Up until 1996, Nicole Kullen was a happy, healthy, energetic teenager in New South Wales, Australia. She was a determined sportswoman and keen to succeed in everything she tried, including working towards a future in the equestrian industry. She competed in a wide range of sports through to representative level, but horses and riding were what she was most passionate about. She reveals: “I have been around horses all my life and as I’ve become older I’ve made them my life. I have been riding since I was 18 months old, when I would go with my Uncle Will on many a trail aboard one of his part-bred Arabian pintos, It-Il-Do’s Shawshoni (Amarajja x Princess Nakia). He was a champion show horse, but also a kind and gentle horse, perfect for children. He is now in his 30s and still going strong; he is, and always will be, very special to me. I couldn’t imagine giving up horses and not riding.”
In her teens, Nicole was a vibrant and talented horsewoman, competing in endurance and trail riding, showing and cross-country events. She thoroughly enjoyed working with all types of horses, from youngsters to seasoned schoolmasters, and would try just about anything, but she loved endurance riding most of all. It soon became quite clear that Arabians were her favourite breed, with their intelligence and flair, their versatility and kindness of sprit. Her teenage years marked the beginning of her love affair with Arabians and this remarkable young lady is proof that it is a love that cannot be beaten. Nicole is a lesson to us all in the way she has overcome the immense challenges of a sudden disability in order to pursue her dreams and it seems that nothing could quash her enthusiasm.
In 1996, Nicole became suddenly and gravely ill with meningococcal meningitis septicaemia. She was placed on a life support system in an induced coma and, for many months, her family were unsure if she would survive. Her recovery lasted a gruelling six months before she was even well enough to leave hospital, but the illness had ravaged her body. She lost both of her lower legs and all function and feeling in both hands and wrists. Her use of her arms was limited and her organs were severely damaged, to such an extent that her kidneys finally failed completely in 2000. Nicole now relies on peritoneal dialysis four times a day to stay alive. Her other disabilities mean that she cannot tend to her own dialysis, as many other sufferers might, as well as the many other day to day things usually taken for granted, so her mother has also become her full-time carer. Despite all of this, she is as passionate about her horses as ever; even faced with the knowledge that her health will never improve, it will only continue to degenerate, she vibrantly talks about the future of her career as a Para-Equestrian Dressage rider, and the ongoing breeding project that is Nikshar Stud.
The stud really began with an incredible gesture made by Nicole’s mother Margaret and close friends Matt and Katie, while she lay ill in hospital. They put her treasured Crabbet mare Pinnaroo Mary (Golden Spark x Pinnaroo Sharell) in foal to Milora Park Blue Fire (Exp France) (Tallangatta Silver Domino x Linden Lady Di), with the promise of the foal as a gift and incentive for her survival. Once the mare was confirmed in foal, and Nicole was conscious enough to make sense of the situation, they presented a letter to her, explaining that the new life was a gift and a treasure to be nurtured alongside her own incredibly challenging recovery. Nicole beams: “It was the most amazing present I could have imagined. That mare was the beginning of my life with Arabians when we purchased her back in 1993, before my illness. She was my friend and great fun to ride. I was just 13 years old at the time and she is now 28 and still my number one girl. She always will be. She even made a surprise visit to the hospital to mark my 50th day in intensive care! Not many patients stay in ICU that long; most either pass away or are move to other units long before that point. The staff like to do something special for anyone that is with them for 50 days and the whole nursing team, doctors, friends and relatives all moved outside with me and my machines to spend time with Pinnaroo Mary. That day had a huge impact on me; it reminded me that I had wonderful things to go home to and it really did aid my recovery. My horses help me each and every day; they give me something to live for, to love and enjoy.”
Obviously, Nicole could not simply resume her life with horses as it had been before the meningococcal, but she was determined to work with horses somehow and was also keen to compete again. She began with miniature horses and purchased a young gelding, Bobby, and then after the loss of him, another gelding Ziggy, who would turn into a real show-ring star. For a tiny horse, he had so much charm and character and to spend time with him did Nicole’s spirits the world of good. He even claimed prestigious titles such as National Grand Champion Gelding of all Miniature breeds and the National Reserve Champion Two-year-old Futurity Horse, all shown from Nicole’s powered wheelchair.
She soon resumed work with her larger equines and was itching to ride once again. She was fortunate enough to have the unyielding support of her mother Margaret and a few equestrian professionals and her goal was finally made possible by a special competition horse: Royal Dancer. They got to know one another slowly and were soon enjoying lessons. Nicole was always as diligent in her approach to the overall wellbeing of her horses on the ground as she was in her riding, so they spent a great deal of time together. Royal Dancer played a vital role in Nicole’s rehabilitation and they began to compete together in the dressage arena in 2000, with both the EFA (Equestrian Federation of Australia) for able-bodied riders and the RDAA (Riding for the Disabled Association of Australia). Her dedication to her horses and to competitive excellence saw her progress through the ranks rapidly; she made it onto the RDAA National Squad every year since 2002, and then riding her relatively new competition horse Light Nefarious, successfully achieved being the prestigious 2005 RDAA National Dressage Champion and awarded the EFA NSW RDA Rider of the Year. By 2006, Nicole was also competing internationally with the FEI with much success.
