It was Ava Wong’s dream to compete at the North American Youth Championships (NAYC), and it had come true. But in her opening round of the Children’s division competition, the speed leg, things didn’t go her way. Her horse, Concelo, lost a shoe, and she missed a jump and had to circle. She finished in the middle of the pack with six faults.
For many young teenagers, the rough start would be hard to overcome but not for Wong.
“I was upset and disappointed in myself that my first day was like that,” said the 14-year-old. “But that only made me want to perform out of this world the next day and put down a spectacular round, and that’s what I did! A lot of people say it’s important to forget about your round if it was bad and carry on, but I think the exact opposite. It’s important for me to remember my bad rounds because they just remind me of how much I don’t want to make the same mistake again. I hate feeling disappointed in myself and like I could have done something better after a bad round. Reminding myself of how much I do not want to feel like that makes me perform to the best of my ability.”
Wong, from Calgary, AB, was at NAYC representing Canada as an individual, and after that first round, she jumped three clean rounds and one round with just one time fault to climb back up the individual standings. By the time the 2018 NAYC held at Old Salem Farm in North Salem, NY, from August 1-5 had concluded, Wong and Concelo finished in sixth place overall in the Children’s division, open to riders aged 12 to 14.
Wong’s trainer, Rodney Tulloch of Calgary’s Landmark Equestrian, wasn’t surprised by her comeback at NAYC at all.
“She’s such a great kid. She’s a character,” he said. “She’s got no nerves at all, no matter what the situation is. Because of her temperament, she never gets the horses worried. She’s always very fun and kind yet, underneath that, she is so competitive. That’s the shocker about Ava, her competitive streak.”
Wong doesn’t deny that she’s driven, saying, “I am very competitive, so I naturally love competing at shows. I always put myself out there and set high goals. I think it’s important to set high goals because I know from experience that no goal is too impossible. For example, at the start of the 2018 season I was only competing up to 1.10m on my equitation horse, Aron, and by the end of the season I went clear in the 1.30m with Concelo.”
A Busy Schedule
Her quiet, implacable determination has stood Wong in good stead throughout her career. The ninth-grade student at Rundle College Jr./Sr. High School continues to set big goals for herself in riding and in fact is headed to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, as Canada’s sole representative in the FEI Jumping Children’s Classic Final to be held from April 17-21. She also balances those plans with playing on a competitive volleyball team and focusing on schoolwork.
“I am very busy balancing volleyball, riding, and very demanding schoolwork,” Wong said. “I believe that school is very important and should always be the top priority.”
In fact, she made the decision not to travel to show on a winter circuit this year in order to prioritize her volleyball team.
“It’s honestly pretty hard,” Wong said of her schedule. “My trainer is really flexible, and I try to go to the barn as much as possible. I average taking lessons four days a week, and I have three hours of volleyball practice three days a week. On Saturdays and Sundays, I do riding and volleyball back to back, but I love both sports enough to make that kind of commitment.”
At the beginning of 2018, Wong only had show mileage in the hunter and equitation rings but she wanted to have the NAYC on her calendar.
“It was a big goal because I really wanted to move up and compete in the 1.20m [Children’s division],” she said. “I wanted to represent Canada at such a well-known and big competition. At the start of the year, I decided I wanted to do it.”
She went on the hunt for a horse to take her there. Tulloch found Concelo for her in Florida, and Wong bought the 13-year-old gray Westphalian gelding (Con Cento x Cantus) in May. Concelo had experience jumping up to the 1.50m level in Europe and had shown at the 1.45m level with Canadian Kim Farlinger during the 2017 season.
Wong and Concelo’s connection was so instant that Tulloch lost any hope of bargaining leverage in the sale.
“She tried all these other horses and each one, as soon as she’d start trotting, she’d say, ‘Nope, won’t work.’ When we finally rode Concelo, she got on him and trotted around and just started smiling. She cantered and jumped a little bit, and she yelled out, ‘That’s it. He’s mine!’ I was like, ‘Okay, Ava, why don’t we show all our cards?’” Tulloch joked.
An Instant Team
Wong and Concelo clicked right away and headed straight to a show at Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, BC, after Concelo arrived in Canada. They started out together in the junior hunter division just to get to know one another and, by the end of the week, Wong jumped Concelo in a 1.20m class and got a ribbon.
Wong put the lessons she’d learned from her time in the hunters and equitation to work while figuring out Concelo’s ride.
