BY KATIE WILLIAMS
Sometimes you search high and low for something you think is missing, and it happens to be staring you straight in the face. I traveled around the world trying to find myself and found myself right back where I was—with horses. North Run to be exact.
After finishing the indoor season in 2018, I decided to resign and spend time traveling. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and something I will cherish forever. However, after five months out of the horse world, I received a call from North Run asking if I could freelance post-WEF through spring Tryon. With no current income and missing horses and my friends, I jumped at the opportunity to return.
Within a week, I asked to stay on full time and halfway through the summer was given Acer K “Max” to take care in addition to my other horses. Ava Stearns and Max had a relatively new partnership at this point in the summer, but when you watched them in the ring you never would have known they had not been together for years. Max has such a presence about him. The strikingly black horse, who holds his head high with ears pricked forward, was always attentive when walking into into the ring. Ava fit him perfectly and gave him such confidence that you knew almost immediately this was the pair to watch.
Ava was our working student, and she worked hard! When she wasn’t riding or showing, she was cleaning tack, taking horses to the ring, bathing, lunging, going on food runs, and doing anything and everything anyone asked. I cannot count how many times I needed her assistance, and she was there, ready to go! Anything Max needed she was on it! He was her pride and joy, and she couldn’t help but shower him with love and some spoils. I lost count as to how many times I had to tell her to stop giving him treats on the cross ties—she trained him to be quite the beggar.
The Great Lakes Equestrian Festival in Traverse City, Michigan hosts the Dudley B. Smith Equitation Championship, and 2019 was its inaugural year. Ava and Max qualified for the championship and at the end of July 2019, they competed in their first big pressure class. As they went around the big ring, the North Run team knew that this was the partnership for Indoors. With the first big, long blue rosette, there was bound to be another one in their future.
I first met Ava Stearns in Devon in 2016. Ava was my aisle mate at the show and at 15 years old, she was working her hardest to be the best horsewoman she could. I remember her running around trying to get as much done as she could and still tack up her horse for lessons. I would pick the final couple of shavings out of her horse’s tail as she would walk out of the barn, neither of us wanting her to be late for a lesson with Missy Clark. Since 2016, I have followed Ava’s equitation career. Despite putting down beautiful trips and over and over, she was always the bridesmaid and never the bride. The North Run team has been among her biggest supporters, always hoping that one day she would be rewarded for all her hard work.
Fresh off the big win in Michigan, we headed to the Hamptons and then Old Salem, preparing ourselves for Maclay Regionals, following the American Gold Cup week. We only take the showing horses and back up equitation horses to regionals, so luckily I was able to manage with my three “regulars,” Max, Zapfier (Tanner Korotkin’s mount), and Waldo (who wouldn’t be competing since Sam had already won). Max and Zapfier were more than ready, and so were their riders. Max was going in the beginning of the order, so I got him all ready and took him down to the warmup ring. I remember standing there looking at him; he looked so regal and attentive and ready to take on the day. I snapped a picture of him and thought to myself, here’s today’s winner. Ava and Max had a beautiful round, and we were so proud of Ava and the magical eight-year-old baby equitation horse.
Next, I was able to swap horses with my coworker who had gotten Zapfier to the warm-up ring. Zapfier, who has been nicknamed “Poodle” since before I started at North Run, looked just as ready to go as Max. And Tanner, ever calm and goofy, always puts his best effort forward. This pair put down a beautiful trip, rivaling our teammates. After the first round, I had the top two babies in the class! After everyone flatted their hearts out, Max and Ava won the 2019 ASPCA Maclay Region 1 Finals, and Zapfier and Tanner were Reserve Champions. If this wasn’t the greatest start to finals season, I don’t know what was. The “young black horse that could” performed amazingly under the immense pressure of the day.
Next stop: USET Finals.
I had never been to USET finals before and neither had Max of course, so we were in it together. It was lovely to be at the USET Headquarters, just as I had watched online for years prior. Max was as cool as a cucumber, per usual. The confidence that Max and Ava bring out in each other is show stopping. They had excellent scores in the flat phase and gymnastics and going into Sunday’s final day, they were in a good spot.
After having both my horses first and second at regionals, I decided that I was to wear that outfit to every final for the rest of indoors. I wore a long sleeve navy blue shirt, with my Kevin Babington green ribbon pinned on the left side, and my North Run vest. I didn’t know if that was the secret to the riders’ success, but like all sport superstitions, I wasn’t going to mess with it now.
After a great round, we moved into the Final Four. I never imagined being the lucky groom getting to hold my horse in the ring as the riders performed the final tests. Ava and Max were great but accumulated a time fault. And after a mishap with another pair, everyone had to drop their one score from that particular horse. Ava had ridden that horse beautifully as well, so it was a bummer to lose those points. All the other riders had smiles on their faces and couldn’t express how happy they were to have ridden Acer K. My little horse was probably in disbelief about the whole format of the class, but he took everything with stride and performed his heart out.
