Holland Nievergelt can’t stop smiling. It started last week when she had her nose pressed against the truck window as she and her mother pulled into the Kentucky Horse Park for the first time. And as her mom, Julie, dodges zig zagging children while driving us in her golf cart from the Walnut Ring back to the barns, Holland is still grinning ear to ear.
Julie’s taking me to meet their pony, Glynhafan Red Kestral, who finished third overall in the large green pony division out of 74 entries at USEF Pony Finals. A mutual friend accosted me as soon as I arrived at the show grounds, saying, “Wait until you meet this girl—I’ve never seen a kid so happy.” Next thing I know, I'm sitting next to Julie and Holland as we drive across the park, and they’re taking turns telling me about their journey here.
We drive away from the vendor area, which is uniquely curated for the 11-year-old horse-crazy girl. There are baskets of multilayered hair bows, beds shaped like jumps that you can decorate with show ribbons, bracelets on which you can emboss your pony's name and—well, you get the idea. Behind that a few bored brothers who were dragged along for the week have gotten sick of sitting in the tent and have moved to the huge bouncy castle.
As we drive past the show office we pass farriers tacking on shoes following the small pony under saddle. Herds of ponies held by texting grooms with undersized horseshoes tucked into their back pockets surround the blacksmiths. There are dozens of other golf carts clogging the road, driven by trainers in floppy hats and overflowing with dogs, saddles, backpacks, overwhelmed parents and young girls. The girls are either proudly decked in shadbellies 30 trips out or in schooling breeches stained with ice cream, excitedly telling their parents how they'll decorate that cart for tonight's parade. There’s an announcement over the loudspeaker about free snow cones, and Holland yells out to a few friends as we zip by. This is Pony Finals.
“It’s amazing here. I’ve been dreaming of coming forever, and it’s even better than I thought,” Julie says as she gazes over at the cross-country course.
We pass by the barns closest to the ring. This is where the veteran show stables stay. The aisles are neatly swept and lined with matching tack trucks, and the banners are already overflowing with ribbons from the previous week. Holland’s pony is in Barn 19, about as far away from the rings as you can get.
When we arrive, Holland’s off the golf cart before it stops, trotting to her pony’s stall. He’s lying down, and while Holland is 13 and a rising high school freshman, she tells me this fact with the excitement of someone five years younger. Holland goes into his stall, despite her flip flops, and leans down to cuddle with him, her blonde curly hair matching his crinkly chestnut mane, still disheveled from yesterday’s braids.
A fourth-generation horsewoman, Holland lives with her parents on a farm in Norfolk, Mass., outside Boston. Like many pony obsessed kids, Holland had always dreamed of coming to Pony Finals, but getting here has never been a given. While she has had plenty of time in the saddle, finances were another matter.
“We have a budget, we’re not addicted, we don’t get sucked in,” said Julie. “I tell her, 'We can go to five shows. If we can qualify, great. If not, sorry honey, maybe next year.' ”
Julie’s husband, in her words, “sort of gets it.” She tried comparing “the pony thing” to her own professional triathlon career. While Julie starts to play down her athletic achievements, Holland interrupts to point out that her mother won multiple top-10s at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii and has competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials. The argument doesn’t work as well as Julie hopes, however. But while the sport may baffle him, her husband supports the pair at home, wanders down to the barn to watch his daughter ride, but couldn’t make the trip to Kentucky.
Holland grew up throwing a leg over whatever she could beg or borrow, and Julie picked out green prospects for her daughter from breeders. Holland brought along one or two that maxed out at the children’s pony height, and when Julie saw she still hadn’t found a young one that would take her daughter to Pony Finals, she started looking online.
Julie saw a picture of Glynhafan Red Kestral (Glynhafan Red Hawk—Disco Ragdoll) on breeder Glenda Armstrong’s website. The half Morgan, half Welsh pony wore western tack, and when they went to try him they learned that he didn’t know how to canter on the right lead, let alone jump. But he had a trot to die for and great conformation.
They brought “KP” home and practiced steering while trotting around the pasture. But within weeks, he popped a splint. KP was laid up that winter, and Julie reconciled herself to having a nice trail horse. (She doesn’t have a horse of her own, but—petite but athletic—looks like she’d easily fit on her daughter’s ponies that she occasionally hacks.) But by summer’s end KP was sound, and Holland set to work again teaching him the basics and showing in the special hunters at a few shows.
The results were mixed. KP was a lazy charge, and more often than not Holland would head home having broken to the trot in every class. After another winter off, they started the season working with trainer Beth Gold with the goal of qualifying for Pony Finals front and center. They headed to their first show in the green pony division, The Pines April (Conn.), to try to qualify, and sure enough they earned the reserve title, which should have earned them an invitation. But they found out afterward that the pony hadn’t been registered properly with the U.S. Equestrian Federation, so that ribbon didn’t count.
Julie blamed herself for the snafu and had all but given up hope of a trip to Kentucky. But they headed to Skidmore Saratoga Classic (N.Y.) for one last ditch effort.
“Here we are trying to qualify at the Pines, and then we have to go to Saratoga,” said Julie, gesturing toward the unshod pony. “We couldn’t afford a groom, didn’t have a golf cart. Here’s me literally running back to the barn to get the hoof polish, and that’s a big show ground!”
It all clicked there. KP earned the championship in excellent company, and next thing she knew Julie was calling barns to find a place to layover between Norfolk, Mass., and Lexington, Ky.
In Lexington, Holland put it all together, fastening her great-grandmother’s lucky stock pin before she trotted in the ring to lay down a fourth-placed over fences round with marks that stretched up to 83.5.
“I know him like the back of my hand—I’ve been riding him for three years, working toward this for three years,” said Holland, as KP starts to stand up in his stall. Her mother admonishes her halfheartedly to watch her feet—the flip flops. It’s obvious the excitement of sharing KP has gotten the better of her horsemanship.
She does know better. Holland mucks out the barn, dumps water buckets and turns out her pony every day. (KP’s out eight hours a day, every day.) She’s been studying for today’s Emerson Burr horsemanship quiz, using her mother’s notes, as Julie, a former 4-H and Pony Club participant, is studying for the Massachusetts state exam to become a certified riding instructor.
“A ring master said to Holland once, ‘If you’re good to your pony, he’s going to be good to you,’ ” said Julie. “She really took that to heart. He nickers at us when he sees us coming. He’s really happy.”
We drove back to the Walnut Ring so Holland could watch some friends compete, and I took photos of other happy riders as they took their turn cantering around the course. Julie and Holland are staying the week to watch other ponies go, and Holland's trying to qualify for the hands-on portion of the Emerson Burr.
Later on I saw Holland hanging off the back of the golf cart with Beth, still grinning from ear to ear as she called out and waved to me. As she drove away, I couldn’t help thinking that although she was a lucky girl and had an extraordinary performance in the ring, she probably would have been smiling just as big had she missed a lead change the day before.