Wellington, Fla. – July 24, 2020 – Born on a cattle ranch in Montana, one of Grand Prix dressage rider Niki Clarke’s first words was “horse”. “My mom would bundle me up, even if it was 30 below to go see the horses. I had the horse bug from an early age,” she recalled.
Starting formal riding lessons when she was eight, Clarke began her riding career as a 3-day event rider. “I think you become a great horseman eventing; there is a strong horsemanship aspect. You have to know about your horse’s legs, how to jog and take temperatures. You have to know about the well being of the horse and really how to manage them as athletes.”
The day after graduating high school she would spend the greater part of the following year working for David and Karen O’Connor in Virginia and competing up to Intermediate. She progressed up the levels and was even long-listed for the Sydney Olympic Games, but her love of the dressage phase stood out. “I loved my dressage lessons because I loved learning how to improve the gaits of the horse and his way of going.”
In 2004, Ann and Troy Glaus helped make her first dressage job a reality, connecting her to a six-month working student position in Europe with Dutch Olympian Bert Rutten. While in The Netherlands, Clarke was responsible for completing typical working student duties, such as cleaning stalls and grooming, in addition to riding young horses.The stable did quite a bit of breeding, but also had client, sale, and competition horses.
“I was very brave so they put me on some of the young or naughty horses,” she explained. “In Europe, horses are such a way of life and a part of their culture. Kids grow up with ponies in their yard because their parents bred them. There are so many breeders and trainers that it is less elitist compared to the U.S.. That was cool to see.”
Following her return to the U.S. a year later, she initially moved to California to work alongside her friends and slowly began building a clientele as a dressage rider and trainer. However, the Glaus family continued to play a significant role in Clarke’s equestrian journey and when they made the move to Arizona, Clarke followed. The opportunities that would present themselves at her new training operation of Dressage Unlimited became quite exciting when she began taking lessons on a young Dutch Warmblood owned by Dianne Morey named Nimbus.
“Dianne let me take over the ride, and eventually we moved back to California,” Clarke said. “We trained him up to Grand Prix and qualified for the 2007 Brentina Cup, where we were reserve champions.”
Another Dutch Warmblood, Rams Gait D, owned by John and Sharolyn Naftal was presented to Clarke to ride. He was a horse that frequently would run away and bolt, but the two became a successful match. She brought Rams Gait D up the levels, leading them to Clarke qualifying for her second U25 national championship in 2010, earning third place in the Brentina Cup. After their successes together, the Naftal’s gifted her Rams Gait D.
Flash forward over a decade, Clarke has established herself as a top dressage professional based in Temecula, California. She has racked up wins on multiple horses up from young horse classes to Grand Prix and prides herself on her students success in the ring. When an auction for the USET fundraiser in Rancho Santa Fe, California, came along in the later half of 2019, one of Clarke’s clients, the Miller family, purchased one month of training with the U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor Debbie McDonald for their daughter, Mckenzie. Clarke was inspired to join her client in Wellington for the season and despite arriving in Florida in October, the education opportunities in Wellington alongside the quality competitions made it the clear choice to stay for her first full winter season in Florida.
Clarke kept busy this season with six horses, including her main mount, Coral Reef Scoobidooh, an 11-year-old Hanoverian gelding owned by Coral Reef Ranch, with whom she had in training with Mcdonald as a member of the Kundrun USEF Dressage Development Program. Though she was not the original rider intended for “Scoobi”, she was offered the opportunity to see if the two would work well together about three years ago. The pair quickly connected, developing a strong relationship, and the horse that was once dangerous to mount has made Clarke his “person”. In 2019, the pair qualified for the Intermediate I division of the U.S. Festival of Champions and made the trip to Lamplight Equestrian Center. They are currently schooling the elements of the Grand Prix and received excellent results in Scoobi’s Intermediate II debut at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival toward the end of the winter season.
“I have known Debbie for years and she has been like a mentor to me,” Clarke said. “I’ve been riding in the developing clinics for four years, but riding with her regularly this season was really special. When I am home in California, Guenter [Seidel] is my coach, and it was a bonus that he was in Wellington for the beginning of the season. He watched some of my lessons with Debbie and it was so helpful to have my two coaches work together.”
Dabbling in Hunter Jumpers
Alongside riding dressage, the Miller Family also enjoy a hunter jumper mount that is in training with Clarke, who has sharpened her skills from jumping as an eventer to the precision of the hunter ring. Unlike many of the competitors at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Clarke also competed in a few USHJA hunter classes at the Winter Equestrian Festival just down the road. “At first, I was wanting to see the distance to the jumps from too far away, so I had to learn to slow down! It’s been really interesting, and it has helped my dressage. You have to relax, let the horse carry you and not do too much,” she explained.
Being Away From Home
The biggest challenge of coming for the winter season was leaving her husband and their 8 -year-old son who stayed in Southern California. Clarke has empathy and understanding for anyone balancing working hard professionally and balancing family.
“It’s a hard thing to juggle,” she explained. “It is the hardest thing I have ever done; to push myself to ride at the highest level at my best and to also have a family. And there are times I feel I am not doing either one well. I know the struggle, it is so hard, but it helps to have a supportive partner like my husband.”
Her husband, originally from Australia, is a fifth generation horseman. While he is a farrier now, he also is a talented Grand Prix jumper and skilled dressage rider.
“He’s a huge asset that’s for sure… in every way!” While riding isn’t his main focus, he certainly enjoys training when professionals send challenging horses his way. And while the distance pulled at the family’s heart strings, they had many visits throughout the season and FaceTimed every night. “My husband came to shoe the horses and visit with our son, Colton,” she recalled. “We tried to see each other as much as possible — that was critical! But I certainly missed them more than anything!”
Her son does not ride but he has a real love for one of Clarke’s training horses, Nugget, a 5-year-old by Apache. “They have this special bond. Nugget lets Colton give him hugs, and he also does liberty work with him.”
Though the year’s schedule has turned upside down due to the coronavirus pandemic, Clarke’s dedication and strong foundation of good horsemanship have set her up well for continued success and she has her eyes set on representing the stars and stripes in international championships.