Nicole’s achievements have also brought her industry recognition. She was named The Horse Magazine’s Eqvalan Rider of the Year in 2007 after a very full season of dressage competition, including travelling to the UK with her six teammates to represent Australia at the FEI World Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships. There, Nicole won an individual silver medal and a bronze medal in the individual freestyle to music, helping Australia to achieve sixth place in the team test and seventh overall of all nations. Nicole was the only Australian to gain a medal at the event and the only rider at the championships to do so on a borrowed horse. She really was determined to live every moment of that experience and is very open about the team of trainers and support crew that go into making it all possible. Nicole’s diligence and ambition have further rewarded her with the 2009 Equestrian Australia Para-Equestrian Gr1b National Championship title, where she was also a key part of the winning New South Wales State team. She was named as part of the Para-Equestrian Elite National Squad and was awarded the 2008 NSW Institute of Sport Ian Thorpe/Grand Slam International Outstanding Achievement – Female Award. Light Nefarious had been loyal and generous to Nicole throughout this new career, so his diagnosis with terminal cancer in 2006 was a real blow to all involved. A new horse had to be found, which is challenging enough, even before factoring in Nicole’s specific needs. Eventually, a handsome 16.3hh bay Dutch Warmblood gelding called Nomination was sourced in Holland. Nicole rode “Nom” while competing in Europe and they seemed to click very easily. His purchase was agreed and Nicole and her team were eager to bring him to his new home in New South Wales. Soon after he arrived, and as he was settling into his new role, a little research revealed his Arabian heritage within his five-generation pedigree. Nicole was delighted as it meant he could now be registered as an Arabian Warmblood, bearing the Nikshar prefix.
Their training continued and the wins were soon becoming a regular occurrence, with Nicole always studying her judge’s remarks sheets for points on which to improve. As she talks of her outings with Nom, Nicole is as emphatic about how he went or how he coped as she is about the titles they have won together. It is a sign of her warmth that she cares so much about Nom’s happiness and they are regulars in the able-bodied EFA dressage competitions too.
The Paralympic Games must surely be the pinnacle of any sport and Nicole earned her place on the shortlist with her overseas successes at the First International Combined Festival of Dressage CPDI4**** International Para-Equestrian competition in Belgium in September 2006. She claimed a fourth, an equal fourth and a sixth placing at this event, with marks high enough to make her a Paralympic contender. She relished the training as part of the National Paralympic Preparation Program Squad and worked as hard as she could to ensure they made it to the Games in September. It paid off; Nicole and Nomination were one of five Para-Equestrian athletes proudly representing their country. They achieved fourth, sixth and eleventh placings in Gr1b dressage classes and a team sixth overall. She tells me: “I was so thrilled to do well in Beijing, not only out of patriotism, but also as a massive thank you and acknowledgment to my mum, and as a mark of respect for my son Kyle, who I lost at just five days old back in March 2003. I almost gave up everything after losing him; I didn’t ride at all, I was just so devastated.”
Only Nicole could have had the fortitude to pick herself up once again after yet another painful test of her character. Nicole and Nom have had quite an adventure in their three years together so far. They continue to shine, winning all three Gr1b Para Equestrian tests at the 2009 Australian National Para Equestrian Championships in September, despite testing stormy conditions. They are now the 2009 Equestrian Australia Para EQ Gr1b National Champions, consistently scoring over 70% in their tests, and looking forward to a bright future together. Nicole and Nikshar Nomination have also just represented Australia at the CPEDI3* International in Werribee, Australia this December, winning all three of their Gr1b FEI Para EQ tests, as well as being a member of the Australian Team of four that won the Teams Event . Again with scores consistently over 70%, Nicole won the events against riders from four countries and became the CPEDI3* Gr1b Champions. Nicole has her heart set on selection for 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky and the 2012 London Paralympics. She also hopes to improve on her FEI World Championship placings from 2007 and will be showing Nom in Arabian Warmblood classes alongside his dressage commitments. Her energy and vision are so impressive; she is often in a great deal of pain, but her pursuit of her dreams is reward enough for her.
Away from the dressage arenas, Nicole is just as excited by the growth of the Nikshar Stud, which relocated to the tranquil, undulating countryside in Bathurst, New South Wales, since its beginnings with that gift breeding while still in hospital. The stud is already well into its second generation of homebred stock and has selected two of their own colts to be retained, joining their other stud stallion. These are the 2005 Arabian stallion Nikshar Valentino out of their founding mare Pinnaroo Mary and the 2006 burnt buckskin roan Arabian Pony, Welsh stallion Nikshar Alladin. Nicole’s dressage commitments mean she has not had the opportunity to show the youngsters as much as she would like, but the quality of their stock has already been recognised in Arabian and Arabian Derivative breeding classes.
