Life comes at you in unexpected ways. But how you choose to view them—either as debilitating setbacks or as new possibilities—can make all the difference. Amateur and equestrian entrepreneur Nicole Lakin, for one, is firmly in the latter camp.

The 29-year-old American rider spent her junior years competing with Max Amaya at Beacon Hill and Stonehenge Stables, earning numerous accolades in the equitation and jumper rings. She earned team gold and individual silver medals at the 2006 North American Junior & Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC), and competed at the 1.50m grand prix level at shows such as the ‘North American’ tournament at Spruce Meadows. Today, Nicole continues to compete successfully in the amateur-owner jumpers at Spruce Meadows and other top shows around the country. But that’s all just a part of her story.

We caught up with Lakin to talk about expecting the unexpected, the inspiration behind her start-up software company BarnManager.com, and how horses, very literally, helped to save her life.

Name: Nicole Lakin

Hometown: New York, NY (via Reading, PA)

Profession: Founder of BarnManager/Entrepreneur

Tell us about the horses that you own and what you compete them in?

Wannabe is a 15-year-old that I’ve had for six years and show in the Low-Amateur jumpers. We call him “Biebs”, and everyone in the barn has Bieber Fever! He is extremely sweet and loves attention, and if I stay out of his way, he always has a good shot at a top placing.

Amarillo is a 12-year-old I’ve had for four years and compete in the Medium-Amateurs. He is incredibly talented but also incredibly kind—he always takes good care of me. He is big and scopey (a complete opposite of Wannabe!) but he is also sensitive and light and gives you the feeling that he could jump the moon.

You’ve been training with Max Amaya for 14 years now. What do you enjoy most about riding with him?

Max is an incredible horseman. When I first started training with him, he was competing Church Road, who he later took to the World Equestrian Games (2006) and the Pan American Games (2007) for Argentina. I loved watching him work with that horse. Both on the ground and on his back, he was so sensitive to what the horse needed and always trying to make the best decisions for him. That horse gave Max everything that he had because Max earned it every day.

Max has taught me about the importance of believing in what you are doing. He has a program that he believes in, and that is why it works for so many people. That doesn’t mean that it is perfect or inflexible, but if you can really have some faith, you are far more likely to succeed.

“Beyond feeling sick, you feel really out of control. You want to fight, but sometimes, you feel like you are fighting yourself.”

What does a typical “barn day” look like for you?

I usually get to the barn pretty early. Max usually plans the day every morning from his office, so I usually sit with him for a bit to drink my coffee. He loves to chat about everything, so more often than not, I end up spending way longer than I should on his couch.

I almost always ride Wannabe first and then Amarillo. We don’t jump the horses a lot at home, especially the more seasoned ones, so I spend a lot of time on flat work, which I love. When I was a junior, I would literally ride anything with four legs, so I sort of became the de facto flat rider for the really cold, lazy horses. When I got the opportunity to jump a horse that wasn’t my own, I always felt that it was a reward for putting time and effort into the flat work.

One of the greatest feelings is when you have a breakthrough with a horse on the flat. Whether it is a result of patient, continuous strength-building, or just asking a different way, there is something incredibly rewarding about feeling something click.

How have horses helped to shape you as a person?

I don’t mean to sound trite, but horses have truly saved my life, and really profoundly shaped who I am today. When I was 17 and a senior in high school, I was at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) jumping Alaska. At that point, I’d been competing him for a little while, and I had never come off of him, but I did that day.

Unfortunately, I ended up having to go to the hospital, thinking that I had cracked a rib or something—which I in fact had. But when they took a chest X-ray, they also found a mass that was alarming both in size and location. A couple of weeks later, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Hodgkin’s is a relatively slow-growing cancer, which is incredibly lucky. But on the other hand, I was already at stage three of four. So it’s very likely if I had not fallen off that day and had to go to the hospital, it could have gone unnoticed.

Horses are unpredictable [and] life throws things at you that you could never have imagined.

It was definitely a roller coaster. I tried to play it tough, and I told my mom that I would only do what the doctors wanted me to do if I was able to ride. They agreed that as long as my immune system stayed strong, there was no harm in doing something that I loved. The first time post-surgery and following my first chemo treatment that I tried to ride, it became clear that I hadn’t realized just how weak I had become in such a short time.

The drugs for extensive chemotherapy and other treatments don’t necessarily discriminate between healthy cells and cancer cells. So beyond feeling sick, you feel really out of control. You want to fight, but sometimes, you feel like you are fighting yourself. Instead of getting frustrated because it wasn’t really within my control at that point, I sort of threw myself into taking care of my horses back at the barn and spending as much time with them as possible. Being able to be at the barn kept me much stronger and better equipped to fight it.

I have now been in remission for 10 years, and my family and I attribute my health in large part to Alaska.

How did you come up with the idea behind BarnManager.com? 

When I was sick, I ended up spending a lot of time with the vets, grooms and managers trying to learn as much as I could. I think that’s really what pushed me into getting involved more on the management side. I was a working student and then gradually began taking on more and more responsibility as a barn manager for Max. I realized that there were certain components of management that could be simplified by a software program, and that’s how BarnManager.com was born. It’s a cloud-based software solution designed to provide horse owners and managers with the tools that they need to streamline and simplify their daily management responsibilities.

Starting your own company means that there is some flexibility in your schedule. You are your own boss, so technically, no one is stopping you from going to the barn every day, but it also means that the work never stops. I know that the only time that I can slow down my brain and not think about work is when I am riding or working out, so it’s important to me to give myself that time to unwind.

That said, everything is a tradeoff. I used to think it was the end of the world to miss a horse show, but now I know that showing is just a bonus. Getting out to the barn and enjoying my horses is far more important to me than competing every weekend.

“You can do everything right—you can try to predict everything that could possibly go wrong and plan for it—but there is always something outside of your control that you couldn’t anticipate.”

What lessons from the sport have carried over into your personal and professional life?

I think the biggest lesson is that hard work really does pay off. If you commit to something, you surround yourself with good people, and you are willing to work as hard as you can, I truly believe that you can do anything.

I have also learned to be more flexible, which is a lesson that carries over to my professional life every day. You can do everything right—you can try to predict everything that could possibly go wrong and plan for it—but there is always something outside of your control that you couldn’t anticipate. Some of the most successful companies started out as one thing and ended up being something completely different.

Horses, too, are unpredictable, and sometimes your goals need to change as a result. That doesn’t mean that you failed, or that you aren’t good enough. It just means that you have a new opportunity that you didn’t have before.

-Photo credits from left: Shawn McMillen Photography. All images courtesy of Nicole Lakin.