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Nickki O’Donovan: From royal hacks and hunters to the showjumping world’s top ten

Tuesday, 05 May 2020

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping Nickki O’Donovan has been by Darragh Kenny’s side for the last six years, as the Irish rider has jumped himself from rank 195 to 7 in the world. Here with Balou du Reventon, aka Lulu. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.


Text © World of Showjumping



Nickki O’Donovan has been by Darragh Kenny’s side for the last six years, as the Irish rider has jumped himself from rank 195 to 7 in the world. Arriving in Wellington in January 2014, without any previous experience from the showjumping circuit – Nickki’s journey has been quite an adventure. 

“I grew up on a studfarm in county Cork in Ireland with my family, and I rode before I could walk,” Nickki tells. “After I finished my final exams in high school at 17, I went to England for a job interview and spend four years there working with showing horses – mainly hacks and hunters. The stable I was in also trained horses for the Queen, and I even got to meet her once.”

After four years of working with horses, Nickki decided to go to college. “But being inside all the time did not suit me,” she laughs. “I was dreaming of going to America, and in December 2013 I came over a job ad from Darragh. I had no idea who he was, as I had never worked with showjumpers before. At the time Darragh had just started for himself, and I flew out to Florida in January 2014 to join his team. When I arrived it was extremely busy, Darragh had 10-15 clients at the time and something like 50 horses. It was all very American. To start with, I groomed for Taylor Alexander – who back then trained with Darragh – for two seasons, and also helped with some of Darragh’s horses in between.”

“At the time I suppose I was very naïve,” Nickki laughs. “For example, I had no idea that Wellington would be full of Irish people and neither did I realise what an opportunity it was for me. However, the job itself was not hard to get into – even though I had not done jumpers before. Darragh has a high standard of turn-out, and wants everything to be clean and tidy – which I knew very well from my previous job in England.”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "I love being with the horses," Nickki tells – here with Romeo. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

“That year, Darragh had a really good summer season at Spruce Meadows and climbed into the top 30. From there came the opportunity to compete in the Global Champions Tour. It went on from there,” Nickki tells about Darragh’s rise to the top. “Darragh always had good backing, both from clients and owners – although people have changed throughout the years. Today, we are really lucky as he has people behind him who genuinely wants him to do well. While he always had one or two really good horses, he now has an entire string of them.”

While Darragh’s swift rise to the top of the world rankings should be an indication of more ups than downs, there have definitely been disappointments – and heartbreak – too. “There have been changes in clients and horse owners along the way, then of course dreams that don’t get realized because of injuries or illness,” Nickki tells. “This has happened twice for us, with luck running out. First, in the case of Go Easy de Muze – aka Elvis. In 2016, he had to have colic surgery and a long recuperation. He came off a fantastic season, and had won the Grand Prix in Barcelona. We already had our eyes set on the European Championships the following year. Then, in between the show in Madrid and La Coruna he had a colic. I ended up staying a month with him in Spain. The worst was the feeling that he relied so much on me, but I could not do anything for him in this situation. It was just to hope for the best. Elvis recovered from the colic surgery but then in 2018 he sustained a tendon injury and was out again. A year later, Elvis is finally back – in February he jumped the Nations Cup in Wellington. It was also tough for us when Babalou missed out on the World Equestrian Games in 2018 after an amazing summer season.”

After everything they have been through together, it’s no wonder Nickki and Elvis are particularly close. “Elvis is part of the furniture here,” Nickki laughs. “Darragh won his first five-star Grand Prix with him, and we went through so much together. Elvis is like our giant puppy!”

Next to Elvis, Balou du Reventon is the horse Nickki has spent the most time with during her time at Darragh’s. “Last summer, anywhere Balou went, I went too,” she says. “While he lights up in the ring, Lulu – as we call him – is quite dull in the stable. He is always chilling, eating and sleeping. We always joke that he needs to be ridden first as he needs his nap at 10 AM. He is not a stallion at all, just really easy and sweet with such a good character. At the shows, I’ll even take my chair in his box and nap with him. Balou is really special, he needs that one person and relies on me.” 

“All our horses have fun personalities though, and have a lot of character,” Nickki tells. “Like Cassini, he would be the jealous one – watching me talk to the other horses while shaking his head!”

