A familiar name to the equitation finals this year, Ava Stearns wrapped up her junior career by achieving a long-time goal of hers: a win in an equitation championship. After placing second in the Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final and the Washington International Horse Show Equitation Final, Stearns was hungry for a win. With a little patience and a lot of hard work, the talented 18-year-old athlete went out with a bang, taking home the championship honors in the 2019 ASPCA Maclay National Championships.
How does it feel to be the 2019 Maclay National Champion? It is really exciting. Obviously every junior who does the equitation dreams of that moment and to have it happen at my last show as a junior was really special.
Did you feel like being second at WIHS had given you a confidence boost going into Maclay finals? I think that being second at two finals this year made me hungry for a win. I came so close that I really wanted to prove that I could win.
What did you think of the courses? Was there anything you knew you needed to focus on throughout the challenges they presented? I think the courses were really well designed. They were probably some of my favorite courses I had seen all finals season. The jumps were obviously beautiful and I thought the course was very balanced, technical and asked the same questions off both leads, which made it very fair so that you wouldn’t have an advantage if your horse was stronger on one lead rather than the other. I thought that every round just kept asking new questions and gave you a chance to show off your skill set. There wasn’t anything specific that I wanted to focus on but it was a course that you needed a little bit of gallop for so, in the beginning, I knew that I needed to make sure that I started with a good pace and kept it throughout.
Are there any exercises you practiced at home that you felt helped you in the courses and on the flat? At North Run we do a lot of flatwork and cavalettis and small exercises that help you focus on getting the right track and making sure that you are straight. I think that really came into play with those 30’ gates because you had to make sure you jumped where you wanted to be so that the track on the backside set you up to do the bending lines to the combinations. We also do a lot of lengthening, shortening and transitions, which I think helped a lot on the flat because they did ask for that. My horse is very, very good on the flat, so that was a big help, especially with those flying changes and keeping him connected.
What is your partnership like with Acer K? Where did you think he shined the brightest throughout the day? He is eight years old and I really only started working with him this summer. He came to us in March and that is when he did his first equitation class – he did the jumpers before. He is so special, I really could not have wished to spend my finals season on any other horse. He is so smart and he learned to do all of the equitation between March and regionals, really. Regionals was his first time ever doing anything like this and every time he steps in the ring he puts his best foot forward. I love him so much and he was really there for me for all of the finals. I believe in him so much and it was so special to do this with him.
“Max” has a huge stride, huge scope and a really beautiful jump so I knew in that first forward five-stride line that if I got in with enough pace and really got down there he would make it a beautiful jump. He is also really adjustable so in the test, I knew that the counter canter to the double and adding in that first line that we had done five in the previous round would be no problem for him. He is quite good at that.
How did you remain so calm throughout the high-pressure moments? For me, it was knowing that no matter what happened in the ring, I was so happy with how my horse went and the whole team at North Run would celebrate the day with me and it was going to be a great experience and a lot of fun. Obviously, it is a little stressful going in and you want to maintain the lead, but my trainers, Missy Clark and John Brennan, said to me all day that I just needed to go have fun and enjoy it, because no matter what happens we have had an incredible finals season. I think that because they are so supportive and I love riding Max so much, I didn’t really think about the test or the pressure of being on top. I just enjoyed being able to show one last time as a junior.
How did it feel to be put at the top of the judges’ preference list after your first round and stay there throughout the remaining riders? It was really exciting because I was quite happy with my first round so it was nice to know the judges also liked it. It gave me a little bit of confidence going into the rest of the trips that they liked what they saw and that I could continue to work off of the momentum I had built up in the first round.
What were Missy and John’s final words to you before you entered for the test? They said good luck! John told me that there was no pressure and that I should just go in, ride and have fun. That was also something that was really helpful – they didn’t really put the pressure on me and they just wanted me to enjoy it.
