Unbridled ambition

Equestrian Ava Stearns takes home ASPCA Maclay National Championship.

Ava Stearns took home the Maclay National Championship for her impressive equitation.

Islander Ava Stearns added yet another accomplishment to her equestrian career after winning tricolor honors at the 2019 ASPCA Maclay National Championship alongside her four-legged partner, Acer K. 

The national championship, which Ava’s mother called the “Wimbledon of equitation,” is one of the most prestigious competitions for junior riders in the U.S., according to the National Horse Show website

“Ava and her horse took on the best riders in America,” Ava’s mother, Sarah Doyle, said. “Eighty-one people have won the Maclay finals, and they are all legendary figures in the sport.”

Doyle said Ava would often wake up before 6 am on weekends, then practice all day until it was dark, to prepare for the competition.

“She is so incredibly dedicated to the sport. It’s a long road even to be able to participate in this competition,” Doyle said.

Ava started riding at Pondview Farm when she was little, where her mom taught riding to kids. She progressed from ponies to horses, and acquired the unique skill set and the passion involved with competitive riding.

Throughout her life, Ava has balanced her riding and her academics, but her mother said that duality has never hindered her in excelling in all she does. “Ava really has an innate drive to excel at anything she puts her mind to, and she does it with confidence and humbleness,” Doyle said.

Although Ava never had her own horse, she was always able to find a good horse to ride through the help of her family and friends.

About seven years ago, Missy Clark and John Brennan from North Run Farm in Vermont reached out to Ava to ask her if she would be willing to ride one of their horses in an upcoming competition. From there, Doyle said Ava’s riding career “took off,” and she began competing in national horse shows all around the country.

“Missy and John were so supportive of Ava and her goals, and they knew she was very talented and had a passion to succeed,” Doyle said.

After moving up in the ranks, Ava began traveling to Wellington, Fla., to compete in major horse shows with some of the best riders in the sport. As a dedicated student, Ava would be tutored after competitions to keep up with her coursework.

Doyle said the West Tisbury School worked closely with the family to not only support Ava in her ambitions, but to encourage her to pursue her dreams. 

“The West Tisbury School was incredible with helping us allow Ava to follow her passion and also excel in her academics,” Doyle said. “We really had to think outside the box sometimes.”

Despite a tough transition from elementary school to high school, Ava graduated as a National Merit Scholar, and last year signed on to join the women’s equestrian team at NCAA Division I school Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.

After witnessing years of success in competitions, and now the Maclay National Championship, Doyle said one exemplary component of Ava’s is her ability to handle intense pressure.

“She goes out there with no nerves, no drama, and helps her horse the entire way. It truly is an impressive thing to see,” Doyle said. “Ava really showed that, despite a few hurdles, you can always achieve your goals.”

Ava said horses have always been a part of her life, and they always will be. “I love the animals. You get a strong bond with them after spending so much time with them,” Ava said.

Ava said her winning horse, an 8-year-old Westphalian gelding named Acer K, did a great job competing in an unfamiliar event, even at his young age.

“He is only 8 years old, but he is a super-smart horse. It was his first year doing equitation, but he really came through,” Ava said.

According to Ava, equitation is different from hunter or jumper competitions because both the horse and the rider are judged for style, track, smoothness, and form.

“It’s a combination of how you and your horse do, so it’s really about teamwork,” Ava said.

Ava thanked North Run for always having a horse for her to ride on. 

“I am so fond of him [Acer K], and not having my own horse has never really been a big issue for me because North Run has the best horses,” Ava said.

Even with all the preparation and training involved with a competition of this scale, Ava said the hardest part is having “all the pieces fall into place on that particular day.”

“There is so much that goes into a competition like this — everything just has to come together for both the horse and the rider,” Ava said.

With the Maclay National Championship win closing out her career as a junior rider, Ava said she is looking forward to “buckling down” and focusing on her studies.

As a freshman at Auburn University, Ava said, she is dabbling in the medical field, but is taking time to narrow down a career path she is passionate about. 

She thanked her family, and her friends and mentors at North Run, for always supporting her.

“It really helps make the process work, having an entire team on both the family side and the horse side. Everyone wants to see me succeed, and I am grateful for all the effort people put in,” Ava said.