Young Rider Steals The Show At Wölffer Derby

India Wenner-Nye, 12, and her horse, Danny, at Wolffer Estate Stables. The pair won the Wolffer Derby in October against a field of older and more experienced riders. CALIN RILEY

India Nye-Wenner knows what it’s like to have her confidence shaken, and the kind of grit it takes to build it back up again. It’s a lesson she’s learned at an earlier age than most of her pre-teen peers, taught to her by the four-legged animals she’s loved since she was just 3 years old.

On Sunday, October 18, Nye-Wenner, 12, stole the show at the annual Wölffer Derby at Wölffer Estate Stables in Sagaponack, piloting her horse, Danny, to the champion ribbon in the 3-foot-6-inch division on the 100-acre farm’s sprawling grass field bordered on one end by Montauk Highway. While she did have a home field advantage of sorts, competing at the barn where she rides and trains with Ben Tula, Nye-Wenner’s victory was still impressive.

Wearing a pair of jodhpurs and brown paddock boots typically found on pony riders popping over tiny cross-rails, Nye-Wenner defeated a field of riders considerably older and more experienced than her, skillfully guiding her large brown horse over a course of challenging natural elements with banks, ditches and wide shrubbery that had stymied plenty of other seasoned horse and rider pairs that day.

Nye-Wenner’s ability to make it look easy that day was the product of persevering through many days when it wasn’t. During an interview at Wölffer Stables on a warm fall day in mid-November, after a riding lesson aboard Danny with Tula, the soft-spoken but confident part-time Montauk resident who attends school in New York City, shared how she’s been able to find success in a sport that requires a fair amount of mental toughness at such a young age.

As is often the case with the best riders, Nye-Wenner owes much of her success to a few less-than-perfect ponies.

There was one, around the time she was 8, who was constantly stopping in front of jumps. Eventually, Nye-Wenner and her trainer at the time discovered the pony had an undiagnosed injury that was likely the source of its refusal to go airborne. The pony after that, unfortunately, also turned out to be a stopper. For riders of any age or ability, a horse or pony with a deep reluctance to jump the jumps can be a real confidence shaker, and it can create a bad feedback loop that’s hard to break. A horse that’s prone to stopping in front of a jump can make a rider feel nervous; horses are emotionally intuitive animals, and when they sense that the rider is anxious, they pick up on that feeling, making them even more reluctant to go over a fence.

Nye-Wenner admitted that riding two ponies with that same issue shook her confidence a bit, at a time when she was eager to advance in the sport, and seeing images of other riders moving up and jumping higher. But she said she never seriously considered quitting.

“I never wanted to stop, but I did have bits where I was kind of reconsidering it a bit,” she said. “Because I have Instagram and there’s always kids who are jumping a meter-twenty [nearly four feet]. But I just stuck with it because I knew a lot of it was happening during the winter, and the winter makes [the horses] crazy sometimes. So I got to the summer and it got better.”

Nye-Wenner also has the kind of personality that seems to lend itself well to overcoming adversity — she’s disciplined and takes her schoolwork seriously, even casually mentioning she’d maybe like to be a lawyer one day; and she likes to fill seemingly every minute of free time with some kind of athletic pursuit. She takes ballet lessons, at home, via Zoom, for three hours per day, four days a week. When she’s in Montauk on weekends, she’s either riding or surfing; she likes to ski, and even dabbled in figure skating for a time. Riding is near the top of the list when it comes to her passions, and she’s looking forward to next summer, when she hopes the pandemic will have abated enough to allow for more horse showing, which she relishes for the chance it gives her to prove her abilities to an audience.

“I’m very competitive,” she said. “I’m not a sore loser; if I lose, I just laugh, it’s fine, but I do like to work hard and win. Seeing [other riders] on social media, I’m like, I could be like that, and I can get better.”

While she enjoys taking home ribbons like she did at the Wölffer Derby, Nye-Wenner said that showing is only a small part of why she enjoys riding, and why she’s stuck with it since her father, Matthew Nye, who also rides at Wölffer, first put her, her twin brother, and an older brother on ponies at an upstate New York barn when she was just 3. (Her brothers have since moved on to other athletic pursuits).

“I love horses,” she said, her blue eyes sparkling. “They’re really cute, they’re really fun, and it’s really fun to have a bond with an animal. And I really love to jump.”

Nye-Wenner’s goal of jumping higher and higher is being realized thanks to the guidance of Tula and what he calls a perfect partnership between her and Danny, who she began riding in June.

Despite their compatibility, Wenner-Nye said she certainly didn’t expect to take home the top prize at the Wölffer Derby. She rode a different horse in the same show last year, and said he sped through the course at top speed because he didn’t like jumping in the field. At another derby-style show at nearby Topping Riding Club last year, her horse refused to jump the first jump on the course. She said she thought she was in for more of the same this time around, and decided to just try and have fun — and ended up winning.

When asked what it’s like to be the youngest rider, by far, and win, Tula cut in and said, with a laugh, “Tell her why you don’t wear tall boots.”

Nye-Wenner laughed, too, with a twinkle in her eye, before assuring her trainer she had plans to buy the tall black boots typically worn by riders once they transition from a pony to a horse. But it was clear she enjoyed defying the expectations others may have about her riding ability based on her age and size.

“It’s kind of fun because people see me and think, oh she’s 10 or something, because I’m so short,” she said. “If I was 16 and had the same ability, it would be different, but when they see how young you are, they’re like, you’re so amazing.”

Nye-Wenner added that she likes the kind of even playing field riding can provide, where age, size and gender don’t matter in the kind of way they can in other sports. It’s a point that was illustrated earlier in the day, as she received instruction from Tula in the indoor riding ring while her father was soaring over jumps in the same ring under the guidance of another instructor.

“It’s kind of cool to see how people of so many different ages like to ride,” she said. “You see little kids riding their first ponies, to adults getting into riding as a fun hobby. It’s kind of fun to see that.”

Training Nye-Wenner is certainly fun for Tula, who said she has the kind of natural ability that can propel her to even greater heights if she wants to get there.

“You can correct her once and you know it will be just once,” he said. “For someone who enjoys teaching, it’s really fun, and it makes the job easier.

“I think if she gets the support, because it’s a sport where you need a lot of support financially and emotionally, too, I think she’s going to jump Grand Prix,” Tula added.

He’s not the only one at the barn who believes in Nye-Wenner’s potential. Joey Wölffer, who owns the stables, allowed the 12-year-old to ride — and go over jumps — on one of her own horses, a large gray named Antonov (Tony), who she’s competed with to great success in the high jumper divisions at top-rated shows across the country. He’s a talented but temperamental horse, who, Tula said, famously disdains anyone but Wölffer, and for that reason she’s not in the habit of letting just anyone take a spin on him.

“He’s like a celebrity,” Tula said. “Nobody gets to jump him. That’s a big deal here.”
Much like the ponies she rode in her younger years, Tony didn’t make it easy on Nye-Wenner, but it was a valuable experience all the same. Even Danny has his moments where he tests her, Nye-Wenner said. But she knows by now how to take it all in stride.

“He’s stopped a few times, but I don’t get mad or upset,” she said. “I just circle around, keep my leg on and try to feel more confident, and I get him over the jump.”