Keeping Up With Junior Catch Rider Alivia Hart

At 13 years old, Alivia Hart is living most young riders’ dream: she catch rides all day long. Starting before dawn every morning and riding and showing until the sun is lost, Alivia goes from pony to horse to jog to hack to model, back and forth, juggling several rings, trainers, and potential sales customers’ schedules. 

It was exhausting just watching all that she does, as I shadowed her during one busy weekend at the HITS Thermal Desert Circuit in Thermal, CA.

Still small, Alivia can easily school small pony hunters and shows in the medium pony hunters, larges, greens, and any horse division someone will ask her to. Alivia trains with John French and Lesley Bulechek regularly, but she also trains with whoever is offering her a catch ride that day. 

Bulechek, trainer at Cross Creek Farm in Malibu, CA says, “Alivia is one of the hardest working kids in this sport. She comes to our barn every single day and rides- sometimes 6, 7, 8 horses and ponies a day. She never complains, asks questions to see if she can learn more, helps other kids- she has been a great role model for the other kids. She is so mature and an absolute joy to have in the barn.”

Alivia shows her first mount of the weekend, Lucky Blue in the Large Schooling Pony Hunters on Friday morning at 8:30 am. Owned by her trainer Lesley Bulechek, “Lucy” has been one of her long-term rides- the pair were 2013 Circuit Champions in the Large Pony Hunters at Thermal Lucky Blue is currently For Sale/Lease on ProEquest 

While her success has been almost sensational, including a class win at Capital Challenge, ribbons at Pony Finals last year (and the top placed west coast rider at Pony Medal Finals), and winning every classic and special pony class at Thermal this year so far, what I saw with her was the other side to catch riding as well.

First is the pressure. People select Alivia because of her ability, record, and results. Therefore, they expect results from the 13-year-old; they are, after all, trusting her with their animal and facing a sizable horse show bill. On Friday, she was already hacking when I arrived at 6:30 am, and was still competing in the $1,000 Pony Prix as the sun set behind the mountains at 5:00 pm. With that schedule comes an expectation of perfection pretty much every waking minute of every day. 

Alivia takes the pressure in-stride, saying, “I do feel pressure with some sale ponies that people really want sold. I find that when I start thinking ‘I got to win this,’ I do the worst, but when I think ‘I can win this if I work for it,’ I really get in the zone.” 

She takes any ride and is ready to go, adjust, and always has enough energy, instantly. As I was there, she was given directions like, “ride this one like a jumper” or “this person is looking for a hunter, ride her like a hunter now.” 

Alivia works to make each trainer pleased with their animal. She says, “It is really hard. I get on ponies and it takes me a few jumps to be like ‘that is from the last horse. Shake it off.’ It comes down to feeling. They all ride different -every pony- each distance might be correct on one and not another. It is all about focusing and making sure that the distance I choose is the correct one for that pony.”

Alivia hops on Lara, a jumper mare, for clients to see on Friday around lunchtime, in between her rides at the jumper ring. 

However, even when you're the best, you can't escape times of rejection and disappointment. She was told that she had rides that were in the end, given to someone else. Horses and ponies were sold, leased, or rides given to someone who offered to pay the show expenses. She's had the tough rides, faced tough judging calls, and downright exhausting days. 

At around 5 pm on Friday, it was announced that Alivia won the $1,000 Pony Prix on her own medium pony Maybelline. They scored and 85 and then an 83 for the win. Maybelline is listed For Sale on ProEquest

Alivia’s positive attitude also comes from the immense support she receives. From her mother April, who is seen running around with her shadbelly ready to switch with her hunt coat on classic days (and comes to every show with her), to Bulechek.

It's no surprise that she wants to be a professional when she grows up and has already been practicing for that with her own pony Maybelline. “Pearl” is a pony that was given up on and now has a new shot at life, living at the Harts’ house. 

What is most impressive about their accomplishments together, including winning the Pony Hunter Classic Week I at Thermal and the $1,000 Pony Prix Week II, is that no trainer comes to Alivia’s house and no one else rides Pearl- she has done her training completely on her own. 

On Saturday and Sunday, Alivia rode Madeline, owned by Margaret McGovern and trained by Sue Lightner to top prizes in the Medium Pony Hunters, earning the Reserve Championship for the second week in a row. The pair are currently leading the HITS circuit championship standings in the Medium Pony Hunters. Madeline is listed For Sale on ProEquest

Thrilled with her success, Alivia says, “It was exciting and rewarding to win the Pony Prix because I haven’t gotten professional training with her. It was really nice to see all of my hard work pay off against real show ponies and ponies that have been doing this forever.”

After riding a Pre-Green horse of Sue Lightner’s for the first time on Friday night in between rounds of the Pony Prix, Alivia guided Raggedy Music to success in the Children’s Hunter 13 & Under division, winning the $250 stake class with a score of an 84, 2nd in the under saddle, and 4th in another round in a large and competitive division. Raggedy Music is listed For Sale on ProEquest

With scores of an 84 and an 82, Alivia and Madeline won the $500 Pony Hunter Classic on Sunday out of all of the pony hunters, making it a clean sweep of the classics for Alivia so far this circuit (she won the $500 Pony Hunter Classic Week I on Maybelline) Madeline is listed For Sale on ProEquest  

Alivia’s Show in Review: WCHR Week II at HITS Thermal
1st - $1,000 Pony Prix - Maybelline (owned by Alivia Hart)
1st - $500 Pony Hunter Classic - Madeline (owned by Margaret McGovern)
1st - Children’s Hunter Stake - Raggedy Music (owned by Sue Lightner)
Reserve Champion, Medium Pony Hunters (for the second week in a row) - Madeline (owned by Margaret McGovern)
2nd WIHS Pony Medal- Maybelline
4th Marshall & Sterling/USEF Pony Medal - Maybelline
10+ Rounds with scores in the 80s
Leading the circuit in the Medium Pony Hunters - Madeline