Americans who have never traveled to Istanbul might not be able to readily imagine an entire island where horses are the means of transportation, but where they are rarely ridden for pleasure—especially by girls.
Mirey Kurkcuoglu had her work cut out for her when, at four, she decided that she was going to ride horses. The determination she displayed from toddlerhood has served her well in her pursuit of success in the show ring.
Mirey’s parents both immigrated to the U.S. from Istanbul as children. They live in California now, but return to their home island where the rest of their family lives for the summers.
“That’s where I fell in love with horses,” Mirey said. “We would see the horses on the islands and I just wanted to be around them.”
“We didn’t come from a horse background,” her mother, Caroline, explained. But she and her husband encouraged their children to pursue their interests, and Mirey’s were singularly focused on horses.
“They had no idea this was going to consume my life,” Mirey laughed.
Her love of animals was nurtured at a very young age. “My husband is really into nature,” Caroline said. “Mirey had plenty of encouragement to love horses.”
Still, four is young to start riding. Caroline remembers discouraging comments from her friends in Istanbul for letting Mirey get on a horse at such an early age.
But she did ride, and Caroline even went back to work sooner than she had intended in order to pay for the lessons and lease horse—and eventually buy Mirey’s first horse, Luther.
“I’m glad I went back to work when I did,” Caroline explained. “It has made me a better therapist. I’m also able to help Mirey stay grounded and bring peace to her riding by helping her build secure attachments to her horses.”
Mirey recognizes the value of her mother’s support: “She’s been my rock. She knows how much riding means to me, and she wants her children to have a passion—something she didn’t have while growing up.”
When she was 14, Mirey went to ride with Jenni and Steve McAllister. They helped her find Blue, her current horse, and pushed her to be the best rider she could be.
Jenni remembers Mirey as a motivated teenager when she first arrived at their barn.
“If we told her she needed to take 10 lunge lessons, she would take 10 lunge lessons. If we told her to ride without stirrups, she rode without stirrups,” Jenni recalled. “She really put the work in.”
Caroline and Mirey are both grateful to Jenni for her mentorship. Caroline, knowing nothing about horses and working long hours, had to rely on the coaches at Team McAllister to keep Mirey safe.
Mirey fell in love with her horse, Blue, even though he was tough in some ways. But she wanted to succeed with him, and Team McAllister rallied behind her to make it work.
“Part of horsemanship is learning about the horse and learning how to make him work for you. Mirey did that well,” Jenni said.
As is often the case with tricky horses, Blue proved to be a valuable teacher. “He taught me how to ride instead of just sitting on a horse’s back,” said Mirey.
Beyond her lessons, Mirey takes clinics from top trainers every chance she gets and went with Jenni to Woodside for three weeks as a working student to gain exposure to bigger shows.
When she learned about NCEA, Mirey knew that was her path. She pushed herself to do well in hunters and equitation so she could make a good impression on the college recruiters.
Jenni recalls how goal oriented Mirey was when it came to making the college riding team: “We told her what she needed to do, and she would do it. She was very committed.”
Her junior year, she moved to Bay Bridge Farms to focus on hunters and equitation with Jeff Katz and Bud Wolf.
“I am grateful for both Bud and Jeff. I had the opportunity to show many different horses in the equitation and hunter rings because of them,” Mirey said. “That experience transformed me into the rider I am today.”
She spent that year at shows, rarely going to school, to strengthen her chances at recruitment.
Mirey moved back to Team McAllister her senior year and, satisfied with her resume in the equitation ring, went back to riding in the jumpers, where she hopes to spend the rest of her riding career.
That junior year paid off—Mirey was rewarded with acceptances to multiple colleges. She chose Delaware State because of their generous funding offer and excellent team, and will start her third year in the fall. It’s far from home, but among the many things she’s learned from her parents is the ability to strike out on a path to build the life she wants.
Her college career is strengthening the discipline she will need to pursue her next big goal—vet school. As a student athlete, Mirey has to work out with the team four days a week, ride with the team twice a week, perform 25 hours of community service per semester, and keep her GPA up. She also has Blue with her. She rides her own horse four to five times a week, works to cover his board and competes with him.
For Mirey, it’s all about working toward making horses her life.
“I want to be an equine surgeon and ride in a Grand Prix,” she said.
“She’ll be a good vet—she applies herself, has really gained instincts and horsemanship,” Jenni said. “She was a good student, always serious. She didn’t have it handed to her, by any means. It takes that kind of commitment to be a vet and a top rider.”
Although she chose a deeply unconventional path in the context of her cultural background, Mirey has already shown what can be accomplished with a single-minded approach to goals and a strong support network. In many ways, she is building on her mother’s legacy of bravely stepping into a new context, starting on a new journey, and expanding the boundaries of what it means to be an Armenian woman.
“Maybe more Armenian girls will start riding,” Caroline said. “That would be incredible.”