Growing up on my family’s farm in New York, I had access to a sort of “horseman’s laboratory.” My ponies lived just outside my door and, with the help of my parents, I learned to care for them from the onset.
I was obsessed, pouring through stacks of Chronicles and watching old horse show videos again and again. I idolized top riders as some kids might have looked up to movie stars or models, and prided myself on knowing all the horse show results.
The most prominent memories of my childhood, however, are the countless hours I spent riding around our ring, experimenting with different styles and implementing exercises that I had designed to combat specific problems. I often had some sort of project pony around in addition to my own show ponies, be it a green youngster or a more seasoned competitor with some issues to work through.
Without fail, my ponies were the best teachers of all. No one can teach a child tact like a hot pony, or accuracy like a careful, spooky one. No one can educate you about balance like a hard lead changer, or patience like a pony slowly coming back from an injury.
As I got older, I began to take on more responsibility in terms of the overall training program and kept my ponies going in between horse shows, where I would meet my trainer. Gradually, my style and ideas became more sophisticated. It was a system based on trial and error, with each horse show truly acting as a gauge of what worked and what did not.
A Defining Moment
I had skipped competing at the Pony Finals during previous years simply due to exorbitant travel and expense, with the exception of the 1996 edition when the show was held nearby at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, Conn. Without ponies that won the model and hack, it just never seemed like the most constructive use of limited funds.
However, during the summer of 1999, I had two competitive mounts in Hillcrest Blue Wishes and Believe In Magic. I had acquired both as youngsters, and struggled through those inevitable first few green years. They had finally matured into consistent partners, with some major wins to their names. In addition, I was 13 years old and approaching the end of my pony career. My parents and I decided to take a shot and travel to the Huntfield’s/AHSA Pony Finals in Culpeper, Va.
Everything came together that weekend in a way that one can only dream of. Respectable model and under saddle placings put us in contention, and both ponies went beautifully to win their jumping rounds. Hillcrest Blue Wishes finished as the large and grand champion, while Believe In Magic claimed the medium and reserve grand tricolors. While that final day was absolutely magical, it was only as time went by that I began to realize what a truly defining moment that win was for me.
It was one of the first one-round championship situations I had been in, and thus an invaluable opportunity for me to test my focus and self-control. During the medium pony division, the challenge was merely a matter of managing normal competition nerves. However, by the time the over fences phase for the large division rolled around, the unattainable suddenly seemed possible and expectations had been vastly elevated. The pressure was really on. I proved to myself that day that I am capable of blocking out all distractions and focusing on the task at hand. This skill has served me well during later endeavors, from the equitation finals as a junior to just plain tough moments in my life. The ribbons, more than anything else, illuminated the process that had led to such an achievement.
I Did It All Myself
I had always been aware of the fact that I did things differently than many of my friends who boarded their ponies at show stables. There were fleeting moments when I would resent the occasional loneliness of always riding alone at home, and the somewhat consuming lifestyle of caring for my own animals.
But such an unexpected and high-profile accomplishment seemed to validate all the effort I had put in and sacrifices I had made. While trainers Val Renihan and Sharyn Cole graciously lent their guidance and support at the Pony Finals and my parents, as always, provided assistance, I had largely been responsible for getting my ponies to the ring.
I was there into the evening bathing, wrapping, and medicating. I was there before the sun came up, longeing and riding. I had sent in my entries, arranged for braiding, and packed my trunks. The fact that I had done so much of the work myself made the victory infinitely more meaningful, and filled me with a sense of empowerment. I gained an appreciation for the big picture, for all the factors that contribute to competing at the top level beyond just being able to find the jumps.
More than ever, I cherished my upbringing as I began to see how it was helping to prepare me for my future. Such a taste of success created an insatiable hunger within me to become a better rider and overall horsewoman. That moment, having realized a dream with two ponies I had played a major role in developing, was the moment I knew for sure that I wanted to be a professional horsewoman. For perhaps the first time, I possessed the confidence to seriously dream of bigger and better wins. Now, as I embark on a professional riding career, I am striving for goals cultivated way back then.
That is why every year, as August approaches, I find myself reminiscing about the Pony Finals. It is only as I’ve grown older and can look back with a certain depth and maturity that I am able to grasp what an important event it was in my career.
It is not only a memory that I look back upon with great fondness, but more importantly, an experience that helped shape the person I have become. In turn, I can now truly appreciate and respect what a profound effect it is bound to have on so many more young riders. Amidst the fun and camaraderie of the Pony Finals, lessons are learned and dreams are born.
Jennifer Berol Bliss