Photo: Jaden Porter and Farmore State of the Art competing at Pony Finals. Photo courtesy of Shawn McMillen.
By Ashley Shaw
The words “the pony ring” can stimulate a variety of thoughts and emotions for pony rider graduates: cringes and laughter at past mistakes, relief at escaping from over aggressive pony moms, twinges of longing for one’s favorite pony. While some riders may not consider their pony days very often, my interviews with riders Mackenzie Altheimer, Elizabeth Woods, and Jaden Porter revealed that time showing ponies can have an enduring impact on a rider’s horse career.
Altheimer competed in the ponies for four years. Her Pony Finals highlights include a win in the Small Green Pony Model and placing ninth in the Medium Greens on Royal Promise. She currently competes in the Big Equitation classes and the 3’6” Junior Hunters. Now competing in the 3’3” Junior Hunters and Children’s Jumpers, Woods spent seven years riding and showing ponies, her top Pony Finals ribbon being a second place in the Medium Greens with No Drama. Porter’s best Pony Finals turn-out was taking eighth in the model with Tuxedo Park. She showed in the ponies for six years and currently contends the Children’s Hunters, THIS Medal, USEF Medal, and ASPCA Maclay classes.
All riders agreed that there are definite advantages to competing in the pony divisions as a young rider, including a solid foundation. Porter states that, “The ponies give you some of the same skills, but on a smaller and less intimidating level.” Altheimer concurred with the notion that ponies are a great introductory level of showing, “competing in the Pony Hunters gives you a good idea of what is expected in the Junior Hunters. For example, showing a high quality pony is kind of like showing a high quality Junior Hunter.”
So are the riders who spent their elementary and early middle school days on ponies better off than those who did not? Woods and Porter believe that past pony riders do have a bit of an edge. Woods takes a logical approach, pointing out how, “learning to ride on ponies is easier because if you’re still young and small, you can get a better feel of your pony because your leg can wrap around them.”
However, if you started out on horses, never fear as Altheimer concludes that while “riding ponies is a great experience… it doesn’t give you an advantage over a kid who started on the horses, because riding a horse is different than ponies.” Although this issue is up for debate, there are many upsides to ponies to seriously consider.
For starters, competing at Pony Finals is a great way to, “prepare to learn how to show under high pressure situations,” as Altheimer puts it. Porter remarks how it can be quite a nerve-racking experience, but completely agrees with Woods who states that Pony Finals, “has helped me be better with calming my nerves at bigger shows like PNHS and Devon.” It is very rare for Children’s Hunter divisions to be offered at big qualifier shows, so the only way to gain experience at such prestigious venues without doing the Junior Hunters is riding in the Pony Hunters.
When asked if the transition from ponies to horses was a difficult adjustment, each rider responded that there were a few challenges in the beginning. A common struggle was that, “Horses have such a bigger stride than ponies,” said Woods. For Porter, the pony divisions “really helped build my confidence to start smaller and go bigger,” especially as she moved up to horses. Woods reflects that the ponies, “made me learn how to keep a consistent pace throughout a course,” which indeed is the key to any good hunter round.
Another aspect of the pony divisions that mimics the Junior Hunters is the inclusion of a handy hunter round. “The ponies taught me how to be smooth and tidy while still being accurate,” Altheimer states, a skill needed to excel in all future divisions, from Junior Jumpers to Big Equitation. Riding in the ponies can help a rider prepare for their career on horses not only by introducing them to high pressure shows, but also instilling the fundamentals, such as keeping a good rhythm and the ability to make neat and balanced turns.
However, the most important things learned from the pony ring aren’t necessarily riding skills. Woods touches on the significance of perseverance, commenting how she, “learned that it is okay to make mistakes every once in awhile because there will always be another horse show or round to fix that mistake.” Altheimer notes that the top lesson she picked up is to, “always have good sportsmanship.”
Each rider was asked whether they think riding ponies is a good way to start, and all shared related responses. Porter said yes and explained how “it builds confidence [and] gives a strong base” for future riding, Altheimer agreeing as “the opportunity to start in the ponies is something I wouldn’t give up.” All riders offered great advice to current pony kids, Porter emphasizing the drive to, “keep working hard” and to never give up. Woods sends the message to, “always have fun at horse shows and that it is okay to make mistakes because you always learn from those mistakes.” Lastly, Altheimer reminds riders to “have fun and make a lot of friends, because the friends you make in the Pony Hunters will carry on to your Junior Hunter years.”
Reflecting back on one’s years in the ponies can bring on a whirlwind of emotions, but with a closer examination, it is easy to see just how much of an impact this experience can have. The Pony Hunters can teach the building block fundamentals of riding and instill confidence, perseverance, and good sportsmanship. The pony divisions are a great way to bring up capable and well-rounded riders, as well as to have great fun.
About the Author: Ashley Shaw is a senior at Lafayette High School in St. Louis, MO. She trains with Shannon Hicks and competes in the Junior Hunters and Junior Jumpers, and her goal is to qualify for the Devon Horse Show next year. Outside of riding, she enjoys photography, cooking, and hanging out with her retired horses.
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