This article won the 2018 GMO Newsletter Award in first-person experience for GMOs with 175-499 members. It first appeared in the November 2018 “Cross Country” Newsletter, Central States Dressage and Eventing Association.
by Jennifer Selvig, DVM • Graduate HA, Canterbury Pony Club
Back when I first joined the CSDEA (or, CSDCTA as it was then known) – you know, when I had to walk to the barn barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways, to ride a crabby school horse in said snow – it was almost a given that every junior and young rider was a member of another popular club: Pony Club.
Its name has always been a bit misleading: Generally, only the youngest members of Pony Club ride actual ponies. Most members ride horses – but the name hails from the group’s British origins, where the term “Pony” traditionally refers more to the mount of a young rider. And while the United States Pony Club remains the largest youth riding association in the country, in some ways it is on life support in our area. And it needs to be revived.
Pony Club’s heart is at the local level, where individual clubs meet for both mounted and unmounted learning. Groups of clubs are divided into 42 regions, which make up the national organization. The region that comprises the majority of CSDEA’s geographical area is called Northern Lakes, and there are nine local clubs within it – including my alma mater, Canterbury Pony Club.
What does Pony Club do?
Pony Club is unique in that it focuses not only on riding, but on horse care and management. Members are encouraged to pursue certifications (formerly known as ratings), similar to earning belts in martial arts. Each certification builds on previous learning and skills, and tests the member’s knowledge and proficiency in everything from types of tack and how they are used to veterinary conditions and common treatments. On the riding side, members can choose to certify in several disciplines: traditional (flatwork, jumping, and riding in the open – corresponding to the discipline of eventing), dressage, show jumping and hunt seat, and western. Members can also split their certifications and do the riding separately from the horse management. During the course of a certification, a member must present her- or himself and her/his horse at a “formal inspection,” giving an oral introduction, description of her/ his mount, and what her/his goal for the day is. This is usually followed by the riding tests, and then the unmounted tests, which are done orally in groups.
The certifications are divided into the “D” ratings (D-1, D-2, and D-3). According to the USPC Web site, the D levels “offer an introduction to the fun challenge of riding, establishing a foundation of safety habits and knowledge of the daily care of the horse.” The next two levels, C-1 and C-2, focus on becoming “active horsemen, caring independently for his/her horse and tack.” The focus is on “independence in horse management as well as developing increased control and confidence in riding.” The final certifications are held on a national level and include two levels of horse management (H-B and H-A) and three levels of riding (C3, B, and A). They “require a greater depth of knowledge and proficiency” and “successful candidates are competent, all-around horsemen.” Also important is the emphasis on leadership: “Upper level members are also thoughtful leaders who set an example for all future horsemen.” The horse management certifications at this level include testing each candidate’s ability to teach unmounted and mounted lessons to younger Pony Clubbers.
In addition to certifications that standardize and showcase a member’s skill level, Pony Clubbers compete in Pony Club- specific competitions called rallies. Rallies are team events that can be held in any Pony Club-sanctioned discipline. A team consists of four riders and a stable manager. During the course of the competition, teams are judged both on their riding and on their horse management – how well they keep their horses and tack clean, bedded, fed, and cared for during the rally. Horse management judges perform inspections and teams can lose points for dirty tack, missing equipment, a stall that wasn’t cleaned properly, and other things. Parents and other adults aren’t allowed to help – the teams must rely on each other, with the help of their stable manager (a member who is part of the team but doesn’t ride), to succeed.
What advantages does a Pony Clubber have?
Pony Club establishes a system to safely and effectively care for horses and progress as a rider. Pony Clubbers that move up through the certifications are required to learn skills early on that non-Pony Clubbers must be taught later – applying leg bandages, safely lunging horses, properly fitting helmets and tack, and fastidiously cleaning everything from tack to buckets to stalls are just a few examples. And with an unwavering emphasis on safety, Pony Clubbers are literally tested on their ability to stay safe around a barn and with their equine partners. Pony Clubbers, put simply, have a baseline level of knowledge that non-Pony Clubbers often lack.
In addition, during certifications Pony Clubbers must learn to present themselves and their horses confidently. With much of the certification process being oral presentation and discussion, members learn excellent communication skills, including advocating for themselves and discussing viewpoints in a group. They are good at both following and giving direction when required. They learn to graciously accept success – and failure when a certification or rally does not go as planned. The “no parents allowed” rules also mean that members become independent and learn to be confident in their abilities without an adult constantly shadowing them.
