Ballet and gymnastics suit many active 4-year-old girls. So do adventures with Breyer horses. But what do you get when you put all those together? As Jeannie Wood discovered, the trifecta opened a gateway to horsey heaven on earth for her daughter, Ava.
Vaulting. It blends all the pageantry, balance, strength, rhythm, and harmony of ballet and gymnastics, but you also get the horses. Real horses. That’s what hooked Ava at the age of four.
Jeannie and her husband had visited Lexington, Kentucky, in the fall of 2010 for a wedding. They had trouble finding a hotel room. Finally, a clerk alerted them to the World Equestrian Games happening just up the road. Jeannie took the clerk’s advice and witnessed the vaulting finals. She documented it and showed videos to Ava, who immediately asked for a pony, lessons, and a form-fitting uniform per FEI regulation. “It has been all horses ever since,” Jeannie says.
When Ava, now 14, began riding lessons, Jeannie also took the opportunity to fulfill her own childhood dream and hopped in the saddle as well. As Ava built more strength and finesse in the saddle, she also exercised her mind and fine-tuned her horsemanship skills by joining the Middle Tennessee Pony Club, where she has rated to C-1. By 2017, she felt confident enough to ride out on the club’s Youth Day, an introduction to foxhunting led by the local Hillsboro Hounds.
“It was my first hunt and it was a day to remember,” Ava says. “Everyone took such good care and was so helpful.”
“I could see the joy on her face when she came back in,” Jeannie remembers. “We met the nicest people and I enjoyed the experience from the parent perspective. Virginia Voight does a great job coordinating Youth Day every year.”
After that, nearly every weekend Jeannie and Ava made the two-hour trek to the fixtures from their farm, Sherwood Downs, in Cross Plains, Tennessee. Ava typically rode one of two horses: Her lively 13.2-hand pony CJ, or her fearless 15-hand mare Party. “What I love most about CJ is when he sees the hounds. Before we cast, he gets so excited he can't stand still. The hounds fuel him,” she says. On the other hand, “I can point Party at anything and she will try her hardest. Her heart is as big as any first flight horse.”
No matter which horse she rode, Jeannie watched Ava grow after each outing, not only as a horseman but also as a young lady. Since Jeannie and her husband both work full-time, Ava pulls her own weight around the barn every evening after school. She also helps manage the family’s seven horses’ exercise schedules. She brings all that experience to the hunt field and then applies it when it’s time to rate up in Pony Club. Plus, since she started hunting, Ava’s picked up and practices more proper manners among horses and people, Jeannie says. Her sense of independence has grown, and she’s learned to take safety seriously.
“If you don't have good horsemanship and safety skills, you, your horse, or others can get hurt,” Jeannie says. “When you see this firsthand, you know the importance. You never know what will happen next when you are hunting. Will the hounds get on a run? Will a flock of turkeys fly up in front of you? Hunting teaches you to be a prepared rider. It also teaches you the importance of training. The horse learns from you and you learn from the horse.”
Ava has further carried those lessons into eventing, where she competes aboard Sophia, a Hanoverian mare. She started the mare less than a year ago with her trainer, Bill Hoos. “She's come so far and is so talented and spirited in everything she does,” Ava says of Sophia. Much like the combination of ballet, gymnastics, and toy horses led seamlessly to vaulting, the trifecta of Pony Club, foxhunting, and eventing seem to be vaulting Ava closer to her goal of becoming a professional equestrian.
Many of her most favorite and valuable memories come from hunting. She said the opportunity to whip-in with Leilani Gray, First Whip for Hillsboro Hounds, was one of the greatest learning experiences she’s ever had. She aspires to ride like Mrs. Gray someday.
But for now, aside from studying and helping manage her high school’s boy’s soccer team each spring, “horses are my life and I like it that way,” Ava says. She’d love to train horses for eventing and hunting, and she hopes to compete at the Kentucky Three-Day Event like her trainer, who received his colors from Hillsboro Hounds.
For Jeannie, who finally found herself in the field with Hillsboro Hounds for the first time last season, she’s realized that hunting has granted Ava many of the tools she’ll need to succeed in her future endeavors. “She has learned to be a leader,” Jeannie says. “Ava often finds herself helping other junior members and sometimes even adults. She has also learned the importance of land conservation and the beauty of nature, which is always better through the ears of your horse.”