While it’s normal to have several members of the same Pony Club qualify to compete at the annual U.S. Pony Clubs Championships rally, it is unusual for an entire team—riders and stable manager—to qualify as a unit. But in June the five members of the Brook Hill Pony Club Riding Center punched their tickets together at the Old Dominion Region (Virginia) Pony Club Show Jumping Rally. This week, they are competing at the biggest show of their equestrian careers, the USPC Championships East, which runs through Sunday, July 31, at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, North Carolina.
But perhaps the most unusual aspect of this team is that each equestrian—Jordan Altman-Willi, 23; Madison Jordan, 17; Robin Austin, 18; Molly Allen, 17; and stable manager Mattea Novi, 17—will be competing on a rehabilitated rescue horse owned by Brook Hill Farm in Forest, Virginia. Further, each of the equestrians has had to navigate their own personal challenges to reach this milestone.
Founded in 2001, Brook Hill Farm is a nonprofit whose original mission was to serve as an equine rescue and rehabilitation facility—but co-founder and team coach Jo Ann Miller soon realized that it wasn’t only horses that needed help. The farm began offering programming for youth at risk, seniors, veterans, people with disabilities and others. Today, the farm is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International Premier Accredited Center. All of its program participants are learning to live with a diagnosed challenge, including such conditions as attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety, abandonment issues, anorexia, substance abuse or even cancer. Many also come from low-income backgrounds and would not otherwise have access to such opportunities.
“The horses in the program are also given a second chance,” Miller said. “These horses come from animal control and from owner surrenders. The farm is fully accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Most of the horses have injuries, and with the help of the staff and the participants, they heal.”
Brook Hill has rehabilitated and rehomed over 500 horses since the program’s inception, and all of the youth who have completed the program have graduated from high school and gone on to further their education and hold a full-time job, Miller said.
For the Brook Hill Pony Clubbers, the USPC Championships East is a unique thrill.
“I’ve had individuals qualify before, but this is the first time we have a whole team,” Miller said. “All the girls had high hopes of qualifying, and the fact that they all did is pretty amazing.”
The young riders have been working hard with their mounts—for years, in some cases—to develop the skills required to reach this level.
Jordan, a D-3 rated member, rides Sam, a 16-year-old Canadian Warmblood who was surrendered by his owner due to melanoma. One tumor, located on his head, is so large that he has to wear a special bridle.
“He looks awful, but boy, can he jump, and he’s sweet as can be,” Miller said. “You don’t need to abandon them just because they have a tumor on their head.”
Jordan and Sam are one of the newest partnerships on this team, working together for the past six months. For the championships, Jordan is focused on having fun and putting in solid rounds.
“This weekend will be a success if I am making a lot of good memories and having good rides with my horse,” she said. “I want to have a good bond with my horse while we’re there [and a good bond] with my team.”
Austin, a D-3, rides Harley, a 14-year-old Thoroughbred. He is another owner surrender who arrived at Brook Hill with what Miller calls “behavioral issues.” Austin will head to Emory & Henry College (Virginia) in the fall to study pre-veterinary medicine and equine science.
“It is very validating to get to this level and to know that we’ve accomplished this much, because all of us have been training our own horses. So, for us to be able to get to this level, with each other, is a really big deal for us,” she said. “We are going as a reward. … Jo told us it is like Disneyland for horse lovers.”
Allen, a D-3, rides Basil, a 22-year-old Thoroughbred who was found abandoned in a Maryland field by animal control. Though no one knew much about him, Basil proved to be an experienced but speedy jumper, and Allen has had to work to steady her own energy to help him be his best.
“The hardest thing for Basil is how excited he gets,” she said, laughing. “He loves to go. As long as I stay calm, he is able to calm back down. But as soon as I get a little up and anxious or anything, he is the same way. When that happens, I’ve learned to go to the side away from everyone with him, and stand in front of him, take deep breaths, close my eyes, and give us a little pep talk.”
These types of transferrable life skills, Miller has found, make horses such powerful teachers.
“Every child in my program has either a physical or mental health disability,” she said. “Professional counselors and educators work with the participants and horses, with the horses providing immediate, meaningful feedback of the participant’s non-verbal behavior.”
Team stable manager Novi only joined the club this year. The regional rally was her first Pony Club competition, but because members are also assessed on their horse management skills throughout the rally, she quickly realized how critical the non-riding member of the team was to its success.
“Just having someone there to do the little things, so the little things don’t fall through the cracks, is so important,” she said. “Or if someone needs extra help because a horse is being spooky—having someone who doesn’t have all the responsibility of taking care of one horse, to keep things running smoothly, helps so much.”
Novi is proud of her team and looking forward to experiencing the national championships together.
“We’ve made it this far; now we can just have fun with it,” she said.
Though Altman-Willi qualified with her teammates and will be stabled with them at Tryon, as a 23-year-old C-1 rated member, she must compete as an individual. Altman-Willi has been part of the Brook Hill program for a decade and a Pony Club member for the majority of that time. Today, she works for the farm as its stable manager while pursuing a degree online from Post University. This will be her second trip to USPC nationals (she also competed in show jumping in 2016), and she’s excited to be riding the 12-year-old Thoroughbred mare Amelia.
“What I love about show jumping is the adrenaline rush,” she said. “I love to go out there and have fun, to not have to worry about anything. It’s just me and my horse.”
Amelia was a former participant in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover who fell through the cracks. After training Amelia for the past three years, Altman-Willi has learned that talking to the sensitive mare while on course can make all the difference in her confidence.
“We count our strides together, which keeps us in a really good rhythm,” Altman-Willi said. “I talk to her a lot when I’m riding her, and she loves it. I have to really reassure her that she’s OK and doing wonderful.”
Because Altman-Willi is riding as an individual, the other Brook Hill riders have been “scrambled” with a fellow Old Dominion rider, Selah Bowman of Mountain Skyline Pony Club.
For Miller, who will be assisted in her coaching duties by Brook Hill staff member Anna Baucum, participating in the USPC championships isn’t about the competition itself—it’s about these riders proving to themselves that they are capable.
“I told them, ‘We can’t get any higher than this, so let’s have fun,’ ” she said. “For the kids, it shows them that even though they have a disability, they can function in regular society. I think that’s huge, for them to know they can do whatever they put their minds to.
“As far as the horses go, these horses were all throwaways, and they don’t need to be,” Miller continued. “We have an adoption program here, and I promise you that when these horses show up, people are going to want to adopt them because they see what they can do. But when they came, no one would have wanted them. This just proves that no one is a throwaway. No one.”