Ava Stearns: Super Star Working Student and Outstanding Rider

Congratulations on a terrific Talent Search East Final! Photo: The Book LLC
Congratulations on a terrific Talent Search East Final!
Photo: The Book LLC

North Run working student Ava Stearns was the Reserve Champion of the 2019 Platinum Performance/USEFShow Jumping Talent Search Finals – East. On a misty October weekend at Gladstone, the much storied headquarters of the USET Foundation, 17-year-old Ava impressed me with her effective riding style. It was not flashy, but every decision she made was calm and calculated. I thought I recognized the hallmark of equitation legend Missy Clark’s training and it was confirmed when I saw that Ava’s mount Acer K was owned by Missy Clark and North Run. He and Ava executed all the phases of the Talent Search with precision and aplomb. I had a chance to catch up with Ava to discuss what led up to her poised performance.

Winter Hoffman: What was your childhood like and how were you introduced to riding?

Ava Stearns: Throughout my childhood I was always involved with horses. My mother is in the horse business so it has always been a big part of my life.

WH: How did you come to have a passion for the sport -through your mother trainer Sarah Doyle? Or through other trainers?

AS: I think came to have a passion for the sport because horses were such a big part of my life growing up and because I love the animals. I have always been a big animal person, I couldn’t imagine my life without them.

WH: You did the hunters, but what are your thoughts on the equitation as a foundation for show jumping?

AS: I do quite enjoy doing the hunters but I think that being able to execute an equitation track smoothly is super important in teaching you how to properly answer questions that you will see in the jumper ring.

WH: Was being from Martha’s Vineyard an advantage or disadvantage for your Junior show career? How do the horses get to and from the island?

AS: As much as I love where I live sometimes it can make the travel to shows very hard. You need to take a ferry to get to the horses back and forth to the island. Because of the extra travel I would say it is a bit of a disadvantage but training and meeting up with Missy Clark and North Run has made this process a lot easier.

Missy Clark and Ava Stearns
Missy Clark and Ava Stearns

WH: You currently train with Missy Clark and John Brennan at North Run – please tell us how this came about, the high points and what you learned from this experience.

AS: One of the main reasons I ended up at North Run was because besides the fact that Missy Clark and John Brennan are among the best trainers, they are extremely generous with both their time and their horses. My junior career would not have been possible without them. Their training and support has made all of the opportunities I have been lucky enough to have possible.

WH: You must have a very supportive family-please tell us about them. Did they travel with you in your earlier Junior years?

AS: My family is very supportive of my riding. I have two brothers and even though they don’t ride horses they try to follow along and support my showing. My parents are also very supportive, my mother usually travels with me to shows and my dad comes to watch whenever he can.

WH: What are you planning to do after you graduate ?

AS: I am not really sure what my plan after I graduate is yet.

Dominic Gibbs, Sam Walker and Ava Stearns: top three in WIHS Equitation Final
Ava Stearns rode to the reserve championship in the WIHS Equitation Final (L toR: Dominic Gibbs, Sam Walker and Ava Stearns)

WH: What is your view of being a working student and how does it impact the training plan and path you chose for you and your horses?

AS: Being a working student has been one of the best decisions. It really opens up lots of doors and opportunities that you would otherwise not have. Its nice to spend time in the barn and get to know the horses really well outside of the ring.

WH: How do you manage the peripatetic lifestyle of an equestrian and the stress of traveling to horse shows?

AS: Sometimes between school and showing it can be a lot to manage but between my friends, parents, and Missy and John people always make sure that I have enough time to stay on top of my work.

WH: What are your thoughts on the current state of showjumping in the USA and the rest of the world?

AS: I think that this is a wonderful sport to be a part of and that hopefully it will continue to grow and improve.

WH: What is your favorite piece of equestrian equipment for horse? For rider?

AS: I would say that my favorite piece of equestrian equipment for the rider is your helmet. So many things can happen unexpectedly in this sport and I think that it is super important to wear a helmet. I would say my favorite piece of equipment for the horse is a back pad. I think they help keep the horses comfortable.

Ava Stearns and Acer K

WH: What advice do you have for ambitious young riders?

AS: One piece of advice I have for ambitious young riders is to work hard on and off your horse.

WH: What is your day like? Please describe for the readers your training program.

AS: I don’t really have a “typical day” because depending on where I am things are always changing but I would say that a typical day for me usually involves getting to the barn early and being there almost all day. Between practicing, showing, and working in the barn I usually stay pretty busy. If I’m not at the barn I am usually studying. I think that it is really important not to sacrifice your education. Even though it can sometimes be a lot of work, it is very possible to be a working student, compete, and prioritize school.

