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Born to ride: Palmerton girl ranked number one junior equestrian in US

When Ellie Apollo was 2 years old, her mother held her on the back of a horse.

Eleven years later, this dedicated 13-year-old is still on the saddle.

“I could tell when Ellie was that young, she was a natural,” said Delia Apollo, her mother and owner of Apollo Farms in Palmerton. “You have to really love riding, and she does. You can’t make somebody do it.”

Ellie’s love for riding has evolved into performing competitively for the past 10 years. Her consistent scoring has earned her the No. 1 ranking in the country as a junior equestrian by the United States Equestrian Federation in the Medium Green Pony Division, which consists of first-year show horses that are measured by hand to be of medium-size.

A high jump

Last winter, Ellie and her pony Sparkle qualified for the national finals when they were crowned Reserve Champion in the Medium Green Pony Hunters Division at the World Equestrian Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.

On Aug. 12 and 13, she rode Sparkle against 64 top junior competitors from around the country at the United States Equestrian Pony Finals held in Lexington, Kentucky. After the first day of the show’s performances, Ellie and Sparkle were in 32nd place. On the second day, they jumped all the way to fourth place in the Over Fences competition, and at the end of the show, they finished sixth overall.

“At Lexington on the second day, Ellie and Sparkle had to go first in the jumps and then we had to wait for 32 other riders before we knew that they had finished in the Top 10,” Delia said. “It was pretty nerve-wracking.”

Nerve-wracking for Mom, but not so much for Ellie.

Delia describes her daughter as “cool as a cucumber and relies on her God-given talents” during the tense moments of jumping over the fences.

‘A deep connection’

Ellie practices on their reconfigured farm that has stabled as many as 15 horses at a time. She says her “deep connection” with a pony takes a great deal of time and patience. The lockdown from COVID-19 was a “blessing in disguise” according to Delia because Ellie and Sparkle had more opportunity to form a bond.

“Ellie is home-schooled, so by noon, she’s done with her classes, and that gives her much of the afternoons to ride,” Delia said.

Ellie’s deep connection with a pony comes from a developmental process.

“Before you perform at shows with a horse, you have to develop a trust that comes from spending lots of time with her, brushing her, and giving her extra treats,” she explained. “Every horse has a different personality. And some are more difficult than others to develop that deep connection. Sparkle and I have this trust in each other when we ride in shows, and that’s a big reason why we do so well.”

At regional and national shows, horses can become nervous from the hectic environment with all the strange people and other animals being so close.

“Sparkle has always been pretty calm,” said Ellie, “but just like humans, you just never know if an animal will be ready to focus and perform at show time.”

Having had the experience of a competition performance not going as planned, Ellie just shrugs it off and turns her focus toward the next show.

The intangibles

Professional trainer Josee Stedding believes that Ellie has the natural instincts that cannot be taught to a rider.

“She has a good feel for the horse and an incredible ability to know what’s going to happen before it happens during a show performance.”

Stedding spoke more about Ellie’s instincts, comparing her to a hockey player.

“A good hockey player has the ability to get to where the puck will be before it gets passed. Ellie has that kind of ability, and as long as she keeps competing, she will get better and better with more experience.”

About Sparkle, Stedding had this to say.

“Sparkle understands what she needs to do when she steps into the ring. This is her stage and she’s going to show you her grace and her talents, something you cannot teach to a horse.”

Setting an example

Competing in the Federation’s equestrian shows requires a commitment that goes beyond the routine of backyard practicing. Delia and Ellie travel to at least three shows a month. Of course, Sparkle has to be transported, too, and Delia says the pony “travels well.”

“They are an amazing team together,” Delia said.

Ellie takes her achievements in stride.

“I want to win, of course, but what I really focus on is enjoying the moment and that Sparkle has the awareness to enjoy it with me.”

She has set the bar higher for herself and wants to compete in the bigger classes with larger horses that jump higher in performances that are timed at that level. Down the road a bit, Ellie would like to ride in the Olympics or even turn professional.

“What’s most important to me right now is that other kids take notice of what I do and maybe they too would like to become an equestrian like me.”

The horse show world has already taken notice of this accomplished young rider from Palmerton. Ellie Apollo has proved she’s on track for the goals she has set for herself in the years to come.

Ellie Apollo competes with her horse Sparkle. PHOTOS COURTESY OF SHAWN MCMILLEN PHOTOGRAPHY
Ellie Apollo competes with her horse Sparkle.