By Lenore Rees Phillips
The beginning of Hailey Johns’ story sounds familiar. The precocious redhead was just another little girl who was crazy-in-love with horses. As a young girl, Hailey took to the saddle on a Quarter Horse in her local lesson barn. With her first ride, she knew that there was no place that she belonged more. The first equestrian in her family, Hailey’s passion took hold of her and has driven her competitive junior career ever since.
After a string of chance encounters and meaningful introductions, Hailey has carved out a name for herself outside of the show ring as well, by developing outlets for her peers to have voices in one of the most important governing bodies of equestrian sports. Now, at 18 years old, she is using her platform to make the most prestigious junior event in the country, the ASPCA Maclay Equitation Championship, an inclusive, fun and accessible event for junior athletes.
Developing a Passion
Hailey began riding at the age of 4. She recalls waking up from a nap, marching into her mother’s office and pronouncing that she was born for horses and wanted to ride. After a month and a half of taking western riding lessons, Hailey transitioned to a small hunter-jumper facility run by Mara Glunz on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, to begin English lessons.
“From the time that I was 4 until the time I was 12, I rode almost every day but only showed three times a year, one being a local schooling show,” Hailey recalled. “But 2013 was a big year for me because it was when I made the decision that I wanted to compete at Pony Finals. Once that became a singular focus for me, my family set about working to make that dream a reality.”
Although Hailey was only 11 years old and competing on ponies, she was unusually tall for her age and needed a special pony to help her make her goal a reality. Hailey’s mother, Jennifer, recognized Hailey’s drive and set about to help find the right pony for her daughter. After calling almost every USEF “R” rated judge she could find to ask for advice, fate connected her with Geoff Teall, who would be the first of several professional introductions that would go on to change Hailey’s life.
Notable for helping young riders make it to some of the most prestigious junior hunter and jumper competitions in the country, Geoff was a critical sounding board, helping them to find a large pony that they could afford. He then assisted in arranging for Hailey to attend Pony Finals under the watchful eye of Charles Moorcroft.
“I loved every second of Pony Finals! It was an exceptional experience all the way around,” Hailey said. “It was really my first experience at the upper levels of the horse sport and after witnessing what that competition had to offer, I was hooked. That was when I really decided I wanted to take it to that next level and be as competitive as I could be.”
Although Hailey had dreams that knew no limits, she recognized that her family’s financial resources did. The Johns family came to realize that Hailey’s dreams were quickly becoming more expensive than they had originally anticipated. Although the challenge of meeting the increasing financial needs weighed on them, they addressed the challenge head on. Hailey knew that she had her family’s full support, and she planned on making the most out of every opportunity she was afforded.
After conquering Pony Finals, Hailey set her sights on another prestigious junior event, the ASPCA Maclay Championships. With the help of Chicago-based trainer Katie Kappler and other professionals, Hailey found a young horse that she was able to work with and train to eventually qualify for the Maclay Finals. Her family, again recognizing their daughter’s passion, sold their home to purchase something smaller to help ensure the purchase would go through, a sacrifice that only helped to fuel Hailey’s drive to succeed.
While Hailey was busy immersing herself in the intricacies of equitation in the saddle, she was also observing how the professionals in her life were involved in their community outside of the barn aisle. Hailey was most interested in governance and charity, two things where she felt she could affect the most immediate change. At the recommendation of multiple different people, Hailey made her way to the United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) Foundation.
“When I learned about the USHJA Foundation and its mission, I really wanted to
get involved. There was a family in my area who had had a really tragic barn fire, and I had watched the USHJA Foundation come to their aid in a respectful yet meaningful and impactful way, and help them get back on their feet. That was really inspiring to me,” Hailey said. “I noticed that there was a hole in the representation of the USHJA Foundation and that it benefited young riders and juniors most, but they were the least involved.”
Hailey approached Geoff and Charlie with her idea of a youth committee to increase youth involvement and help spread the word of the resources available through the Foundation. “I had observed that many of the people who could benefit most from the different programs and grants didn’t even know that they existed,” Hailey said. “Geoff and Charlie introduced me to Jennifer Burger, and we discussed my ideas. She ended up proposing the youth committee at the USHJA Foundation annual meeting in June and we got the green light!”
