By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Anyone who’s had the privilege of loving a horse knows the magic of their presence. Twelve-year-old pony rider Ava Barnes was drawn to horses from the very beginning. She couldn’t predict the success she’d find in the show ring, or that horses would become the glue holding her family together after her brother’s diagnosis with acute myeloid leukemia—Ava just knew she loved horses.
Ava grew up surrounded by family just outside of Cincinnati in Liberty Township, Ohio. Between her parents, Tiffany and Robert, her older brother, Conner, and her extended family and grandparents, Ava’s childhood was full of activity. However, Ava and her grandmother, Stephanie Ring, formed a special bond over one thing they had in common—horses.
Ava’s grandmother grew up going to racetracks with her father, so the horse bug ran in the family. “Ava started to talk about horses, so her grandmother booked pony rides for her 3rd birthday party,” Tiffany said. “When it was time for the ponies to load up and leave, Ava had a complete meltdown in the yard. She sat in the grass holding the lead rope and refused to let go of the pony. She thought the pony was her birthday present!”
After the ponies were loaded and young Ava’s emotions were settled, her parents arranged riding lessons. “I was excited for weeks before my lesson!” Ava said. “We went and purchased some riding clothes and they felt very special to me when I put them on. I was very serious about each part of the lesson. I wanted to do everything exactly the way they instructed me to. After that first lesson, I knew that all I wanted to do was ride horses as often as possible, for the rest of my life. I was never more sure about anything.”
From Schooling Shows to Pony Island
With Ava’s passion for horses growing, her grandmother decided to go “all in,” purchasing 55 acres across from their house, building a barn and filling it with horses to become known as Big Sky Stables. “We got this rescue pony from a kill pen and some other horses after that,” Tiffany said. “It snowballed from there. We hired a local trainer to come teach Ava on her kill-pen pony, Danny Boy. He was happy as a clam to do crossrails, and Ava continued with her serious precision to learn, and that’s how it all started.”
After some time competing at local shows, Ava started to frequent the World Equestrian Center in Wilmington, Ohio, just 40 minutes from her home. While Danny Boy was the king of crossrails, he wasn’t cut out for the Short Stirrup. “It was either walk, or go really fast; there was no in-between for him,” Tiffany laughed. “We’d gotten to know Roby Roberts and he leased us one of his ponies. Roby himself inspired us to take it to the next level. We didn’t want Ava’s natural abilities to be held back.”
Ava’s family decided to go to the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Wellington, Florida, to start searching for a small pony. On her flight down, she sat near Kat Fuqua. Ava recognized Kat from Instagram, so she started a conversation about her riding goals and that she was looking for a trainer in the Cincinnati area. After a hug and a selfie at the airport, Ava and Kat went their separate ways until they bumped into one another at WEF’s “Pony Island.”
Kat’s mother, Shereen, introduced Ava and Tiffany to David Belford, a hunter trainer based in the Cincinnati area. Not only was he interested in training Ava, he had a small pony that could be a perfect fit—Rico Suave.
A Pony Finals Surprise
With multiple titles under his name, including a Pony Medal Finals medal with Sophie Gochman, Rico Suave was a been-there-done-that pony looking to show Ava the ropes. Their first show would be full of “firsts”—Ava’s first time in the division, first time doing a jog and first time doing a handy round. They won their class. Their luck didn’t stop there. Between Rico’s steadfast confidence and Ava’s drive to succeed, the two were unstoppable as they prepared for Pony Finals.
“I had only really been riding in the Smalls for four months,” Ava said. “I was both nervous and excited. My family had never been to a Pony Finals either, so they didn’t know what to expect. They kept telling me not to expect anything and just have fun—even though I always want to do my best and win! I really didn’t know how I would do, but I know my parents relied on David a lot and I felt comforted by David being with us.”
With no expectations but a good experience, Ava went into the ring with the hopes of a clean round. Going into day two, Ava sat in third place, but she tried to stay calm despite the excitement. “I was so grateful that I was on a pony like Rico Suave and I didn’t have to worry about him being nervous,” Ava said. “He loves the big arenas and knows when the shows are more special. His easy confidence is contagious, for sure. He and David make the best team and work so well together, it was hard not to calm down with them.”
