Ava Barnes Reins Supreme in Devon Hunters

The 14-year-old Junior champion shares her experiences piloting her mounts Atlas and Showman to success in the hunter ring.

In just six years, 14-year-old Ava Barnes has accomplished what most riders never achieve in a lifetime of showing. On Saturday at the 2024 Devon Horse Show, the young horsewoman from Cincinnati, Ohio, received top honors in the hunter ring.

She and her KWPN gelding Atlas were named Devon Grand Junior Hunter Champion and earned the Angelo Award for demonstrating the most ideal hunter movement, jumping style and presence. To accomplish that level of success in such a challenging, intricate sport in less than a decade is no small feat.

Devon hunter champ Ava Barnes enjoys quality time with her horse Showman after a successful run at Devon 2024. © Alana Harrison, Practical Horseman

Barnes and Atlas earned the Large Junior Hunter 15 & Under Championship, winning three of the division’s four classes. They also were named the Overall Large Junior Hunter Champions. Barnes and her greener 8-year-old Holsteiner gelding Showman captured the Small Junior Hunter 15 and Under Championship, winning two of the division’s classes. They also were named the Overall Small Junior Hunter Reserve Champions. Additionally, Barnes earned ribbons in the Small Junior Hunter 15 and Under division with a third horse Justify. Barnes capped off the competition by being named the Best Child Rider on a Horse.

A Kismet Match for Devon

Barnes and Atlas developed a remarkably close partnership in a short period of time, as the rider didn’t start working with him until last November. “I haven’t been riding him that long. But he’s such a smooth and comfortable horse to ride. I trust him to get long and short distances,” she said. “He’s also super sweet and loves cuddles and treats in the barn.”

When her trainer David Belford found Atlas in Belgium, the gelding reminded him so much of Prestige—Barnes’ former Large Pony mount and notably her favorite—he knew they would make a perfect match.

“Now, they’re kismet. They’re just a beautiful match,” he said. “You can say a lot about ribbons and work ethic, but Ava is the most compassionate horseperson I’ve ever seen. We always find her in the stalls with her horses. I admire that so much about her. Of course, we like blue ribbons, but if I had to say one thing about Ava, it’s her passion for the horses.”

Barnes undoubtedly says the experience at Devon this year has been her biggest win to date.

“It was just amazing. It feels really good to come out on top,” she said. “This also just feels like a big deal. Devon is such a fun, special horse show with all the people and the fair and carnival going on.”

Growing Pains

For anyone following Barnes’ riding career, it might seem like it was just yesterday that she was cruising around the hunter ring aboard her pony Rico Suave. The burgeoning horsewoman experienced a significant growth spurt as she was transitioning from Small to Large Ponies.

“We did have some growing pains,” Belford laughed. “It’s hard when you’re literally growing at the same time you’re learning. Figuring out how to control your position and balance to ride most effectively can definitely be a crazy transition. But it was amazing to see Ava really come into that.”

As much as she enjoys competing, Barnes is most passionate about the close relationships she fosters with her horses. Here, she enjoys a silly moment with gelding Showman, also known as “Jake.” © Alana Harrison, Practical Horseman

Barnes and Belford also admit that the horsewoman’s perfectionist tendencies can sometimes present challenges in the hunter ring.

“I think having the inclination to always dictate what’s happening versus opening and having that freedom can be harder. It’s definitely something we work on,” Belford noted. “The best hunter riders—and the ones most appreciated and admired—are very free. Ava has worked hard on making her rides more free flowing rather than being fixated on making everything so strategic.”

Devon: Essential Prep

To prepare for a big event like Devon, Barnes said they practice at home to help boost her confidence going into show day. Belford has been having her gallop up off the corner to practice their free-flowing strategy toward the jumps.

At Devon 2024, Barnes was equally thrilled with her performances on both Showman and Atlas. © Alana Harrison, Practical Horseman.

“Instead of fixating on finding perfect distances, we’ve been practicing galloping out of the corner. And then simply letting the jump come on a stride versus manufacturing the distances all the time,” Belford said. “And that’s what really culminated for Ava this weekend.”

Devon Payoff: Hard Work and Superstitions

Whether Belford’s notorious show-day superstitions or good old-fashioned hard work paid off, Barnes was elated with her horses’ performances at Devon. She also couldn’t wait to get back to the barn. She’s always happiest when sharing some quiet time bonding with Atlas and Showman. Barnes advises younger riders to just have fun and learn from their experiences—both good and bad.

“It can be stressful to go out there and compete in front of the big crowds here at Devon,” she noted. “But I just try to breathe, have fun with it and not overthink things too much when I walk into the ring. Hard work and always showing up for practice definitely pays off and prepares you for a show this big.”

For full results of the Devon Horse Show, click here.

Thanks to Mane ‘n Tail Equine for our coverage of the 2024 Devon Horse Show. 

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