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From Obsession to Profession

By Bonnie Wheatley – Barrel Horse News

For many individuals, charting their career path means climbing the corporate ladder rung by rung to achieve success. But for barrel racer Lisa Nicholas, it was a fast track out of her executive office space and into the wide world of performance horses that led to the sort of fulfillment that can only be found on the back of an elite barrel horse. What made an established IBM software engineer trade her white collar nine-to-five routine and the security of a regular paycheck in for a round-the-clock commitment to futurity horses? The answer is straightforward: Nicholas was bitten hard by the horse bug, and thanks to great horseflesh, the right connections and tons of hard work, she found herself ranked among the top futurity riders of 2013—and she’s not looking back. 📷 Jeremy, Skyler, Dalton and Lisa Nicholas.

Igniting the spark

Raised in the city, Nicholas, originally from Wichita Falls, Texas, grew up with no animals in sight.

“I had always dreamed of owning horses,” she says. “I even read books about them through high school because that’s as close to them as I could get. After I graduated from Midwestern State University, I landed a great job and moved near Austin, Texas.”
The well educated city kid began her career but never abandoned her magnetism toward horses. In fact, she rented a single-wide mobile home on a small racehorse operation where the spark was further ignited. Working off a portion of her rent in exchange for helping to care for horses on the ranch, Nicholas was thrilled with the opportunity to interact with, and learn more about, the basics of horse care from her landlord.

“The owner ‘allowed’ me to ride colts, which I laugh at now because I realize how much free labor he got out of me, yet I thought he was doing me a favor! But I wouldn’t change it for the world – I hit the ground running and learned so much in a short period of time.”

A pivotal moment during her early equine experience occurred when Nicholas crossed paths with the main trainer hired by the racehorse owner to break his horses.

“I told him about a problem I was having with one of the colts. He was an older cowboy named Jake Bush. He said, ‘Saddle him up and let’s see.’ I absorbed his every word and instruction like a sponge. Jake is a lifelong cowboy. He’s gentle and light-handed but as tough as he needs to be to get a point across. I so admired his skills – he is responsible for my foundation of training and being able to get a horse really broke, supple, and responsive. I didn’t know what a really broke horse felt like, though, until I bought my own and was able to finish him out, and then I was hooked!”

By day, Nicholas held down her IBM software engineering job but every hour away from the office was “consumed with horses.”
She discovered another like-minded individual at IBM when she became acquainted with future husband Jeremy, who was also employed by the corporation.

“He, too, was raised a city-kid but cleaned stalls for the local horse stables and had a genuine interest in riding,” she explains.
Attributing their mutual passion for horses to a lack of equine involvement in both of their early lives, the husband and wife team dove full-on into the industry together and share a deep appreciation for the opportunities they now have to work with horses.
“In no time Jeremy was training colts and was a natural at it. We bought 50 acres of our own in Briggs, Texas, where we could have several of our own horses. It was close enough that we could commute to our day jobs but still pursue our dreams,” she recalls.

After a decade of working for IBM, the division where Nicholas worked closed up shop and she was laid off, an admittedly scary time for the couple.

“It was the first time since I was 16 that I didn’t have a job with a guaranteed paycheck coming in,” she says. “Plus, we had started a family and had a 9-month old baby. But my job had paid well and left us in a position for me to be able to make a go at training horses as a profession. We’re often asked about the frog brand on our horses. My husband’s nickname is ‘Froggy,’ so that is where the brand was born and then we appropriately named our ranch Ribbit Ranch.”

With encouragement from her husband, Nicholas trained and hauled locally while juggling duties as a wife and mother to the couple’s two young children, a son, Dalton, now 10, and daughter, Skyler, age 7.

Lisa Nicholas attributes much of the recent success of their Ribbit Ranch horses to she and her husband’s ability to work together.
“Jeremy is self-motivated and tireless,” she shares. “He’s an account executive for Hewlett Packard but puts in just as much time on the horses. He loves to rope, but sacrifices so much roping time to haul and train colts instead. We trade colts back and forth as they need it. I feel like our skill sets and training interests differ, so between the two of us the horses get a well-rounded foundation.”

