Despite two confidence-rattling falls, the veteran dressage rider has his eyes on the 2020 Olympics with Don John.
The fall left Nick Wagman with a broken arm and three broken ribs. But what hurt worse for the veteran dressage rider was having his confidence shattered.
After 30 years of riding, Nick had just suffered his second major fall from Don John, and for the first time in his career, he wondered if he would get back in the saddle again.
“I had never known fear while riding, and to all of a sudden have that become a component of your daily routine was debilitating,” Nick says. “I’ve never felt that out of control and helpless before in all my years of riding.”
Spectators at August’s U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions never would have guessed at Nick’s inner struggles as he rode Ferano to the USEF Developing Horse Grand Prix national championship and also claimed the USEF Grand Prix Dressage national title with Don John — the very horse that had thrown him twice.
Now, Nick has his sights set on being selected for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games team with Don John, an 11-year-old KWPN gelding.
“It took me some time to regain my confidence after my second fall,” Nick says. “But through perseverance and the support of everyone around me, I’m back and feeling strong. Every outing is part of the process. Each test gives me insight as to what we need to be working on. Each time we conquer a new challenge, our confidence grows. To be aiming for the 2020 Olympics is just proof of how far we’ve come.”
Rallying From a Low Point
Nick has been working with Don John, affectionately known as “DJ,” since the horse was five years old. Their first incident occurred just a week after DJ came to Nick’s barn and left Nick with a compression fracture in his back. Through the pain, Nick learned that DJ is “girthy,” meaning extremely sensitive to his saddle’s girth.
“There was absolutely no malice in what DJ did,” says Nick. “It was a true response to something pinching him and triggering a flight response.”
All was well with the duo for years until they accidentally got out of their routine before a competition. The oversight led to another fall and broken bones — and Nick’s serious consideration of leaving the sport behind.
“I’m not going to lie,” Nick shares. “I almost quit riding at one point because the anxiety and fear was getting the best of me. It was a tough time for sure.”
Any time a horse showed any hotness, Nick found himself expecting to be thrown again. He says the explosive power he’d experienced when DJ spooked was unlike anything he’d felt before. And it’s something he’ll never forget.
But gradually, and with the help of a sports psychologist, Nick rebuilt his confidence and realized he loves riding too much to ever give it up. He says the fear never totally goes away, but now he has the tools to manage his feelings.
“Thanks to the amazing people in my life and the fact that I am not a quitter by nature, I am riding with the same joy and confidence I used to have,” Nick says.
Olympic Dreams in Sight
That’s been evident in his recent results dating to 2018, when he won the USEF Grand Prix Dressage Reserve championship with DJ and received a grant from the USET Foundation to help fund a trip to Europe.
“Without the amazing generosity of sponsors and financial grants, most of us just simply could not afford to pursue our competitive ambitions,” says Nick. “[The grant] was an integral part of making a dream come true.”
Of course, Nick has one more dressage dream to pursue: the 2020 Olympic Games.
To get there, Nick says he tries to keep a balance in his life, which includes reading, writing and spending time with friends outside the horse industry. Someday, he wants to spend more time writing and seeing where that passion might take him. But for now …
“I know that will be the next chapter in my life,” Nick says. “Right now I’m enjoying the riding opportunities I am so lucky to have, and I want to see how far I can go. DJ is the horse of a lifetime.”