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Just six years ago, Nick Gegen was far more familiar with a soccer ball than the view from a back of a horse.
Fast-forward to just last month, and the 22-year-old was placing strong in grand prix classes aboard his own horse that he trained himself.
Photo ©Flying Horse Photography
If his name isn’t familiar to you yet, just give it a little more time. Gegen has made quite an impression since arriving on the Southern California show jumping circuit this summer. He’s got George Morris in his corner and an inexhaustible work ethic, and under the tutelage of seasoned grand prix rider Guillermo Obligado, he’s upping his game to new levels.
So who is this kid? Let’s review: Gegen grew up in Boulder, Colorado among a decidedly unhorsey family. In fact, he spent most of his childhood kicking around that previously mentioned soccer ball and giving little thought to horses.
But when he was 17, his desire for soccer suddenly faded, and he turned to riding to fill his time.
He signed up for lessons with trainers Paul Rohrbach and Corky Shaha at Wells Bridge Farm in Parker, where it immediately became clear that he was a natural in the saddle. Gegen knew that he’d found his calling, and from that point onward he has thought of nothing else but riding.
His skill level advanced at an astonishing pace, and in 2009 he qualified for and won bronze in the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program National Training Session led by Peter Wylde and Melanie Smith Taylor.
His family, who had to adjust to the high costs of his new sport of choice, supported Gegen as much as possible, but he knew that turning professional when he aged out of the juniors was a foregone conclusion.
“Becoming a professional was the only way for me to continue to afford riding,” he says. “That’s how I got the experience I’ve gotten.”
He went to work for Wells Bridge Farm, and in 2010 his life took a fortuitous turn after clinicing with George Morris.
“After the clinic George called and asked me if I wanted to ride for him in all of his clinics for the next six months,” Gegen explains matter of factly. “So I went with him and rode the problem horses that people brought to the clinics. I was about 20.”
After that dream assignment ended, Gegen got another lucky break. He was sent a 12 year old Dutch warmblood gelding to sell as an equitation prospect. But with the added baggage of a few training and attitude issues, Sancerre soon became Gegen’s project horse.
“I took him to every horse show with me, started over from the bottom, and every now and then I could feel a glimmer of hope that he could be something, and then that feeling would go away,” Gegen says.
But little by little, Sancerre improved, and today Gegen says that “if I could have a horse go exactly the way I want it, it would be this horse. I was very lucky with him. I didn’t actually know it at the time when I got him that he would jump big classes.”
Jumping at Thunderbird in 2011. Photo ©Totem Photography
Gegen and Sancerre soldiered through a series of ups and downs, but began to finish well in several World Cup Qualifier Grand Prix classes in the Pacific Northwest in 2011, including a 7th place finish in last year’s $100,000 WC Grand Prix at Thunderbird Show Park. When Gegen moved from Colorado to Rancho Santa Fe in July, to work for Obligado, bringing Sancerre with him was one of the stipulations.
This month, Gegen and Sancerre placed 3rd in the $50,000 Showpark World Cup Qualifier Grand Prix, and 2nd in the $30,000 Blenheim Jumper Classic a week later.
Gegen explains that the desire to up his game, and put himself in an environment with a very high level of competition led him to partner with Obligado, who runs Woodgrove Farm with partner Lynn in the posh San Diego suburb.
“I love all of it,” says Gegen. “This is my life, I basically do nothing else. Moving was a big step for me, the level in California is much higher than Colorado, and I’d never consistently been riding and working at this level.
As Obligado’s assistant, Gegen is a central figure in barn operations, from riding client horses to managing the barn. In the few short months since he’s begun training with Obligado, Gegen can feel a new mental sharpness developing, and he thrives on it.
His biggest challenge is making ends meet to pay entry fees and be able to afford to step into the ring, but so far, he’s earning his way.
“I’ve been very lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve had so far,” he says. “I’ve had pretty good results right off the bat, but maintaining those results is hard work.”
This week, Wood Grove Farm heads to the Sacramento International Horse Show, where Gegen will be working hard for clear rounds and his share of prize money. He’s got his eye on the World Cup Qualifier Grand Prix there on October 5th, and with simple goals backed by hard work, he’s sure to keep attracting attention on the West Coast.