COTH Horse Show Dad: Living The Pony Finals Dream

Jan 8, 2016 - 4:00 AM
Audrey and Celtic Melody jogging in the model class at Pony Finals. Photo by Chad Oldfather

For Audrey it was one pony, one shot. Pony Finals 2015. Celtic Melody in the medium greens. 

A list of the top five most-nervous moments of my life would surely include standing at the in-gate just before her over-fences class. This was it. All that was left for me to do was find a lucky looking spot on the rail, run through my standard superstitious rituals, and hope.

This was a dream years in the making. 

Back at the very beginning of my journey as a horse dad, when I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I called to set up Ada’s first lesson. Ada gave me a list of questions: Would she be riding a horse or a pony? What breed? What’s its name?

Bernadette, the trainer, couldn’t answer the last two questions yet. She would have to think about it. But she could answer the first: No ponies. 

Ponies, I came to learn, are often too smart, too quick to figure out what they can get away with. Conversations about ponies, even among pony people, seem inevitably to include the word “naughty.” Bernadette did not have ponies.

And so Ada started out on a horse, and two years later when Audrey started taking lessons she was on a horse, too. That’s how it was for the next few years.

Then, one summer while the girls were at a week-long riding camp, a pony arrived. I’m not sure what changed Bernadette’s mind, but when we arrived for the end-of-camp show there came Audrey, smiling a big smile and leading a POA named Ozzy.

In hindsight, this should not have been a surprise. Among the adjectives that describe Aud are these: focused, determined, and tenacious. She loves a challenge, and it’s no coincidence that she also came to love ponies.

Ozzy was young and green and, though talented, occasionally inclined to bolt.  A large scar on Audrey’s elbow serves as a reminder of their time together, and of a night she and I spent in the hospital after a nasty fall.

Life eventually took us to another barn, and there Audrey found her way to Rosie, a sprightly small Welsh who instantly wins over even the most skeptical of humans.  Rosie, too, liked to mix things up.  Sometimes she was perfect, sometimes she refused, and sometimes she decided that yes she could put horse strides in that line.

Somewhere along the line Audrey learned about Pony Finals. It instantly became something she wanted—no, needed—to do. 

There was one small problem when Aud fixed her sights on Pony Finals: We had no idea how to get there. The shows with Ozzy and Rosie were local. The Kentucky Horse Park seemed a world away.

A little bit of luck never hurts, and Fate smiled on us at just the right time, appearing in the person of Emily Elek. Emily lives, by her own description, on Pony Island. She knows the pony world inside and out, including the path to Pony Finals. What’s more, once we were there she managed the 20 or so ponies that made up the Stonewall Farm team with impressive skill and grace.

And for starry-eyed newbies like us, she brought instant credibility. “Ah, the pony lady,” said more than one person at the Kentucky Horse Park while nodding in recognition. 

Emily matched Audrey up with Melody and the race was on to get qualified. And to do it when the circumstances were that most weeks Aud and Melody got to work together once. 

In the end they showed together only three times before arriving at the Kentucky Horse Park for the last week of the Kentucky Summer show. (Melody popped a splint mid-summer, which put our plans on hold for a bit.) There were moments of brilliance, moments of green poniness, and moments where a show worker seated right next to a jump decided to suddenly stand up just as Aud and Melody were coming down that line. 

“One fence from glory,” was the phrase we often used. But she got qualified, and we were there.

I’ll admit that I had some preconceived notions about Pony Finals. I expected to find an unholy mixture of people named Muffy and Chip together with folks whose psychological profile would not be out of place on a show like Toddlers & Tiaras. During the Kentucky Summer show a week before, one of the long-term vendors at the Horse Park fed my preconceptions, letting on that “some of those pony moms are a little bit over the top.”

I’m happy to report that my experience did not live up to this billing. Maybe that’s because I tend naturally to walk around in a haze of mild obliviousness, maybe it’s because we were surrounded by the good people of Team Stonewall, and maybe it’s because things just aren’t that bad.

I’m not saying I didn’t see some folks who at the very least knew where to find Muffy and Chip, or that there were no people who could have perhaps dialed it down a notch. But on the whole both parents and riders seemed to me to have the right attitude. It’s fair to say that I enjoyed myself.

I’m sure the thought “what if we win it all?” crossed her mind, but Audrey’s goal was more realistic. They pin to 20th place overall at Pony Finals, and to 10th in the classes.  What she hoped for was this: a ribbon. Just one. Something to hang on the wall to remind her that it had happened, that the dream had come true.


Audrey riding Melody at Pony Finals. Photo by Chad Oldfather

There were 81 ponies in the medium greens. She was in one of the early sections to model and hack, showing in a drizzle that turned into a pouring rain. It had gone well. They finished second in their section under saddle, with a good enough score that we found shelter and lingered near the ring. I stood refreshing my phone every few minutes to see if they stuck in the top 10. 

Not quite. They ended up 23rd in the model, 16th in the hack. No ribbons yet, but she had come out of the first two phases in 17th place overall.  A strong round over fences would seal the deal.

The late writer Christopher Hitchens held all sorts of controversial opinions, but he stood on pretty solid ground when he wrote these words about parenthood: “Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened: it’s a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else’s body.”

Truer words have never been spoken, as they say. It was the over-fences round. My heart was about to enter the Walnut Ring, and all I could do was watch. 

I found my spot about 20 feet down the rail from the in-gate. Normally I would have a camera, or try to capture the action with my phone. Not this time. You need steady hands for that.

Aud and Melody entered the ring and began their trip. 

My eye for hunter rounds is only partly developed. I’ve got a long way to go to have a sense of what distinguishes good form over a fence. But I can generally catch whether the distance was good, and I’ve got a handle on leads and lead changes. I’m better at telling when something has gone wrong, I suppose, than at telling when a round has gone especially well.

Nothing was going wrong. Perhaps a hair deep to Fence 3. But Melody was landing her leads or changing when asked. They kept a consistent pace. Before I knew it they were turning for the last line.

I had a somewhat obstructed view of the last fence, but I could see that Aud and Melody cleared it in stride. Melody nailed the lead change on the other side. I exhaled.

Here, of course, is the part where the celebration goes, where the scoreboard shows that she’s in fifth place or better with 15 ponies to go, where she’s guaranteed a ribbon.

That’s how it looked to me, and I was almost sure that’s how it had gone. Not quite. My obstructed view kept me from seeing that the distance to the last fence was not ideal. We’ve since debated whether it was a chip or just a very deep distance. Whichever it was, it was enough to void the guarantee. 

One fence from glory, one more time.

They were in 14th place with 15 ponies left to go. I stayed with Melody in the shade of a tree beneath the Walnut Ring as Audrey stood along the rail with her friend Julia, who was in 13th place. Together they watched themselves slowly slide off the leaderboard.  

Audrey and Melody ended up 23rd. There would be no ribbon.

Audrey’s first Pony Finals was almost certainly her last. She has since become the owner of an off-the-track Thoroughbred jumper, and new challenges await.

The disappointment was real, but it soon gave way to something more substantial, to the realization that she had done well, that she had stepped onto a pretty big stage and risen to the occasion. That she had made new friends, and new memories. That she had been able to do something that most pony-crazy kids don’t get the chance to do at all. That a dream came true.

Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders and he’s going to take readers along on his horse show-parenting journey. By day, he’s a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, “My Soul For An Equitation Horse” to get to know him. 

Read all of Chad’s blogs for the Chronicle.

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