Checking the expiration dates on medications, making sure the tool kit had hammer, nails, double-ended snaps and duct tape, cleaning tack meticulously and ensuring our horses were cleaner than they’d ever been.
Sound like we were getting ready for the Olympic Games? Nope, just the U.S. Pony Club Championships.
This week while we’re wrapping up our Olympic Preview issue, making plans for covering the Olympic Games and in the thick of our USHJA International Hunter Derby Preview, hundreds of young riders are descending on the Tryon International Equestrian Center (N.C.) for the USPC Championships—East.
Maybe someday some of these Pony Club riders will be preparing for a senior championship like the Olympics or hunter derby, but in the meantime, they’re experiencing what is, to them, the equivalent of the Olympics for kids.
I rode in my first USPC Championships at the Kentucky Horse Park in 1986, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven as we pulled in among the white fences and fields of horses as far as we could see. We got to ride in the “Rolex ring” as we called it, where we’d seen our heroes compete in the show jumping phase of Rolex Kentucky on television. It was grass then, and I remember my pony, shoeless behind, slipping around some of the turns in the morning dew.
Looking cool in my glasses at the 1986 USPC National Championships in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Michael Broughy
Nine of our 2016 Olympic competitors and two of the U.S. team coaches are Pony Club alumni, riders who learned not just how to ride but how to care for their horses, tack and stable, and how to work as a team. Looking back three decades, my most prominent memory is of the friends I made and the fun we had, but I also learned some significant life lessons.
Although I had an amazing pony who jumped five clean rounds at my first show jumping championships, the other riders on my team weren’t as lucky, and when we returned home and were interviewed by a local paper, I made some bratty statements about wishing we’d done better, while my teammates all talked about how much fun they’d had. I was competitive, disappointed, and 13 years old.
But once I read my words, I realized how awful I sounded, how I should support and encourage my team, not passive aggressively blame them, how there are times to hide frustration and find the positive.
That first USPC Championships experience was followed by multiple others—every summer one of the major goals for the group of kids in our Pony Club who all rode at the same barn was to do well enough at our regional rallies to qualify for “nationals.” We were blissfully unaware that that other kids might have been aiming for loftier goals—North American Young Riders Championships or three-days. Our budgets and mounts didn’t allow for that.
Each summer we had team photos from the USPC Championships and indelible memories.
So every summer for about five years my Pony Club compatriots and I made our non-horsey parents drive us to far-flung exotic locations like Lexington, Ky., and Culpeper, Va., for nationals. I’m sure that’s just how they wanted to spend a week of their summer, but they cheerfully (and sometimes not-so-cheerfully) assumed chauffeuring duties and took groups of dusty, sweaty and exhausted kids out to dinner each night.
I miss those summers spent putting together tack boxes of supplies, making brush boxes, team attire and “mix tapes” for the road. Fading photos show us having fun in the barns, on the drive down, and we even somehow captured horse inspections on film. There was no part of the experience we wanted to forget.
Early morning horse inspections are just part of the USPC Championships experience.
Pony Club creates just the kind of horseman we need—capable, educated, independent. The requirement that parents and trainers stay out of the barns is a unique chance to really practice horse care, especially since you’re judged on whether your horse has sweat marks after its ride, whether its water bucket is full (with snaps facing the wall!) and stall picked out. The lessons of Pony Club—in the stable, in the tack and beyond that, are timeless.
It’s an entry point where you don’t need a fancy horse to play—you can excel in any of a variety of disciplines, and you advance up the ratings based on your riding ability and horsemanship, not the way your horse moves or jumps.
I’ll never forget the girl at a national rating who put on her application that she spoke French. The examiner, looking over her sheet, smiled and addressed her in the language. She froze, and it was obvious she didn’t speak a word of it. Life lesson on lying!
I won’t forget the volunteers and judges who were especially fun, who remembered us each year and even kept in touch as adults. A lesson on kindness and the importance of giving and giving back.
Several of the Chronicle’s senior staff are Pony Club alumni. We wish the best to the kids competing at Tryon, kind of wish we could be one of them again, and hope that generation after generation continues to reap the benefits Pony Club can teach, whether they unveil those lessons on a U.S. team or apply them to other areas of life.
Want to watch this year’s USPC Championships—East competitors making these kinds of memories? There will be live streaming of the opening ceremonies on Thursday, July 28 at 6:15 p.m. and of the mounted games finals on the evening of Saturday, July 30 on www.coth.com.