Amateur’s Corner: Maggie Morgan on the Adrenaline Rush and Making It All Work

Welcome to Amateur’s Corner on Eventing Nation! The goal of this series is to gather perspective, experience, and advice from the hardworking and dedicated amateurs that populate our sport. We’ll be doing Q&A profiles with amateurs from all walks of life, hoping their experiences can help others working to balance horses with, well, the rest of life. Do you want to participate in an Amateur’s Corner Q&A? Send your tip to [email protected]. To read more Amateur’s Corner Q&As, click here. Next up is Maggie Morgan, originally from North Carolina, who when not competing on a cross country course can be found traversing the seas as a pilot and instructor for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Photo by Blake Morris.

EN: Tell us a bit about yourself!

MM: I just turned 37 this month and am starting my third season of eventing. I’m originally from North Carolina but have lived in Mobile, AL the past 3 years. I’m a U.S. Coast Guard pilot who currently instructs new and recurrent students in the MH-65 helicopter. I’m currently competing at training level with an Irish Draught Sporthorse named Kegan MacCruise (barn name Paddy).

EN: What or who gave you the “eventing bug”?

MM: My parents said I had the horse “bug” since I was a toddler and so they started riding lessons for me when I was 5 years old. Growing up, I competed in the Paint Horse circuit in North and South Carolina, and had the awesome experience of competing in the APHA World Championships in Texas a few times.

I took a long break from riding while going to college, taking flying lessons, and working on a career as an airline pilot. I briefly picked up riding for a few years in my mid-twenties but again took another long break as I transitioned from being an airline pilot to joining the U.S. Coast Guard to become a helicopter rescue pilot.

While at my first air station in San Francisco, the horse bug came back again, and I started taking lessons at a hunter/jumper barn. I loved jumping and heard about cross country but never got to try it out while living in California. I purchased a horse and six months later, moved across the country to Alabama to work as a MH-65 helicopter instructor pilot. I found an eventing barn 5 minutes from my house, had my horse shipped from California, and was immediately hooked on cross country after trying it for the first time.

Posing with one of the Coast Guard K9s after some in-water practice. Photo courtesy of Maggie Morgan.

EN: Tell us about your “work/life/ride balance”. What does this mean to you?

MM: It is definitely a challenge to balance everything and some days or weeks are better than others. I think the key is to be ok with the fact that sometimes I can’t do it all. There are going to be things that happen that throw off that balance. In San Francisco as a search and rescue pilot, I was frequently gone for two weeks at a time for work trips. I decided to focus on riding during the times I was home, take several lessons per week to make up for my time away, and work out an arrangement for my trainer to ride my horse while I was gone. While I would’ve loved to do all the training on my green horse by myself, it wasn’t feasible to do with my work schedule.

My job in Mobile is much easier to achieve a real balance because I rarely have to travel for work and my work schedule can be flexible. I make sure to also take time to do non horse related activities with friends and take vacation trips to see family. The one thing that stays consistent about being in the military is that we will live far from our families and move to new places where we don’t know many people. The barn family welcomed us immediately and has really made it feel like home living in Alabama.

EN: Describe a typical day in your week.

MM: My work schedule is very erratic and changes daily, so I don’t really have a typical day. My job consists of instructing in the helicopter, simulator, and classroom, as well as regular office work. I try to find time to ride in the morning or evening depending on the flight schedule. Some days I’m at work by 630 and some days I go in at 4pm for night flying. Fortunately, my barn has a lighted dressage arena and last week I found myself riding in the rain at night twice because of long workdays and needing to prepare for a show this weekend.

EN: What has been a challenge that amateurs often face that you’ve found a way to conquer? (Budget, vacation time, relationships, etc.)

MM: I’m extremely lucky when it comes to support from my husband. He is also a helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard with a demanding work schedule and is fully committed to supporting my horse and eventing obsession. After attending one of my first recognized shows, he decided we should get our own trailer so we can camp in it with our three dogs. He then found and purchased a two-horse gooseneck and installed living quarters in it by himself to make that idea into reality. He now comes to every show and is an expert in taking care of the horse, cleaning tack, mucking stalls, walking cross country courses, and putting in studs.

We have perfected our show routine as we’ve both learned more about eventing and he enjoys spending the weekends being outdoors. He also never complains about the money spent on anything horse related. I know money can be a source of contention between couples, especially if the other person isn’t a “horse person” and questions the necessity of vet treatments, therapies, supplements, etc.

