Nicki Branch In the News

Achieving Extraordinary Heights

Article reprinted from The Western Times
originally published March 2007

Boy has this last year flown by! Granted the older I get, the faster time seems to speed by — anyone else feel like they are living in dog years? However it happened though, we have reached our twelfth and final profile of the Extraordinary People series. It's been an amazing experience. I feel so privileged to have met the people that you, the Western Times readers, have nominated for stories. While a vastly diverse cast of characters, all are truly remarkable people.

This last story is one that I found particularly inspirational, possibly because I'm also a middle-aged horsewoman and mom myself. But I suspect that after reading about Nicki Branch, most folks will feel pretty inspired.

Nicki Branch is a mother, an accomplished horsewoman with a very large rescue facility, and a professional chemist. She also happens to be spending her time going through menopause in a quest to summit the highest mountain on every continent — commonly known as the 7 Summits.

Many of the people we have profiled over this last year have always had horses in their lives, even from a very young age. Not so much with Nicki. Yet in recent years she has more than made up for that gap, and has likely accumulated more practical knowledge about horses in the twelve or so years she has been "hands on with horses" than many do in a lifetime.

Nicki's experience with horses started when she was fourteen. She grew up in Long Beach, California, and her mother signed her up for English riding lessons. She soon connected with a man that owned a retired racehorse who needed a job, and Nicki and the horse learned to jump together. She started to show in Jumpers, even competing as high as the Portuguese Bend in Palos Verdes in an Open Jumpers class. Her first heartbreak around horses happened in this same time period. This horse that she had grown so attached to colicked and died. It was a hard first lesson in losing a horse. Still, she went on to ride an Anglo-Arab mare that belonged to a cousin, training it to jump and show Hunters, finally competing at Del Mar.

Then Nicki went off to college and had no horses in her life for the next twenty-six years. It was in San Diego in 1999, that horses re-entered her life, and with a vengeance! Nicki had retained her interest in horses, but in earlier years was married to someone that did not share her passion equestrian. But she was now divorced, with a 3 year old son, and while watching a show on Animal Planet she learned for the first time that horses were sent off to slaughter houses. It was simply something she had not been aware of, in fact many Americans don't know about it to this day. The information on the show triggered some gut response though, and soon she was supporting several equine rescue organizations, mainly financially, but starting to really invest her heart and mind in the world of unwanted horses.

Then it happened, the support became personal, deeply personal. Nicki got involved with "Carpe Diem" and soon afterwards she owned her first rescue horse, Nash. He was a five year old Arab stallion that had literally lived inside of a barn his entire life with three other horses, never once going outside. The conditions were horrific and it's a dramatic story in itself. You can read about it online at: »

In any case, Nash's plight spoke volumes to Nicki's heart, and he journeyed across the country to come live with her after that terrible start in life. At the time she had no horse property, and she paid to board him. Soon after she adopted another rescue, Captain, a 17 plus hand thoroughbred and a year later she said good-bye to boarding and bought a horse ranch.

That ranch, FalconRidge Equine Rescue Inc, a California non-profit corporation, now is home to between 55 and 65 horses at any given time, and other than 8-10 that are in professional training with her partner, David Lee Archer, the rest are all horses that were formerly unwanted and have been given a second chance with Nicki. Some leave to go to new homes, some pass away, the horses in training change frequently, but Nicki always has a lot unwanted horses that she cares for, most that she has gifted with a lifetime home.

You see, that's Nicki's thing, unwanted horses. And not just less than desirable, but the ones that are really unwanted. She tells me "Everyone is looking for the perfect horse, or even a good horse, but there are all these horses that are either physically deformed or have serious behavior issues. Those are the horses that call to me, that I feel like I need to stand up for. I used to go out looking for them actually"

A few cases in point:

  • One of her rescue horses Titan has a severe swayback. Nicki rescued him and for fun took him to a horse show, showing him in the halter class. It was a color class and with his lovely coloring, he won a blue ribbon.
  • There was Dante who had a crooked leg. Nicki rescued him and had his leg fixed.
  • One of the more interesting cases was Falcon, who was a hermaphrodite (had physical traits of both sexes). With mixed hormones, the horse could neither be kept with geldings or mares. Falcon was acting very studdy and an intense internal examination turned up two tiny testicles that were generating testosterone. They had Falcon "gelded" and it resolved the behavior problems and now "she" is leading a good life.
  • Cush is a horse Nicki took in as he had a very deformed face and no one wanted him. These days he gets love and attention from Nicki's son Jordan, among many others.