WH: You have ridden outstanding horses, please tell us a little about each one and what qualities you favor in a hunter or show jumper? What were the high points of the past year?

AS: I have had the opportunity to ride so many incredible horses and none of this would have been possible without Missy Clark, John Brennan, and the entire team at North Run. I would say that one of the high points for me in the past year has been being able to have the opportunity to ride Acer K. He is one of the most incredible equitation horses and he is only 8 years and. I would say one of my favorite qualities about him is how smart he is and his ability to learn new things.

Ava Stearns - ninth place
Ava Stearns in the 2018 WIHS Equitation Finals

WH: How did you transition to the jumper division and what do you love about it?

AS: I think that doing the equitation helped make the transition to the jumper ring a lot easier. One of my favorite things about it is that I can take the skills that I have worked on in the equitation ring and jump bigger and harder tracks.

WH: How do your trainers prepare you and your horses? What do they have you practice?

AS: One of the ways that my trainers prepare me and my horses to show is by working on the fundamentals. This involves a lot of flat work.

WH: You must have a routine to prepare yourself mentally before you go in the ring, what is it?

AS: I don’t really have anything specific I do mentally before I go into the ring but I like to go over the course and my plan a few times in my head and think about how to execute each part to the best of my ability.

WH: What would you look for in a jumper prospect ?

AS: I would look for a good brain in jumper prospect. I think being able to learn and grow with your horse is really important.

Ava Stearns and Colando 

WH: Please describe your favorite place to visit and ride in West Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard or Missy’s barn in Warren, Vermont or another part of the world?

AS: Although I don’t get to visit the North Run home farm in Warren Vermont a lot, but it is one of my favorite places to ride. The farm is beautiful and I always feel like I learn so much after spending a few days up there.

WH: Who is your favorite amateur jumper rider and your favorite international rider and why?

AS: I’m not sure that I have a favorite professional jumper rider but I like to watch the top ones compete because I think that you can learn so much from watching.

WH: Who is your favorite international horse and why?

AS: Again, I am not sure that I can pick just one international horse but I like to watch the top group compete. They all have such different styles and ways of going I think you can learn a lot from watching them.

WH: Do you follow breed prospects for show jumping? If so, which bloodlines do you favor?

AS: I don’t really follow breed prospects.

WH: Not sure you’re doing the Indoor Finals, but if so which ones will you do?

AS: I am doing all three indoor Finals.

Mason Phelps stands with Region 1's top three riders (L to R): Ava Stearns, Cooper Dean and Abigail Brayman at the Region 1 ASPCA/NHSAA Maclay Championships hosted by Old Salem Farm during the American Gold Cup.
Mason Phelps stands with Region 1’s top three riders (L to R): Ava Stearns, Cooper Dean and Abigail Brayman at the Region 1 ASPCA/NHSAA Maclay Championships hosted by Old Salem Farm during the 2017 American Gold Cup.

WH: Is it possible to instill courage in a rider?And is it possible to instill courage in a horse?

AS: I think it is possible to instill courage in both a rider and a horse. I think for a rider, or for me at least, I get a lot of confidence from Missy, John, and the entire team at North Run. Even if it doesn’t go your way in the ring I always feel like I leave the show having learned something new. I also have so much faith and respect in Missy Clark‘s training decisions I always feel like I walk into the ring with the best plan possible for me and my horse. I think that having good, confident rides as well as good training can help instill confidence in a horse.

WH: Is it possible to make a rider competitive ie. give them that blood-thirsty “go for the jugular” desire to be #1 in the world, to beat the other riders?

AS: I think that it is possible to make a rider competitive. I think that in order for a rider to be competitive they also have to be confident. Because of this, I think that good training has the ability to make a rider competitive.

WH: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and good luck in your future competitions Ava.

Winter HoffmanAbout the author: with a background in filmmaking , fashion and contemporary art, Winter Hoffman brings a unique perspective to the equestrian world. A life long horsewoman she helped her daughter, Zazou Hoffman, navigate her way to a successful Junior career culminating in 1st place in the 2009 ASPCA Maclay Equitation Championship at the National Horse Show and second in the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final with East Coast trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan. Zazou is now an Assistant Trainer and professional rider at Meadow Grove Farm in California. She has competed on several developing rider Nations Cups representing the United States.

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