Nineteen-year-old Erin Nichols of Yorba Linda, Calif., has achieved impressive results in the dressage ring. She and Handsome Rob AR were FEI North American Youth Championships team gold medalists in 2021, and they are coming off individual and freestyle gold medals and a team silver medal at the 2022 edition of NAYC. Earlier this year, the pair was named to the U.S. Dressage Young Rider European Tour and competed at the Internationaux de Dressage de Compiègne CDIY in Compiègne, France, and Future Champions CDIOY Hagen in Hagen, Germany. Nichols and Handsome Rob AR scored strong results against some of Europe’s top young riders.
Not only is Nichols a talented dressage athlete, but she also competes in the jumper ring in 1.10- and 1.20-meter classes. She grew up participating in both disciplines, which has taught her valuable lessons to better her riding. US Equestrian spoke with Nichols before the 2022 NAYC to learn about her involvement in dressage and jumping, her experiences on the U.S. Dressage Young Rider European Tour, and her goals for the future.
Tell us how you started riding horses.
“I started riding when I was four years old and did Pony Club, so I actually started with a little bit of dressage, jumping, eventing, and I did lots of Pony Club stuff. My mom also rides horses, so I've been around horses my whole life. I got my first pony, Velvet, when I was in kindergarten. I’ve been a horse lover since the beginning.
“I've always loved doing both [dressage and jumping], so when I was growing up, I did a little bit of both and then it always stayed pretty equal. Now, I've kind of shifted a little bit more to a dressage focus, but I still love jumping and I'm continuing that. I'm really excited to be able to continue with both sports because I really do love both.”
How long have you been competing in dressage and jumping?
“I’ve been doing dressage for about 10 or 11 years, and I've done jumping for about eight years competitively.”
What have you learned from the different disciplines?
“In jumping, I've learned the little secrets about gauging distances and moving your horse forward off your leg and all of that. Then, taking that into being able to visualize in a dressage test, like, ‘Oh, I need to do my flying change right at X’ or something like that. Being able to be accurate. Learning how to bring both into each other has been really interesting. I think of jumping as like an improv skit where you just have to keep rolling with it and keep going. In dressage, you can kind of plan what you need to work on and go and warm that up before the test. Then, when you're in the jumping arena and that buzzer goes off, anything can happen. You don't have any time to think; you’ve just got to react and keep going. I like being able to go back and forth and learn from both of those disciplines.
“I think that's my main thing right now is I have to just keep going and jumping, and then in dressage I can be able to really think and focus about what I'm feeling when I'm in my dressage test.”
Do you feel that riding in two disciplines makes you a better rider? If so, how?
“I think jumping really helps. I definitely think they help each other, and they help me be a better rider. When you're doing jumping, you can help your dressage because it will make you brave and make you be able to react when your horse spooks or something and being able to continue with your test.
“In the dressage towards jumping, you can help the horse. Being able to really get your horse supple and loose on the flat, being able to use that on course to where you go around the corner and you can get them back and then move forward—just the rideability. You can use that from dressage to jumping, and then jumping to dressage you can use more as the rider’s reaction.”
Tell me about the horses that you compete in dressage and jumping.
“For dressage, I have two of them now. I have Handsome Rob AR and Elian Royale. Elian is my newest horse. He's a grand prix horse. We purchased him while we were in Germany on the Young Rider tour, which was really cool. And Rob, I've brought up the levels since he was a five-year-old and I was 14 years old. It's been a really cool journey with him, and that's the horse I took to Europe. That was a really, really cool journey for me to think back to, when I was in middle school and he was just a little five-year-old. We have really grown up the levels together. We're both learning at the same time and being able to be like, ‘Okay, I'll see if I can figure out. Can you figure it out?’
“And then I have two jumpers as well. One is leased out to somebody at the barn since we left on the European tour. I ride my other jumper, Vanda Vuitton, and we do the 1.10- and 1.20-meter levels currently.”
Did you plan on getting a horse while you were in Europe?
“We had just started our search for the next step, and we just were like, ‘We can look around a little bit.’ The horse was very great and I'm super excited to see what we can do.”