Many of the horses Nicki rescues have severe behavioral problems instead of physical issues. Fortunately between the experience she has gained handling horses and her partner, David's skills, they are able to turn many of these problems around and re-home the horses with great families. Even some of the horses with physical issues can be rehabbed and found new homes. Case in point was King, a Tennessee Walker she rescued from a feedlot. King was an ex-show horse who had foundered. By the time he got to the feedlot he was hundreds of pounds underweight and in terrible condition. When Nicki got him to the ranch, she was dubious that he would even make it. But King blossomed at FalconRidge. Not only did he fill out and become gorgeous, he turned out to be one of the sweetest, most gentle horses Nicki had ever met. She knew of someone with a family member living with a disability, that had been flourishing in a therapeutic riding program, but had worsened physically and afterwards been put back onto a wait list. King was a perfect therapy horse for this child and Nicki gave him to the family, where King continues to make her happy every day, while thriving himself.

Sometimes sound horses experience trauma that is too great for them to ever be trustworthy, and Nicki has a few of these horses as well. One is Noggy, an Icelandic gelding that has a history of injuring his riders. A very sweet horse on the ground but an early trauma with bad wildfire escalated into a series of terrifying events for him, from which he never mentally recovered. Nicki and David recognized that he should not be ridden, and now he has a loving home at FalconRidge.

From 1999 through 2006, Nicki had rescued and/or re-homed a couple hundred very unwanted horses. During this time she had also continued her work as a chemist and been raising her 11 year old son Jordan. But 2006 brought about two very painful events. First she lost her job of 26 years, and shortly afterwards her mother died. Either of these would be devastating for most of us to bear, to have both happen that much the worse. But somehow Nicki used the events as a catalyst, and found the inner strength to do what she seems to do best — find something important to her and make it happen in a big way.

Up until 12 years ago Nicki had been an avid mountaineer, especially enjoying high altitude climbing. She and her ex-husband, prior to her pregnancy, had planned on doing some major summit climbs. But then she had Jordan, got divorced and rediscovered her love of horses in a whole new way.

But now her mom was gone and she didn't have her day job. She looked hard at her life, what was important, and what she wanted to accomplish. She wanted to be a motivational speaker in the future, so she committed herself to "an inspirational quest to turn dreams into reality and success by trying to climb the World's highest mountains." She jokes on her website "without a job after 26 years, losing her mother two months later and starting menopause, what's a woman to do? Attempt to Climb Mount Everest, of course!"

But Nicki's quest is not "only" to do the 7 Summits, she's also trying for a new World's record to be the fastest woman to do the 7 Summits - this will mean completing them all in less than 2 years. But wait, there's more. To hold the 7 Summit record without dispute she actually has to summit 8 mountains! The problem is that within the mountaineering community, some say that Kosciuszko, which is the highest point on the Australian continent, is the 7th summit. But others feel that Australia is really not a continent, but that "Australasia" is, and therefore Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia should be the seventh summit. So to be safe, she is planning on climbing both of them. Now if she can summit them all but it takes more than two years, she would still earn the record for the world's oldest American woman to do all the summits. But as she says laughing, "who wants to hold a record for being the oldest at something?"

I have to ask Nicki why she wants to climb mountains. I mean, I get her passion for horse rescue well-enough (though the thought of trying to care for so many horses makes my knees weak since just my two seem like a lot of work) but the notion of aspiring to climb to 30,000 feet is simply beyond my grasp. Especially as by her own admission, the highest she had been to previously was Mt. Whitney at 15,000 feet.

She tells me it really isn't something that can be explained. "Once you have been to high altitude, well it's hard to explain unless you have done it yourself. You work so hard for the summit - it's really for seriously goal-driven people. You feel the most alive when you are at risk, and the more alive you feel, the more you come to value everything else in your life. It's cathartic. It also gives me a chance to promote my belief that women can do anything they want. If a woman wants to do something, really do something, then don't let anything stand in your way, just make it happen."

With less than three months of training last year, Nicki is already well on the road to success. She has achieved her first two summits, Kilimanjaro, Africa in December 2006 and Aconcagua, South America in January 2007. Next comes Kosciuszko, in Australia, which she describes as "just a walk-up really" in March, followed by intense ice-climbing school in Colorado so she can summit Denali in Alaska, this June. Then Elbrus in Europe for July, Vinson in Antarctica in December, followed by the big one in May 2008, Mount Everest.

What does her family think about all this? She admits they are very worried, but she emphasizes that her primary goal, what she always keeps in the front of her mind, is not to summit, but rather it's to always come home and to always be safe. "I know how much literally every step counts, and that the most important thing of all is to come home. I will always make the choice to be safe over summiting."

My last question for her has to be, "so what's next after the 7 Summits? How can you possibly top being on top?"

I am not at all surprised by her ready-answer. She already has a solid plan in place: to start a full-time therapeutic riding program at FalconRidge Ranch.

You go girl!

You can follow along with Nicki's incredible quest or learn more about the horses of FalconRidge at »