McKensey Middleton
McKensey Middleton (‘22 B.S. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) and her horse Sugar as “Maggie the Aggie” at the opening charge of a UC Davis football game. (Courtesy photo)

Uniting Horsemanship and Biology

CBS Alumna to Compete for Miss Rodeo California

When McKensey Middleton holds horse reins, every slight movement conveys something. Where she places the reins on the horse’s neck gives the horse direction, a path; a tug on them signals for the horse to stop or slow down.

“When you watch a rider, you’re really watching them communicate with the horse,” said Middleton, ’22 B.S. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “Your legs, your voice, your hands, you’re using these things to communicate with the horse.” 

But such effective communication isn’t automatic. It takes practice and frequent, laborious repetition. Time is key here, and integral to building a successful relationship between rider and horse. And as Middleton has learned, investing time leads to significant gains.   

Since her freshman year of high school, Middleton has spent innumerable hours building a relationship with her horse Sugar. They’ve won numerous equestrian competitions together, with Middleton riding Sugar to win the 2015 Calaveras Saddle Queen title and the 2017 Miss Rodeo Oakdale title.

Now, Middleton and Sugar will compete for a title on the state stage. 

From Oct. 27 to Oct. 29, Middleton will harness her equine prowess to compete for the title of Miss Rodeo California 2023. The competition will be held in San Luis Obispo.

“It’s been a really long journey,” said Middleton, who hopes her education from the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences will help lead to a career in veterinarian medicine. “When I got Sugar, she was not broke at all. We couldn’t even complete a circle. It was really rough. But we worked really hard and now, she’s a great horse.”

Rodeo queen dreams

Middleton’s dreams of rodeo queening were inspired by her older sister Megan, her senior by 12 years.

“Being a really young girl, I looked up to my older sister like she was a superhero,” said Middleton, who grew up in Murphys, Calif. “So seeing her going through the rodeo queen pageants was the most amazing thing in the world.”

Though she’d been around horses since childhood, Middleton developed and refined her horsemanship skills through rodeo queening. But more than relishing the competition, Middleton found she enjoyed the camaraderie she shared with Sugar and the sense of communal accomplishment achieved through training. And like her sister before her, Middleton also discovered a love for the sport of rodeo.

“Rodeo to me displays the best type of competitiveness and camaraderie and inspired me to be a better rider,” said Middleton. “Aside from my rodeo queen involvement I do hope to compete in breakaway and team roping events one day.”

But Middleton wasn’t solely developing her horsemanship skills during this time, she was also developing an interest biology.

“I loved my high school biology class but was super drawn to the subject during my time at Modesto Junior College,” said Middleton.

“Growing up within agriculture, I was actively a part of an industry that constantly interacts with life,” she added. “And then I chose the science that studies life. I think I loved biology so much because I could see it so much around me in the physical world and what I was learning at the cellular and chemical level made what is around me make more sense too.”

A sense of cells

The year Middleton transferred to UC Davis was the year the world locked down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, when the university returned to in-person academics, Middleton decided to make the most of her senior year in the College of Biological Sciences. She moved to campus and within a week she had lodged Sugar at Russell Ranch in Davis.

While at UC Davis, Middleton represented the university’s equestrian team in the reining discipline. When not competing, she filled the role of Maggie the Aggie, leading the UC Davis football team in the opening charge.

“That was amazing to be involved with the school and on campus that way,” said Middleton. “It’s crazy to think that the horse I couldn’t even do a circle with was just like running through the football field at UC Davis with the Aggie flag.”

When she wasn’t riding Sugar, Middleton devoted her time to studying biochemistry and molecular biology, specifically developing an interest in cellular functionality. And thanks to her UC Davis classes, she gained a more comprehensive view of cellular intricacies.  

“We learn about mitosis in high school, but learning about each cellular protein that contributes to that process and how one works with the other with such precision was mind blowing to me,” said Middleton. “And then you zoom out a little and you can see the cell dividing, and then you zoom out more and you see tissue growing. It’s crazy the amount of detail to life there is at the cellular level.”

Though her immediate focus is currently set on the competition at the end of the month, Middleton eventually hopes to combine her interests in biochemistry and animal caretaking. After an exciting first year at the College of Biological Sciences, she hopes to return to UC Davis to attend the School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Just being in the Davis community for that one year was amazing,” said Middleton. “I loved it.”

Looking towards the future, Middleton said, “I hope that my understanding of biology will help me understand body interactions in veterinary medicine.”

“My goal as a veterinarian is to be named the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Veterinarian of the Year,” she added.

And as McKensey knows, accomplishing a goal just takes time. 

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