The 2028 U.S. Eventing Team is already out there somewhere, and it’s up to us all to nurture their talent and their big dreams. “2028 Olympic Talent Watch” is an (adorable) new series in which we identify junior eventers who are already exhibiting the heart and the guts to lead American eventing to glory in the (distant) future. Any short-stirrup riders you know come to mind? Email us their story at [email protected]
The only complaint that Kai Ekis, age 7, has about riding horses is that he sometimes gets mistaken for a girl.
From Jill Ekis, his mother: “You don’t see many boys out there. He always says, ‘Mom! Can’t they see I’m wearing a tie?’ I try to explain, ‘At your age, Kai, you all look the same under the helmet but a few more years in this and people will start to remember you. Especially if you work hard.’ That makes him happy.”
Kai has been around horses since he was a baby, as Jill rides and his dad was part of the Allegheny County Mounted Police when he was on patrol and rode horses in riot gear for crowd control. Jill rides as well, Kai inherited the horse bug and has been in a riding program for the past two and a half years, and 2017 was his first year of competing.
“I certainly didn’t expect him to take to riding like he did,” Jill says. “As a mom we all hope our kids love it but you just never know.”
His sport of choice? Eventing!
Kai’s trainer Heather Birkmire of Silver Crest Equestrian Center, near Pittsburgh, Pa., is an eventer and OTTB enthusiast. She compliments her young pupil’s natural abilities and instincts, and noting his uncommon drive and courage not often seen in riders his age.
His dressage training comes from Karen Pikovsky of 4R Horse Training, who pulled him out of the kids’ program to instruct him when he was starting to pick concepts up quickly.
Although Kai sticks to ponies for competition, he will jump just about any horse suitable to his size. Jill recently purchased a 13-year-old OTTB eventer whom she plans on showing next season, and the hope is that Kai will grow into the OTTB someday. Kai and Jill ride together and have started training with Dark Horse Farms and Amanda Wilson Eventing.
At Kai’s first combined test, Jill says she was nervous. Kai had gotten a bit nervous the day before when his pony refused a wall during a schooling session, plus they were running late to show jumping and Kai hadn’t yet learned the course.
But Kai rose to the occasion. Jill recalls, “He watched a girl ride through once and gave the thumbs up to his trainer, and we both sat back and watched him rock it like a champ without any sign of stress and we really knew he had something special. He works amazing well under pressure and continues to surprise his family and trainers alike.”
Kai’s latest competition wasn’t a combined test or mini trial but 2-foot classes at hunter show to help him get past his nerves of jumping walls.
“I know there are plenty of kids out there who jump, but he does it with such bravery and challenges himself to take the next steps,” Jill says.
Best of luck to Kai! Hang in there, buddy — you have plenty of great male role models to look up to in this sport!