Aug 24, 2023

The Road to the AEC: Barb Nikolajczyk Picked Up Eventing at 55 and Hasn't Looked Back

By Lindsay Berreth - USEA Staff
Xpress Foto photo

It had been decades since Barb Nikolajczyk had sat on a horse due to family and career aspirations, but 16 years ago, a stop at her cousin Sharon Church’s farm in Culpeper, Virginia, on the way to the Outer Banks for vacation led to a renewed interest in her passion.

Nikolajczyk didn’t have much time to pursue hobbies as she and her husband raised their two sons while she worked towards a PhD and post doctorate work in the field of diabetes research in the suburbs of Boston, but that first trip to Virginia stuck with her. She’d grown up showing Quarter Horse pleasure in western Pennsylvania, but felt deep in her heart that eventers were the ones who really "rode."

“We had a fabulous time at the farm, and although we were just there for one night, we had so much fun that it started this whole series of vacations where we would go there for a week or two every summer and ride horses and pick berries and do all the things we couldn’t do in our suburban Boston home,” she said.

Barb Nikolajcyzk and Southern Magic. Xpress Foto photo

Church, an eventer herself, got Nikolajczyk thinking seriously about the sport, and finally, five years ago at age 55, Nikolajczyk was able to try it herself when she took a job in Lexington, Kentucky.

Her husband stayed back in Boston for two years with their younger son while he finished high school, and Nikolajczyk finally had the time to pursue her horse passion at an entirely new level.

She started taking lessons with Kelly Masters at Champagne Run Farm on lesson horses, then started leasing a horse. Finally, she decided it was time for her own horse so she could ride more consistently.

She found Southern Magic, a now-18-year-old Holsteiner-Thoroughbred mare (Magical x Hope Unlimited) and started competing at USEA-recognized events in 2021.

While the mare was much taller than she’d wanted at 16.3-hands and out of her price range, “You do three strides of that warmblood floaty trot, and you’re just smitten.” She purchased "Magic" from her breeder, Betty Fegenbush.

The mare had competed on the jumper circuit but had been in a field for six months due to Fegenbush’s health issues, and she became the schoolmaster Nikolajczyk needed, but not without a few mishaps in the beginning. They finished on a score of 117.1 at their first Beginner Novice event.

“I was on the ground a lot,” said Nikolajczyk with a laugh. “I had one year where I fell off Magic January, February, March, April, May, and then it was two days before the end of June. I was like, I shouldn’t even ride! I wanted to get through June without falling off. But it’s fun, and I knew we could do it. This compared to going to the gym to keep fit—there’s no comparison. It’s full body fitness, mind and body; it’s got aspects of yoga and weightlifting. I’m way healthier than when I moved to Lexington six years ago.”

Picking up the sport in her 50s was ambitious, but Nikolajczyk was ready for the challenge.

Xpress Foto photo

“I felt like I had the foundation as a kid with horses, and you don’t really lose your seat and your balance, even after decades off. It’s kind of amazing,” she said. “And the partnership— the mare is so much like me. She’s super competent at her job, she can take over even when I don’t want her to, but yet, she’ll power through when I need her help. Our personalities are very similar! Mine more at work than riding.”

Magic loves her job according to Nikolajczyk. “She loves doing stadium. She likes it when she can keep her balance well enough to do dressage and be fancy because she knows she’s beautiful,” she said.

The pair started training with Alexa Ehlers Thompson two years ago and are headed to the USEA American Eventing Championships in Kentucky next week.

“I would like to finish on my dressage score, not a 40, in top half of my division,” said Nikolajczyk. “I’m looking for perfection in stadium and pretty close to perfection on cross-country. [Ehlers] told me, ‘Don’t even think about moving up until you’re finishing in the top three with every recognized horse trial.' I think that’s a reasonable goal, but that’s not one of my top goals. If I could get a ribbon [top third] at the AEC, that would just be fabulous. But I’m really looking forward to participating with all the masters. My long-term goal is to do a century ride of one flavor or another.”

Nikolajczyk’s advice to older adult amateurs is, “I hate to say don’t take it too seriously, because I take it very seriously. You really have to work hard, and I think it’s helpful to set goals,” she said. “I’m lucky I’ve achieved my relatively modest but still huge goals for me—when you end on a 117 and you’re like, ‘I’d like to go to the AEC,’ the goal seems so far away. As in 80 penalty points! You’ve got to find a good horse and a good trainer. By good horse, I don’t mean an expensive, fancy horse. My best luck has been with buying my been-there-done-that—she wasn’t going to stop at a jump because she doesn’t feel like going. Magic loves her job and complements my weaknesses.

“Our team motto is ‘Joint support for all,’ because I’m doing it too!” Nikolajczyk added with a laugh. “Finding an appropriate horse partner is so critical, rather than something that’s just pretty. If you find the right partner, I think you’re halfway there at least. And to find a trainer, don’t be age-conscious. Have a session with a younger up-and-comer. Alexa is the same age as my son! She and her team at Clearview Equestrian Center are just fabulous. They’re so supportive. When you’re doing this, you have friends at all age levels, and I think that’s really great. It keeps us all young at heart while perhaps answering a less than age-appropriate calling!”

About the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC)

The USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC), presented by Nutrena Feeds, is the pinnacle of the sport at the national levels. Held annually, the best junior, adult amateur, and professional competitors gather to vie for national championship titles at every level from Beginner Novice to Advanced. This ultimate test of horse and rider draws hundreds of combinations from around the country to compete for fabulous prizes, a piece of the substantial prize money, and the chance to be named the National Champion at their respective levels. In fact, the 2021 AEC garnered over 1,000 entries and now stands as the largest eventing competition in North American history. The 2023 USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Nutrena Feeds will be held Aug. 29—Sept. 3 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Click here to learn more about the USEA American Eventing Championships.

The USEA would like to thank Presenting Sponsor: Nutrena Feeds; Advanced Final Title Sponsor: Adequan; Platinum Level Sponsor: Bates Saddles; Gold Level Sponsors: Capital Square, Horse & Country, Parker Equine Insurance, Smartpak, Standlee; Silver Level Sponsors: Auburn Labs, Ecogold, Kerrits, The Jockey Club; Bronze Level Sponsors: 70 Degrees, Athletux, Black Petticoat, The Chronicle of the Horse, Devoucoux, D.G. Stackhouse and Ellis, Dubarry of Ireland, Equestrian Team Apparel, Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, Horseware Ireland, Majyk Equipe, Retired Racehorse Project, Ride EquiSafe; Contributing Level Sponsor: CrossCountry App, Georgetown – Scott County Tourism, Lexmark, L.V. Harkness, Mountain Horse, Mrs. Pastures Cookies, #WeRideTogether; Prize Level Sponsors: Coach Daniel Stewart, EquiFit, Equilab, Equiluxe Tack, Equine Essentials, Equine Pulse Performance, FarmVet, Achieve Equine/FLAIR Equine Nasal Strips, Horses 4 Your Consideration, Hound & Hare, I Love My Horse Eventing Boutique, Jack’s Favorites, Jane Heart Jewelry, Kinetic Equine Services, LeMieux, Levade Kentucky, Mare Modern Goods, OneTouch Fly Spray, Parkmore Supplements, Practical Horseman, Sidelines Magazine, Spy Coast Farm, Strides for Equality Equestrians, and VTO Saddlery.

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