By Sadie Fowler

Everyone loves a good feel good story and there’s one that took place during the Celebration many might have missed if they weren’t there for the exit after the first Wednesday morning session. While all the riders worked hard in the Auxiliary Equitation Medal Youth 6-11, it can easily be argued that no one worked harder than the winner — literally.

Rylee Eilerman is her name and her face said it all as she approached the coveted bricks area after winning the class on this special morning. Coming from the Bluegrass State in northern Kentucky and having ridden and developed her skills for years without a professional trainer, Rylee wasn’t given a free ride to the Celebration. 

In fact, she had to save her own money to market herself prior to visiting Shelbyville, Tennessee. While buzz around the ring suggested the young rider had paid for her entire own way, her mom Heather Eilerman laughs when she, a teacher with no horse background, explains that is a bit of an exaggeration. 

“People keep saying that but really what happened is she wanted to buy an ad before the show because one of her friends told her you can’t go into the Celebration without doing an ad and her father was like, ‘No way!’ so she saved up her own money to buy an ad.’”

Even so, that’s pretty impressive for a 12-year-old girl from northern Kentucky who trains her own horse alongside friend and mentor Hayle Machal, an 18-year-old who co-owns the horse Rylee showed in equitation. 

After the victory, she couldn’t hold back tears as she stood in disbelief of her dream that had just come true. Heather explained that Machal had owned the horse Rylee rode for many years and since the horse she and Rylee were working on training together (Rylee’s own horse) was still green, Machal offered to let Rylee ride her horse. 

“They met a couple years ago and got close and Hayle kind of took Rylee under her wing and they’d often talk about how they wanted to do everything themselves,” Heather said. “Rylee likes equitation and Hayle said ‘Well, I’ve watched Claire Hankins do that so I can probably help you.’”

Rylee watched many practice videos of the equitation greats including Allison Thorson and practiced on Morgans and Saddlebreds with Machal’s help and wouldn’t you know … it paid off. 

Ironically, there was a technical issue with Rylee’s back number and so when it was first called out by the announcer Heather said Rylee slouched, disappointed it wasn’t her number. But Rylee was wrong and didn’t realize there had been a technical mix up that led to the announcer calling the wrong number, so there was a bit of a delayed reaction until she heard her actual name.

“Then Hayle jumped over the rail and was like, ‘It’s you!’ and I think because she had already mentally accepted she hadn’t won in her mind … that’s why she was so emotional. It meant that much more,” Heather said.  “She didn’t think anyone cared enough to watch but a lot of her friends saw it online, and every time someone would call she’d start crying again.”

Coming from a non-horse family, Rylee developed her passion on her own after attended a riding camp several years ago. From there, she was able to purchase a horse with the help of her parents and board it at a location without a trainer. She maintains her passion for riding and attends a private school where she is granted the flexibility to work at her own pace, often finishing up with school at noon, which allows her to  — no surprise — get to the barn and ride. 

“Hayle was a big help to Rylee and I think she did it out of a pay-it-forward kind of mentality,” Heather said. “After she and Rylee met she told her she could help and give her tips and tricks here and there, since she didn’t have a trainer … I think someone had done it for her once before and it was her way of giving back.”