed was mainly based on unfounded rumors, as Friesians are considered a relatively new breed in the U.S.
Ready to give Friesians a chance, Joan and Bennett set out to find the perfect horse for her saddle seat classes. However, they were extremely disappointed in the quality of the Friesians for sale in southern California. "I thought, ‘I could do better than this,'" Joan said.
In March 2004, she started Friesian Focus as a business that imports high-quality Friesians from Holland. The sales barn, located at Rancho Vista Show Horses in Vista, Calif., is recognized as a top-notch operation in the southern California Friesian community, and they have the awards to prove it. The Friesian Focus equines returned home from St. Louis with three National Championships and five World Titles.
While class sizes were small at the IFSHA World & Grand National Show – the largest classes had six competitors – each horse had to qualify to compete by placing at an IFSHA-sanctioned show earlier in the season. Nichole qualified to compete with Floris at the Santa Barbara National Horse Show held July 2-5, where she placed third in both Friesian Saddle Seat Pleasure – Amateur and the Friesian Saddle Seat Pleasure Amateur Stake.
Although Nichole found her niche in saddle seat classes, she initially dabbled in hunter seat classes, which she affectionately recalls as a "pretty bad" experience. "Hunter seat classes at Friesian shows look a lot like dressage. Riders wear dressage coats and white breeches, and ride in all-purpose saddles," she said. While the division is wildly popular, Fernandez explained she found it odd the dressage-type horses almost always won what was supposed to be a hunter seat class.
As a result, she and Floris, affectionately nicknamed "Chubby" because of his pudgy appearance when he first arrived at Friesian Focus, switched to the saddle seat divisions, and she's enjoyed every minute of it. "I love the power of the breed," Fernandez said. "It's really refreshing to ride a horse with that much go and that much motion."
The country pleasure classes she rides in are "about making the horse look great, so it's easier in a sense," she said. And, of course, it's a ton of fun. "You feel like the horse is going so fast because they are so big with such a big step. Their canter is like a rocking horse."
Nichole also loves the breed for its quiet, gentle-natured personality, which contributes to its growing popularity in the U.S. While the breed is primarily popular among dressage riders, saddle seat and driving competitors are beginning to take notice. "They have such natural gaits for saddle seat," she said. "And Saddlebreds can be crazy. They are so high-energy and they spook a lot. Friesians are calmer and safer, and they are very pretty."
Strict regulations govern Friesians in the U.S., contributing to the unique nature of the breed. Only certified Friesians can show in the IFSHA shows, and to receive certification, a Friesian must have certified parents. "Part of the reason Friesians are an up-and-coming breed in the U.S. is because the testings and keurings are really difficult," Nichole explained. "It can be really hard to get more certified stallions in the U.S."
The IFHSA, a California-based non-profit organization, was founded in 2001 to promote the showing and exhibition of Friesians. After the United States Equestrian Federation recognized the breed three years ago, IFSHA began to offer a USEF-rated show circuit specifically for Friesians. The association maintains strict regulations for Friesian show horses. For example, owners must provide proof of their horse's "Friesian Heritage," provide a DNA sample and obtain permanent identification for their horse before competing in the IFSHA shows.
While Nichole has been decidedly devoted to Friesians since she started riding for her mother's stable four years ago, part of her heart still belongs to the hunter world. When she wasn't qualifying for the National and Worlds show on Friesians this summer, she could be found showing in the Adult Amateur and Modified Hunter divisions with her Dutch Warmblood/Thoroughbred cross gelding, Perfect Day, nicknamed Pepsi.
After a fun summer of showing, Nichole headed back across the country to Pennsylvania, where her busy schedule as a senior environmental studies major keeps her out of the saddle. Although she used to ride at barns in Carlisle, and at one time was a member of the Dickinson College equestrian team, she found trying to balance her school work with riding to be too stressful.
Her plans for the future include possibly attending graduate school in Australia to specialize in natural resource management. With her graduation in May looming ever nearer, Nichole remains unsure of the exact direction her life will take. Until she figures out the details, she can revel in the fact that, with a mother who just happens to import beautiful Friesians, horses can be a guaranteed part of her future.