Many people would argue – and in some cases, perhaps correctly – that a young rider can acquire these skills in other ways. But the team spirit and learning environment Pony Club provides simply can’t be matched. Where else will you have the encouragement to practice putting a stable bandage on ten times in a row? Point out parts of horses and tack? Practice properly leading, jogging, and lunging so safety becomes completely second nature? Pony Club is a wonderful mix of camaraderie and learning – and, to be completely cliché, it builds character, plain and simple. And most members acquire a little bit of grit, too.
Why kids need Pony Club
There isn’t a “horse kid” out there that wouldn’t benefit from Pony Club. Whether a serious Young Riders competitor or a young backyard pony enthusiast, there is something to accommodate everyone. Unfortunately, the conflicts of “crazy” and ultra-busy lives can put a damper on what young horsepeople are able to do. School activities and sports, family vacations, and sometimes financial limitations are all factors that go into deciding if Pony Club is an option for families.
Within the horse community, there has been a longstanding divide between Pony Club and the FEI North American Junior/ Young Riders program, which runs championship shows in the disciplines of eventing, dressage, and show jumping. Where Pony Club seeks to develop every member into a well-rounded horseman, Young Riders focuses on preparing the next generation of upper-level competitors. Both are worthy goals – and I would argue they are completely compatible with each other. Many non-Pony Club Young Riders competitors could benefit from going back to the basics of the Pony Club skill sets, camaraderie, and rock-solid horse management. Pony Clubbers could learn from the Young Riders’ dedication to excellence and “moving up the levels” of their chosen horse sports. Both organizations encourage poise and horsemanship, but with different goals in mind. And while not every Pony Clubber will become an upper- level competitor, that should not discourage the advanced riders from participating in Pony Club.
The status of Pony Club and CSDEA
With nine active clubs in CSDEA’s region, Pony Club is far from dead. It is, however, “bottom-heavy,” with far more members at the lower levels than the upper levels. And while this can be normal to some degree, we have a decidedly small number of upper-level Pony Clubbers acting as a role mo9dels and teachers for our younger members. It is important that Pony Club try to retain members as they get older and more advanced in their riding – and that their instructors and other riding organizations also encourage their continued participation. This will benefit both the Pony Clubs themselves as well as the upper-level members – the continued education they can receive, particularly by pursuing the advanced horse management certifications – will only serve to make them more well-rounded horsemen.
Call to Action
Organizers: When riders reach a certain level, there are often scheduling conflicts between shows and clinics and Pony Club events. It would behoove organizers on all sides to take these schedules into consideration to make participation in both possible for those who choose. It’s easy to look up regional Pony Club events, as well as CSDEA activities such as clinics and recognized shows.
Farm owners: Many local farms open up their wonderful facilities to Pony Clubbers. I would encourage as many farm owners to do this as possible: offer Pony Club discounts when hosting clinics with upper level riders; host Pony Club certifications or “in-the- barn” days. I was once an avid Pony Club instructor and “rater.” Today, I open my small farm to my alma mater club, Canterbury. Each spring, we hold a farm work and clean-up day where all the members and their families come and complete spring clean-up, repair, and improvement projects on the farm – this serves as their “facility fee” for the year. It has worked wonderfully for us and I am thrilled to give back to the organization that helped make me the horseman I am today.
Instructors and trainers: Don’t be afraid of Pony Club. Encourage your students to join, and help them along their journeys. Learn about the certification levels and what you can do to prepare them better. Find ways to integrate it into your own programs – it’s a system that works and it will enhance your teaching!
Finally, parents: Sign your kids up for Pony Club! No other organization will be as comprehensively dedicated to safety and knowledge as the USPC. There is just no better place for your child to learn about horses and their care. The kids make lifelong friends, and in many cases, so do the adults!
For more information, visit www.ponyclub.org.
Jennifer Selvig is a proud H-A graduate of Canterbury Pony Club. She and her husband run Stargazer Farm in Lakeville, Minnesota. She is also an equine veterinarian and an associate at Cleary Lake Veterinary Hospital. She can be reached at email@example.com.