Moving Forward: Francesca Mazella

Robbed of her riding dreams by a traumatic brain injury, former national equitation champion Francesca Mazella embraces life with discipline and forward thinking.

Francesca Mazella wowed the equitation world 30 years ago by winning both the ASPCA Maclay National Championship and the USEF National Hunter Seat Medal Final. Only 15 years old, she rode with a beautifully relaxed, correct position and a natural feel for the horse, enhanced by a classical education and remarkable poise under pressure. Her successes inspired a generation of young riders. Sixteen years later, in 2000, she had to draw on that same inner strength to recover from a life-threatening traumatic brain injury resulting from a riding fall. Her ongoing triumph over this challenge is as inspirational as the finals’ wins.

Francesca Mazella at work during the HITS Championship Weekend in Saugerties, New York, this past September | © ESI Photography

The Early Years

Francesca and Free Union ride the victory gallop after winning the 1984 ASPCA Maclay National Championship at Madison Square Garden in New York City. | © Waintrob–Budd Photography

Francesca grew up on her family’s small horse farm in Mount Kisco, New York, where her mother, Patricia, ran a boarding stable and raised ponies. She and her brother Jonathan “had a lot of fun,” remembers Patricia. “They’d ride their ponies bareback in the woods and have picnics. When they were young, they went to low-key Pony Club events and wonderful little local shows.”

As Francesca’s interest in competing grew, her parents guided her to the best trainers they could find, from Philip Ake to Karen Healey and then to George Morris, Frank Madden and Bill Cooney at Hunterdon, Inc. (Sadly, Bill died this spring. “What a tremendous loss,” Francesca says. “He was the most astute teacher ever.”) Although she did the bulk of her riding at home, she and her mother commuted as far as two and a half hours away for weekly or biweekly lessons—often arriving home as late as 8:30 or 9 p.m. on schooldays.

Looking back, Patricia believes that keeping her daughter’s mounts at home gave her an advantage over riders who boarded at full-service stables. “If you know your horse from the stable up,” she says, “what he eats, his mannerisms and everything about him, you have a little better sense of what to expect from him.”

Francesca and her mother shared all of the barn duties—feeding, grooming and mucking stalls—as well as the show preparations. “I did the clipping and she did the braiding,” says Patricia. “When Francesca was quite young, she braided for people at horse shows to help pay for entries.”

“I saw every aspect of how to get to the show ring,” says Francesca. “It was really hands-on.” She thinks that most of today’s Juniors miss out on this experience, as so many barns are full-service and don’t offer self-care opportunities.

Francesca also had a great deal of discipline and perfectionist tendencies that helped her fit in at George Morris’ Hunterdon, Inc., legendary for its spit-and-polish standards and intellectual approach to riding. “I am a humungous fan of George and classic horsemanship,” she says. “Basically, as George said back then, ‘correct form is most functional.’ That is still my motto today. Equitation is not just looking pretty. You’ve got to have the base and core balance and correct form—the functional aspect of position.”

While the Mazellas invested in the best instruction, their horse-investment budget had boundaries. “At first, she had fairly difficult horses,” remembers Patricia, “but she spent a lot of time figuring them out. Later, we leased nice horses—but they weren’t the best ones out there by any means. She was competing against very well-mounted peers, which might have made her a little tougher and made her work a little harder.”

The Medal/Maclay Finals

After riding in her first national championship in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1981 at age 12, Francesca was fully prepared, physically and mentally to be a serious contender for the fall equitation championships in 1984. “She had a great power of concentration,” says Patricia. “She said to me once when she was about 13, ‘You know what you have to do? Turn the pressure into energy.’”

That power of concentration carried her to the top at the AHSA (now USEF) National Hunter Seat Medal Final and, two weeks later, the Maclay final. Early the following year, she proved that those victories weren’t a fluke by winning the Junior Jumper Circuit Championship in Florida.

Her newfound fame extended from equestrian magazines (Practical Horseman featured her in two 1985 issues) to an appearance in George Morris’ book, Hunter Seat Equitation. His caption below her photo reads “Francesca Mazella … is an incredibly beautiful woman both on and off a horse, and her riding is not only elegant but also very, very correct.” She also appeared in Seventeen magazine. She remembers, “They took pictures of me in the garden and the barn and on horseback—with hair and make-up, the whole nine yards.”

Her successes opened doors in her career, too. Trainers asked her to catch ride for them at shows and she started teaching other riders. After Francesca graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, one of her clients helped her land her first job—an assistant position in the advertising/promotion department of Rolling Stone magazine in New York City. “That was fun, fun, fun!” After three years of commuting into the city and struggling to fit riding into her schedule, she left that job to start her own training business. This led to a teaching position at Top of the Line Stables in Chestnut Ridge, New York, and, eventually, to a teaching and training job at Peter Leone’s Lionshare Farm, in Greenwich, Connecticut. (Among the many opportunities Peter gave Francesca, he and his wife, Marcella, arranged for her to ride as Julia Roberts’ double in the 1997 movie Conspiracy Theory.)

Disaster Strikes

In the fall of 2000, Francesca was riding her own investment horse at the walk in the main arena at Lionshare when he suddenly collapsed. (He was later diagnosed with EPM.) A child getting on a pony found her unconscious and raced into the barn to get help. Francesca was rushed to the hospital where she was treated for five skull fractures and a traumatic brain injury (TBI) to the lower left side of her brain. She was in a coma for two and a half weeks.

“It was horrendous,” remembers her mother, “but everybody was wonderful. Peter and Marcella were at her side every day. We got telegrams and phone calls from around the world. But Francesca was the most wonderful of all. They told her she probably wouldn’t ever walk again. She never gave up until she no longer needed the wheelchair.”

