Battle Creek Inquisitor

Ayden Uhlir is the first equestrian athlete in the world sponsored by Nike.

She’s the only person ever to win back to back Junior and Young Rider National and North American Championships.

She was part of the first U.S. team at the Future Champions Nations Cup.

And she’s opened her new training facility in Battle Creek.

Uhlir, 22, started taking dressage lessons when she was 6 years old, but her love of horse riding started earlier.

“Family legend has it that when I was 5, my mom set me on a friend’s horse, and I turned to my parents and said, ‘This is my thing, mom,’ and I have been riding ever since,” she said.

Dressage is a French term that means “training.” Where the sport is concerned, it refers to training a horse to perform precision movements in response to subtle cues from a rider and then actually performing them in competition.

“Being able to handle a 1700-pound animal, it gives me a lot of confidence in my day-to-day life,” Uhlir said.

Flyaway Stables used to be Windsong Stable. It sits on 42 acres of land on Sonoma Road south of Interstate 94. The property is large, with two barns and three arenas, one of them indoor, surrounded by green pastures.

She bought the property last fall, but it wasn’t until February that she bought her two 4-year-old horses Fuego and Sinatra. She moved them into the facility in March.

She chose Battle Creek, in part, because it’s not too far from major airports or big cities like Detroit and Chicago, which makes it more convenient to bring in trainers. Her mother’s family is from Michigan even though Uhlir grew up in Texas.

“I felt connected when I drove around the city,” she said. “The quaint architecture, the connection between the cereal companies and the people. They are connected and embedded into everyday life. This is very similar to the small town of Joshua, Texas, where I grew up. So it has that small-town connectedness while still having convenience.”

One of the barns is being donated to Dressage4Kids to use for its youth programs. Uhlir benefited from many of the organization’s scholarships and programs, and now she wants to give back.

“It’s an incredibly expensive sport,” said Lendon Gray, founder of Dressage4Kids and one of Uhlir’s mentors. “There are some that can financially do it all and not have a problem, but a lot of these young people really have to struggle in order to make their dreams come true, and Ayden has really worked her way up the ladder.

“She’s been a working student, she’s done fundraisers, so it’s nice to see, even though she has a facility and is just starting, she’s opening up her facility to young people who are starting the way she did.”

Uhlir isn’t from a wealthy family. Her parents took a loan and pooled money with family members to get her an $80,000 horse imported from Europe when she was 16. The horse, Sjapoer, was already older, being 11 years old, but she got her wins with him anyway, against the million-dollar horses most of her opponents had.

She worked to get sponsors to offset her costs. It wasn’t quite enough.

“I couldn’t afford boarding and lessons unless I worked at the facility where I was staying,” Uhlir said. “I paid for my first National Championship competition by posting signs at the competition to clean out stalls. I was getting paid to clean the stalls of the girls I competed against. It was tough, but I learned a lot more from cleaning their stalls then they did from watching me.”

Flyaway Stables is Uhlir’s attempt at a longer-term way of financing her training and competitions. She can save money she spent on boarding and training horses by doing it herself in her own facility. She plans to earn money doing the same for other people’s horses, giving lessons and eventually raising and breeding horses to sell. Uhlir sold Sjapoer and used that money for a down payment on the property.

“I eat a lot of ramen noodles,” she said. “I’ve decided I’d rather take really good care of my horse rather than myself sometimes. You have to make sacrifices. If you want to be a good horsewoman, you want to give your horses the best care you can. I spend 12 hours a day in the barn.”

Uhlir has the property under a land contract since she couldn’t afford a loan but hopes to become profitable in short order.

“I love her energy,” said Sandi Carlton, the owner of Windsong Stable, Inc. “She has the energy that it takes to run a 24/7, 365 days a year — that’s the kind of business it is. She’s young and enthusiastic and talented.”

The company Windsong Stable is still intact and in operation. Carlton leases horses and space from Albion College to put on horse shows.

Carlton still stops by the facility to check in on Uhlir and answer any questions she might have. That’s good because Uhlir often works alone. Her grandmother lives on the property with her, and friends she’s made visit, but she doesn’t have employees. Her usual company is her horses and dogs.

“Running a stable is not an easy job at all,” Gray said. “I admire Ayden for taking it on.”

Uhlir is also working on finishing a college degree. She did her first two years of college online through Tarrant County College but transferred to Western Michigan University to get a degree in business.

“I have never done college full time,” she said. “But it is important so I keep plugging away at it. I have already spoken to Western about this, and they are really great about working with me. I have met a few students from Western, as well, and they have been very nice in showing me around Kalamazoo and even helping on the facility.”

Uhlir has already had one student with her this past summer, who worked at the stable in exchange for lessons.

Anna King, 13, lives in Chelsea. She and her mother emailed Gray to see if she knew of anyone in the area who would be a good trainer. Gray recommended Uhlir.

“Something I really liked about Ayden was she didn’t just help me improve physically like with my posture, but she helped me improve mentally,” King said. “She showed me how to control my nerves at horse shows, and she showed me how to appropriately approach a clinician (instructors who participate in the training clinics). She definitely helped me reach some of my short-term goals and helped me figure out what I want to do and how I can get to my long term goals.”

“I probably wouldn’t have gotten the six sponsors I do have now without her,” King said.

Uhlir is running a free Dressage4Kids clinic on Nov. 11 and 12 aimed at giving kids access to top trainers and top horses that they normally wouldn’t be able to work with. It will include lectures on a range of topics such as horse care, maintaining athleticism and obtaining sponsors.

It’s already full, but anyone interested is invited to come and watch the training for free to learn about dressage and see the facility.

“I love my sport,” Uhlir said, “and I hope to help others to see its beauty, complexity and difficulty.”