While Lisa confesses that her tendency as a rider is to be meticulous, verging on picky, even, she says that Jeremy is gifted at building confidence and keeping a horse quiet. That said, he has little patience for bad behavior.

“He gets all the buckers,” she says, adding that her husband also has a keen eye for spotting a diamond in the rough. “He can tell me who my athletes are, whereas, sometimes I’m skewed by emotion. If I hadn’t listened to him I would’ve let two of my best mounts ever slip through my hands because they were so hard to break. I was not in love with them and was ready to sell, but he told me to give them more time because of their talent, and he was right.

“Now, either my husband or Mitzi Mayes from Lexington, Texas, start the horses under saddle for me. But I want no more than 30 days—at this point they are at my very favorite stage,” she adds.

For Nicholas, the most appealing part of training is the transformation that takes a horse from stiff, gangly prospect to well-oiled equine machine—and that process consumes her every thought.

“Watching them learn and understand what is being asked of them is amazingly rewarding to me. Every Sunday I make a list for the upcoming week of which horses to ride each day and I stick to my schedule. Each night I look forward to the next day’s rides and think about what drills are needed for each. If necessary, I set up obstacles in the arena so they are ready in the morning.”

A typical day at Ribbit Ranch starts when the alarm rings at 6 a.m. and chores get started. Once her kids are off to school, the barn beckons for the remainder of Nicholas’ day until dinner time, and mom duties in the evening.

“I love my life – if I won the lottery tomorrow I’d be doing the exact same thing,” she insists.

Team Nicholas worked and trained and trained and worked, notching Lisa’s first Equi-Stat barrel racing earnings in 2005. Records indicate steady but modest earnings aboard her home-trained Iron Headed Horse—that is until 2013.

“I had wanted to try futurity colts for a while but kept that thought on the back burner,” says Nicholas, who was unsure how having a young family would mesh with the stringent demands on futurity trainers. “I really didn’t think futurities were going to be a reality until later in my life, if ever. But then I received a phone call from a good friend of ours, Jo Alexander. We were friends but hadn’t seen Jo in a long time and the call came completely out of the blue. She said she had something that had been on her heart and felt like she needed to talk to me about it.”

Alexander felt that Nicholas needed to be competing at futurities.

“She complimented my colt starting skills and told me that I should consider taking it to the next level, because she knew I could do it. So, Jo is responsible for setting the wheels in motion. She told me that I should go visit with Jordon Briggs about it and look at a horse she had for sale at the time,” says Nicholas.

Taking their faith and their friend’s thoughtfully placed advice into consideration, the Nicholas’s made their next move, and although not obvious until later, it proved to be a fortuitous decision.

“We are a family of faith and believe everything happens for a reason. We believe God puts people in our paths at just the right times,” says Nicholas. “There are no coincidences. So, I took Jo seriously and contacted Jordon.”

However, the night before Jeremy and Lisa were scheduled to go look at the horse, Briggs called to tell them that unfortunately her horse had tied up. Given that information, neither party felt optimistic about finalizing a sale.

“But, we headed out there the next day anyway and had a nice visit with Jordon and her mom, Kristie (Peterson). We said some prayers and ultimately decided not to buy Jordon’s nice mare. But, it turned out to be the best decision for all involved because she and I both ended up with rock stars for the year,” says Nicholas.

Meanwhile, Troy Ashford heard she was in the market for a prospect and contacted Nicholas.

“He had a buckskin filly by his nice stallion, Traffic Guy, out of a daughter of Stoli. The Stoli mare was owned by Chuck and Kristie Peterson. I was interested so we went to check her out.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

While the filly in question wasn’t disarmingly exciting to look at there was something about her that convinced Nicholas to seal the deal.

“She had kind of a rail-y build, she was super hairy, and had a big scar on her right hip from a T-post incident. I’m normally a very indecisive person, but I wrote a check for her that day and never looked back. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut feeling.”

The Petersons explained that they had helped Ashfords locate Traffic Guy, and after purchasing the Stoli mare, Six Futures, at the heritage Place Sale, loaned her to them and the foal went home with them after it was weaned. Six Fortunes was unfortunately put down due to injury but had four foals—Stoli My Guy, Spy Guy futuritied in 2014 by Tiany Schuster, Briggs’ 2015 hopeful Frenchmans Future and a fourth owned by Savannah Reeves.

