Pony Finals Judges Offer Insight on How to Have a Competitive Edge

2017 and 2018 Small Pony USEF Pony Finals competitors, Party Time and Jordan Gibbs. Photo courtesy of Tori Weed


Adorable ponies and their riders travel from all over the United States to compete at USEF Pony Finals in Lexington, Kentucky. Competing at this prestigious event is a dream for many young competitors, so what can they do to have a competitive edge in the show ring? We spoke to 2018 Pony Finals judge Julie Winkel, and 2017 Pony Finals judges Diane Carney, Jim Toon, and Rachel Kennedy about what they look for in a winner in the hunter and USEF Pony Medal sections of the event.

Does a pony’s movement have a large effect on their scoring in the over fences round?

Diane Carney: “Like in any hunter round we look for any horse or pony that goes across the ground beautifully. A beautiful mover and jumper with a great ride definitely has a competitive edge.”

Julie Winkel: “Definitely. At the end of the day it is a jumping competition but seeing a pony that moves beautifully between the jumps is a big bonus.”

What are the top things you look for in the model?

Diane Carney: “I look for the overall picture: great confirmation with square shoulders, straightness of legs, movement in jog, level topline, beautiful coat, beautiful braids, and clean tack and boots. Legs should be clean and not crooked, no splints, and ponies should not be toeing in or out. There are three judges in the model section- two will start at one end and one starts at other and you need to be modeling when each one goes by. Ponies must stand square for all three judges, or their score will reflect that.”

Julie Winkel: “I think the most important thing is a pony that is balanced and symmetrical. The pony should be built with a leg at each corner so their leg supports their body and that they are structurally sound as athletes and good jumpers as well as good movers. Aesthetically we are looking for an overall beautiful pony that is turned out well.”

What things do you consider when judging the green divisions versus the regular divisions?

Diane Carney: “I tend to be more tolerant of a green pony if it is a stride late behind in its lead change or a little stronger going around a course, but there is really very little difference because of how well the riders and ponies perform at this event. I judge the green ponies with the same overall values as regular ponies: cantering in rhythm, smooth, beautifully turned out, and jumping straight, Smaller riders on green ponies may get bonus points as opposed to taller kids that are a bit larger on the ponies.”

Julie Winkel: “I am a little more forgiving with a green pony that is a little looky or wiggly down the lines. I also am a little more lenient on a rider that is borderline too big for the pony. In the regular ponies I really want to see manners and experience come through, because at the end of the day we are looking for these ponies to be teachers and prepare their riders for bigger classes and moving into the horse divisions.”

Do brightly colored or large bows or other accessories such as helmet monograms or “bling” on apparel distract you from judging?

Diane Carney: “All competitors should read the rulebook. In the hunters and equitation, “bling” and coat colors are limited. Bows can get a bit large and long, so make sure the judge will be able to see a rider’s number.”

Julie Winkel: “Yes! I am a traditionalist and am opposed to anything that distracts from the pony’s performance. At the end of the day it is not a people show, but a pony show. Anything that detracts from the overall tradition of the hunt field is bothersome to me.”

Olivia Sweetnam and Love Bug- Small Pony Over Fences winners at 2016 USEF Pony Finals.
Photo courtesy of Aperture Equine Photography

Do you judge each component of the competition (model, under saddle, and over fences) individually, or if a pony performs well or poorly in one section does it have an effect on their score in the other sections?  

Diane Carney: There are six total judges, and not all six judge every section of the division. Three judges judge the model portion, three judge the under-saddle, and all six judge over fences. Each component is judged separately and each score reflects the pony and rider’s competitive effort. Judges may remember a model or under saddle winner based on the pony’s appearance, but after that is based on their round compared to the other competitors’.”

Julie Winkel: “I always try to look at every pony as they come in the ring as if I have never seen them before.”

Will tight rollbacks that are not well balanced or clean outside turns score better in the medal round?

Jim Toon: “You will do better in the medal round doing something you know you can do well versus taking a risk and not executing it well. Do not use the whole football field, but I would not recommend a tight turn if you know you could not perform well. Most importantly, be smooth! Go in the ring, get a little pace, set your pace, and try to ride around the course very smoothly. Consistency is the winner.”

Rachel Kennedy: “Clean riding scores better than trying something that you do not do well. Taking the easy option and doing it well is better than messing up the hard option.”

Do you prefer competitors to sit in a full seat or half seat during their medal round?

Jim Toon: “I prefer a light seat, in-between full and half seat. Sitting nicely and comfortably is done well. I am not a huge fan of a complete half seat, but prefer a “soft seat” where the rider is lightly out of the saddle but not up in a full half seat. Standing in a half seat is not the greatest position for the Medal.”

Rachel Kennedy: “Some horses you sit on and some you need a lighter seat on. You need to ride the horse that you are given that day. A good rider is a good rider whether they are sitting deep or in a half seat.”

Does a rider’s size on their pony affect their scoring? If a rider is too large or too small on their mount will this negatively impact their final score?

Jim Toon: “Huge riders on smaller ponies is taken into consideration. It is a class of appearance- you want clean riding clothes, boots, horse, etc. If someone is huge on their pony it does not make me want to watch their round. Suitability is important. Being too small is a little more acceptable- being too big is harder.”

Rachel Kennedy: “Not sure that it can. I look more closely at correct distances and things of that nature over size. However, if a rider is extremely tall on a pony I will write that down on my card and take off a point or two.

Lexi Miller is all smiles with Stonewall Farm’s Top That and trainer Emily Elek-Burtard after finishing eleventh in the 2016 USEF Pony Medal at USEF Pony Finals.
Photo courtesy of Lexi Miller

Do you prefer an automatic or crest release?

Jim Toon: “I want to see style, smoothness, and kindness to horse. I am not as concerned about the type of release if the rider has a nice position, rides around the course smoothly and consistently, and shows kindness to horse. The rider should have light contact with their horse’s mouth. I don’t like to see no release, but also don’t want to see reins flopping on neck.”

Rachel Kennedy: “Kids at this level are taught to release, but are typically not taught the automatic release, so I prefer a well done crest release instead of riders just moving their hands up their pony’s neck. If a proper automatic release is performed that is also acceptable.”

Will riders earn more points for landing the correct lead instead of executing a lead change?

Jim Toon: “I have no preference- both will be scored the same. Landing on the lead is not a mandatory thing.”

Rachel Kennedy: “You will notice a lead change more than you notice landing a lead, but a smooth, well ridden round will usually prevail. As long as it is smooth, a lead change is not always noticed unless it is not executed well.”

Do you have a preference on ponies wearing boots or wraps in the medal round?

Jim Toon: “Whatever is put on your animal should be put on well and not take away from the overall picture.”

Rachel Kennedy: “I personally prefer boots over wraps because they look nicer, but it has to do with horsemanship. If your pony needs the support of wraps they should wear them, but they should be dark, clean, and well applied.”