“We always try to leave them to be horses though. They all go in the field every day, and they get to have a buck and a run if they want to. On their day off they don’t see a brush – if they get muddy, they get to be muddy. Their day off is when they switch off, and they love it. On the other hand, they are all spoiled – but we also try to give them their own space,” Nickki tells. 

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping “To participate and finish second in the Rolex IJRC Top 10 Final last year was also a highlight," Nickki tells when looking back at memories from the last six years. Here with her colleagues Sean Lynch and Denise Moriarty. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

After six successful years with Darragh, Nickki has a nice collection of memories to look back at. “Our first real taste of success came when Darragh won the Longines Cup at The Hampton Classic with Picolo in 2014. That horse was a 1.50 speed horse who filled bigger shoes that he should have,” Nickki laughs. “Then of course Elvis winning the five-star Grand Prix in Barcelona in 2016. The week in Knokke last summer was also pretty incredible, with Lulu winning the Rolex Grand Prix. I had a very good feeling about that week, we had been close there before – but then the night before the Grand Prix Darragh was missing from the start list. I thought there had been a mistake when the entries were made and was hyperventilating when I found out. Luckily, they had just forgotten him! That win was special, and then the week they won the Grand Prix in Chantilly too!”

“Barcelona last year was also insane, and it was such an important event for us as it was the last chance to qualify for the Olympics,” Nickki tells about Team Ireland’s victory, in which Darragh and Lulu played an important part. “I’m a very superstitious person, and this show illustrates that very well. For the first round, a friend of Darragh was in the warm-up with us. Darragh went in and jumped his clear round. For the second round, the same guy was on the side-line watching – I went to Darragh and asked if he could come in and stand exactly where he had been. If something works out, I prefer to keep things exactly the same,” Niccki laughs. “Now we just have to cross our fingers that we get to go to Tokyo next year, that would be a dream come true. But, I know very well that anything can happen so touch wood.”

“To participate and finish second in the Rolex IJRC Top 10 Final last year was also a highlight, it really gave me goose bumps – it’s such a different kind of atmosphere compared to anything else,” Nickki tells. “The moment Darragh and Romeo jumped that second clear round, I just burst into tears – I was so happy. As a groom, to get the acknowledgement they give you in Geneva, taking us onto the podium together like that – it was just a really special moment. Also, in Prague – at the Play Offs – they were really good to the grooms, presenting us with medals and trophies. It does not take much, just a please and thank your really – so to get extra recognition like this was really nice.”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "We went through so much together. Elvis is like our giant puppy!” Nickki tells about Darragh Kenny's Go Easy de Muze. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

Although Nickki believes that the grooms get more acknowledged now than before, she still thinks there is room for improvement. “First of all, the scheduling,” she says. “For the grooms the day often starts at 6 AM, so we can feed the horses before the riders come to flat them in the morning. More usually than not, there is also a late-night class and you finish up your last horse after midnight. That’s tough, especially when you have to drive home through the night on Sunday and this is repeated week after week. In the end, you’re bound to be running on some kind of reserve. While I to some extent understand that the bigger shows do this out of spectator reasons, I find it ridiculous that two-star shows have classes running into the night.”

“This job also involves a lot of sacrifices. Because of the constant travelling, you miss out on family occasions, weekends with friends and sometimes even the loss of a loved one,” Nickki tells. “In December last year, I lost my grandfather. Luckily, I was able to get on a flight and be home within four hours but that made me think so much about all the moments I had missed out on with him. On the other hand, my grandfather was the one who would always encourage me to follow my passion.”

Being a groom has some perks though, and one of them is getting to see the world. “I try my best to get to see a bit of the big cities when we are at the shows, but it also depends on the set-up,” Nickki tells. “In Barcelona and Rome for example, it’s amazing – you’re just in the middle of the city and then it takes no effort. Other times, it’s more a project and then I don’t bother that much.”

“Then there are of course all the friendships!” Nickki adds. “And you get to pick up on different languages.”

While there are days in between that can start with a slight lack of motivation – we all know the feeling – Nickki tells that it quickly disappears. “I come to the stables, see Elvis’ face and I know why this is my job. I’m not much of a people person, so I love being with the horses. And honestly, I think that goes for many of us!”


No reproduction without permission, copyright © World of Showjumping


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