The green-as-a-gourd Stoli My Guy (“Stoli”) came home to Ribbit Ranch and that was when the real work commenced.
“She has been the biggest challenge of any colt to come through our hands,” admits Nicholas. “If she had been the first colt we’d ever started, I’m quite sure I would’ve quit this profession and raised goldfish or something!”

It was 2013 when Nicholas and Stoli My Guy (Traffic Guy x Six Futures x Stoli) hit the futurity ranks. During the ultra-competitive Diamonds and Dirt Barrel Futurity in March of that year a 16th place finish in the finals and over $6,000 in earnings placed the team high on the futurity “watch list.” Following it up with consistent 1D, 2D and futurity placings at major races like D&G Productions, Elite, the Bar Nothin Barrel Bash and more, the consistent team captured reserve honors at the JB Quarter Horses Futurity where they also won the Amateur Incentive. They punctuated their season at the Barrel Futurities of America World Championships, earning a season-high $23,284 for third in the futurity, and notched an arena record in the process.

“She’s coming 6 now and I’d still hesitate to call her broke,” says Nicholas of her super mare. “Jeremy and I shared a lot of time on her as a 2- and 3-year-old because I couldn’t get her quiet by myself. She was an obvious athletic talent, but I just couldn’t tame the beast.”

“Perpetually fresh and on guard,” Stoli has been known to spin out from underneath her rider in the blink of an eye, even in the familiar confines of her home arena.

“Hauling her was, and still is, a challenge. She gets mad if the arena sound system pops, if the ground gives way underneath her, and if any horse gets too close to her in the warm up pen. Any of these can trigger a ‘Stoli episode’,” Nicholas laughs, adding that the mare’s fractious nature had given her owner reason enough to plan on training and selling her early-on.

Jeremy, however, disagreed and told his wife that selling the mare would be a big mistake.

“I’m now glad I listened. I went full speed ahead. For better, or for worse, I was going to futurity her. And we had an amazing futurity year! Stoli is now approaching lifetime earnings of $100,000. I never even hauled her out of Texas and Oklahoma her futurity year, and never entered a major slot race. That number is from just good, solid, consistent winnings. Her high point of the futurity year was setting a BFA Futurity go round arena record last year. She’s won multiple open and derby races, as well, and continues to amaze us with her speed and consistency. She has opened so many doors for us, for which I will be eternally grateful.
Those doors include sponsorship deals with Double J Saddlery, MVP and Iconoclast boots, as well as a project with Darren Stoner, creator of The Perfect Bit to design the new rope nose combo version that Stoli runs in.

“We want to thank all of them and the family and friends who offered to help when I absolutely could not be in two places at the same time,” says Nicholas.

For all her quirks, Stoli finds calm in a place where other barrel horses sometimes lose their cool.

“Stoli’s happy place is the holding pen,” says Nicholas. “She is patient and lets me gather her up in the alley and place her where she needs to be. She doesn’t run through my hands, or lunge – she waits until I let her go and makes a solid run every time. She stays low and smooth, there’s no jerkiness to her pattern and she tries hard every time.”

Nicholas describes the mare’s move around a barrel as a rollback on the backside that makes her tough to beat. That move, coupled with the fact that she morphs from ornery to at ease when running barrel patterns to near perfection, has made her very valuable.

“By profession Jeremy is a man of numbers so they’ve all got a price tag on them, but not Stoli. Ultimately, he leaves that decision up to me. Anytime I got close to making a deal, I’d get sick to my stomach. I believe that’s my answer. I don’t feel right about it – I feel like she was a blessing sent to remain with us and I don’t want to sell the dream that was intended for us,” says Nicholas.

Cycling forward

The Nicholas family intends to continue chasing their passion of hauling and training their own futurity prospects. With a nice crop of current foals and Stoli’s embryos at the focal point of their breeding program, they’ve set a business plan in motion.

