Lake Villa teen rides to the top of equestrian world
Growing up with world-class equestrian parents and grandparents, it's perhaps no surprise that Nya Kearns -- whose first birthday present was a pony -- followed in their footsteps.
Nya, who turned 15 on Oct. 14, bested 122 top-ranked competitors, some from as far as Australia, to claim the title in hunt seat equitation at the 2016 American Quarter Horse Association Youth World Championship Show in August. She had already made a mark there five years ago as the youngest rider in the hunt seat equitation finals.
But this summer's success, achieved with her horse BMQ Stop For Traffic, nicknamed Merlin the Magic Horse, came as a surprise to the Lake Villa resident.
"It was the first time I had shown Merlin there and I tried to go in without a lot of expectations," said Nya, who also placed 6th in the equitation over fences event. "I was very surprised. I didn't expect it at all."
Hunt seat is done partly without stirrups and is the most difficult among her disciplines, said Nya, an "A" student at Warren Township High School.
"You have to have a balance of everything. You have to be assertive but soft, and finding that balance is always difficult. And I like a challenge."
So what does it take to be a great equestrian competitor?
"You have to give it your all. Like, everything you can take -- all the physical and mental stress that you can take," Nya said. "If you know what your competitors are doing, you do five extra laps. You do 10 more minutes. Just to give yourself an edge."
Equestrian judge Carla Wennberg said Nya matches up with any of the best riders she's scored in her 30 years. She especially stands out for her pose, finish and correctness, Wennberg said.
"At that level it gets down to the nitty-gritty of particulars," she said, "because there are a lot of great riders but there are only few excellent ones."
Nya's parents, Brad and Valerie Kearns, are professional coaches, trainers and judges. Her father owns Brad Kearns Quarter Horses and her mother owns Valerie Kearns Show Horses, both in Grayslake.
The two have coached Nya since she was a toddler. While there may have been gentle prodding along the way, there was never any pushing, Brad Kearns said.
"Nya did gymnastics for a couple of years, and she did ice skating and was quite good at it," he said. "We just tried to let her experience a lot of different things. She came to the horses, and then when she started putting more time into the horses, she kind of let go of the other (sports)."
Nya's goal is to join an NCAA equestrian team in college and then work in the horse industry while competing as an amateur, not as a professional. "Watching my parents, I see it's difficult. It takes a lot of time and work," she said.
Nya rides every day after school -- unless she has to prepare for a school test -- and for several hours on Saturdays and Sundays. She has her parents videotape her competitions so she can examine her every move later.
She took part in her first show at age 3 and earned her first major trophy at age 9 with the walk trot horsemanship title at the All American Quarter Horse Congress. But the turning point actually came two years earlier, when she placed 7th on the same event, her father said.
"She was so excited and she said to me, just like a kid, 'I can't believe I got 7th, I can't believe it, I'm freaking out a little bit,'" he said. "Up until then she just did it for fun; she liked running around and not being focused. Then she got more focused."
Riding is an adrenaline rush that never fails to make a bad day better, but competing is nerve-racking, Nya says.
She has tremendously high expectations of herself, her mother said.
"Her love for the sport I think is both her strength and her weakness," Valerie Kearns said. "She is a huge competitor and I think that also drives her, but sometimes, as with any competitor, it kind of can get in the way because you want it so bad."
Equitation is a particularly difficult sport because it's not just about the rider, said Nya, who rides three different horses depending on the discipline.
"It's not a luck sport because it's a lot of work. But sometimes you have a bad day because your horse isn't up to what he normally is, or he is in a bad mood, and you can't really control that."
So, does she ever get mad at her horses? "Everyone has those moments where you get frustrated," she said. "(The horses) understand to some degree, but you can't take it out on them, because they're an animal."
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Nya KearnsHometown: Lake Villa
School: Warren Township High School
Who inspires you? My parents, who are also equestrians and always pushed me to do my best and are very supportive
What book are you reading? "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. I'm reading it for school
What music are you listening to? I listen to a variety of music; whatever is on the radio
The three words that best describe you? Shy. Determined. Motivated.