For Heartland fans, Niki Flundra may not be familiar name; however, her horses, Zyada, Stetson and Sonny, are very familiar, as they have doubled for Spartan (Amy’s horse on the show) many times. Niki, a stuntwoman and liberty horse trainer, recently travelled to Williams Lake, B.C., for the Stampede, where I was able to catch up with her and chat about her horses, Heartland, and much more.
1. Tell us about trick riding; how long have you been doing it for, and how did you get started?
I have been involved in the world of trick riding since I was 15 years old so for 22 years now! I always watched it as a little girl at the Calgary Stampede and just knew that I needed to try it. I had the opportunity to train with family friend Jennifer O’Neil (Hay) and it was love at first suicide drag!
2. I understand that you provide horses for Heartland; which horses have you provided, and can we hope to see any in Season 11?
Trick riding has given me many opportunities and led me down many different paths. As I transitioned more from trick riding to liberty horse training and performing I began also to transition from just going stunts in the film industry to providing horses for a few specialty jobs.
My main horse, Zyada, has doubled for Spartan many times as well as two of my other black horses, Stetson and Sonny. They have done everything from laying down to going to their marks for point A to B shots and lots of different things like that. My grey horse, Ace, has also appeared on the show doubling as Zeus. He did the really cool barn scene where the horses fought and reared and resulted in blinding Amy.
3. What do you enjoy most about performing?
What I enjoy most about performing is the fulfilment of knowing the hours of training and all the time spent with my horses is coming to life to show people what an incredible animal they really are. I have always loved horses and this is a way that I get to share that love with the world. I love getting to travel, see new places and meeting amazing people, many of whom become friends that I otherwise wouldn’t cross paths with. I feel so fortunate that I can make a living by spending my days with horses.
4. Tell us about the horses that you perform with. What are their names, breeds, etc.?
Right now I perform with three horses. The first is Zyada (Zee); he is a 13-year-old Quarter Horse that I have had since he was three. He is a one in a million horse that I trust with my life. He does everything from carrying me around the stadium in Houston carrying the American flag bareback and bridleless with a fireworks show over top of us to letting me move cows on him with one of my little boys riding with us; he always takes care of me.
The second horse to come out in my show is Ace. My little quirky spitfire who has so much personality and attitude. He is, however, honest as can be and I love him dearly. He is 10 and an Appendix Quarter Horse.
The third horse I use in the show is my beautiful sweet Stetson. He is 17 now and such a true gentleman of a horse. He has a beautiful long mane and forelock and is such a cool horse. I actually bought him from the set of Heartland when I was working with my other horses one day; he is a registered Paint, but you would not think that to look at him. I wish I had clones of each of these three horses as they are all pretty special in their own unique ways!
5. How did you first get involved with Heartland?
I did some riding stunts on Heartland as Amber Marshall’s double and one day I was headed to a rodeo as soon as I was done and needed to practice and work my horses before I left. Someone must have seen what they could do and it wasn’t long after that they used Z for a laydown scene where Spartan had colic and had to lay sick in a barn with a rattling fan close by and all kinds of activity around him. He did so well with it! He has gone on to do many different scenes since.
6. Tell us about the liberty horses in Season 5?
In season five they really focused on liberty work and my horses did quite a bit of it. At the season finale Amy performed the Dark Horse show with them. It was such a fun thing to be a part of. Our oldest son was only a month old when we started that season and it was quite the year for us!
7. What is a “day in the life” of one of your horses when on the Heartland set?
A day in the life of my horses on set really depends on what scenes need to be shot and how many they are in. They are always really great about not overworking the horses and knowing we can only ask them to do it so many times, so they need to get their shots in efficiently. Many days we wait a long time before we go to work and some days if I have two or three horses working it can be a busy day of lots of different scenes happening. They are all pretty laid back and adjusted to seeing the sound booms and lighting screens and all the different things on set, just like they get used to seeing banners in rodeo arenas and all the different sights and sounds of a fair or rodeo.
8. Tell us about training your liberty horses.
The training of these horses has been such a great learning experience for me. I learned from great Australian trainer Dan James after going to Australia to trick ride in a show where he was performing as well. I have spent many, many hours working with these horses and if I am trying to figure out how to train something new, lots of times it trial and error and I always know I can pick up the phone and ask Dan. He has been such an influence on my career along with some other great trainers I have been fortunate enough to study their methods and learn from.
9. What do you enjoy most about working with horses?
What I enjoy most about working with horses is when you really feel like you are both moving forward on the same track. Those light bulb moments when it all comes together and they truly understand what it is you are communication to them and when they try so hard for you. It always amazes me how hard they try for me.
10. Do you have any tricks/projects that you are currently working on that you’d like to share?
I have a young colt I bought last fall and started on my program. He is coming along nicely and is going to be an awesome addition to the show. He is such a sweet little guy and has been a pleasure to work with. We are always working on new things and trying to improve on what we are doing, I think anybody who works with horses understands that is what the journey is all about. It is an ongoing education for both my horses and I. I feel like they teach me everyday more then I will ever teach them. Mostly they have taught me to have perseverance, patience, courage and to sometimes look outside the box for answers or solutions. It is a humbling thing to work with horses and can present challenges and lots of hard work, but at the end of the day it’s all worth it. I count my blessings for my horses, they are a part of me and for that I will forever be grateful.