“I couldn’t even speak,” Francesca remembers. Over time, with much therapy, she gradually recovered her speech. She also worked hard to overcome major balance problems and spasticity—unwanted muscle contractions resulting from abnormal signals in her nervous system. (The part of her brain that was injured is primarily responsible for motor skills, balance and coordination.) She lived at and received nine months of intensive therapy at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford, Connecticut, and underwent three tendon-release surgeries in her lower legs at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, New Jersey, to address the spasticity.

The injury also destroyed the natural feel that Francesca had once used to improve the balance and rhythm of the horses she trained. Now it was she who needed help relearning how to coordinate her body parts and center herself. Ironically, one of the best ways to do this was on horseback. On steady, reliable horses “with super temperaments,” and with the support of ground helpers at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding in Brewster, New York, she started at square one again in 2001. “The movement and rhythm of the horses was very good for my balance, and for centering my right and left sides.”

With years of continued therapy, she steadily improved. After leaving Gaylord, she moved back into her parents’ home. In 2003, she began living on her own again and teaching lessons and occasional clinics. In her own riding, she progressed to trotting and cantering on the flat and being able to improve her mounts again. But she didn’t try jumping. “I knew my physical limitations,” she says. “I most likely could have jumped a jump, with all sorts of supervision and restrictions, but with my balance issues, I knew I couldn’t do what I used to do.”

Moving Forward

For the next several years, Francesca improved, and eight years after the accident, she set a new goal for herself: finding a life partner. “I asked myself, ‘How does one go about finding a significant other these days? I’m not a bar-hopping chick and there are few available men at horse shows.” After trying Internet dating sites, she decided to give a whirl. She wrote a tongue-in-cheek post describing what she didn’twant in a partner. Among “all sorts of vile, horrible responses,” she received one nice-sounding reply, so wrote him back. “We chatted, and then I met him for lunch a couple days later. It all went really well.” She and Todd have now been together for six years.

About a year after she met Todd, Francesca began looking for a townhome to buy. He suggested she check out Saugerties, a small town about two hours north of New York City. After searching the internet a little, he discovered that it was home to the Horse Shows in The Sun (HITS) headquarters and suggested she apply for a job there. Although she was skeptical about her chances, she says, “I figured, why not? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? So we dropped my resume off at the office.”

Francesca, with HITS president and CEO Tom Struzzieri, started working for the hunter/jumper horse-show management company’s marketing department in 2009. | © ESI Photography

A few weeks later, to her pleasant surprise, she received a call back from Kristen Vale at 

HITS, and was subsequently offered a position in the marketing department. Much of her work in the last five years there has involved promoting HITS’ three $1 million grand prix competitions, as well as its $250,000 and $500,000 Hunter Prix finals, and marketing them to exhibitors and spectators. “I do a lot of rote stuff, too,” she says, “basic mailings and menu-cutting, but necessary things.” This has helped to satisfy her need for structure, she explains. “I’ve always had to keep my life very orderly. In my daily life, everything’s routine.”

Patricia says Francesca still has the same discipline that helped to make her such a successful rider. “She takes very good care of herself,” she elaborates. “She gets up at 5 to work out because she knows how important it is to keep her body strong. Even on weekends, she’s always got plans.”
Although Francesca still walks with a cane and occasionally relies on walls and doors for balance, she continues to improve—even 14 years after the accident. “I see a big improvement in the last three or four years,” says her mother. “She’s straightened up and she walks pretty well.” However, says Francesca, controlling her rhythm and balance still requires conscious effort. “It’s like there are always two parts of me—literally, two sides—which are not in sync. I will always favor my right side. My left side’s always going, ‘Hey, Righty, I’m here!’”
In part because of these lingering issues, Francesca hasn’t ridden since 2010. “It’s a bit frustrating to not be able to ride as I used to,” she explains. “I can feel the horse’s movement and balance, or his lack thereof, and know what exercise or technique to use. But when I ask my body to act, there’s a pause until my brain and body connect.” She goes on to say, “The pleasure I had from my love of riding horses is irreplaceable, but being at HITS gives me a daily dose of horses from the side, rather than from on top.” Francesca is also no longer teaching due to her work schedule.
She has given up other outdoor activities that she once enjoyed, such as biking, running and skiing. “I was an everyday runner—it gave me my space and kept me in shape. I miss that. Now just being able to walk better would be a big deal. But I’m far better than I once was. And there are people so much worse off than I. I’m a huge supporter of efforts to make wounded veterans’ lives better. Many of these brave soldiers also have had TBIs or one of many other injuries incurred at battle.”
Also a strong proponent of helmets, Francesca says, “To me, not wearing a helmet is like not putting your seatbelt on in your car. Why would you do that? People fall down and go boom at any age, anytime, no matter what their ability. I fell off at the walk, on a beautiful day, in perfect footing. Quite luckily, my injury was not nearly as serious as it may have been due to my wearing a proper safety helmet.”This glass-is-half-full outlook, as well as an unfailing focus on the future, serves Francesca well now, just as it had during her championship-winning years. “She doesn’t complain and doesn’t look back,” says her mother. “As she told me, ‘It’s like riding: Move forward.’”

Francesca and Todd Minikus (left), winner of the 2014 Zoetis Million Grand Prix, and grand-prix rider Peter Wylde, who won the 1983 Maclay championships | © ESI Photography
Francesca and Frank Madden, who along with Bill Cooney coached her to her 1984 Medal and Maclay championships | © ESI Photography
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