The wonderful Pinnaroo Mary gave Nicole a smart bay filly from that first breeding to Milora Park Blue Fire, Nikshar Meszleena Blue. She was so pleasing the breeding was repeated for the 2002 colt Nikshar Wildfire, now gelded. Nikshar Wildfire was the last offspring of Milora Park Blue Fire before his export to France and Nicole believes both Wildfire and Meszleena Blue to be among the sweetest-natured horses that she has ever known. It is hoped that Wildfire will make a good ridden horse, while his older sister had a brief ridden career she has proven to be an important broodmare with three super foals to date. Her first, and most successful, is the 2005 Arabian Warmblood filly Nikshar NaSala (by Tally Ho Kahlua). She has already won several titles in Warmblood and sports horse classes and impressively made the Top Five Yearling Fillies at the East Coast Arabian Championships. True to form, Nicole studied each of the filly’s performances and is so far very impressed with how the youngster approached the atmosphere of completion venues. She is already very excited for this filly’s ridden career and her future as Nicole’s future competition mount. Meszleena Blue’s second foal was a chestnut part-Welsh Arabian pony gelding Nikshar Cheeky Boy Blue (by Jamil Razah Flash Lite), and her latest colt “Blue” was born in 2008, by the stud’s own Arabian stallion Rehal Gold (Halim x Adbarina Renae).
But one of Nicole’s special foals is Nikshar Valentino (Rehal Gold x Pinnaroo Mary) Nicole is very proud of Valentino, believing he has the wow factor. She explains that the challenges posed by her disabilities ensure that they prioritise temperament in their breeding choices, saying: “I love all types of Arabians, but the Crabbet lines in particular have always drawn me to them, greatly influenced by Pinnaroo Mary’s beauty and amazing temperament. She has been my loyal companion and her get and grandget are living representation of her quality and her importance. I really hope that Valentino will be the future of my programme and he has his first outside mares this year. He has recently started his education under saddle and is looking very promising. He has a superb attitude, which all of his fans and trainers have commented on, yet he still has lots of presence. I am very keen indeed to ride him myself and to eventually show him alongside our dressage training. To compete my homebred stallion in dressage and Para-Equestrian Dressage competitions will be something very special indeed and I hope to have my first ride on him for Christmas this year.
“Naturally, the problems caused by my illness and disabilities have impacted heavily on the lives of my animals and the direction in which the stud would go. There is an even bigger need now for our horses to be respectful, patient and accepting to so many different circumstances that they would normally never experience in their lifetime. I handle all my horses and ponies, including my foals, from the time of their birth, from both my electric wheelchair as well as while standing on my prosthetic legs. They are all so used to the wheelchair now that I can drive it up to them when they are lying down and they do not run away in fright. They will also come up to me in the paddocks and lay down beside me in my wheelchair; they really are amazing.
“There is something magical about just being with an Arabian. I have sat with all my mares through each of their foalings and it is so humbling to see a newborn encounter the world. I imprint the newborn foal as soon as they’re born from my electric wheelchair or from on the ground without my legs on and the strength of the bond I share with each of them is really important to me. The homebred horses have strong conformation and inspiring paces, but more important to me is that they have a natural understanding of my situation. I remember Nikshar Meszleena Blue and her filly foal standing guard over me one day when I had a fall from my wheelchair and lay injured in the field. They flanked me in protection and only moved once help had arrived; they both moved far enough away to be out of the way, but stood alert and watching until I was safely in the arms of those that found me. These experiences are so inspiring and there is nothing so beautiful as an Arabian filled with flamboyance, yet so quietly patient when I am around them.”
Nicole remains conscientious too, returning to her studies to gain her HSC as well as high distinctions in Horse Industry Practice and Management and Business Administration. She even returned to competitive swimming for a while, taking titles and records along the way. She is a keen photographer and always eager to share her academic knowledge as well as her equestrian experiences and is also now a fully accredited EA NCAS Level 1 Dressage Coach. She reflects saying: “I am continually trying to learn and better myself both as a rider and as a human being. I am currently training and competing; it is mentally, physically and financially draining, but I have great support from family, friends and professional trainers.
“I am extremely excited to see what the future will bring for me and for my wonderful horses and I am always working to build our bond; my horses are my life! They are one of the most vital reasons that I keep going through this life of mine, despite all of the obstacles and pain. No matter what life throws at me, there will always be an Arabian in there somewhere – that’s guaranteed!”
To help support Nicole or see more of her horses, you can visit her website www.nicolekullen.com.
First printed in The Arabian Magazine December 2009. All photography Kullen Archives