IRONWOOD - It all started with Sunday pony rides in Minocqua, Wis.
Nicole Kuklinski, of Ironwood, was about 4 years old at the time and the pony rides led to her love of everything to do with horses.
"Oh yeah, I'm obsessed with it - the whole thing," Kuklinski said. "I live for it. It's my life."
Now 18, her love of horses and horse shows has led her to become one of the biggest names in the American Quarter Horse Association Show World.
At 9, Kuklinski began taking riding lessons at Karen Mattson's farm. Mattson was a fifth grade teacher in Hurley and Nicole was one of her students.
"I really didn't know anything about horses until I took lessons," Kuklinski said. "My first trainer was Joy Ratkowski, who taught me the basic fundamentals about a horse and how to saddle it, get on it, ride it and stay on the horse."
Hooked on horses, it didn't take Nicole long to ask her parents for a horse of her own. Her first horse was "a safe horse" for a child - 18-year-old Boston Sid (also known as Dreamer.)
Soon, Kuklinski began to take Dreamer to horse-riding competitions at fairs and a few open shows, but stayed away from big shows.
The older horse and its rider did all the disciplines at the equestrian events, such as barrel racing, showmanship, hunter under saddle, equitation and Western pleasure.
Kuklinski found out she not only loved horses and horse shows, but had a talent for winning them.
With her continued success, she seemed to be away from home all the time.
"I moved up to competing at Quarter Horse shows when I was 11," Kuklinski said. "It was bigger horse shows, new horses and different trainers. We just kept moving up and moving up very quickly."
With her continued success, she seemed to be away from home all the time.
"I would go to every show possible," she said. "I took online courses so we could travel, train and show."
Nicole's parents said they knew how much horses and the shows meant to their daughter, but the agreement was that if Nicole's grades or school work slipped, the horse shows would come to an end.
Online courses require more discipline than regular classes because there is no attendance requirement and Kuklinski put a lot of time and effort into her classes. The result was she graduated with all A grades, a 4.0 grade point average.
Kuklinski did very well in the horse shows and from the beginning, horse trainers told her she had the natural talent, but there was also a great amount of training and hard work involved in becoming a champion equestrian.
Kuklinski demonstrated she had the persistence and determination to become a top-notch rider by putting everything into her training. When in full competition, she will train at least 70 hours a week and that includes the behind the scenes work, such as cleaning stalls and feeding and care for the horses.
"I ride and practice and do different things," Nicole said. "I sometimes ride with no stirrups to make my legs stronger. I post with no stirrups. I ride with my arms duct-taped together, because you want to keep your arms completely still. I've ridden with no reins. I've ridden blind-folded, because you want to feel it in your seat just to stay on the horse."
Every year, Kuklinski did better and finished higher in horse shows than the previous year.
She said some people have the misconception that all it takes to win is to buy an experienced, expensive horse, get on it, go into the show pen and win, but that is far from the truth.
Nicole did not start her show career with a top of the line horse, but with persistence, passion, an excellent work ethic and some tears along the way, she made her way up the ladder.
The young rider and her horse were beating some very big name horses and riders. At first, she was intimidated and afraid to show against such accomplished riders, but when in the show pen, she gave it her all.
"The horse is only as good as its rider," she said. "You also have to take into account that you are dealing with a 1,200-pound animal and sometimes they have a mind of their own and they sometimes attempt to do what what they feel like doing, not what you need them to be doing. That can be very challenging and can cause you to blow your whole class, but unfortunately it does happen," she added.
Kuklinski's equestrian career took off to such great heights that by the time she was 18, she was competing in about 20 horse shows a year and all over the country.
In 2010, Kuklinski entered the 14-18-year-old division. She wanted to specialize in one discipline, hunter under saddle. She also needed a horse that specialized in that discipline. Her new horse's name is Dancin' In My Sleep (aka Karl), a black, 8-year-old gelding who is "right in his prime."
Kuklinski described hunter under saddle competition and how a horse and rider are judged.
"In hunter under saddle, you go around the show pen in a circle and the judge will call for different things," she said. "They judge you on how well your horse walks and how well your horse trots. They judge you on how well your horse canters and how well you present the horse.
"You are judged on the movement of the horse and and how you present the horse. You're judged on the presentation of the rider, how she transitions the horse from one gate to the next when they are calling for her to do something. Like if she is going from a walk to a trot, how you go into it, if there is a smooth transition or if you have a little roughness in there. The main categories are the movement of the horse, the presentation of the horse and the presentation of the rider."
Kuklinski has one final year to compete in the 14-18 youth age group. She has won all over the country and now concentrates on winning the biggest and most prestigious horse shows, because that is where riders make their mark.
She has won against the best of the best in the Tom Powers Futurity in Berrien Springs and the Michigan Futurity in Lansing.
She has also won many Grand Champion and Reserve awards, Circuit Champion awards and All-Around Champion awards.
Kuklinski has been in the top five in the nation and has led the state of Wisconsin in the hunter under saddle class a number of times.
At the 2013 All-American Quarter Horse Youth Association World Show, she competed against the best riders in the world from the United States, Australia, Canada, Venezuela and other countries. To compete at the world show, a rider must qualify to enter. There were more than 130 entrants in the class and a rider had to make it out of three elimination rounds to make it to the finals.
Nicole, riding Karl, ended up fifth in the intermediate division and 11th overall in the world.
This year, she was sixth overall at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress in Columbus, Ohio, in the 15-18 age group in the youth hunter under saddle and fifth in the National Snaffle Bit Association portion of the class.
"My goal is to win the NSBA World Show and AQHA Youth World Show, as well as the All-American Quarter Horse Congress Show and Reichert Celebration," Kuklinski said. "I know I will have to continue working hard to attain these goals, but this is something I really want and I will give it everything I've got."
Stories about Kuklinski have been featured in several equestrian magazines, such as Go Horse, the AQHA Journal, In Stride Edition, the NSBA Journal and the Michigan and Wisconsin Quarter Horse magazines.
She said none of what she has accomplished in the equestrian world would have been possible without the support, encouragement and sacrifices of her parents, Gary and Jackie Kuklinski, of Ironwood.
Her next show will be in Venice, Fla., Jan. 7-12. She trains and shows under the guidance of Mark and Judy Zeitler, of Abrams, Wis.
Kuklinski is enrolled at Gogebic Community College in the online program, pursuing a degree in business management. This allows her the flexibility to still be on the road showing while obtaining a college degree. She is still not certain on which career path she will follow, but there is one thing she is certain of.
"Horses will always be a part of my life, no matter what," Kuklinski said.