“Aron taught me so much and didn’t give me any freebies, which taught me to always ride every single stride,” she said. “Without him I wouldn’t have been able to ride Concelo, who is super quirky, but tries really hard to do the right thing. He does have a little bit of spook to him, but he always goes. He’ll jump anything. He’s so brave.”
Wong made a big effort to connect with Concelo on the ground as well as when she was in the tack.
“For the first two weeks of owning him, he was really jumpy and would just hang out at the back of the stall,” she said. “I had to hold my hand out in front of him for a few seconds before petting him. But after that he warmed up to me and became super cuddly, and he always walks up to the gate when I go to get him from the turnout paddock now.”
Wong’s mother, Reena Kaloti, was thrilled to see Wong and Concelo develop a relationship so quickly.
“He always had professional riders, so he was very standoffish when he first came to us,” she recalled. “He quickly connected with Ava when he realized he had a ‘person.’ It’s very different when her trainer rides him versus when she rides him. He’s quite particular to her. He does everything she asks or needs, but he can be not as generous for other people.”
Between getting Concelo in May and the NAYC in August, Wong fit in a few more shows—including the FEI Jumping Children’s Final qualifier at Calgary’s Rocky Mountain Show Jumping tournament in June—and a family cycling trip to Croatia.
Wong’s family makes travel together a priority and every year they go on a big trip together. This year, they’re combining Wong’s trip to Uzbekistan for the FEI Jumping Children’s Final with a family adventure, so they’re all going together.
“We’re trying to fit in the big experience around the kids’ commitments to sports,” said Kaloti, whose son plays ice hockey. “We’re trying to fit in the life experiences. What we’ve decided is that they both have sports that they love, so we’ll follow around and fit the experiences in where we can. Next year, we might go to Africa at Christmastime, if we can manage all their schoolwork.”
When volleyball season ends in May, Wong plans to have a busy show season with Concelo, with the hopes of qualifying for the Junior division at this year’s NAYC.
Always Moving Forward
Wong’s family was taken a bit by surprise by her passion for horses and riding.
“We laugh because her dad is Chinese, and I’m East Indian, so we don’t even know how we got to this horse show world,” Kaloti said. “Neither of us even ever had a dog or a cat. One year during the Calgary Stampede we put Ava on a pony ride, and from there on out, this is what she wanted. We’re still in shock sometimes that this is what we do!”
Wong laughs as she notes that her father is allergic to horses, saying, “Ever since I could talk, I was obsessed with horses. Then my parents decided to put me in a camp. I loved everything about it. I thought it was the best thing in the world. My passion grew from there.”
Wong started lessons at a local barn then showed in local shows. In 2017, she moved to ride with Tulloch and showed at bigger venues and started entering classes like the CET Medal and USEF Show Jumping Talent Search.
“When I first moved to ride with Rodney, I couldn’t even pick up my diagonal without looking down,” she said. “He has brought so much to me. He has really high standards, which is really important to me. It makes me push myself and feeds my determination, which is good.”
At the FEI Jumping Children’s Classic Final, 16 international competitors and 16 riders from the host nation will all compete on borrowed horses. In preparation, Tulloch is putting Wong on a variety of types of horses.
“We have a hot little spicy one that’s next on Ava’s list,” he said. “You just don’t know what you’re going to get over there, so we’re trying to prepare.”
Tulloch enjoys Wong’s cheerful nature and her fervent dedication to learning. He does note that she has a quirk of her own, though.
“Ava has this thing about the warm-ups,” Tulloch said. “In all the years I’ve taught her, we’ve had maybe one or two good warm-ups, but she goes in the ring and pulls it out and does everything great, so we just accept that that’s part of showing for her. At NAYC, I was sure [Canadian chef d’equipe] Beth Underhill was having heart failure watching her warm up, because it wasn’t going well. But it doesn’t even faze Ava; she goes in the ring and gallops around and is great.”
That ability to move forward with positivity no matter what is becoming Wong’s hallmark. It’s something she’s very conscious of.
“Many people don’t realize how tough of a sport horse riding is. There are long days, usually super hot or really rainy, and it takes a lot of people and a lot of effort to make these shows work,” she said.
“I make sure to always thank and make jokes with the people running the gates at the horse shows and bring them cold drinks on hot days,” Wong continued. “I also always try to make friends and have tons of laughs with my competitors. I make sure to thank my grooms, my trainer, and my parents for all of the amazing things they do for me. Maintaining a good, energetic personality at the shows creates a better atmosphere and experience for everyone around me, including myself!”
Reprinted with permission from the February 2019 edition of The Warm-Up Ring, the official news of Equestrian Canada’s Jumping Committee.