By Doris Degner-Foster
The magical atmosphere of the Devon Horse Show has captured the hearts of many, and junior rider Ava Stearns is no exception. The Devon Horse Show is an event that has grown from a one- day show in 1896 into the largest outdoor horse show in the country. The heritage, tradition and prestige are well known and riders around the country work hard to ensure their journey includes the road to Devon.
“I’m very excited for Devon. After all the hard work everyone has put in at the Winter Equestrian Festival, I’m excited to get going,” Ava said. “The performance is top level at Devon; not just the riding but the facility is on a higher level.”
Based at Pond View Farm on Martha’s Vineyard, 15-year-old Ava has spent the winters since she was in the third grade traveling to horse shows with her mother, trainer Sarah Doyle, juggling her schoolwork alongside riding to maintain her excellent grades. Ava’s older and younger brothers rode, but she’s the only child in the family that continues to ride. Her mom even used the word “obsessed” when talking about Ava and horses.
She’d have to have some degree of obsession to continue riding at home in the winter. Because Pond View Farm is located on the shoreline, coastal zoning won’t allow them to have an indoor arena. Ava has had to ride outside in the winters, with the cold wind blowing off the ocean, before going to Florida at the end of December.
That persistence has paid off for Ava. She has built a reputation as a talented, dependable young rider that trainers seek out to ride ponies and horses they’re training for junior riders. By making herself available to ride so many different horses, she has improved her riding abilities and gotten rides on higher-quality ponies and horses.
“I think Ava is the product of a lot of wonderful people who have given her a chance,” said Sarah, who emphasized that trainers who have worked with Ava in the past have always been willing to help her. She’s extremely grateful to trainers such as Val Renihan and the late Mindy Darst, as well as Ava’s current trainers, Missy Clark and John Brennan from North Run.
Like Ava, Missy grew up with a mom who rode as a professional for years before she started her family, and only Missy — the youngest of five — wanted to ride. As a teen, Missy became a working student with Chuck Graham and she benefitted from riding many different horses, so she likes to make the same benefits available to other young riders.
Missy was aware of Ava’s abilities and sought her out when her student McKayla Langmeier outgrew the accomplished horse named Denmark. “It’s nice that I’m very fortunate in my life and in my career that I can help out certain kids along the way. Denmark needed a good home but he also needed a good rider because he’s very careful,” Missy explained. “Careful horses don’t want to knock the poles down so he needed a bit of an accurate ride even in the Children’s Jumper division.” Ava had three amazingly successful years with Denmark and he’s now retired at her family’s Pond View Farm.
A Collaborative Effort
Missy and her husband, John Brennan, are based in Vermont at their farm, North Run, and Ava works with them at shows while her mom, Sarah, helps her at home. “Primarily Missy and John train her,” Sarah said. “She has horses at home with me that she rides, but I always look to them for advice and direction because they’re so knowledgeable. They’re so positive about collaborating with other people. In my mind that’s what horsemanship is all about.”
Ava continues to improve her riding by catch riding whenever she can, and she’s had several trainers reach out to her to ride junior hunters and jumpers. “It’s nice that other professionals recognize the talents of young riders,” Missy said. “I’m always very supportive and encourage that. If you have that opportunity and you’re one of those talented, hard-working kids, I say the more rides the better. Ava’s had a lot of opportunities to do that this season, which is awesome for her.”
When asked what the best advice she’s been given, Ava said that it was something Missy had told her: If you put in the work, your time will come. Perhaps Ava’s time is coming at Devon this year. She’ll be riding Quinn, an 8-year-old gelding owned by Missy and North Run that Ava has had for the past two years. She’ll be competing in the Washington, the Medal/Maclay and the USEF Talent Search classes in addition to catch riding hunters that have qualified.
“Devon” is a one-word event, like “indoors.” For some, it’s a kind of mile marker and a time to look back on the road taken to get there. Adding to the magic of the event, this year is the 120th year for the week-long show that runs May 26 – June 5.
“It’s important, it’s prestigious and it’s a good way to measure things,” Sarah said. “I remember when Ava was little and she never had a pony because we couldn’t afford that, and thinking, ‘Oh this is never going to be able to happen for my kid,’ and this year I’m looking at her and thinking, It happened!”
As Missy said, “If you put in the work, your time will come.”
About the author: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds when she’s not interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She enjoys writing fiction and is working on a novel where a horse appears mysteriously in people’s lives to help them through a crisis. She’s also writing and a middle-grade series about kids who ride horses and solve mysteries.