If things had gone according to schedule, today would be the start of the Devon Horse Show’s “Junior Weekend,” and young equestrians from all over the nation would be gathered in Devon, Pennsylvania, to compete. While no horses or ponies will grace the famed Dixon Oval or Wheeler Ring this year, we’re still thinking about and missing our favorite Devon traditions. One of the best occurs on Saturday afternoon of Junior Weekend. Forget the country fair or browsing the vendors. Everyone packs around the Wheeler Ring to watch the pony hunt teams.
This hunt teams competition has evolved into a spectacle unlike any other in the hunter world, with costumes, music and elaborate gift baskets—i.e. “bribes”—for the judges.
For decades, the class, held after the conclusion of the pony hunters on Saturday of Junior Weekend was a traditional hunt teams class, with three riders contesting a course at once, each endeavoring to stay a few strides apart from one another until the last fence, which they jumped three abreast, hopefully in unison. The riders took the class as seriously as they did every other class at Devon.
In the late ’90s all that changed.
“One year a bunch of kids on one hunt team put pompoms in [their] ponies’ manes and tails on a whim, no big deal,” recalled David Distler, who manages Devon alongside Peter Doubleday. “The following year, some others did it, maybe two or three hunt teams put in huge pompoms as a joke. The next year someone came and asked if they could wear a costume. The following year a couple more people wore costumes. It just started to build.”
It’s tough to pin down exactly when costumes started showing up, but it seems to be between 1995 and 1997.
Robin Greenwood was a Devon pony ring regular until 1997, and then she went on hiatus for a little over a decade. When she came back she found a totally different situation.
“I stopped teaching in 1997,” said Greenwood. “When I went back in about 2010, it had gone from putting springy headbands on horses and matching front wraps to the Broadway spectacle it is today. From the late ’90s to 2010 I wasn’t there. I went back, and I was like, ‘Holy cow these people have ordered costumes from Central Casting.’ ”
Hunter rider Jennifer Bliss remembers showing in her shadbelly her first year, around 1996.
“My hunt team won, and my dad proceeded to tell everyone I won a class at Devon, but he failed to include that [it was the hunt teams],” said Bliss, who remembers dressing up in racing silks one year. “It was a serious thing that first year, and it’s obviously morphed into a spectacle. I can remember doing crazy outfits after that, where you plan your theme and all that.”
Jill Betuker remembers dressing up with her barn friends starting around 1995, but it was more low-key at that time. While modern-day teams create elaborate gift baskets for the judges, hers just gave them a bag of candy.
First a pony star and then a pony mom, Libby McKinney Tritschler recalls running to drug stores and costume stores to get last-minute accoutrements for children and ponies.
“I think it came from the moms, and the energy they had, and the way they wanted to bring something where kids can smile and be happy, and everyone has a chance to win in a very serious competitive world,” she said.
Watch the winning large pony hunt team from 2018.
Even before costumes were de rigueur, some teams went out of their way to try to match one another. Allyson Coluccio recalls the time that her son, Evan Coluccio, won along with two other young men, all wearing pinque coats, white breeches and tall boots, and riding white small ponies around 1995.
Cynthia Weiner, a star pony rider in her day aboard mounts like Chimney Sweep, won the class back in 1968 when it was a combined class for all heights. Back then the riders wore short coats, and it was treated as seriously as any other class at Devon. She contested the class with other riders from her home state of Pennsylvania.
“I won the class as a catch-rider on a pony called Moon Comet,” said Weiner, who now presents several trophies at the Devon Horse Show. “Our Pennsylvania team was the winningest Pennsylvania team there was—we won at [AHSA] Pony Finals five years in a row. After we took the last jump, the crowd went crazy because we were representing our state at our most cherished horse show: the Devon Horse Show.
“Now it’s like a mini-grand prix night,” she continued. “I have friends that come in and meet me for the class. They come in just for that class!”
These days the three riders arrive with a CD of music for the announcer to play during their round and a crew of helpers. Friends and/or trainers often join in the costumed fun to deliver the gift baskets to the judges. Those baskets contain booze, snacks and myriad gifts.
“Someone gave them an iPad one year,” recalled Distler. “[All the baskets] go into my office, and we go through it. The judges, if they’re local or they drove, they’ll take whatever they can take in their car. If they flew, it depends what they can fit in the suitcases. The rest gets divided to the office staff, and the food goes to jump crew.”
The class has become a favorite for spectators, pony riders and their parents.
“There’s only one winner at Devon, and there’s a lot of pressure,” said trainer Stacey Weiss, who’s also the mother of two riders who competed in the hunt teams class. “At least that lightens the week, lightens the mood, and gives kids something to worry about besides their eight jumps.
“When [my daughter] Madeline [Schaefer] was champion on Hi Lite she didn’t care about that. She just cared about getting to do the hunt teams,” Weiss added.
Distler agreed that it’s nice to have a fun class at Devon.
“The judges have a great time judging it, and the kids have fun doing it,” he said. “We give first, second and third in the smalls, mediums and larges and don’t try to combine the groups. Even if one of the team members goes off course or falls off they still get a ribbon.”