What were your thoughts on your test? Did you know you had nailed it? I came out of the ring thrilled with my test. I was so proud of the way Max performed. He has only tested a couple of times really – he hasn’t been doing the equitation very long at all. He executed every maneuver I asked to the very best of his ability. He gave me 100% and I came out so happy with how he performed. I was really happy with my test but I had not seen Charlise [Casas]’ trip so I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but no matter what, I was going to be thrilled!
What is one piece of training advice that you carried with you throughout the courses? I think that going into these courses, the one thing I kept with me is that Missy and John always say that good riding is good riding. It doesn’t matter what the course is, it doesn’t matter if you are jumping a 1.60m or 2’6”, you need to go in and do what is right for your horse. Going into the rounds I tried to not think about the number everyone else had done to the end jumps or anything else, I just focused on my riding and what was best for my horse.
Is there anything you would have changed about your rides? There are always little things when you think back that you would have tweaked here or there – that is just part of learning from every round you go in to. I don’t think you can go in and lay down a trip that you wouldn’t change anything about. Overall, I would not have changed the way my horse went. He has never really seen anything like that before and nothing phased him.
What is your favorite exercise to do at home? A lot of times we set a line, even if it is just polls or a cavaletti, and we work on lengthening and shortening by doing different numbers in it. For example, we will set a five stride line and practice doing four in it, then six. It really helps with adjustability and makes a big difference in the ring because you never know when you are going to need that adjustability. Missy and John’s work on our adjustability and flat riding has really helped me execute the technical part of those courses and helped me execute the adjustability piece of that course to the best of my ability.
Thoughts on ‘No Stirrup November’? I think that we have seen our fair share of no stirrup work this finals season! It is important to be strong and ride without your stirrups and it is big piece of growing as a rider. I think you also need to include other pieces as well though, especially so that it isn’t hard on horse’s back, but I do think no stirrup work is a big part of learning as a rider, getting better and preparing you for bigger things.
What is the most important lesson you have learned at North Run? Missy, John and everyone at North Run have taught me so much as a rider and person over the years. I think that the biggest thing they have taught me is that hard work is very important and not every situation is going to be perfect and not every round is going to be perfect, but your ability to take the mistakes you have made, learn from them, grow from them and work harder is how you will learn to be better in the future.
What has riding at school been like? How is that transition from NCEA to riding Acer K in the equitation final? Riding for Auburn has been a bit of an adjustment. I have obviously been back and forth a lot so I haven’t been there consistently, but the coaches have been so supportive of me finishing out my junior career. It is a bit of change going back and forth because you don’t get as much practice on your own horse but the coaches at Auburn try to let us ride as much as possible to prepare. I am so confident in Max’s ability and I know that everyone at North Run does everything they can to make sure that both he and I are prepared to the best of our ability so it is a change, but it was a welcomed change.
What are your plans moving forward? Professional? Honestly, all plans are to be determined right now. Our goal was to get through finals season and then to assess where we go from there. It was just my goal to finish out the season strong and now I think I am going to regroup and start making those kinds of choices.
What is one thing you want everyone to know about you following your win in the 2019 Maclay National Championships? I would say that I want everyone to know that it would have never been possible for me to do this without everyone that helped along the way. Without North Run being there for me every step of the way, without the grooms and assistant trainers, all the staff, Missy and John who have been so generous to me, all of the people that have given me catch rides – none of this ever would have happened without every single person that has been a part of my journey. I am so thankful for everyone’s help and for believing in me.
How did it feel to close out your junior career on such a high note? It was so special. I had come close a few times so it felt amazing to finally do it. Not only was it special for me, but I really wanted to do it for everyone that worked so hard. My groom, Katie Williams, who took care of Max, cares so much and is there every day. Before I went to go in the ring she went over the course with me and not only does this mean so much to me, but it means so much to everyone who put time, blood, sweat, tears and dedication into my riding, so to be able to do it for them as well was so special.
I just want to say another thank you to Missy, John and everyone at North Run for their generosity with their time and giving me the opportunity to ride Max. Max, known in the ring as Acer K, is one of a kind. I don’t think I know any other 8-year-old, recently-converted equitation horse that could have done what he did for me this finals season.