In the two years since the youth committee was founded, Hailey and co-chair Kirstie Dobbs grew the committee to nine young women who were managing initiatives around the country. The organization raised thousands of dollars and had a positive impact on young people in the sport from all walks of life — but Hailey’s impact on others didn’t stop there.
In 2017, Hailey decided to focus all of her efforts and attention on qualifying for Maclay Finals, and set out on a familiar path: determining how to afford the experience. Her trainer, Katie, had recently learned about the Leo Conroy Maclay Grant, an award given to up to five riders that needed financial assistance to compete in National Horse Show equitation championships, and encouraged Hailey to pursue it as a much-needed financial supplement. Hailey was selected to receive the grant in 2017, and subsequently competed in her first ASPCA Maclay Finals.
“Showing in the Maclay was more than I had ever dreamed it could be, and I had very high expectations,” laughed Hailey. “My time in the ring was not exceptional, I was green and my horse was green, but in the end, ring time had no impact on how I felt about the experience, and I really wanted other people to be able to share in that same experience and improve upon it.”
While in Florida at the Winter Equestrian Festival as a working student, Hailey partnered with professional Mary McKenzie to hone her skills. She took those skills back to Chicago for the summer and won the 2018 Zone V Horsemanship Challenge at the Region 4 Maclay Regionals on a horse that she helped to make up with Katie’s team. Serendipitously during this time, Jennifer Burger, her connection from the USHJA Foundation, had recently become the president of the National Horse Show and wanted to help raise awareness around the Leo Conroy Maclay Grant and junior competition at the historic fall event. Based on past successes, she knew that no one was as capable as Hailey at helping her achieve that goal.
“Hailey is a polished young lady inside and out who listens and is always happy to offer involvement and support within any organization she believes in,” Jennifer said. “She has a work ethic that I find exemplary and refreshing and I knew she was a perfect fit for the National Horse Show. Hailey approaches all tasks with an open mind and willing attitude in addition to always remaining eager to learn.”
Hailey’s efforts in promoting the Leo Conroy Maclay Grant paid off and in 2019, the NHS team decided to tap Hailey to head a new committee focused solely on junior athletes, especially in the equitation divisions. “I loved having a junior committee at the USHJA Foundation and having a really strong group of young riders who were passionate about the sport, with different ideas and perspectives, so I was thrilled to recreate that with an appropriate look for the National Horse Show,” Hailey said.
“My hope is that the new Junior Leadership Committee will be able to improve the experience for everyone that comes to the National Horse Show and make it so they had the same experience that I had — where the ring time was icing on the cake and what really mattered was the experience of just being there — is had by many more.”
Help From Family and Friends
Top professionals such as Kent Farrington, Kim Gardiner of Perfecta Farm, Mary Mckenzie and Keri Kampsen all contributed to making sure Hailey continued to ride through the winter, spring and summer. During WEF of 2019, Kent Farrington was connected with Hailey and generously purchased an equitation horse for her to campaign as part of his greater initiative to give back to the youth of equestrian sports. Unfortunately, that horse was sidelined before the pair could head into spring competition.
Finally, Hailey found what she feels is a perfect fit to help her try to qualify for Maclay Finals. With a new trainer and team behind her in Thomas Cerra and his wife, Chari, at Blue Mountain Farms, Hailey is optimistic that she can make the most of her last junior year before graduating in the spring and attending Southern Methodist University in the fall.
“I’ve been really lucky to ride many different special horses as they were generously offered to me and have the support of my family and the unbelievable professionals that have helped me along the way,” Hailey said. “My life with horses has shaped me in ways I could have never anticipated, and I’m so grateful to have been given the opportunities that I have. I’m really looking forward to what the future holds and what I hope is a lifetime involvement in the sport that I love with the animals that I love.”
For more information, visit www.nhs.org
Photos by Emma Miller, unless noted otherwise.