And at the end of a long two days, Ava Stearns and Acer K were Reserve Champions of the 2019 USET Finals. Max was Reserve Champion at his first Equitation Final! And at that moment I knew, I would not be wearing different clothes on finals days!
Heading to Harrisburg
I love the Pennsylvania National; the fall decorations, barn setups and spacious room to work make the horse show really special. Ava’s mother, Sarah, does the most beautiful job with our setup. Unfortunately on the first day there, I ended up having an accident which sent me to the hospital to for stitches. I was so upset; I knew I couldn’t care for my horses for the rest of the week. Max, Zapfier, and Waldo were given to my coworkers, and everyone had to work extra hard to make up the loss of a groom. I did my best to assist where I could. I cleaned tack, swept, and gave hay and water, but I spent most of my time doing therapies—to both horses and humans. We have a Class 4 laser and I set up shop and lasered the horses and some sore humans as well.
I still wore my outfit on Sunday, but unfortunately it didn’t have enough luck while I wasn’t taking care of my horses. Waldo and Sam were fantastic, earning 3rd place and Max and Ava were beautiful, finishing 7th.
Home for a week before WIHS finals, I got my stitches out and was ready to get back at it. Washington Finals can be difficult. The horses live outside the city until the night before they show. Zapfier was having this final off, so I had my focus on Max and Waldo. When we got into the city it was all business. There are lunge and ride times based on the division the horses compete in, and with only one ring, it runs through the night. We are working around the clock to make sure everyone is prepared, and it’s busy between getting the equitation horses ready and having the junior and amateur jumpers showing.
The WIHS Hunter Phase was Friday, and Waldo won that phase with a score of 93 while Max earned an 89. Things were looking promising for Saturday’s Jumper Phase and work-off.
On Saturday, I wore my outfit—we were ready! It was warm enough to bathe the eq horses, and I wanted them all to look and feel their best! I’d pick the stall and move the shavings, take my bucket, horse, and cooler and walk through the warm-up ring to the loading dock where the wash rack was set up. And repeat. By the fourth horse, my fellow grooms were laughing because I walked by with a new horse every 10 minutes and I was soaked!
I laid out all the tack and boots on their doors and was ready for the rush to begin. The jumper phase went very well; Max and Ava rose to the occasion topping the class with a score of 93.5. Waldo and Sam scored a 92 putting them in second for that phase, but first overall. Time for the work off. I couldn’t hold two horses at once, so I stayed with Ava as she switched onto Waldo. This was not her first time in this situation, she had previously switched onto Waldo after winning both phases in 2017. She was determined for this time to go better. She put down an amazing trip on Waldo, and we were all so proud of her and the wonderful Waldo! Sam and Max cruised around effortlessly and as a result, I had the top two babies of the class! Waldo and Sam were Champions, and Max and Ava were Reserve!
The big one… Maclay Finals
Full steam ahead for Maclay Finals— the bridesmaid was determined to become the bride! We arrived in Kentucky for our final week of Finals. Waldo was enjoying a nice break, and Max and Zapfier were ready to perform. Ava and Max’s partnership was undeniable at this point in the season. Two peas in a pod, they were meant to be competing together. Ava’s trust in Max was something to behold—choosing a young, inexperienced eight-year-old for your last junior year was not the norm, but this pair, they were different. He trusted her every step of the way, and she could depend on him to be there with her. We were all extremely excited for this Final, after winning regionals she wanted to prove that there was no “curse” associated with winning regionals and not the final. Max was on the money every step of the way.
I laid my outfit out for the morning. I had sent my shirt to get washed, and they took the Kevin Babington ribbon and pin out and placed it in a small bag. I had never taken it out, just washed the clothes as is. This made me so nervous, I spent a solid five minutes finding the hole in the shirt and putting it back together!
Zapfier showed 65th, and Tanner laid it down. I had time to get Max ready to go 92nd, their trip was stunning. It left tears in my eyes. Both of my horses made it to the flat phase. They both went around very well, but it seemed Ava may have moved down a spot or two. Determination filled Ava for Round 2; she was going to make it to the test. Zapfier and Tanner unfortunately had a minor error, leaving them just out of the test, finishing 9th, but a top ten finish for Tanner ended his junior career on a high.
Ava and Max had to perform one last time to clinch the title of a Maclay Champion. They tested flawlessly, but the nerve racking waiting for the results is something you never get used to. Finally the moment we’d all been waiting for, to give Ava the reward she’d been working so hard to achieve, to make the bridesmaid the bride, to finish out this incredible Cinderella story, the chance to go down in history as a renowned Maclay Champion. They did it! Ava Stearns and Acer K were the 2019 ASPCA Maclay Champions. Tears of joy were shed by everyone on the team. We could not have been prouder of our hard-working girl and our incredible young horse. To have finished out her career on top and to start his like this, we were ecstatic.
Sometimes, it may take time, but you discover you are exactly where you need to be…. oh, and just for the record, I have not worn “The Outfit” since.