School: Fourth-grader at St. Nicholas.
Siblings: Sister, Emily, 9, and brother, Andrew, 5.
Ponies: Tex and Three Wishes.
CLAIM TO FAME
Hailey Kreek has been a champion pony equestrian in the close stirrup and 11-and-under divisions since she started riding competitively at age 6. This year, after only a few months riding in the children's class, she moved up to the medium pony division and hopes to compete next year in the national U.S. Pony Finals.
Leaning over her pony's short, brown mane as he leaps over a raised bar almost 3 feet off the ground, Hailey Kreek looks more like an extension of her pony than his rider.
Hailey, 11, first sat in the saddle at age 3 when her cousins perched her atop their pony, Merry Legs, and walked her around their father's 60-acre farm outside Charleston, S.C.
At an age when most children are still nervous about graduating beyond training wheels, Hailey said, she immediately felt at home guiding an animal weighing hundreds of pounds.
"Some people have to force it to be a rider, but I've never had to force myself," she said. "I think it's just a gift. I love to ride, and I always have."
Soon after her first rides, Hailey's cousins gave her Merry Legs. Since then, she has gone through a series of ponies with names like Chief and Hobbit.
Hailey started out her competitive career in a walk/trot division at age 6, eventually graduating up to jumping divisions where both she and her ponies were judged on their appearance and form as they leapt barriers.
Just as it is her job to look down the track to prepare her pony for approaching jumps, Hailey said she has had her eyes on the long-term goal of joining the U.S. Olympic equestrian team from her first moments in the saddle.
"That's been my dream since I started riding," she said. "I try to push myself as much as I can to get there."
While she has always enjoyed riding, Hailey said she didn't begin seriously training until her parents purchased Three Wishes, a large pony and a former champion of the U.S. Pony Finals. Then 8 years old, Hailey met her two primary trainers, Raffi Kechejian and Matt Martin, both of whom work on Windy Oaks Farm near Atlanta.
With the assistance of Kechejian, Martin and Betsy Chandler, her trainer at Trenton, Ga.-based Heatherfield Horse Park, Hailey became a highly decorated competitor in the short stirrup and 11-and-under divisions. She and Three Wishes would frequently return from events having secured blue ribbons as class champions.
Last month, Hailey graduated to the medium pony division, in which she is competing with Galveston Lonestar, her newest equine partner. So far, they haven't had many opportunities to compete, but Hailey said she and her trainers have their eyes on finishing in the 2013 U.S. Pony Finals, an invitational championship held each August at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
Getting there will require sticking to a rigorous training regimen. Hailey already spends four days a week at Heatherfield and works weekly with Kechejian and Martin. Once a month, she also travels to a horse farm near Charleston, where she works with another trainer.
Hailey said she feels confident of her chances to make it to the finals.
"When I first got on [Galveston Lonestar], it felt strange being on a new pony, not knowing all his buttons and what he can do," she said. "Now, I feel like I can do anything on him."
Martin agrees. Hailey possesses an innate instinct for equestrianism, he said.
That intuitive understanding of how to guide a pony is rare and will serve her well on her way to achieving her goal, he said.
"Her natural ability and natural feel was incredibly impressive," Martin said, remembering his first impressions of Hailey. "Many of the things you have to teach in the beginning come totally naturally to her.
"There's a presence about Hailey when she sits on a horse. [Making it to the Olympics] is not an unrealistic goal for her. How quickly she progresses is very impressive."
Do you know a child age 17 or younger with a precocious talent in academics, athletics or the arts? The Times Free Press is searching for children to feature in "Talent Show," which appears in the Life section on Tuesdays. To nominate a child as a possible subject of a future feature article, e-mail staff writer Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 423-757-6205.