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University of Kentucky graduate returns full circle to her equine passion and roots 

University of Kentucky graduate returns full circle to her equine passion and roots 

University of Kentucky graduate returns full circle to her equine passion and roots 

After a long and winding road, one student is finally fulfilling her dream of working with horses and hopes to one day teach the next generation of equine professionals.

Lexington, Ky.—

After a 31-year journey, Heather MacKenzie will now obtain her equine science and management degree from the University of Kentucky Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.  

Born into a family with deep connections to the equine world, MacKenzie’s earliest memories are not of playgrounds or parks but horse sales and the rhythmic sounds of hooves at Keeneland. 

MacKenzie’s connection to the equine world growing up was not solitary. She shared this profound bond with her father, with whom she attends prestigious racing events like Saratoga and the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. Now her son Drew is also a member of the equine world. Together, her family honored the legacy and potential of the sport they all cherished.  

"Growing up, my bond with horses was nurtured by both of my parents," MacKenzie said. "This familial connection deeply enriched my understanding and love for the racing world. There's a unique comfort in being around horses; they have an innate ability to soothe the soul, making every difficult day markedly better." 

Heather MacKenzie
Photo provided by Heather MacKenzie.

MacKenzie’s journey from Ohio to Kentucky did not follow the traditional path of academic achievements and company ladder-climbing. Instead of the normal trajectory, her journey was full of various experiences, from spearheading her own human resources and staffing company to managing her mother’s Celtic family pub.  

Each endeavor added depth and character to her life story. Yet, one constant remained through every phase and transition: her overwhelming connection to horses.  

Horses formed a bond that MacKenzie’s family nurtured during her formative years. Her first childhood horse began a lifelong journey with equines. Later, despite the demands of adulthood and the challenges of managing businesses, she remained deeply connected to the equine world.  

"Even with my other businesses, I stayed actively involved in the equine community, attending sales and races whenever possible,” MacKenzie said. “I was always keeping my finger in the industry. Despite the demands of my career, I still participated in major sales and racing seasons buying, selling and racing horses." 

The global disruptions caused by COVID-19 prompted MacKenzie to reflect on her life and make significant changes. It crystallized her desire to pivot from working merely to live, to dedicating her life to her true passion: horses. She also credits her son’s decision to move away from the family business and pursue a career in nature conservation as instrumental in following her passion.  

"As my life developed and then COVID came around, I realized I was tired of working just to have time off. Drew was following his passion. I figured, if he could do it, so could I, so I returned to my passion—horses," MacKenzie said. "Now, I'm not just attending school; I'm fully engaged, working in the UK Ag Equine Programs office and seizing every opportunity that comes my way."  

MacKenzie’s decision to pivot back to the equine industry was not just a personal choice but a mission to distribute the knowledge of equine nutrition—a field she believes is crucial for the welfare of all horses. With the resilience that had characterized her diverse career, she tackled the academic challenges ahead.  

“Heather’s story should inspire all of us to pursue our passions, stay true to our mission and most importantly hold steadfast to our faith,” said Savannah Robin, lecturer in UK Ag Equine Programs

While juggling her studies, MacKenzie immersed herself in horse nutrition, both in the lab and at UK’s Maine Chance Farm. Her work transcended mere academic interest; it was a mission to enrich the lives of horses and their caretakers through education and practical application.  

“Heather has been a fantastic intern for our program," said Holly Wiemers, UK Ag Equine Programs communications and managing director. "She brings a wealth of real-world experience to the role and is one of those key people who jump in and help make things happen. It’s been so much fun to see her grow during her time as a student, and I look forward to seeing that growth only accelerate as she begins her master’s program here." 

MacKenzie balanced strategic decision-making with a compassionate approach in the competitive world of the Thoroughbred industry. She participated in horse sales for weanlings, yearlings and promising racehorses, making thoughtful decisions about their sales and racing engagements. 

Her family Thoroughbred business, coined Thistle Farms, is an homage to her family history. The stable's purple thistle on yellow colors symbolized not only aesthetics, but also Heather's heritage. 

As MacKenzie looks to the future, her aspirations extend beyond horse racing and breeding. She envisions contributing to the equine industry through education and extension work. After completing her animal science masters at UK, she aims for a Ph.D. that would empower her to mentor and educate the next generation of equine professionals.  

“Her tenacity, passion, dedication and mentorship for her peers throughout the last couple of years has been invaluable to our undergraduate students but also our Ag Equine Programs team,” Robin said. “She’s been a vital team member, and we are excited for her to continue helping us grow this program and create opportunities for our students in the future.” 

MacKenzie’s story is about transformation and dedication, guided by her unwavering love for horses.

"The equine industry is evolving, and I want to help bridge the gap between traditional practices and new scientific knowledge," MacKenzie said. "I believe nutrition plays a crucial role in how mares, babies and older horses thrive. That's why I'm here—to improve their lives and help those who manage them."  


The Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment is an Equal Opportunity Organization with respect to education and employment and authorization to provide research, education information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to economic or social status and will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, creed, religion, political belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, marital status, genetic information, age, veteran status, physical or mental disability or reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity.   

Alumni Equine Students

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Scovell Hall Lexington, KY 40546-0064