Two Saddles, Same Dream: What SoulCycle and Horses Taught Me about Being an Athlete
By Nikki Lendl, Equestrian Athlete and SoulCycle Instructor in New York City
There is a certain connection between a horse and rider that I’m not sure I will ever fully understand. The way that a horse and a human eye meet each other seems to calm every sense in your body down. Some people call it a partnership and others call it love, I however believe that it is something else entirely that we as humans have yet to understand.
My name is Nikola “Nikki” Lendl, I’m a lot of things but the two characteristics that define me the most are that I am a Three-Day Event rider and a SoulCycle instructor.
I grew up in a small town in Goshen, Connecticut, and believe me nothing makes you work harder to achieve your goals then realizing that this small town you’re in will only get you so far. I learned to ride horses from my Mum, who was incredibly supportive of me throughout my entire equestrian career. Starting at the age of three, I knew I loved horses by the sense of happiness and joy I would experience whenever I was around them. The feeling that these animals give you, like they understand exactly what’s going on in your mind without a single word being shared between the two of you, makes you feel so understood.
I have always been a “wild child”, never scared of anything and always up for a good challenge, so naturally I was the same way on a horse. Always wanting to jump bigger fences and ride more challenging horses. I left home very young, I knew I wouldn’t be able to be the rider I wanted to be in such a small town and was hungry for so much more, more knowledge, more understanding, more challenge. I have had the privilege in life to ride many horses, learning from all of them but there is one horse that I simply can’t credit enough for my development as a horsewoman and my career.
Right about the same time as I left home, I took over the ride on my sister’s horse Kosmo who I had rehabbed from injury. If I had known then, all the things I would take away from my time with Kosmo I would have never have believed it. Kosmo was a Canadian Thoroughbred who had competed in the upper levels of the sport. He was very hot blooded, very difficult to ride, and very much the challenge I wanted to take on. The people around me were wary of that type of horse being suitable for me for sure. I think a lot of people thought I wouldn’t be able to take him on and that he was too much horse for me. To be completely honest it gave me even more drive to make it work, like I said, I love a good challenge. Those first few months with Kosmo weren’t easy, we were constantly butting heads with each other, he was strong minded and so was I. Eventually, I figured out we needed to know each other on a more personal level before I could gain his trust and make anything work with him, so that’s what I did. Building that relationship with him made him want to work for me as his rider, it was the first time I realized that the relationship between horse and rider was the fundamental understanding of their partnership and performance together. That is something I take with me now as I embark on my new career as a SoulCycle Instructor.
About eight months later I bought a young prospect named Neville from Ryan Wood, a chestnut gelding also off the racetrack with a jump I had only ever dreamed of. Ryan helped me along my path of developing both my horses and myself as a rider. The beginning with both these horses came with a lot of defeats that would teach me what I needed to be more successful on them. With both of my rides doing well, I then purchased another off the track thoroughbred named Market. Market was a spit fire and I loved him right away because I knew he had a fiery heart like Kosmo did. With all three of my personal horses going well, I was very happy with where I was. I loved all my horses unconditionally, however Kosmo was an entire different love to me. People say you shouldn’t pick favorites, but I think Kosmo picked it for me. The connection I had with him was beyond anything I could ever imagine, we knew each other better than we knew our own selves.
When the day came that Kosmo colicked I could quite literally feel his pain, he underwent two major colic surgeries before he finally just couldn’t fight anymore and I as forced to put him down. I can’t explain the pain I felt and still feel to this day. I continue to love that horse more than anything, and I’m still heart broken. I marched on, kept working hard and developing my horses putting all my love towards this sport and them.
I had been having pain, specifically in my shoulders and hips for a while but never thought of them too much, until I took a tumble off one of my horses and the pain was too much. My injuries were going to change my life radically in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. My entire life I only knew myself as the person who rode horses and nothing else. When my career was forced to end I had absolutely no idea who I was anymore. I had to say goodbye to Market who now has a loving new Mum and home in New Jersey, and asked one of my best friends, Jennie Brannigan, if she would take over the ride on Neville for me while I still remained his owner. I wanted to hang onto him because I knew he was very special and I trusted Jennie to bring out his full potential.
As for myself, I spent five months in and out of the hospital in NYC recovering. One of my Doctors suggested I try a SoulCycle class to begin regaining my strength. At this point my body had changed drastically from being a professional athlete to losing all my strength and fitness, so starting at SoulCycle wasn’t going to be as easy as I had thought. I took a class with an instructor named Becca Raphael, she completely kicked my ass both physically and mentally. She said something in class that day that still sticks with me now: “Surprise yourself with what you can do when you don’t have a choice.” I didn’t have a choice that my body would break down and I would not be able to ride anymore, I didn’t have the choice that I did not know who or what I was going to be after this, but I did have the choice of how I was going to move forward from it all. Nearly three years later at the age of nineteen, I am now a SoulCycle instructor.
I have one foot in each world. Taking the things I learned as an equestrian athlete and applying them to my career as a SoulCycle instructor allows me to have a different and unique perspective on life. SoulCycle is so much more than just a workout, it’s a getaway from your own mind. At a time where I was lost, it helped me find who I was, it showed me things that I never knew existed in life and a completely different way of thinking.
Physically it helped me regain my strength in my legs and upper body through its challenging but rewarding choreography in classes. It is a full body workout and in that way, I felt like I was riding a horse again. Holding it out of the saddle for long runs is like galloping out of the saddle between cross country fences. Doing jumps in and out of the saddle is like posting while trotting. For an equestrian, it’s an incredible cardio workout helping you to cross train and build even more strength to benefit your riding careers. Mentally, it taught me that it is ok to mourn it is ok to cry and it is ok to feel, allowing all those emotions in lets you heal and move forward. It’s incredibly motivating and accepting and it’s the only workout that I’ve truly wanted to work hard for (I may be a hard worker but the gym was never my forte). Riding alongside other people you can feel their energy connect with yours just as you do with your horse, and that was something very important I was missing in my life.
SoulCycle has benefited me so much as an equestrian that this past summer I was able to get on my old ride Neville and compete him at Fair Hill Horse Trials for the first time since my accident. That day was very emotional not only for me, but also for Jennie Brannigan who held my hand every step of the way. She encouraged me and supported me through a dramatic time in my life where I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen or where I would end up. I’ll never forget the day I called her and told her I was going to be a SoulCycle instructor, when she hung up the phone with me she went and took her very fist SoulCycle class in the studio in Ardmore, PA, talk about full circle and bringing two worlds together.
My advice to anyone who is an equestrian rider or an athlete: take good care of your body. Fuel it well with nutritious food (no truck stop Doritos, even though they are so tasty). As I rider, I know how easy it is to skip meals because you have so much work to do, but fueling your body with proper meals is really key to your own performance and recovery. As for my own personal goals, I want to bring our two worlds together. I want to see YOU as equestrian athletes of all levels benefit from SoulCycle in the same ways and understanding I have. So, if you’re ever in NYC, you know where to find me! I hope to see you all in class one day soon, until then… Ride it like you stole it!
Nikola “Nikki” Lendl
NYC SoulCycle Instructor