By Kimberly Gatto
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
It has been said that adversity can cause some to break and others to break records; Daniela Moguel chose the latter. Growing up as a girl in Mexico, where the sport of eventing is dominated by men in the military, Daniela—known as Danny to her friends—set out on a quest to beat the odds. Through hard work and a positive attitude—and inspired by a poster she saw as a teen—Danny became the first CCI4* (now CCI5*) rider to represent Mexico, and the first Mexican event rider to compete at the FEI World Equestrian Games. As she continues to achieve success and set new records, Danny is living proof that dreams can come true.
As the only child of two psychologists, Danny became interested in horses while still a toddler. “For whatever reason, horses were just in my blood from the beginning,” she said. “Instead of wanting to play with dolls, I asked for a pony. But I didn’t come from an equestrian family, so I had to love horses from afar.”
That changed when Danny was 10 years old. “I met a new friend at school and she invited me to have dinner at her house,” Danny said. “My friend then said, ‘There is one thing. I have a riding lesson this afternoon. Would you come along?’ Of course, I said yes, and from that day on, I was completely hooked on horses.”
Finding Her Inspiration
She began taking lessons on a “short and fat” pony who was aptly named Smurf, as Danny says he actually “looked like a cartoon character.” Like most small ponies, he liked to challenge his young riders. “That pony sure taught me how to ride,” Danny said. As she progressed in her lessons, Danny discovered a true passion for the sport. She spent long hours in the saddle, and by the age of 13, she was competing in the jumpers—the predominant equestrian discipline in Mexico.
It was at one of these competitions that Danny spotted a poster that would forever change her life. The poster featured a photo of a young, blonde woman jumping a horse over a cross-country water jump. “I had no idea who the rider was, but I was mesmerized by that poster,” Danny said. “I decided that was what I wanted to do—jump over water, banks and other obstacles like that. That poster was my inspiration from that day forward.”
While eventing was not a popular discipline among civilians in Mexico, Danny was able to join a small community of non-military eventers. “I found a nice trainer, but I really had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “Yet I tried my first event when I was 14 and just fell in love with it. I decided that this is what I wanted to do as a career.” The options in Mexico were quite limited, however, as most of the equestrian competitors were men in the military—not young girls. Furthermore, the eventing competitions didn’t offer anything above the Preliminary division, with little opportunity for advancing up the levels.
Fortunately, Danny’s parents recognized her passion and supported her dream as much as they were able. For her 15th birthday, they gifted her with a horse of her own. “He was named Tequila for his coloring,” she said. “He was a very talented jumper.”
Heading to Tryon
After Danny completed high school, her parents allowed her to travel to the eventing hub of Tryon, North Carolina, to become a working student for trainer Joy Pharr. “I worked with Joy for a year and learned so much,” Danny said. “Joy was wonderful and so supportive of me. She really made a difference in my life.” While in Tryon, Danny was able to compete in her first international event, aboard Tequila. “It was amazing to be there. The experience really opened my eyes to the real eventing world,” she said.
Danny returned to Mexico to attend college, but held tight to her dream of becoming a professional event rider. “I found work at a civilian eventing barn for a while,” she said. “I was fortunate to be able to work for the Olympic dressage judge Maribel Quinsanos and her husband, Aurelio, an eventer.” As it turned out, Aurelio was on the search for a young student to train as he was getting older and not riding as much. The partnership proved to be highly successful, lasting 15 years. “I was able to ride some of their horses and run my own lesson program to earn a living,” Danny said. As there is no government funding for civilian equestrians in Mexico, Danny had to raise the money herself to pay for competitions and travel.
It was around this time that Danny met Jorge Martinez Castrejon—better known as Zully—the man who would become her husband. “Zully was not a horse person back then—but he didn’t let me know it!” Danny said. “It’s a very funny story. A friend of mine had just come back from Europe and invited me to his house to have a few drinks and catch up. I was exhausted and initially said I wouldn’t go, but he convinced me to stop by for one drink. I decided there was no need to dress up; I actually had my pajamas on—with unicorn slippers. I knocked on the door, and this handsome man opened it and I was like, ‘Oh, no. I look awful.’ That man turned out to be Zully. We hit it off immediately, despite my outfit.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Not only is the couple happily married, but Zully also went on to become a highly accomplished horse professional in his own right. “He started his equestrian career in Mexico City at 25 years old,” Danny said. “He moved quickly up the levels in the jumping world with several nice horses.” Now an FEI level show jumper and international upper level eventer, Zully placed an impressive third in his first CCI2*-S in 2019 and has been competing successfully ever since.
Starting a Business
Together, the couple developed their own equestrian business, Eventing D’azull, and both husband and wife worked hard training horses and teaching students of all ages. While she continued to develop a variety of young horses, Danny had not found that one special horse with whom she could fulfill her competitive dreams.
One evening, Zully began casually looking at equine advertisements online when a certain horse caught his eye. “It was a beautiful bay Thoroughbred mare who was, at that time, jumping at the three-star level,” Danny said. “Zully said he thought this horse would be perfect for me. She did sound wonderful, but I thought, No way. This is way out of our budget.”
