Horseback Riding Upside Down and Backwards

Trick rider and liberty trainer Niki Flundra can wow audiences with her explosive style, but she gives the credit to her rock-solid American Quarter Horses.

America’s Horse

The rider has slid off the side of her galloping horse. Her feet are stuck somehow in the saddle, her long blond hair flows wildly around the horse’s hind legs, and her fingertips drag the ground as the horse bolts at a furious pace. As if watching that wasn’t enough to stop your heart, a wall of fire erupts across the dirt arena floor, and Niki Cammaert Flundra is dragged right through the blaze.

A completely trustworthy horse coupled with pure athletic ability are the only things keeping Niki from getting those golden locks set ablaze or becoming more intimate with how that trick-riding maneuver got the name “suicide drag.” But she never loses her smile and soon is back atop the horse … albeit upside down with legs straight up in the air.

Niki’s resume is impressive: trick rider, liberty horse trainer, stunt woman, pyrotechnics coordinator and mom.

For a decade and a half, she and her horses have ventured out from her home in Alberta, across North America and even as far as Australia, thrilling rodeo fans with her trick-riding act. She has performed at many notable rodeos, including the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, the Calgary Stampede and the Canadian Finals Rodeo.

American Quarter Horses have been central to her success from the beginning, and Niki is quick to give them credit.

“I got started trick riding because my dad used to do the fireworks for the Calgary Stampede,” Niki says. “He took us to the rodeo every year, and I saw the trick riding, and I just fell in love with it. I wanted to give it a go, and I did. That was 16 years ago.”

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Niki’s athletic endeavors began at a young age with figure skating and gymnastics, disciplines that gave her a head start in developing the physical strength, balance and fitness required for trick riding. Horses, however, hadn’t factored heavily into her life at that point.

“I didn’t have a large horsemanship background,” Niki says. “I got involved with 4-H horse club and high school rodeo, and I started trying to learn as much as I could about horses and riding them. That end of it has taken me a long time to get to where I am, and, obviously, I’m still working at getting better with horses all the time.

“I grew up in the country just across the road from my grandparents’ farm, and they had horses, so I was always over there bugging them to ride … about an hour northeast of Calgary, a little town called Rocky Ford. When I really started getting serious about riding, I was about 14 years old. I think for that age, and for what I was doing, it was just kind of a natural fit for me.”

One of Niki’s first great trick-riding horses went back to Doc Bar. Since then, she is always excited to see that bloodline in any Quarter Horse she considers buying. She says it is a bloodline that has proven to be great for her line of work, but she is equally sentimental about it because of that horse, “Willy.”

“He was probably just one of the greatest trick-riding horses that there ever was,” Niki says. “I just recently purchased a horse that went back to Doc Bar, too (6-year-old Slidin N Grinnin). When I saw that, I just got a little bit excited because it’s something I’m familiar with and have had good success with in the past. It does spark my interest when I go back and look at bloodlines and see the breeding in my new horses that I’ve had success with in some of my older horses.”

Willy was responsible for teaching Niki much about trick riding. He was literally an old pro, who had performed at the Calgary Stampede with another well-known trick rider before Niki bought him, and he took her to a whole new level in her trick-riding aspirations, she says.

“When we got to the gate ready to go into a performance, his head would come up, and he would start prancing, and he absolutely flat flew,” Niki says. “He ran so hard, but he took care of me. He never made a mistake, and I never had to worry about my horse from that point on. All I had to worry about was doing my job. He taught me so much about trick riding and gave me the opportunity to really work on my skills, as opposed to worrying about what my horse was doing. He really gave me the chance to show it off because he was flashy and fast and loved it.”

When Willy turned 24, Niki felt he was too old to keep traveling so much, so she passed him down to a 10-year-old girl she was teaching at the time.

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Since retiring Willy from her string, Niki has owned many other American Quarter Horses and is now incorporating more liberty work into her shows, which highlights her ability to interact with her horses while they are completely free from halters, ropes or other mechanical attachments.

The transition to a less dare-devilish show is due in part to Niki’s becoming a mother. Her son, Ridge David James Flundra, was born in March 2011, and Niki says it has changed her perspective somewhat, although she continued to ride and work to a safe degree during her pregnancy and since the birth.

Niki’s husband is Canadian champion and NFR bronc rider Dustin Flundra, so their son already is no stranger to American Quarter Horses and top-level rodeo.

“I’ve got wonderful family support,” Niki says. “There’s a lot of juggling and getting creative on how to work a horse in the round pen and be pushing a stroller, and having a baby on the hip and be working a horse. It’s definitely a challenge at times, but it’s good. It’s fun!”

The liberty work and bridleless riding Niki’s horses can do make them quite valuable to the film industry. Niki is often hired to use her horses for various stunts in front of the camera. One of her better-known horses these days is a black horse she calls “Z” (registered as All Z Wright Stuff), who is often seen on Canadian TV’s family drama “Heartland,” where he is a stunt double for the main equine character. Z is a grandson of Peppy Badger Chex, a world champion reiner and working cow horse. Another star and seasoned trick-riding horse is “Rebel,” a palomino registered as Blue Twist Kansas who traces to racehorses Pacific Bailey, Moon Deck and Beduino (TB).

“I really enjoy the liberty horse training and working that into my performance,” Niki says. “I have a beautiful act with two black horses (including Z) that I ride bridleless and work at liberty doing everything from rearing to laying down to crossing one over the other while one lays down. I really like to have the horses work in the film industry, and there has been a fair amount of demand for them.

“I think that the Quarter Horse is such a well-rounded horse, that there are so many disciplines that they’re really good at because they’re often well built. I’ve always liked the horse with a good bone that’s well proportioned with a good mind, and the Quarter Horse has always seemed to fit that bill for me … I’ve had good success with them.”

Pyrotechnics are what got Niki to the Stampede to discover trick riding in the first place, and they have factored into her career since. She has developed moves like loping her horses up a ramp and onto the top of a trailer while enormous plumes of flame shoot into the air beside them, and her signature move is standing atop a galloping horse holding a big flapping flag that shoots a fountain of sparks out the top.

“I grew up around (pyrotechnics),” Niki says. “I’m certified as a pyrotechnician. I worked for several years putting on fireworks shows. It has been a big part of the interesting path that I’ve taken to shows over the years, just to add a little bit of special effects. It has been one of the bigger challenges of my act, because obviously when you’re dealing with pyrotechnics and horses, there are a lot of variables there.”

If there’s one thing Niki wants to impart to her fans, it is to consider how important great horses are in her line of work.

“When people watch trick riding, they’re often amazed or astounded by the actual tricks and the daringness and the athleticism of the trick rider,” Niki says, “but what people need to realize is that the horse plays about a 90 percent part of trick riding, because without a good one, you absolutely cannot get anything done.

“You basically throw the reins at them, and they run free, and you put all your trust in them. And to find a safe one that likes his job, that takes care of you so that you can do yours – the good ones are hard to find. Trick riding is really unique in the way that we often tie our feet in or strap ourselves onto the horse and then go hang and drag and do all kinds of crazy things, and I just think people don’t realize how important it is to have a really, really solid trustworthy horse.”

Special thanks to professional photographer John McCaine for allowing our use of the above photo. Visit his website at www.johnmccaine.com.

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