At first glance, All Natural isn’t the kind of small pony hunter most people would want in their barn. She’s quirky, she’s moody, she hates to practice, and at 17, none of that is changing any time soon. But none of that bothers Stone McCormick. He couldn’t be more excited to take her to this year’s USEF Pony Finals in Lexington, Ky.
He and All Natural, owned by Cindy Flynn, paired up right after last year’s Pony Finals, and things didn’t go terribly well. Every time he’d head to a horse show, McCormick, 11, found he had a somewhat different pony. There wasn’t an obvious pattern for what would set off her moods, and the fact that she strongly preferred not to complete a course at home didn’t help matters.
“At first I thought she was really hard,” he recalled. “I didn’t know how to ride her well. I had to learn how to keep her really straight, and she has a left fade so the right lead is tough.”
At home he kept things light, turning her out every morning, then hacking her and trail riding her, and leading her onto the treadmill for her daily workout. At shows, it became a matter of trial and error, and a few extra schooling classes. McCormick spent months learning her every nuance, until eventually he was the one telling his father and trainer, Britt McCormick, when it’s time to swap to the bigger spurs or less bit.
“You should have seen them six months ago,” said Britt. "You’d go from the not being able to get down the first line, to the last line where you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to leave one out.’ They’ve become such a great team as they’ve gotten to know each other. At times he’s had too many brakes, not enough brakes, and made mistakes. I told him, ‘You’re the pilot. You’re the one up there. You tell me.’ Now he rarely makes the wrong call.”
When she was on and Stone rode well, they were tough to beat, and Stone's riding improved whether they had a good day or bad. The pair had a setback in January, when she caught a back foot on her front shoe, snapping the shoe in half and causing a scary rotational fall. They walked away unharmed and came back the next day to clock around the course like nothing had happened—though the incident did prompt Britt to let her campaign barefoot.
Before long, Stone’s hard work started paying off. Aboard “Peewee,” Stone qualified for Devon (Pa.) for the first time and topped the $10,000 Pony Hunter Derby Classic at Atlanta Summer Classic I (Ga.) out of 31 ponies.
Watch his winning round in Atlanta here:
When you ask Stone or Britt what they’re most proud of, it’s not that win in Atlanta, nor the fourth-placed ribbon All Natural earned in the small pony over fences class at Devon. It’s not even the fact that he’s earned so much success on a tough pony. It’s another trophy he earned at Devon: the pony sportsmanship award.
That honor wasn't a surprise to those who know Stone. He’s a down-to-earth kid who picked aiming toward zone and state championships over trying to attend the fall indoor circuit. He described his Pony Finals debut last year as “great”, despite the fact his mount wasn’t quite 100 percent sound and he scratched before the jumping phase.
“It was OK,” he said with a shrug. “I walked the course, knowing we couldn’t do it. He wasn’t ready, so it didn’t bother me.”
He counts his favorite part of the competition as seeing his friends (ubiquitous ice cream and bouncy houses rank second and third, respectively) and he seems puzzled when asked what it’s like to be one of the only boys on the pony hunter circuit. He’s friends with everyone—boys and girls, he explained. He doesn’t think of that.
“He’s one of those kids who immediately knows everyone,” said Britt. “He hangs out and watches and talks to the ringmaster and the guy working the back gate. He’s always cheering for the other riders, and nothing fazes him.”
While he has a more reliable medium pony with whom he also partners for shows and lessons, it’s Peewee who captured Stone's heart. Stone cites one of his favorite quirks as her habit of whinnying at least once while she’s on course. “Normally it’s on the last line, but sometimes when she’s coming toward a line,” said Stone of the Welsh Pony of unrecorded breeding. “When she does it coming home it’s like she’s so excited, she’s saying, ‘Yeah!’ ”
“We absolutely love her,” said Britt. “When her career is over, she has a home at my farm forever.”
Stone trains with his parents, Britt and Rachel McCormick, at the family’s Elmstead Farm in Parker, Texas, and Britt recruited fellow Texas Liza Richardson to give Stone pointers at shows.
At Elmstead, Britt runs the riding program, and Rachel focuses on the business side of things, and, most importantly, “She keeps us all sane,” said Britt. Elmstead is the kind of unpretentious place where lessons are a serious affair, but afterward riders hang out for hours, grazing, grooming and gabbing.
“When we’re in the ring, it’s trainer and student, not father and son,” said Britt. “Whatever happens in the ring, stays there. As soon as he walks out we’re back to be dad and kid. Whether we have a good day or a bad day, we don’t bring that home. For him it’s fun, and for us, family comes first.”
That focus on family carries over into the rest of his life, too. Until this coming year, Stone was homeschooled by his mother, Rachel, who was a school teacher before she turned her full attention to Elmstead. This coming year Stone willl head to a nearby school that focuses on students who are serious athletes as well.
This year, All Natural and Stone will be competing in the small pony hunter division at Pony Finals.
“We don’t put a lot of pressure on something like Pony Finals,” Britt said. “For us it’s a chance to go and have a good time. She’s not the model winner, but he’s learned to be the best modeler out there, and he’s worked really hard to learn to ride her well over fences. That’s what matters.”
Want to hear about other inspiring young riders who have worked extra-hard to get to Pony Finals? Read about Holland Nievergelt, who took her pony from the back yard to earning ribbons at Pony Finals.
Check in with the Chronicle all weekend for stories, photos and all the action from USEF Pony Finals.