Mar 04, 2019

Now on Course: A Dream Come True

McKenzie Rollins and Excel Star Lord on course at the 2019 USEA AEC. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

I do not take risks, particularly when it comes to horses. I am meticulous and methodical. I like to have a plan and I do not like leaving things up to chance.

I do not come from money. I grew up working every school break and every summer at the barn just to ensure I could be around horses. I feel guilty when I buy a new pair of jeans. So when I decided to buy a horse in 2016, it was the biggest financial decision of my life. (Bigger than when I decided to move from Massachusetts to California by myself seven years ago. At least I was only a plane ticket away, right?)

I had very quietly started looking, and I remember the day Courtney Cooper sent me videos of a 4-year-old bay gelding in Ireland. My heart stopped. My eyes widened. I was instantly twitterpated. It was love at first sight- or love at first viewing in this case.

The little bay horse trotting and cantering around in my phone really made me question my sanity as I hadn’t even entertained the idea of importing a horse. I mean, it was something I dreamed about in my land-beyond-far-away-nevermind fantasies, but it didn’t seem like something I could realistically manage at this point in my life. And I certainly couldn’t figure out how to explain to my very practical, non-horsey boyfriend, Josh, that this was a good idea. “Aren’t there horses to buy in this country?” he asked. Silly man. Yes, of course there are. BUT THIS ONE IS THE ONE! Besides I was already in love. It was impossible to explain, and I just set about the business of trying to make it work.

Franklin at Jonathan Reape's yard in Ireland. Photo courtesy of McKenzie Rollins.

Fortunately, Courtney and I had worked together before, so she was familiar with my neuroses and assured me he was lovely and sweet and kind.

But was he?

Would he comfortable?

I wasn’t even going to be able to try him!

What if he doesn’t like me?

OH MY GOD what if he gets here and we don't like each other?

What if he hates me for bringing him to LA?

It was all a blur, and I spent many nights lying in bed worrying but ultimately decided YOLO, right? (I know, I still can’t stop using that...) I figured I would eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drink only water for the rest of my life and everything would be fine. Josh may think I am a crazy person and maybe he will break up with me BUT I WILL HAVE A BEAUTIFUL, FANCY HORSE!

Josh did not break up with me. He helped me. We decided to call this beautiful horse Franklin. I grew up on Franklin St. in Franklin County, Massachusetts. Josh and I met at a restaurant called Franklin & Company on Franklin Avenue here in Los Angeles. It was fate! But his show name would be Excel Star Lord (much to Josh’s chagrin). I thought it sounded rad, and Star Lord was on my list of names to one day use for a horse. (You all have that list, right? I’m not the only one? Ok. Good.)

McKenzie's first ride on Frankie. Photo courtesy of McKenzie Rollins.

I cried the first day I rode Frankie. I just couldn’t believe everything had worked out and I couldn’t believe my good fortune. He was so lovely, and so kind and sweet and really, really, really talented. I realized just how talented when he jumped out of the four-foot turn out, bounced the fenceline into our ring, and cantered right up to me while I was teaching a lesson!

My dear friend Jennifer Johnson and I quietly began the process of creating an event horse! Week-to-week and show-to-show, there were improvements, new developments, ups and downs, challenges - all of the things that come with developing a young horse. My first rule was not to pressure him beyond his mental capabilities. I knew he was athletic, but it was very important to me that he continued to enjoy the job and could meet the challenges. I never wanted to overface or scare him.

A first place ribbon for Frankie at Rebecca Farm. Photo courtesy of McKenzie Rollins.

So, we took it slowly, and it certainly worked! It has been one of my greatest joys to work with this horse and so satisfying to see him flourish. I kept my head up, leaned in, did the work, and eventually, we found ourselves being very successful. We won a number of shows in our Area VI and won at Rebecca Farm two years in a row, first at Novice and then at Training. Luckily, the USEA American Eventing Championships were in Colorado this past year so it was feasible for us to participate and we entered in the Training Horse division. AND WE WON!

Riding at the AECs was a dream come true. My mom was there crying her eyes out. She’d worked at the barn to help pay for lessons when I was child and has been the single biggest champion of my passion. The blood, sweat, and tears it took for me to make that dream happen weren’t just mine. They were also hers. And for her to be able to hang the beautiful neck rosette on Frankie was a huge honor for me. I will forever be grateful for her enthusiasm and support.

McKenzie and Frankie with their support crew at the AEC (from left to right): Cara Lavignia, Linda Rollins, Jennifer Johnson, Connor McPeak, Sarah Watson, and Josh.

My trainer and mentor Jennifer Johnson was there to coach us through each phase, and I was so excited because her guidance was instrumental in the success of this partnership. Jennifer has taught me how to be a good competitor and given me so many tools to help me with mental and physical stamina.

Josh came as well which was great because he saw that all those hours at the barn diligently caring for and developing Frankie had paid off. The poor man didn’t know what he was getting himself into falling for a horse crazy woman like me. But I couldn't have even considered Frankie if it weren’t for him. I credit him for helping bring this horse into my life. I am profoundly appreciative.

My childhood self is still amazed! I used to sit in my elementary school classroom drawing horses and dreaming I could make riding my job one day. And here I was, little ol’ smalltown me in Colorado, galloping around on a champion horse I not only loved but had also produced. A horse I had never even sat on before buying. Isn’t it refreshing to know that sometimes the stars align, the hard work pays off, people step up to help you, and your gut instincts make your fantasies a reality!

Dan Busta Photo.

The USEA is made up of over 12,000 members, each with their own special horses and experiences. The USEA's Now on Course series highlights the many unique stories of our membership. Do you and your horse have a tale to tell? Do you know someone who deserves recognition? Submit your story to Jessica Duffy to be featured.

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