Ashley Stout was one of the top junior equestrian riders in the country, but the relationship with one of her best friends began during her brother’s soccer tryout about seven years ago.
Ashley and Sophie Wales, set to be a freshman at State College Area High School in the fall, were introduced to each other and it took all of 10 seconds for the pair to realize how similar they were, Sophie said Friday. The next several years were filled with conversations about horse riding, volleyball, how busy they were or the next time they were going to spend time together.
Whether it be riding an all-terrain vehicle, climbing rocks at Devil’s Den in Gettysburg or jumping on a trampoline covered in dish soap, Sophie said 13-year-old Ashley, who died Thursday after a horse riding accident, was one of the bravest people she’d ever met.
“I want everyone to know how fearless she was. And how she made everyone laugh and how she could put a smile on anyone’s faces, even if they were going through something tough. She was always there for them,” Sophie said. “She always knew how to make things better and comfort people.”
Ashley, of Port Matilda, was scheduled to leave for Montana next week. She was selected to participate in the North American Youth Championships from July 24-28 and was second in the nation for junior riders in the U.S. Eventing Association’s training division.
She was grouped in area two of the U.S. Eventing Association, which spans Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Area coordinator Chris Donovan, who was responsible for navigating Stout’s path throughout the organization, said there are about 300 riders in the group. Stout was one of the “star athletes,” she said.
“She didn’t act like a 13-year-old little girl. She was 100% dedicated to making this work and you talked to her like she was an adult,” Donovan said. “Her maturity level was above and beyond. She was very dedicated to the sport.”
But as Stout was training at Standing Ovation Equestrian Center in Halfmoon Township on Thursday, she and her horse, Avant Garde — better known as Grady — were involved in a fatal rotational fall.
SOEC co-owner Adam Armstrong said it was the “worst type of fall that could happen” and called it a “freak accident.” Stout died of a skull fracture, Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers said in a press release Friday. The manner of death was ruled accidental.
Eric Wales, Sophie’s father, was coaching soccer when he noticed eight missed phone calls and text messages from the Stout family. He dropped what he was doing, drove home and shared the message with his 14-year-old daughter.
“It’s devastating. You realize that it just happened and you know that your life is going to be changed because of it,” Sophie said. “Since she was so close to me, it was like part of me was gone.”
Added Eric Wales: “Ashley’s life ended yesterday, but not her legacy.”
The riders who were selected alongside Stout for the North American Youth Championships plan to wear commemorative bracelets and turquoise ribbons on their dressage jackets in her honor during the competition. They have also started a #Ride4Ashley campaign, Donovan said.
“For many of these kids, this is the biggest day of their lives that they’re training for and prepping for and they have this shadow,” Donovan said. “It’s a real struggle for all of them.”
Wendy Johnson, business owner and manager of Chestnut Ridge Equestrian at Slab Cabin Farm, did not know Ashley personally, but said the entire Happy Valley horse riding community is grieving with the Stout family.
“It breaks your heart and there’s been a lot of tears shed. It shakes you to your core,” Johnson said. “She was an accomplished rider. She was the best of the best around here. It just reminds us all of our mortality.”
And while the Stout family was at a funeral home Friday evening, the Wales stayed behind and were left looking at the trampoline they used to jump on with Ashley, though it was not covered with dish soap this time.
“It feels good to talk about her,” Sophie said. “She deserves to be remembered.”