McKayla Mattison spends the majority of her free time at Warren Farm, a barn in Emerald, Wisconsin, which is her equivalent to a basketball court, a football field or a wrestling room.
There, the Spring Valley Middle/High School sophomore practices her sport for 3-4 hours a day five days a week with her horse Duke and trainer Allie Faith Anderson.
Although Mattison's practice schedule is just as strenuous as any other athlete's, her sport, three-day eventing, is often overlooked by those who are unfamiliar with the dangerous sport.
"People don't actually realize how much work goes into it, or they'll say it's not a sport," Mattison said of eventing. "People just think it's so easy because when they go on vacation they can go on like a chill ride for fun, but if they tried to get on my horse and do what I do they would..."
"I've tried, and it's not easy," McKenzie Bakkum, Mattison's sister said.
Mattison began riding for fun in 2013, and her interest in the sport grew after attending a summer horse camp that she registered herself for when she was 12 years old.
"I wasn't planning on continuing to ride after that," Mattison said, "But I enjoyed it so much."
Mattison began her riding career at Lost Creek Ranch in Ellsworth where she rode for a year and a half, but "wanted more" and moved out to a barn in River Falls where she first got into eventing.
Once she began competing in eventing, she soon fell in love with the sport that she equates to a triathlon with a horse.
Eventing shows typically start on a Friday and end on a Sunday with multiple competitions jam packed in between the three days. Fridays begin with dressage, what Mattison said is "like a dance." For dressage, Mattison and Duke are challenged with memorizing a dance and then performing it in front of a judge who scores them on each movement, precision, smoothness and horse obedience.
"[Dressage] is basically to show that you and your horse have respect for each other," Mattison said.
After three years of riding together, Mattison and Duke have built a relationship of respect and trust, which has landed them many impressive dressage novice-level scores.
Day two of three-day eventing features cross country, another event that requires the duo's respect and trust for one another.
In cross country, eventers and their horses gallop across two-to-four miles of different terrain to show off their speed, endurance and jumping ability. Horses are tasked with jumping over 18-36 solid obstacles with exact speed requirements, which makes it the most dangerous of the three different phases.
"Trust is huge for cross country," Mattison said. "When you're galloping a horse at 25-35 miles per hour over almost 4-foot jumps with a spread up to 6 feet, you need to have trust."
According to Mattison, there have been 45 rider deaths in cross country since 1995. Because of this, eventing is recognized as one of the most dangerous sports in the world.
Mattison and all other cross country competitors are required to wear a heavy vest that's designed to protect their vital organs if they were to fall off of their horses, but the Spring Valley sophomore believes the risks she and her horse endure are worth the rush they get from competing in such a hazardous sport.
"The reward you get from [competing] is what keeps me in the sport itself," Mattison said. "It's super rewarding to see all of your hard work pay off, and the adrenaline you get is something that can't be compared to anything else."
"Even as a spectator, just seeing the different phases that she does throughout the three days, is just crazy because it gives her family and friends and everyone else that's watching her perform that adrenaline rush that she speaks about," Bakkum said. "When she's doing cross country, we get that rush from running around to see her at every jump to make sure she doesn't fall. It's just really fun."
Bakkum and Mattison's parents had some hesitation with letting their daughter compete in such a high-risk sport, but were swayed into letting their daughter continue her passion once they saw how much she loved it.
"You get to see the hard work and the passion that she has for it, so it's totally worth it," Bakkum said. "To be able to see her eyes light up makes our eyes light up, too."
The third and final day of three-day eventing is capped off with show jumping, a much safer phase than cross country, which takes place in an enclosed arena and tests a horse's stamina when forced to jump over 12-15 lightweight rails.
"In show jumping, your horse just ran like four miles straight, so it kind of takes wear and tear on their bodies," Mattison said, "so it kind of shows like if they have what it takes to do all three phases."
Most athletes have gone through similar athletic experiences where they've been asked to perform at high levels in their chosen sport on back-to-back days, but Mattison believes her and Duke's bond is what sets eventing apart from any other sport.
"I think the bond that you have with your horse, and the responsibility that you have for another living and breathing animal, sharing a bond with a horse that could potentially kill you is what sets eventing apart from other sports," Mattison said. "You have to put your trust in a 1,200-pound animal that they won't hurt you. I'm not saying that you don't have to put a lot of hard work into other sports, but this just goes above and beyond."
Mattison and her 11-year-old Friesian/Arabian horse didn't just wake up one day and have all of their accolades handed to them. They've worked hard to get to where they're at in their junior division.
"I think it really needs to be a passion," Bakkum said.
"You can't just get on and do it; it takes years and years to be able to do this," Mattison said. "It takes countless hours of sweat, and hard work and motivation and determination to do this, and it's something that I want to do for the rest of my life."
After two years in River Falls, Mattison has moved on to a higher level of eventing and now trains with Anderson in Emerald at Ad Astra Eventing, Anderson's business that's named after the Latin phrase "per aspera ad astra," which means, "through difficulty to the stars."
With Mattison's long hours of practice and care for Duke, she has faced difficulties including having to miss out on school activities, birthday parties and family vacations, but like any disciplined athlete, Mattison is willing to give up the enjoyments other kids her age have time for in order to achieve her dream of pursuing a career in the eventing industry.
"I'm an extremely hard worker and I'm always pushing myself to be better so I can achieve my dreams," Mattison said. "It's going to take a lot of time and hard work, but thanks to my parents, I've had the opportunity to be able to grow up learning how the value of hard work can take you anywhere in life."
Her work ethic has given her the the opportunity to ride with professionals such as Allison Spring, Lean Lang-Gilusic and Dom and Jimmie Schramm, and the chance to travel to Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina for national events. Next, Mattison and Anderson will travel to Florida to find the next horse that will be able to help her qualify for the North American Junior Young Rider Championships.
Mattison will continue to own Duke, but will no longer continue to train with the horse with which she learned to love the sport of eventing.
"We've just grown together since then," Mattison said of she and Duke beginning their careers together. "It'll be hard to not be able to show him anymore, but it will definitely be fun to watch him teach somebody else what he's taught me."
Though it'll be a change not competing atop Duke, Mattison knows finding a new horse is a necessary change for her to take the next step in her career, and is looking forward to what's yet to come.
"I couldn't be more excited for this next chapter in my riding career," Mattison said.
In the coming years, the sophomore hopes to land a position as a working student where she'd be able to learn from and work for a higher-level eventer in exchange for free board and lessons.
Mattison knows she'll have to spend many years working her way up in the eventing industry in order to fulfill her goals of one day riding professionally, but told the Herald, "A well-known rider, Boyd Martin, once said, 'If you're attempting to do something that scares the hell out of you, that means you're trying to do something with your life.'
"That's exactly what I'm doing."