By Jenna Young
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Hard work, determination, an elite-level mindset and balance: These attributes are what Zachary Brandt credits his successes to in the equine world. After a long journey, Zach, aboard Direct Advance, sailed to the finish line at the CCI5*-L at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. Along with completing this elite-level competition, Zach also earned the James C. Wofford “On the Rise” Memorial Trophy. Finally, having completed his goal of a five-star finish, Zach is ready to look toward his future goals. These goals had to start somewhere, and like most equestrians, for Zach it started with a lesson.
As a young child growing up in California, Zach had no interest in horses. His mom, on the other hand, loved horses and took lessons at an eventing barn. “I played baseball, basketball and football; basically, anything but horses. I had no interest in horses, but my mom would drag me to the barn with her every day,” Zach said. “Eventually, I sort of caved and agreed to a lesson.” This first lesson turned into a lifetime love for horses and eventing as a sport.
After his first lesson at age 11, Zach continued to grow as a rider. At 13, he competed in his first USEA-recognized show. “I grew up eventing and haven’t done anything else,” Zach said. “I was immediately drawn to cross-country, and while I do show jumping along with eventing, I can’t imagine giving up cross-country. I’ve loved this sport since I jumped my first jump.”
A Blossoming Career
Throughout his Junior career, Zach worked and rode with Gina Miles. “My Junior career had its ups and downs,” Zach said. “While I had a bit of competitive success and got a taste of the upper levels, it wasn’t until Gina helped me find my mare, Cavallino Cocktail, also known as Skotty, that my upper-level career really kickstarted.”
Zach and Skotty were very successful during the early years of their partnership. In 2012, the pair placed second at the Galway Downs CCI4*-L. In 2012, they competed in the Twin Rivers CCI4*-S and Jersey Fresh CCI4*-L, placing second and 10th, respectively. Their prosperity at the four-star level indicated that Zach and Skotty were ready for the five-star level.
To make this dream a possibility, Zach had a decision to make: move east and take his eventing career to the next level or stay in California and continue pursuing a college degree. Zach’s decision ended up being fairly easy for him to make. “I figured at the time that school is always there, and I could go back,” Zach said. “But I had a sound four-star horse, and those don’t come around very often. So, I figured I would give it a shot and move east. I ended up building a life for myself.”
When Zach moved east, he made his home base with Jon Holling in Ocala, Florida. “He’s been a true friend to me and become a mentor over the years,” Zach said. “Without Jon, I would not be where I am in my riding or my career so far.” When Zach moved east, he took Skotty with him, hoping for the chance at a five-star.
In 2014, Zach entered the CCI5*-L at Land Rover with Skotty. Unfortunately for the pair, Skotty suffered an injury that prevented her from competing that year. Coming back strong from the injury, Zach and Skotty entered the five-star at Land Rover again in 2015. Luck was not on the pair’s side this go around either—during their last practice run before the event, Skotty fell going into a water combo. “Since then, it’s taken a long time to get back in striking distance of a five-star,” Zach said. After having to scratch in 2015, Zach focused on bringing up some of his younger horses, waiting for the one that would make him a five-star rider.
A New Partnership
In 2016, Zach got a horse named Direct Advance. Little did he know that this horse would change the trajectory of his career. Direct Advance, better known as Rosco, came to Zach when he was a 4-year-old. Zach has worked with Rosco up the levels of eventing. “He’s probably been one of the most difficult horses I’ve ever had to produce and ride,” Zach said. “But he is such an incredible athlete, brave and talented.” Competing in plenty of events up to the four-star level with Rosco, Zach and his team decided to give the five-star level another shot.
The first five-star Zach entered with Rosco was the Maryland 5-Star at Fair Hill in 2022. Everything was going well for the pair after dressage and Zach and Rosco were breezing through the cross-country course when they got held up. Rosco got a sudden nosebleed and Zach decided to retire. Though this competition didn’t go as planned, Zach kept his eyes toward Land Rover in 2023.
It’s hard to treat Land Rover like a normal competition. Everything that the riders have been working toward depends on one weekend where anything could happen. Some riders, like Zach, work for years to get to ride at Land Rover. “Getting to Kentucky was so special,” Zach said. “But the whole time I was there, I tried to treat it like any other event. At the end of the day, it is just like any other event.” Being grounded with this knowledge, Zach was able to go into the weekend strong and determined.
Crossing the finish line at Land Rover was a monumental moment for Zach, who was thrilled to win an additional award as well. “I was truly honored to have received the inaugural James C. Wofford ‘On the Rise’ Memorial Trophy,” Zach said. “I had taken a clinic with Jimmy years ago and it was one of the coolest learning experiences I’d ever had. Jimmy was a legend, a true ambassador of the sport and a world-class horseman. To have the privilege of winning that award was awesome!”
The sport of eventing is just as mentally tough as it is physically tough and horse-and-rider pairs must have complete trust in one another, especially when competing at the five-star level. “It’s an incredible feeling, being able to put your trust in a horse that you’ve worked with and produced for years,” Zach said. “I’ve also learned over the years that more important than almost anything is your mental game.” Zach works hard every day to keep up his and his horse’s physical and mental health.
Zach has a wonderful team behind him that has helped him through the ups and downs of his career, and one of the team members is his wife, Audrie. “I met my wife years ago when she worked for Leslie Law and I was riding with him,” Zach said. “We’ve been together for almost five years and got married last May. We have the two best dogs in the world and three awesome cats.”
While Zach loves competing and plans to continue doing so, he’s also involved with training young horses with Audrie. The couple runs a business together in Morriston, Florida, at their Cavallino Farm named after Skotty, Zach’s most influential horse. “We have horses in training, competition horses and horses for sale. I also teach lessons and clinics,” Zach said.
Outside of the barn, Zach enjoys spending time with his wife and their close family and friends. “My goals over the next few years are to build my string of horses and really focus on my competitive goals, while still growing our business,” Zach said. “In 10 years, I’d like to think I’ll be in my prime and achieving the competitive success I work so hard for every day. Hopefully, Audrie and I will be settled down and have a kid or two.”
That week in Kentucky will be one Zach will forever remember. However, Zach won’t be focusing on his accomplishments at Land Rover. “While I’m proud of all my competitive accomplishments and successes so far, I’m always hungry to be better, to work hard and up my game,” Zach explained. “Sometimes it’s nice to look back on past accomplishments, but I tend to keep my eyes looking toward the future and put all my focus toward how to be better.”
Follow Zach on Instagram @zachbrandtequestrian
Photos by Melissa Fuller, melissafullerphotography33.mypixieset.com