What are some of your riding accomplishments that you are most proud of?
“For dressage, I am definitely proud of my team gold at NAYC last year. I was a reserve champion at Lamplight in 2019 in the [USEF Dressage Seat Medal Finals] on a horse I catch-rode and had ridden only three times prior, which was really cool. We have our [California Dressage Society] Championships that we have in California, and I won the equitation trophy seven times for the age group I was in. Definitely my top-15 finish in Hagen was a really cool accomplishment.
“For jumping, I think my win at the [Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association] Jumper Championships in 2020 was my biggest highlight. It was with my horse Hindee, and then I won my last classic. It was the last class I went in before I left for Europe. It was three days before we left, and it was on Poppy (Fairy Tale). It was a 1.15-meter classic, and that was just so cool. To finish on that note before I left, it was really cool.”
With your jumping and dressage horses, do you ever cross-train them?
“With the dressage horses, I usually don't cross-train them. We do maybe a couple ground poles or something, but usually no jumping. But with the jumping horses, I definitely work on dressage and on the flat because it helps with their rideability on course and gets them more developed in their muscles and stuff like that, so I definitely see a benefit there.”
Tell us about the U.S. Dressage Young Rider European Tour.
“It was really an unforgettable experience. I'm so thankful to everybody that made it happen—George Williams, USEF, and all my support team here. I got to watch firsthand all of my idols like Charlotte Dujardin, Isabell Werth, Patrik Kittel, and watch them warm up and compete on all these different horses that I've just seen on video before. It was just really cool to be able to see that firsthand. I remember I was watching Isabell's freestyle in Compiègne and I was a little teary-eyed because it was just so cool for me to be able to see that competition sitting there in the stands and watching it.
“I learned a lot from our host in Europe, [Swedish Olympic dressage rider] Juliette Ramel. I got to ride with her a couple of times and learn lots of new training tactics. She actually had [Danish trainer] Morten Thompson come twice during our trip there, and I got to watch him work horses in hand and work on the spooky horses, the young horses, and also teaching Juliette. It was great being able to be fully immersed in something that I've never had the experience to do before. It was just amazing. And being able to watch what types of horses and riders compete in Europe and what their competitions are like there--it's really cool.
“[The competitions were] a little bit different, but my dressage trainer, David Wightman, likes to say, ‘It's just another dressage court.’ When you're competing, you can look around and you can see all these cool venues; they were just beautiful. And then you can go and do your job, and then go and see all these beautiful venues and go shopping and stuff like that. It was so cool.”
What was it like working with USEF Youth Coach George Williams on the tour?
“I had done one clinic with George, I believe it was in 2021. It was the Region Seven clinic that he did. And I really liked the way George trained. I liked how he explained things. The way he explained it was always easy to understand, and he always helped me with the little details for making the test better. He was able to just help us at the shows. At Compiègne, my first European show, he helped me calm the nerves and stay focused and bring out the best of both Rob and me. It was so great to have him here. I'm really thankful for all the help.”
Did you know your teammates before the tour?
“I was on the NAYC team with Christian [Simonson in 2021], so I knew Christian fairly well, and it’s great to catch up with him. I had not met McKenzie [Peer] before, so it's great to getting to know her and building another friendship with a fellow equestrian.”
What did you learn from participating in the tour?
“What I said before, but also the different paperwork that you have to do for your horse. And navigating in a country where you don't understand the language, but you have to go and talk to all these different people and try and figure out where you're going or where something is. Everybody was so nice. It was a great experience that way.
“We went to Italy and London when I was a little bit younger, but I've never been on a trip for horses before in Europe.”
What riding goals do you have for the future?
“[After NAYC,] I'll probably start with my new horse in the Young Riders then move to the under 25 [division]. And I definitely want to keep growing and competing in the jumpers and hope maybe to ride in the 1.30-meter classes. That would be really cool. Those are kind of the short-term goals.
“In the more longer term, I would love to compete in Aachen for the USA. That seems like an extraordinary experience there. And then to make like a Nations Cup team or go to the World Cup Finals would be really, really awesome too.”