By Bonnie Wheatley
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.
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.