But there was something about the mare that Danny couldn’t forget. “I really wanted to go see her and try her out,” Danny said. “I ended up talking to Aurelio about possibly purchasing her in a partnership with us. He said he would consider it. If I could convince his wife to go along for the trip, we could certainly go and try the mare out. We all went to see her, and as soon as I sat on that mare, I knew we were a match. Aurelio agreed, and we all became partners in purchasing her.”
The mare, known as Cecelia, is a 2013 off-track Thoroughbred. After her racing career had ended, Cecelia had been given “an excellent foundation” by Virginia-based professional Leslie Chelstrom, who trained the mare and competed her through the three-star level. “She is a tiny bay, just barely 16 hands,” Danny said. “She is a very sensitive mare. In fact, she was for sale for over a year, and several people had tried her out, but did not like her. But we clicked immediately; I feel like it was meant to be.”
Danny says that the mare’s looks can be quite deceiving. “You’d look at this horse and think that she is not fancy. She’s small, and she doesn’t have any flashy markings. But she really is all business at the shows. This horse just loves what she does.”
The Girl on the Poster
Paired with Cecelia, Danny set out in pursuit of her goal to compete at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “At the same time, Mexico was developing a military men’s equestrian team to represent the nation at the Games,” she said. “They had hired Karen O’Connor to train the team. At the time, I was doing the selection trials; that is how I first met Karen.”
It was a wonderful twist of fate for Danny, as Karen had been the rider featured on the poster that Danny had admired so much while still a young teen in Mexico. “I was the only woman and the only civilian at the selection trials, and Karen and I bonded immediately,” she said. “It was an absolute dream come true—and to think that she was the rider in that poster so many years ago was just amazing. To make it even better, Cecelia and I won the selection trials and earned a spot on the Pan Am Games team.”
Armed with new aspirations, Danny opted to move to the U.S. where she could continue training under Karen’s watchful eye. “Zully and I had discussed relocating our business to the U.S., where there were more opportunities,” she said. As fate would have it, Danny was at an exhibitors’ party one evening and heard a long-familiar voice calling her name. “It turned out to be Joy Pharr, my mentor from so many years ago,” Danny said. “We had somehow lost contact over the years. When I told Joy about my hope of establishing a business in the U.S., she agreed to lease her beautiful farm to us—the farm where I had basically started my career. It was all very surreal.”
In another turn of good fortune, Danny was able to purchase Aurelio’s share in Cecelia with the help of beloved relatives. “My grandfather had always been so supportive of my passion. Sadly, he passed away right after I crossed the line at my first Rolex event. My grandmother told me that he closed his eyes and passed peacefully as soon as he heard that Cecelia and I had finished safely,” Danny said.
“When I spoke with my grandmother to see if she could possibly help me buy Aurelio’s share of Cecelia, her eyes widened. Apparently my grandfather had left a substantial amount of money to keep her comfortable, but she said that he had always been so proud of me and she knew that he would want that money to be used to help me. She said, ‘I’m not giving you this money, your grandfather is.’ It was—and remains—a really special moment for me.”
With those funds, Danny and Zully were able to lease Joy’s farm in Tryon. “It was so magical for me to be running our business at the same place that I had first learned at so many years ago, and to reconnect with Joy,” Danny said. “To top it off, when we competed at the World Equestrian Games in 2018, Joy was chef d’equipe.”
Within a few years, Danny and Zully decided that the time was right to expand their business and move to Florida. “Every winter, I went to Ocala to work with Karen,” Danny said. “When Karen decided to stay in Ocala full time, she suggested we establish our business there.” The couple was able to lease a farm in Ocala from their good friends, Alex and Ellie O’Neill. “We have been there for over a year and our business is growing,” Danny said. “We are showing year-round and we are happily surrounded by our many friends, whom I call ‘our American family.’”
As Cecelia is now 19 years old, Danny had hoped to compete her at the 2022 World Equestrian Games in Pratoni del Vivaro, Italy, before retiring the mare. However, when the pair arrived in Italy, Cecelia was sidelined by a minor case of cellulitis that left her unable to compete. “I decided that when things go wrong, you can either cry or laugh. I chose to laugh—and to keep working hard,” Danny said. “Fortunately, Cecelia recovered very quickly, so I decided to enter her in a big four-star event in the Netherlands. My plan is to retire her and breed her.” Cecelia’s first foal is due early this year, by one of Alex and Ellie’s stallions and carried by one of their mares as surrogate.
Danny currently remains quite busy as she is developing several horses for the Advanced level. Eventing D’azull is thriving, and Zully has become a highly successful coach of young riders. “Zully has devoted the last 10 years of his life not only to riding,” Danny said, “but also to teaching students—particularly kids— who have won numerous national championships.” As always, Danny continues to work toward her goals of returning to the World Equestrian Games and the Pan Am Games, and ultimately earning a spot at the Olympics.
In the meantime, Danny is inspiring others to achieve their dreams, no matter how unlikely or difficult they may seem. “It means so much to me—a woman from Latin America—to show the coming generations, especially those from different races, that you will have adversity, but it doesn’t matter in the long run. If you have a dream, you just have to work hard and believe it can happen. I always think of a blessing that my grandmother taught me. She would say, ‘In every dream, there is always a silver lining. In every story, there is a positive.’ When things go wrong—and they will—hold onto that dream and it will work out in the end.”
For more information, visit danielamoguel.com
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com