“We plan to keep a steady cycle going and sell them after their futurity or derby years as solid mounts for others to go on with. At this point I only train and ride for myself, which has its pros and cons. It allows me the flexibility of making my own decisions when it comes to hauling, which helps out with the kiddos and working around my husband’s career. But, that also means that all entry fees and horse maintenance costs come out of our own budget, so that holds us to running a smaller number of colts.”

Having just wrapped up the season riding another successful futurity horse, the 4-year-old palomino, Firetrain O Toole (Flaming Fire Water x Tristen Vixon x Mitey Jody), to earnings of approximately $10,000 , Nicholas says they plan to market the gelding.

“For 2015, I will be running a 4-year-old mare by Dashing Chester out of a Sail On Bunny daughter. I plan on hitting all the Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana futurities, and possibly Ft. Smith. We’ll also probably join a local barrel and pole bending club where the kids can compete. The Central Texas Barrel Racing Association (CTBRA) is great, too; one, because they have a hard-working set of directors that make it a smooth and timely operation; and, two, the ground is always good so I can haul colts there.”

While she prefaces her comment with the statement, “Never say never,” Nicholas says that she has a hard time picturing herself on the rodeo trail anytime soon. Not interested in traveling extensively, she insists that for the time being she enjoys hauling a trailer full of young horses to races and charting their progress.

Q&A with Lisa Nicholas

Q: Any words of advice for newcomers interested in futurity competition?

A: “First, study the bloodlines of what’s winning and what’s up-and-coming. Be educated and select your prospects wisely. Entering with a mediocre horse is a pretty big gamble with the steep entry fees. We were obviously blessed with a talented horse to kick off our futurity career but that’s just part of the equation. Hard work and determination is the other half. It’s not something you can enter into half-heartedly and expect success.”

Q: What do futurities involve that people might not expect?

A: “It’s 5 a.m. exhibition lines, it’s late night after-show riding sessions because the run didn’t go as planned. It’s the exhausting move-in/move-out at races. It’s overnight road trips, it’s hauling just to exhibition when it’s 32 degrees and windy or 110 degrees because you know the other futurity trainers will be there getting their colts ready. It’s watching the weather radar like a hawk to ride around Mother Nature because you don’t have a covered facility. It’s riding consistently every day – not in your spare time. It’s catering each ride to the level of the horse and evaluating its weak points to make improvements. Your uniform is a ball cap, no make-up and dirty fingernails. It’s a chronically sore neck and back because your colts have found their speed but don’t always put it in the right direction. It’s not having an ego because they are young horses and getting bucked off in the warm-up pen is a reality. It’s being the first trailer there and often the last one to leave. It’s spending your last dime at the vet to make sure your horses feel the best they can feel. It is anything but easy, but if it were easy everyone would do it!”

Q: What’s it been like for you to experience such great success as a newcomer?

A: “A lot of times people congratulate me on my success and say things like, ‘It’s nice to see someone new and not the same old names winning it.’ But let me tell you something about those ‘same old names,’ because I’ve had the opportunity to be welcomed into their futurity family and work alongside them. They win because they deserve to win. Those ‘same old names’ are the trainers dedicated enough to do all of the above. There are a lot of laughs behind the scenes and even the fiercest of competitors are always willing to lend a helping hand when needed.”

Q: How do you juggle it all?

A: “I do my best to juggle my busy life. The kids take priority. I don’t want regrets with my kids. I don’t want them to grow up and look back and say mom was gone too much because of barrel racing, or say that they had to miss out on normal childhood activities. Because of this I don’t venture up north to the futurities at this time in my life, but I can get quite a lot accomplished with the events in the Tri-State area.

I always get nervous when trying to schedule in the big races. I tell my husband, ‘I’m not sure if I can pull this off.’ He tells me to just pay in and we will find a way to make it work. He’s an optimistic person and the driving motivation behind me. Luckily, my daughter is consumed with the horse bug, and I look forward to many years of sharing this lifestyle. My son doesn’t share her competitive drive with the horses but loves them all as pets. He likes to jump on and make a run for a paycheck when he’s got a toy he wants to buy. He’s got quite an extensive Lego collection thanks to barrel racing! It has always been a family affair for us – rarely do you see me alone.”

Email comments on this article to bhneditorial@cowboypublishing.com