All-in-all, by the end of the competition, Ava finished her first Pony Finals with a fifth place overall finish in the Small Pony Hunter Division. “We were completely flabbergasted!” Tiffany laughed.
A Tough Year
The winter following Ava’s first Pony Finals, Ava committed to training in Wellington for the season. While still attending school in Cincinnati, Ava would take Thursdays and Fridays off to head to Florida each week.
“I like how once we all get settled in, we aren’t rushing around from show to show in Wellington,” Ava said. “It’s a special place because most of my closest friends are there, some I only see there, and we actually have time to hang out before and after shows and not feel rushed to get back to our home states or cities. There is also something about being in Wellington and having so much talent around you every week—it pushes you to do your best consistently.”
By the middle of March, Ava’s time in Wellington was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and she wasn’t sure what to expect for the rest of the summer season. With Rico Suave and Cleverist, her new medium pony, Ava had qualified to compete in the 2020 Pony Finals.
By August, shows had returned for the most part, and there was a cautious optimism that the Pony Finals would go on. Unfortunately, the show was called off, and Ava was sent home to Cincinnati. “Everything came to a standstill, but we are only an hour and 20 minutes from Lexington, so we’re lucky in that regard,” Tiffany said.
Despite the disappointment, Ava moved on to compete through the fall at the Kentucky National and Capital Challenge before settling into Wellington for the winter. In December, Ava’s family was met with devastating news—her brother, Conner, was diagnosed with cancer.
Growing, Healing and Setting Goals
Though the 2020 show season brought the disappointment of cancelled horse shows, Ava’s 2021 looked drastically different as well. While she was able to return to the show ring, she now carried a weight that she’d never been faced with before.
“My husband and I pretty much fell out of the picture completely, because we were at the hospital most of the year with her brother,” Tiffany said. “Her grandmother stepped up tremendously. She took over, and Ava didn’t miss any shows in 2021. Because of COVID, only the parents could visit in the hospital, so her grandmother couldn’t be there with us. It was a good distraction for both of them.”
During horse shows, Ava’s parents would watch the livestream from inside the hospital room. “It kept me feeling human. I had the horses to talk about, and it pulled me out of this hospital world and reminded me that there’s life outside of those walls. The horses have provided our family with so much joy and distraction during a terrible time,” Tiffany said.
From inside the hospital, Ava’s parents and brother cheered her on as she took on the 2021 Pony Finals in all three divisions, finishing tenth in the Smalls with Rico Suave, sixth in Mediums with Cleverist and seventh in Larges with new pony, Prestige. They watched again as she brought home the championship at WCHR Pony Challenge and USHJA Pony Derby at Capital Challenge with Rico Suave.
Great riders learn how to adapt, in the ring and in life. With the support of her family, and with her grandmother and trainer David by her side, Ava has been able to focus on her love of horses through hard times. As she approaches her teenage years, she has learned never to take her blessings for granted.
“The first things you notice about Ava are her passion and work ethic for the sport,” David said. “There isn’t a moment where she doesn’t give 100%. She has great balance and a focus that lets her talent come through. She has an amazing bond with each of her ponies. She approaches them with a caring energy and they respond to that feeling.”
Looking ahead to her Junior career, Ava hopes to move into Big Eq classes. “When I think about the future I like to focus on getting more and more consistent. I’ve just started into jumpers, and I’m having a lot of fun learning,” Ava said. As a career, Ava hopes to pursue riding professionally, and is already thinking of riding for a collegiate team. No matter what, her passion for horses will remain at the forefront of everything she does.
“Horses have been an incredible outlet for me and my family,” Ava said. “They’re an escape from our sometimes sadder reality at home. When I’m with my horses, I forget about the fact that things at home aren’t always normal. They’ve provided us with so much joy and happiness.”
Follow Ava on Instagram @ava.Barnes.eq
Editor’s Note: After 9 months in the hospital, Ava’s brother, Conner, has been released and is now home.
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com