Few would deny that show jumping is an all-or-nothing kind of thing, at least for those who do it successfully. But for most amateurs, the high demands of the sport are juggled alongside busy careers, family obligations, and more. For some, this balancing act can wear thin with time. For others, it pushes them to excel.
Achieving success in and out of the ring is a priority for Duke University graduate and Under 25 Grand Prix rider, Mackenzie Drazan, and with no shortage of hard work (and a bit of creativity), she’s pulling both off with gusto. The California native has been riding since childhood and though she’s was regular fixture in the Under 25 Grand Prix classes with her supermare, Waliba VDL (now under the reins of Elli Yeager), Mackenzie has had plenty of experience multitasking. First, while juggling horse shows and school with a busy international modeling career, and now, as the founder behind TEAM., a website that provides action-oriented information for the friends and family members of loved ones struggling with depression and other mental health conditions.
Following graduation, Mackenzie shifted her energies to focus full-time on TEAM. and its sister site, MiResource. Although competing in the show ring has taken a temporary backseat, Mackenzie and has no plans to give up the sport anytime soon. “Horses are such a deep passion of mine and I love riding, so I will always do everything that I can to make sure I can still ride and compete,” Mackenzie says.
We caught up with the multi-talented rider to talk about finding balance, making a difference, and why horses will always be so much more than a “hobby”.
NoelleFloyd.com: Tell us how you got started in the sport.
Mackenzie Drazan: I’ve been riding for as long as I can remember. On my first birthday, my mom took me for a pony ride when we were visiting friends in the Hamptons [New York]. My mom grew up riding and wanted me to like horses as well, and when we were walking up to the ponies, she started thinking, Oh, God, what am I doing? She’s too young and she’s going to get scared and hate it, and then she’ll never love horses… Of course, I loved it, and when she took me off, I started screaming. Ever since I could talk, it was always, “Can we go see the horses?” I begged my mom to take lessons and I’ve loved it ever since.
NF: Your coach is Teal Orlin – how has she had an impact on your riding?
MD: I’ve been working with Teal for a little over three years and I’ve been really lucky to be able to train with her one-on-one and develop a strong trust with her. When we’re at home we work really hard, which allows me to put myself in what may seem like an uncomfortable situation at the time, but helps me to learn things quickly and build a strong foundation. So when we go to the horse show and we’re working on more complicated elements in the ring – things like weight distribution and foot placement and taking the inside turn – it really does fall into place, because we do drill so much at home.
NF: What’s your favorite part of the sport?
MD: I love competing – everything about it. I love setting goals and giving everything you’ve got to achieve them. I love the connection and trust you have with the horse. I love the excitement and pressure and the focus it requires – I actually find it very calming because you can’t allow yourself to think about all the other hectic elements of your life. You have to find that calm that allows you to be in the moment and focus on what’s happening every stride.
NF: Let’s talk about TEAM. What’s the idea behind this organization?
MD: The goal of TEAM. is to educate people on how to be supportive to a friend or family member with a mental health condition. My sister struggled with depression and we lost her to it my freshman year of university. I found it was really hard to be supportive of her, because we didn’t know anything about mental health. It’s a really steep learning curve because most of us don’t have the kind of education required – we’re not taught the difference between being really sad and being depressed.
What I realized is that there’s not enough attention for the individual who’s struggling, but also, that there needed to be a resource for friends and family members who then can provide support to that individual and give them that strong foundation. I wanted to create that and to curate content from other professionals who had written on the topic to provide them with action-oriented information.
People are afraid of what they don’t know, so if we can teach people about mental health, and how to be there for someone, we can really raise the level of awareness. When you understand more, the stigma goes away, more people can get the help they need, and the community can be supportive of people who are struggling.
NF: Lots of kids balance college and riding, but you also have TEAM., and in the past, a busy modeling career. How do you manage all those aspects when pursuing the sport at such a high level?
MD: I was juggling classes, modeling, and riding leading up to university. I was doing online school at the time, which gave me the flexibility to have a rigorous academic schedule, but then still be able to ride and do fashion. I wasn’t going to give any of them up. It was really hectic and required immense time management, scheduling, and planning ahead – I don’t know if I would recommend it to anyone because it was definitely crazy! But I don’t regret any part of it.
I’m sort of juggling a similar schedule now with TEAM. and MiResource, and I’ve learned to be creative. I’ll be at home lessoning and I’ll have a [Skype] call for work, so I’ll run into the barn and throw on a dress shirt and have the meeting, and then I’ll go back out and get back on the horse and ride. It’s a bit of balance, but I’m so passionate about both things, so we make it work.NF: What’s a typical barn day like for you?
MD: When I’m back at school [in North Carolina] my horses stay in California, so I don’t actually get to practice, which is tricky. But that’s actually where the trust comes in with Teal. She does an amazing job with my horses, and when I show up to the horse show, I can trust that my horses are prepared and in the right place so I can focus on competing. It’s not ideal – I love training and being home so I can practice and work on getting better – but we make it work.
NF: What are some of your one of your favorite riding pieces and why?
MD: I really love Ariat hunt coats. They’re lightweight and their cooling technology is really incredible. For me, I’m a believer that your body temperature really does affect performance, and you can really see it in studies about the brain. The flexibility and technology that goes into Ariat’s products are really spectacular, and they allow you to ride and not think about other factors that may be influencing you.
I have a “lucky” Ariat coat, the Platinum Show Coat, which I usually save for Classic days, but now that the weather is warmer, I’ve transitioned into one of their more lightweight coats. They’re so comfortable and I love that they’re machine washable. When you get sweaty, you just throw it into the machine and it looks amazing and feels great the next day.
NF: When you’re not riding, where might we find you?
MD: I love hiking, swimming, biking, tennis – I just love being outside. I spend all morning outside and then I come inside to do work, and it’s so hard. I’m not an office person!
NF: What’s the most inspiring moment you’ve had on a horse?
MD: Actually, it didn’t happen to me, it was while watching my younger sister – she was maybe eight at the time – cantering around on one of the ponies in the ring. She chipped really badly, and got thrown up into the air completely out of the tack; we have a really funny photo of it! But then, when her pony landed on the other side, he stopped in his tracks and stood perfectly still until she smashed back down into the saddle, and then he kept going. It just shows you the amazing bond you can have with your horses. It’s really special, and when you are a team, it’s incredible what they’ll do for you. They have the biggest hearts.
NF: What kind of life lessons would you say horses have taught you?
MD: When you’re younger and you’re going to shows, horses really teach you time management, because you’re on the road and you’re doing your homework, and then you have to focus on the riding. They’ve also taught me about responsibility. Maybe you don’t wash your car one day, but horses are live animals. You have to feed and care for your horse, you don’t have an option. So that sense of responsibility and not questioning it – you have to do something, so you just do it – makes you a very reliable, dedicated person.
The same thing goes with competing. Riding is a very humbling sport; you win and then you lose, you win and you lose, and it’s a rollercoaster. They say one of the most important qualities in life is to have grit, and the ability to deal with failure and move on. I don’t think there’s a sport that teaches that as well as horseback riding. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn,” is a quote that I think is so incredible, and it’s true. No matter how hard you try, your horse might just wake up on the wrong side of the bed one day, and you can’t control that.
Riding gives you the motivation to keep going in all aspects of your life, because nothing is ever going to go according to plan. Everyone has bad days and everyone falls off. The people who succeed are the people who stick to it.
All photos by ©Ariat International, Inc.
Written by Nina Fedrizzi
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.