Photo by Blake Morris. Blake Morris

EN: What is your best advice as an amateur rider? How do you “make it work”?

MM: I think you can make anything work if you really want it to. It takes prioritizing what is truly important and building relationships to get you there. This sport is nearly impossible to do alone. One thing I love about eventing is the community. Everyone seems to be very supportive of each other and as an amateur rider you need lots of support to make it work. It’s imperative to find trainers and friends who are willing to help you achieve your goals. I’ve made lots of friends and connections through eventing. I could not do this without the huge support from my trainer, Stephanie Tyler-Wright and my barn family.

EN: What drives you/motivates you the most?

MM: I’ve always been a very motivated and competitive person who loves an adrenaline rush. I’m motivated by the thought that I have to live life to the fullest and take advantage of every opportunity because we aren’t guaranteed the next day. So far in my career, I’ve known several people who died at a young age in aviation accidents, and I don’t want to live with any regrets. I try to say yes to any opportunity, whether it be a horse show, vacation with family, or hangout with friends.

EN: What is the best or most impactful piece of advice you’ve gotten as an eventer?

MM: The best advice I’ve had is to remember to have fun. This sport has lots of highs and lows, which can be very frustrating. In the end, I’m doing this sport because I enjoy it and every day I get to ride or compete is a privilege, even if it’s not going as well as I hoped. Especially in the past year with Covid restrictions, I feel lucky to participate in a support that is able to hold competitions.

EN: In one sentence, what does the sport of eventing mean to you?

MM: Eventing balances my life by giving me goals and a place to relieve tension away from my high stress job. When I go to the barn or a show, I rarely talk or think about work. I believe one reason my husband and I both enjoy eventing so much is because we can escape our worklife and still participate in a high paced and exciting sport. The eventing family has become an important part of our life and makes us feel more connected to the community in area.

Maggie Morgan with the MH-65 Dolphin helicopter she calls home for work duties. Photo courtesy of Maggie Morgan.

EN: What is something with the sport that could evolve to better serve its amateur riders?

MM: I wish there were more opportunities for scholarships or financial support to help amateur riders compete and attend clinics to improve their riding. The sport is so expensive, and a lot of times amateurs have to spend money for services that they don’t have time to do themselves. I try to ride 5-6 times a week, clip my own horse and clean my own tack but some sometimes I have to pay someone else to do those tasks when my work schedule is demanding or I’m out of town.

With two incomes and no kids, my husband and I are able to budget our show and horse expenses comfortably. However, I know many amateurs who are single, have several kids or just starting their careers, and they have to make difficult decisions on how they should spend a limited horse budget. Many times, it means they can’t attend shows or skip on lessons/clinics. Add any unforeseen vet bills, which seem bound to happen to everyone, and the budget gets harder to manage.

EN: Having a military lifestyle often means a lot of moving around. How do you manage your demanding, ever-changing lifestyle and your horses?

MM: As far as military life goes, it can be tricky with moving around every few years. So far I’ve only had one move but we are due to rotate next summer and are very anxious about where we could be headed. We are making our requests based off of locations where I can continue to event, so hoping to stay on the east coast. It is stressful always having to think about the next move and never getting to really settle down. Having our own trailer will be helpful to be able to haul for shows and clinics by ourselves if needed in our next move.

I’m hoping to find an eventing barn. If not, my second choice would be a jumper or dressage barn where I could haul to schooling for show jumping and cross country. While in California, I shipped my horse to Alabama and that was a stressful process that took over a month to coordinate. I tried 3 or 4 companies until I could find one that could do that route. Once again, I was lucky to have a trainer I trusted in California to take care of and ride him after I moved. For the next move, we plan to haul ourselves and that will be a new adventure. I’m also on a few facebook groups for military equestrians. These types of groups help people find barns and shipping options when transferring.

I’ve spent a lot of time researching new barns in potential locations and will go see them in person once we get official orders to where we are moving. When moving to Mobile, we took a long weekend for house hunting and our first stops were to check out a few barns. I’m glad I looked at them in person before making a decision because websites can be deceiving. I went with my gut instinct based off the visit to the facility and after talking to the owner and trainer and that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

My work and bosses have been very supportive of eventing, especially after I gave a quick explanation of the sport. Like most people, they didn’t understand equestrian sports and mostly thought of horse riding as trail rides or western style riding Even with strict Covid restrictions on travel, they allowed me to attend shows last year because of the sport being completely outdoors and because of the new rules the USEA/USEF implemented.