Nicholson Led Horse Center Out Of ‘Crisis’ To ‘Prominence’

Nicholson Led Horse Center Out Of ‘Crisis’ To ‘Prominence’

JOHN NICHOLSON has been working with the Virginia Horse Center, first as a consultant and then as CEO, since 2014. (photo courtesy of the Virginia Horse Center)

CEO Plans To Retire This Year

In spite of the pandemic, the Virginia Horse Center has been a bustling place this past year. Shuttered for a couple of months at the outset of COVID-19, the horse center came galloping back in June with the return of the Bonnie Blue National Horse Show.

Weekly shows have been going full-throttle since then, without spectators but with more participants than ever. CEO John Nicholson said three significant new shows were added in the fall and two more over the winter.

“We’re off to a great start this year,” said Nicholson, who is credited with leading a resurgence of the horse center, helping it to achieve financial stability in the six years he has been at the helm. “The future is bright for the Virginia Horse Center,” declares Nicholson, who is retiring later this year.

The Virginia Horse Center board announced his pending retirement last week.

Former board president Ernie Oare recalled luring Nicholson, who had been CEO of the Kentucky Horse Park, out of retirement in 2014 to be a consultant for the VHC, then in financial straits. A year later, Nicholson agreed to take the reigns as CEO. “Together with a strong team, John skillfully led the facility out of a crisis to a position of prominence in the commonwealth and national equestrian communities,” said Oare.

Under his leadership VHCF’s financial stability was restored, enabling it to thrive following a time when its very survival had been in question. At the outset, he was able to persuade members of the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors and Lexington City Council to increase the portion of the local lodging tax earmarked for the horse center’s debt service so that financial stability could be achieved.

Nicholson and his team were then able to attract new horse shows, recruit new board members and garner the support of the equestrian community. Most recently, the horse center raised millions of dollars to fund newly added renovations and upgrades, guided by the VHC Foundation’s first-ever master plan.

“On behalf of the entire board, I would like to thank John for his more than six years of service,” said board president Gardy Bloemers. “Seven years ago, our organization faced two very serious problems: a leadership void and financial instability. It would be hard to imagine what would have happened to [the] VHC had we not found John.”

Spencer Suter, Rockbridge County administrator, said Nicholson “was the shot in the arm that the VHCF needed at such a critical time. It is no coincidence that his arrival heralded a period of organizational healing and financial recovery. His ability to seamlessly develop relationships and earn trust was clearly a catalyst in revitalizing a critical component of our community.”

“The heart of our recovery was getting the support of the localities,” acknowledges Nicholson. “We had to have that. If we didn’t have that, it wouldn’t be here.” The county and city, he continued, “allowed us to stabilize our finances so we could go forward with fundraising. Everything is improved – our relationships with donors, what promises to be a very good plan going forward.”

Nicholson said he’d actually planned to retire last year but the pandemic upended those plans, as it has nearly everything else. Now, having weathered this crisis, and confident that everything is in place for the center to be on positive footing, he is making plans to step aside. “I’ll stay until a successor is chosen. I’ll stay as long as I can be of help, in any way, shape or form. The time frame is to have someone in place by mid-summer.”

Bloemers appointed a board subcommittee in December to lead the search for VHCF’s next leader with the goal of filling the position in the middle of this year.

Prior to coming here, Nicholson was with the Kentucky Horse Park for more than 20 years, including 17 years as CEO. He led the park’s expansion that was made possible by $100 million in investments during his tenure. He oversaw the park when it served as host for the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games. That same year he received the Equine Industry Vision Award from the American Horse Publications.

“I strongly believe in the future of the VHC [Foundation],” said Nicholson. “I am proud that many of our goals have been accomplished. The VHCF has a bright future and I look forward to seeing its continued success.”

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