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Forever Friends Follow Path from Show Pen to Careers at Google and Facebook

It’s the stuff of fictional storylines aimed at young female readers.  You know the books – the ones with the pink covers plastered with an illustration of a little girl embracing the neck of a big bay mount, inviting readers on an adventure into the stable where the main character meets her to-be best equine friend as well as her to-be best human friend.

But the story isn’t fictional for Gina Maekawa and Madison Nirenstein. In 2005, the two then grade-school-age girls met at Flying M Ranch in Northern California while attending a horse camp together. They became fast friends, carpooling to lessons together, and starting their horse show careers shortly after.

Gina and Madison (pictured left and right) continued that friendship throughout their youth years in the show pen, but it was a relationship that didn’t end on the weekends when the shows did. They were often having sleepovers (they once did a sleepover marathon of 10 consecutive nights) or spending time singing karaoke (ask them to send you the link of their 10-year-old selves as stars and producers in a music video remake).

Their friendship was full of laughter, adventure and a love for horses. Though their paths diverged in young adulthood when college took Madison to the Midwest, they remained in contact.  They have interestingly found themselves traveling similar career paths, both pursuing careers in technology – and, of course, both still showing horses. Today, Madison rides with Highpoint Performance Horses in Pilot Point, Texas and Gina at Zanetti Performance Horses in Cotati, California.

The similarities in career paths have led Gina to the social media behemoth, Facebook. Not to be outdone, Madison is headed to the search engine giant, Google. Maekawa is a Software Project Manager on the Workplace Technology Team for Facebook in Menlo Park, California. In July, Nirenstein will begin her position as an Associate Account Strategist for Google in their AdWords Department from their Ann Arbor, Michigan location. Madison’s interest in working for Google was piqued when a seemingly perfect position in sales opened there. She enjoys talking with people, problem-solving, and working with non-profits – all things her new job offers.

Gina got her first taste of what it would be like to work in the technology field at a biotech startup in Silicon Valley. “I fell in love with the environment and knew I wanted to come back after graduation. I love the open, fast-paced culture, and making an impact. I enjoy project management because it challenges me, and I get to work with diverse groups of people,” she says.

Both women draw fascinating parallels between the worlds of technology and horse showing, noting the importance of communication, teamwork, trust, flexibility, and attention to detail as attributes that lead to success in both arenas. Whether working with technology or aboard her horses, Madison says a sound understanding of the complexity of a product or an animal and its nuances is of utmost importance.

Gina agrees. When she is working on releasing a new software feature, she finds herself thinking about show days. “You prepare thoroughly and work hard. You try to ‘do your homework’ before the big day. You practice maneuvers and ride, ride, ride! You show in your class and nail it, or your horse spooks or you go off pattern. In software, we prepare by testing the new features in a development test environment. You release the code, and it goes well, or the release results in software bugs. It’s a similar experience.”

Throughout their show careers, the two have found themselves in head-to-head competition, but both say their friendship has and will outlast any class at a horse show. “Being competitors, as well as friends, can be difficult at times, but Madison always inspires me to improve. Regardless of how we felt we did, we are still happy for each other. In the big picture, it’s just a horse show. The horse show lasts for a week, but friendships last forever,” Maekawa says.

Madison echoes the sentiment, saying, “I think being competitors and friends is a true testament to how strong the bond is between us. I have always admired Gina’s competitive spirit, and we have challenged one another to be better. We have always been able to keep a level head and realize that friendship is much more important than one class at one show.” She adds that her best rides have always been when she’s focusing on achieving a personal best rather than who she is competing against that day.

Though Madison and Gina don’t see each other as often at shows these days due to their horses being in different regions of the country, the two still cheer each other on from afar, thanks to the industry they both pursue professionally…technology.

“Long distance friendships are difficult, but we have been able to maintain ours through the power of technology and our love for horses. We talk on the phone, text, or send each other funny memes. It’s so great to have a friend to talk about horses with,” Gina says, admitting with a laugh that some of her “non-horsey” friends still think horse showing is synonymous for horse racing.

Madison adds that they frequently check in with one another, whether it’s horse-related, work-related, or just an update on life’s events. 

When they can show together, the two pick up right where they left off. They roomed together at this year’s Silver Dollar Circuit in Las Vegas and expect their schedules to overlap a time or two later this show season as well. Madison will show No Doubt Im Trouble in the Amateur Showmanship, Performance Halter Mares, and Novice Amateur Trail this year and Hubbout A Dance in the Amateur Hunter Under Saddle and Equitation.

Gina recently celebrated the first anniversary with her horse, Protect the League, and, as a relatively new partnership competing in all-around level one and level two events, she’s most excited to experience their growth in hunt seat equitation. And you can bet they’ll be supporting each other through it all; if it can’t be in person, it will most definitely be thanks to technology.

About the Author – When she isn’t teaching in her high school classroom, Megan Ulrich enjoys riding, showing, and judging horses. She earned her journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin.