It is hard to miss Audrina McCall and her leased mount, New Moon, when they are in the small pony hunter ring: Not only is “Willie” a blue roan with a big white blaze and pink muzzle, he is missing his right eye. But if you were to also notice the pair heading down centerline at a starter horse trial, or clocking around the show jumping course at the Midsouth Region U.S. Pony Club Rally, don’t be too shocked—because if there is a horse involved, 9-year-old McCall will try to be there.
“I sat on a horse for the first time when I was 6 months old,” said McCall, of Knoxville, Tennessee. “I just loved them from when I was very young.”
Today, McCall is busy building an equestrian resume that already includes earning USPC D-3 certifications in both eventing and hunter seat equitation, foxhunting with the Tennessee Valley Hunt, and earning a reserve championship with her teammates on the Two Step Revolution Vaulting Team at the USEF/AVA Vaulting National Championship in 2022. She has even tried her hand at competitive carriage driving, winning a ribbon at the Canfield Fair (Ohio) with the help of her grandmother and a family friend.
This August, at just 8 years old, McCall made her debut at the USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky), riding 17-year-old Willie in the small green pony hunters, and winning the 8 and under division of the Emerson Burr Horsemanship Test. Though Pony Finals was likely the most prestigious event of her equestrian career so far, McCall said she didn’t feel any added pressure.
“I had been to Pony Finals to watch a friend before, but that’s the only other time I’ve gone. It was really fun, and I want to do it again.”
Perhaps McCall was always destined to be an equestrian. Her septuagenarian maternal grandparents, Janet and Bob Yosay, are both life-long equestrians who still ride or drive almost daily, and her mother, Lindsay McCall, is a former full-time trainer who now coaches a handful of amateurs and juniors when she isn’t busy riding herself or homeschooling Audrina and her younger brother, Ace.
“When she was really little, she’d scream at the top of her lungs if we tried to pull her off the horses,” recalls Lindsay with a laugh. “It didn’t matter how ‘up’ the horse was, she wanted to sit on the horse. Then she’d point and scream because she wanted to sit on another horse. She wanted to sit on every single one.”
Having grandparents with a farm full of riding and driving horses, and a mother who coached at several local facilities, meant that young Audrina had plenty of opportunities to try different mounts. Her first official ride was in a leadline saddle aboard Jumping Jack, her grandmother’s retired eventer, who was in his late 20s at the time. By the age of 4, Audrina was competing a pony named Mia on the Tennessee circuit in the walk-trot division and learning to canter on a chocolate palomino named Hey Mikey. When she was 4 1/2, Audrina jumped her first cross-country course and first Pony Club certifications on “Mikey.” At 5, Audrina participated in her first event competition on Miss Foxy, a blue roan paint pony still owned by the McCalls who remains her preferred foxhunter.
But it was the McCalls’ relationship with Jennifer and Chuck Gatlin, also of Knoxville, that really opened new doors for Audrina. The Gatlins have shared their private facility and several of their ponies with the McCalls, including Willie and another roan pony named Gizmo, whom Audrina and Ace both have ridden and competed.
“We’ve been so grateful to the Gatlin family,” Lindsay said. “They have been so nice, and they trust us with Willie. They let us take him places like he’s our pony—it’s been awesome that they let us do what we want with him and try new experiences with him.”
When Audrina took over the ride on Willie two years ago from the Gatlin’s daughter, Amelia, he had a well-earned reputation for being “spicy.” He tended to get strong and fast in the show ring and didn’t have consistent lead changes—qualities that at times limited his competitive results.
“He was a wild pony,” Audrina said.
“Her legs didn’t even go past the saddle flap at the time,” added Lindsay, who had coached Gatlin on Willie. “I knew his antics—I knew he could be a little spunky, a little fiery, and a little fun. I was like, it will be sink or swim—she’ll either do really well on him, or she will learn a ton of lessons. We have definitely learned a lot of lessons!”
Despite the challenges of working with a strong-willed pony, Audrina has found the process of learning to ride Willie more fun than frustrating. In fact, she admits that she might even enjoy it a little bit more when he offers his own opinion. Not long before Audrina began riding Willie, he lost his right eye to a bacterial infection, despite aggressive attempts to save it. With no vision on his right side, Willie requires extra support from his rider, and perhaps one of the most critical lessons he has taught Audrina is the importance of being accurate to her fences.
“If he decides you don’t have your leg on and you are not riding straight, he’ll drift to the left and go right past the fence,” Lindsay said. “I can’t even call it a refusal. It’s a good teaching mechanism: If you don’t keep your leg on and ride straight, you are going off in that direction!”
Lindsay acts as Audrina’s main trainer and coach, though her daughter does receive supplemental instruction from visiting instructors, clinicians and the coaches with Tennessee Valley II Pony Club. When they go to horse shows—from local circuit all the way to Pony Finals—the McCalls handle all of the care for their ponies themselves, with Audrina gradually learning how to take on a greater role in the process.
“I braid, I’m the mom, the groom, the teacher,” Lindsay said with a laugh. “I’m everything—though I did not braid at Pony Finals. Audrina is used to doing it all on her own, and she has even learned to braid. We don’t feel like we need all the extra help, most of the time.”
Audrina’s Pony Club background is also at least partially responsible for her success in the Emerson Burr Horsemanship Test at Pony Finals. This horsemanship challenge starts with a written quiz, with the highest scorers moving on to complete a practical hands-on portion.
“I had to know face markings, steps to using the horse cleaning tools, and the pony’s color,” Audrina said. “I like that the pony they picked was a hard one, but Mikey was a chocolate palomino, so I knew that color very easily. During the year [in Pony Club], we practice bandaging, grooming, longeing, medical care, and other topics at our meetings. The Emerson Burr test tested those items on me. I was so glad I knew the answers.”
Pony Club is also how Audrina was first introduced to the sport of vaulting.
“A lot of the Pony Clubbers do the team here,” Lindsay said. “They came and did some demonstrations, and then Audrina wanted to get involved.”
Twice a week, Audrina practices mounted vaulting skills with her teammates. The rest of the time, she perfects her moves on a barrel at home. In vaulting competition, Audrina and her teammates complete both a compulsory round and a freestyle, for which they can choose their own music. Last season, Audrina performed her individual freestyle to “Into the Open Air,” from the movie “Brave.” She is working on a new performance for this season, which will be set to the Beach Boys’ classic “Surfin’ in the USA.”
Audrina and Willie have a busy fall season planned, including competing at several regional finals in equitation, pony hunters and hunter derby; they will also be taking on several schooling horse trials at the starter level and will continue to participate in Pony Club activities. It is a schedule busy enough to satisfy even the most ambitious of equestrians, but Audrina still has her eye on more.
“I really want to try polo,” Audrina said. “And I want to learn more about driving. I like it a lot; you use your words instead of your leg to tell your pony what to do.”
Although Audrina’s diverse equestrian interests keep her family on the move, Lindsay appreciates all that her daughter is getting to experience and learn.
“Not everyone gets to cross over from hunters to eventing to combined driving to vaulting,” Lindsay said. “I think in every [sport] you get into, there’s a lot of skills that cross over—the horsemanship skills cross over, for sure. We love the hunter/jumper world, it’s super fun, but it’s also fun to do the crossover to eventing. Willie was only a hunter pony prior to our introducing him to eventing, and he loves it.”
“The best part of cross-country is that Willie is having fun,” Audrina added. “And the water jump. I love the water jump.”
Looking forward, Audrina plans to continue learning new skills from Willie, while also getting to know the McCalls’ newest family member, a 6-year-old Welsh cross pony named Graymeadows Colby. Mother and daughter are bringing “Colby” along slowly, but Audrina almost can’t contain her excitement when thinking about their future partnership.
“I’m looking forward to playing with him, and showing him, and eventing, and just doing a lot,” Audrina gushed. “He’s very sweet and very brave. He will do anything.”
But in the meantime, don’t be surprised if you see Audrina signed up to try out yet another new equestrian sport: Rumor has it she is making her own bow and arrows to try mounted archery in the future. Or perhaps instead, she will seek new opportunities within the disciplines she has already sampled.
“I want to go to the Olympics,” Audrina said, “in eventing, probably, because I like going through the water, and the cross-country phase and the show jumping. Or maybe just in show jumping. I like it all.”