Senior Natasia "Tai" McDougall found her niche in college through the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire equestrian club, bringing horses back into her life and sparking a dream to start her own business one day.
The Eau Claire native will graduate this month after 3 1/2 years at UW-Eau Claire, earning a bachelor's degree in business management-entrepreneurship. In spring 2021, McDougall will continue her studies at UW-River Falls, where she will pursue a degree in animal science-equine management. Her plan is to earn her two bachelor's degrees in six years.
The dual degrees will give McDougall the educational foundation she needs to start an equine ranch where visitors can experience a rural lifestyle and ride horses that have been rescued from unhealthy situations.
"If I have my own dude ranch, I get to surround myself with animals every day and give people a little taste of the country while rescuing horses in need that were in the same situations as my Major," McDougall says of her horse. "The feeling of watching these horses go from scrawny, terrified, unwanted horses and blossom into the playful, chonky, happy babies that they deserve to be is indescribable."
McDougall did not grow up around horses, but she always had a love for the animals. That passion for horses grew in elementary school when she attended a four-day horse camp at Trinity Equestrian Center south of Eau Claire.
When it came time for college, McDougall always knew she would attend UW-Eau Claire like her older sister Phaedra, who graduated in 2018 with a bachelor's degree in elementary education. McDougall admits she was anxious about making the transition from high school to college.
"I've never been good with change, so going from the highly controlled environment of secondary schooling to the freedom of college was challenging for me," McDougall says.
UW-Eau Claire's equestrian club helped McDougall find her place at the university. After joining the club during her sophomore year, McDougall relearned how to ride horses and "reconnected with my horse side."
McDougall eventually became a club officer and, like other members, volunteered hours at the Phoenix Rising Rescue and Rehabilitation Center near Fall Creek, an equine rescue facility that takes in unwanted, neglected or abused horses.
COVID-19 shut down the equestrian club this year, but McDougall's passion for horses has not diminished. She continued her visits to the rescue farm and became a valued volunteer.
"Tai is just super compassionate and a huge animal lover; I think animals can tell she is just so kind," says Jennifer Stone, co-founder of the center. "She's very serious about horses and about learning everything there is to learn about them. She's always very serious about our program."
One day a horse arrived with a group of other rescued animals, Stone says, and "Tai fell hopelessly in love with him."
"I have now owned Major for over a year and he has taken over my life," McDougall says. "Besides work and school, I spend most of my free time at the barn spending time with him and gaining his trust. It's hard to explain 'me' without explaining our journey because he is such a huge part of who I am."
Nichole Miller, an academic advisor in UW-Eau Claire's Advising, Retention and Career Center, met McDougall about a year ago at the farm when they both were volunteering and they became good friends. Miller says McDougall is diligent in her college coursework and understands that what she is learning in her classes will better prepare her to be a business operator one day.
"Tai is smart, compassionate and determined — she will make this dream a reality," Miller says.
McDougall is confident as well that her future will be as a ranch owner.
"Once I got involved with horses again and saw the passion that Jen has while caring for these horses, I realized how important it is to absolutely love what you do, and that I want to have a job that didn't feel like work," McDougall says.
"I'm still relatively shy but get me started talking about my pets and I become a whole new person. Animals have become my entire life; I love everything about them, and they bring me so much joy."