Horses and all things equestrian abound here in the Charlottesville area. From stables offering boarding, lessons, and trail rides to venues for foxhunting and polo, this community is a horse-lover’s paradise.
Grace Ayyildiz of Free Union found her passion for horses at a young age. At 7 years old, she tried horseback riding at the invitation of a friend; the friend, like so many little girls, lost interest after a while, but Ayyildiz hasn’t stopped riding horses since.
“I just like being around them,” she says simply.
Ayyildiz rides at the Barracks Farm, a barn in western Albemarle County owned by Claiborne and Tom Bishop that is home to 80 horses. Primarily a boarding/training facility, Barracks Farm is also host to the UVA riding team, giving lessons to 50 to 70 students per week, in addition to year-round locals.
While her friends are busy with sports and clubs, Ayyildiz can be found at the Barracks Farm six days a week for as many hours as possible. She spends her time in a ring or on a trail, astride the back of her beloved Dutch Warmblood, Zambo.
“There’s something so fulfilling about it, just to go out to the barn and get away from everyone and just be with your horse,” she says.
But for Ayyildiz, horseback riding isn’t all about the sweetness of solitude; she is an avid competitor, taking lessons twice a week and showing once or twice a month all over the state and sometimes beyond. She mostly competes in the hunter division, a discipline that focuses on style, form, and evenness. Horses are expected to circle the ring smoothly and meet jumps from the proper distance. In contrast, the jumper division takes time into account, and the equitation division judges the rider’s form more than that of the horse.
Ayyildiz finds that showing as a hunter matches her personality.
“You want to be perfect,” she says. “Every time you’re like, ‘How could I have made that better? How could I just have gotten a few more points?’ I’m a total perfectionist. Oftentimes with riding, it’s five steps forward, four steps back. But I like the feeling that I’m always learning something new, I’m always finding out something about myself, about my horse.”
Ayyildiz, who started showing in late elementary school, also likes to win. She competes as a Junior (meaning under 18 as of December 1) and has won championships at shows around Virginia. This past summer, she and Zambo placed second in the Junior/Amateur section of the Virginia Hunter Championships as well as winning the Bryan trophy for an equitation class held at Deep Run Horse Show. Winning the Bryan trophy was especially meaningful to Ayyildiz because one of her trainers, Maria Shannon, won it herself as a Junior.
Ayyildiz is deeply connected to her trainers and to many others at Barracks Farm who have helped her progress to the level at which she now competes.
“They really brought me along. I learned how to canter there and now I’m showing competitively. It’s really cool to have that consistency,” Ayyildiz says. “Everyone there has always gone out of their way to help me improve not only as a rider but as a horseman. There’s a really heavy emphasis on horsemanship, which is that you’re not just coming out here to ride the horse, you’re coming to learn how to take care of one, too.”
Shannon, who has known Ayyildiz for over a decade, explains that riding and caring for Zambo is not always smooth sailing.
“Sometimes he can be a bad boy,” Shannon says. “When he’s wonderful, he’s wonderful, but we all have an alter ego. When Zambo is bad, Grace calls him ‘Bill,’ his alter ego name. But she loves him no matter what.”
Ayyildiz, who attends St. Anne’s- Belfield School, admits that balancing academics and horseback riding can be tricky, but she has learned a lot about time management. Though she doesn’t plan to pursue a career related to riding, she has never considered laying this interest aside.
“I’ve never thought about quitting,” Ayyildiz says. “A lot of people hit middle school and they quit. …They discover boys and friends and things get weird and they don’t want to do it anymore. I have never thought about quitting. I don’t know what I would do if this wasn’t a part of my life. Sometimes I think, ‘How much free time would I have? A lot!’ But I don’t know what I would do without it.