BY JESS CLAWSON
Natalee Haggan’s parents promised her a horse of her own when she was eight years old, provided she stuck with the riding lessons she begged for. She showed her dedication early, always staying late at the barn late to help out with chores. “Thirty years have gone by and I’m still waiting for the horse,” the now successful professional jokes.
Natalee’s determination has opened doors. In 2000, she convinced the hiring manager at Medieval Times (a popular dinner theater chain restaurant) to take her on, even though at the time the business officially did not hire women in the role of riders. But Natalee impressed the horse trainer with her skills. Through that experience, she learned a lot of incredible dressage skills the horses needed to perform in the show.
After three years at Medieval Times, Natalee returned to the show ring. She missed jumping. She borrowed a horse from MTM farm for a week, and again impressed people with her work ethic. She got opportunity to take care of the farm while the owners were on the road, and worked her way into the manager and trainer position.
Things were going well for Natalee when, in 2017, a 2”x6” board fell on her head and left her in critical condition. Once again, she would have to defy the odds.
Pin Oak became the stage for her comeback. She grew up watching the Pin Oak Grand Prix and dreamed of riding in it long before she had the financial means to make it at the rated level. “I just rode whatever I could swing a leg over,” she remembers. Now, as an accomplished rider with access to nice horses, she had to put the pieces together while recovering from her serious injury.
In 2018, just seven months after her accident, her dream came true as she rode into the ring in the Wells Fargo $30,000 Pin Oak Grand Prix on MTM Full House. The evening progressed from dream to fairy tale as she and Fuller had the only double clear round of the night. “Winning was surreal,” she recalls. Natalee lists winning this class as her proudest equestrian accomplishment.
There is no doubt that Natalee’s determination and talent paid off in that moment, but she credits her support system as well. “I am so fortunate to have the support of Mike McCormick, Tracy Fenney, and the rest of our MTM team,” she says. “They have given me knowledge, encouragement, and opportunities that I would not otherwise have and I am forever grateful.”
Tracy is her equestrian idol. “She’s amazing,” she says. “She’s always so smooth and makes it look effortless. Horses love her.”
She also has a special bond with Fuller, a Hanoverian gelding McCormick and Fenney imported in 2015. Fenney rode him in a few Grand Prix before handing the reins over to Natalee just before her accident, but left the ride to her and gave Fuller time off competing while Natalee recovered.
“I believe we have an aytpical bond that allows us to compete at that level,” Natalee says. “Fuller jumps in an unorthodox style, but he has the heart of a winner. He always gives 110% in and out of the show ring, and always steps up when he is challenged. He is also the first to greet me when I walk in the barn with a loud neigh ‘hello.’”
Natalee is sympathetic to her horses, which plays a key role in her success with them. Her training philosophy centers on focusing on the individual needs of each horse to help them most efficiently understand what she is asking of them. “I am a huge believer in positive reinforcement and try to stay focused on solutions,” she says. “I think it is very important especially with young or green horses to recognize when the horse has given you an honest effort to do whatever you are facing it with to allow it to be finished, whether it happens in five minutes or 25 minutes.”
The future is bright for Natalee, whose next big goal is to win an international hunter derby. “I’ve come in second in my last two international derbies,” she says, “and last time I was only one point off the winner.” She’s also looking forward to more Grand Prix wins as well as bringing along the promising young horses at MTM.
Wherever she goes in her career, Pin Oak will always be special to her. “Pin Oak is a great contribution to the horse world in the sense that it allows different breeds and disciplines to compete side by side. Even though we are all involved with riding it is very interesting to watch and learn how differing breeds and disciplines train, compete, and even manage their horses in the stabling area. Each breed and discipline have their own unique traditions that I find interesting,” Natalee says.
“I am just very thankful to be able to compete at Pin Oak. I love the support and donations Pin Oak makes to the Texas Children’s Hospital. We are all very lucky to be able to live our life with horses and I think it is important to remember to give back.”
While anyone with Natalee’s level of success would know a thing or two about luck, she is also a demonstration of what really wanting it and putting in the time can bring. Watch for this talented rider at the horse shows this year.
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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