JN Exclusive: From Stubborn Ponies to Stunning Jumpers with Hayley Barnhill

Despite not being born into a horsey family, 25-year-old Hayley Barnhill has thrived in the hunter jumper industry and has even secured a place as a trainer in Donald and Cara Cheska’s program based out of Waukesha, Wisconsin. JN met up with the young professional to discuss when her love for horses began and what she hopes to accomplish in her professional years.

It All Started With a Stubborn Pony

The Collierville, Tennessee native and her family knew nothing about horses when she finally convinced her mom to take her for lessons when she was seven, but she was hooked from the start. Barnhill’s first pony was a three-year-old paint with a bit of a sassy side.

“I got bucked off a lot,” Barnhill joked. “I attribute a lot to the way I started; it was not serious. My friends and I would get on bareback and go galloping in the fields. We would take the horses swimming and just have fun with them. That’s when I developed a real love for horses.”

Happy Father’s Day to my #️⃣1️⃣!! Love you and miss you @dadbarney!!

A post shared by Hayley Barnhill (@hayleybarnhill) on

That love developed into a passion that could not be contained and at the age of ten, Barnhill decided she wanted to do whatever it took to turn this passion into a profession. To get herself on the right track, Barnhill began training with some very notable names in the industry as she grew as an equestrian.

“I started with Jamie Kroh, then Dave Pellegrini took me from small ponies to Medal Finals and my first Grand Prix,” Barnhill shared. “When I was at Dave’s, Michael Toukaruk and Andy Kocher were there as his professional riders and they both pushed me to work hard and still are inspiring me today with where they have come. I met Tom Wright when I was 15 and he gave me some really nice horses to ride and took me under his wing. He set me up with Tim and Kelly Goguen, Missy Clark and John Brennan for my last two junior years. I had so many great people along the way that pushed me in the right direction.”

Partnering with Cheska, INC.

Coming out of her junior career, Barnhill met Donald and Cara Cheska of Cheska, INC. based out of Wisconsin. At the time, her focus was more on the hunter ring and she found herself without any jumper mounts to show. Seeing how much Barnhill wanted to make this career a success, the Cheskas offered Barnhill an opportunity to get her momentum going.

“The Cheskas were nice enough to give me two six-year-old young jumpers to develop and sell. We continued that way until they gave me my current horse, Zephire, to market,” Barnhill recalled. 

Hayley Barnhill with Zephire at WEF. Photo by The Book LLC

The following winter in 2014, Barnhill and Zephire had several top finishes in the 1.40m and U25 classes and despite several offers on the horse, the Cheskas decided to allow Barnhill the opportunity to buy her. “Zephire helped me win my first Grand Prix and now five years later is still my top horse,” Barnhill shared. “The Cheskas also helped me find my other top horse, Beezie, who I jumped all of my first FEI Grand Prix classes on. Without those two horses, my career wouldn’t be the same.”

After many years of partnering with the Cheska family, Barnhill finally got the opportunity to join their team at Cheska, INC. just a little over a year ago. “The Cheskas are incredibly kind and loyal people. They were the ones to give me my start in the jumpers and it’s amazing to be able to come back and work for them after all they have done for me,” she shared. 

While Barnhill’s passion lies in training the horses, she has been given the task of training the Cheskas 12-year-old daughter, Chapin. “I have to say, I have learned so much from teaching her,” Barnhill said of her new role as a trainer. “It has made me much more analytical about my own riding and I have started to pick apart what I do every day. It has been very rewarding to watch her progress over the last year.”

Hayley celebrating her win at the Split Rock Jumping Tour with Chapin Cheska. Photo by Winslow Photography

With the goal of representing the United States on the international level on Barnhill’s radar, she and the team at Cheska, INC. have begun investing in young horses in hopes of building a solid string for the future. Big dreams come with big sacrifice, however, and working your way up to the top doesn’t come easy. Thankfully, Barnhill has found a way to keep herself grounded and focus on the “now.”

“It’s very easy to get caught up with what everyone else is doing in this sport,” she shared with JN. “You have to stay focused on your path and enjoy the journey. You have to make the most of what you have and try to make every horse you sit on better.”

Gregory ES

One of those promising young horses Barnhill has played a part in molding is Gregory ES. Gregory ES is a 7-year-old gelding which Barnhill has had the ride on for about a year now. Together, the pair was very consistent during Gregory’s six-year-old year, but the horse has really come into his own this year with several podium finishes including wins at WEF, Kentucky Spring Classic and Split Rock Jumping Tour.

“He has the best personality; he’s more like a dog than a horse. He consistently jumps clear rounds and is always competitive. He’s a very fast horse and so far everything seems very easy for him. I think he is going to be really special,” acknowledged Barnhill.

Watch Hayley’s winning jump off round aboard Gregory ES in the $5,000 1.30/1.40m Animo Youngster Bowl at the Split Rock Jumping Tour. 

When working with young horses such as Gregory, Barnhill’s primary focus is to set them up for success with each ride. “With young horses the basics are everything. Each day you pick something to work on and try to make them a little better. I think horses learn from good experiences, so we don’t set up anything that would be too difficult.”

Hayley and Gregory ES at the Kentucky Spring Classic. Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography

With a talented string of horses to campaign and the unwavering support of her family and team at Cheska, INC., Barnhill is on the steady track to seeing her dreams through to reality. And if any obstacles or frustrations were to pop up along the way, she always keeps positive by reminding herself why she started this journey in the first place. “I do this because I love it. I love the horses. I love waking up every day and trying to make them better. You will have many ups and downs and sometimes you learn things the hard way. Things always turn around, though, and you have to have faith that if you keep working hard and doing the right things, that it will all pay off in the end.”