At Evergreen Stables in Delphi Falls, New York, a barn with no grooms, 14-year-old Maren Bonus has found her niche as an indispensable helper to trainers Suzanne McGowan and Keely O’Hara. And when she’s not doing barn work, Bonus enjoys the adventures of catch riding and breaking young ponies.
Her work ethic helped her earn a USHJA Gochman Grant, and Bonus, Chittenango, New York, will be headed to Lexington, Kentucky, for USEF Pony Finals, Aug. 8-13. Bonus caught up with 2017 Gochman Grant recipient Ella Doerr to discuss what she’s most looking forward to at the event. (Check out Doerr’s interview with Liam HIssong, another 2023 Gochman Grant recipient.)
Congratulations, Maren. It’s an honor to be chosen and is an incredibly impactful life experience. Tell me a little about your riding history.
I’ve been riding since I was 6, when I started taking lessons. I’ve ridden all the different ponies. I was never really staying on one for too, too long. I’ve loved horses since I was little. I would sit on the arm of our couch and pretend to be riding a pony back when I was like 2. It’s been eight years now, so it wasn’t just a pony phase, it’s a lifetime deal.
In those eight years did you ever lease or own your own?
No. I rode whatever I could.
So you started on lesson ponies. How did you end up showing? Do you only catch ride?
I was moving off one of the lesson ponies and “Stetson” (a.k.a. Stonewall Stetson) just fell in my lap. He came into our barn as a lesson pony but wasn’t ready to retire to lesson pony life. He and I clicked, and I was able to figure him out. I love him, and I know him like the back of my hand.
You said you’re more of a helper than a working student. What do you typically do in a day as a helper?
I muck out the stalls. I dump and refill the water buckets. I turn out ponies. I bring ponies in. And I help with the little kids a lot. We do a pony camp, and I’m one of the “instructors.” Not necessarily an instructor, but a helping hand. I’m filling water buckets, sweeping, tacking, untacking. Our barn doesn’t have grooms. I try to ride every chance I get, so if my trainer needs one of the horses or ponies ridden, I am always happy to help with that.
I understand that there are some babies at the farm. Do you work with them?
They spend most of their time outside in big pastures. I’m going to help start them and [give them] their first rides. I helped start a pony. His name was Patty. He was little, like 13 hands. I helped bring him along to the point of him learning to canter. Then he got sold to a farm, and now he’s a little walk-trot/leadline pony.
Breaking a pony is a big deal. It’s potentially dangerous and requires a lot of experience. What was that like?
Well definitely the first time I ever got on him, that was something to think about, but he wasn’t like, “Get off of me. I don’t like this.” So we just walked around in the stall for a minute just to see what he would do, and he didn’t care. He just wanted treats.
Who helped you with that?
Miss Suzanne and Miss Keely. Keely was the one that would walk me around on Patty. Keely is Suzanne’s daughter, they started a lot of their own ponies together. Keely actually went to Pony Finals on one of the ponies she started. His name was Splash.
Tell me a funny story about something that happened while you were riding?
When I was 9, I was at a local show and I was doing an 18-inch jumper class. It was my first jumper class that I’d ever done. I was riding a pony named Gracie, her show name was Miss Congeniality. The whole course was going pretty well. But back when my mom and I were tacking her up, we were rushing, and we forgot to put a non-slip pad underneath my saddle pad. It was OK until the first jump of the last line of the course when I started feeling like I was going towards the right.
Then I started hearing people from the side of the ring yelling, “Left leg, left leg.” This is a pony that I didn’t ever kick because she had a motor. But I kicked with my left leg anyway because that’s what I thought they were telling me to do. So we set up pretty fast! I didn’t realize they were actually telling me to shift my weight to my left leg, because my saddle was slipping over the right side of her. We got over the last jump, and we made it through the buzzer. And then my saddle slid all the way to her belly and I fell off. She didn’t go galloping away, surprisingly. She trotted a couple steps and then ate some of the grass that was in the ring. Best pony ever!
How did you do in the jump-off after that?
We went in the jump-off, but 9-year-old me was nervous after that, so I just kind of went slow. I definitely didn’t place.
What do you like better, the hunters or jumpers?
I just like the hunters, it’s my favorite. [I like to go] slow and pretty. In jumpers it’s also a lot of jumps to remember—14 jumps, that’s a lot. Sometimes at home, I school the jumper horses, but I don’t normally ride in jumper classes.
Tell me something that makes riding difficult for you.
I love riding; unfortunately horse showing is just so expensive. I am so grateful that I get to go to two or three shows a year. My parents and my trainer are so supportive, and I know they do everything they can to help me. It’s also hard because when we do go to show, I am competing against riders who are able to spend a lot of money on a horse or pony and can show all the time. I think that can make it harder sometimes for kids like me, but it’s taught me not to take anything for granted and made me work harder.
Lots of show experience is certainly helpful at a big final, but your catch riding experience will serve you well at Pony Finals when you hop on a pony for the first time and then show a day or so later. You may not have a lot of show experience but you have a lot of tricky riding experience and that means a lot. What part of Pony Finals are you the most excited for?
I’m excited for, really, the whole thing! I’m excited for the new friendships I’m going to make and the experience. I’m excited to meet my pony. That’s going to be fun. I like to meet new ponies and to be able to figure them out, find their quirks and all the different things. I’m excited to make new friends with the other two that are going. I think we’re going to be best friends for a long time. It’s going to be great.
Are you nervous about Pony Finals?
I’m excited and I’m nervous to meet my pony. I keep thinking about them, wondering what my pony’s going to look like. I wonder if they’re going to be a girl. I’m excited to meet the trainers and I’m also nervous to meet the trainers. I’m excited and nervous about a lot of things, actually.
How did you find out that you were chosen for the grant?
We all talked about it being the best experience ever, but I never thought I would get it. It felt like a shot in the dark. I had finished a lacrosse game and my mom came running to get me. I was like, “What’s happening?” She said, “We’ve got to go to the barn now!” I was like, “OK.” So we went to the barn and we didn’t know where everybody was. They were all in my trainer’s house. We went in and they all were kind of sitting down and my mom handed me a phone. She goes, “Take this phone call.” I was really confused. I was baffled. It was the USHJA. I cried. It was the best phone call I’ve ever gotten my entire life.
What is a typical show day morning like for you?
I go at 6 a.m. and do the stalls and always have to give the white one that I show a bath because he likes to lay in his own poop.
Why do gray ponies do that? It’s so frustrating.
It’s supposed to be this camouflage thing. Instinctively, they try to camouflage themselves because of scary predators.
I had a large gray who would lay his face in it in the early morning hours after I braided him. Even though I picked his stall endlessly, he still found a way to make his face gross.
And then they won’t let you wash their face. You can’t go anywhere near it with a sponge. It’s crazy.
Ok, back to showing, you go at 6?
Depending on the day and depending on how early we have to start showing, I take the horses for a longe or a flat. The ones that need a bath would get a bath, they’d get fed. Stalls would be done, waters would be filled. I go learn our courses, watch the rings a little bit. It’s fun, long hours, but I love it.
Do you have any special good luck charms?
My trainer, Miss Suzanne, got all of us these cute necklaces when we went to our first big show at [World Equestrian Center]—Ohio a few years ago. It’s really special, and I wear it when I show.
What is different about showing for you than for some other people?
Catch riding—the get on and go type thing. Sometimes you’d get on a younger horse and you’d be like, “I don’t really know anything about this horse.” That’s a little scary at first. But then you get to know the horse and then it’s like your best friend. Longeing sometimes can be scary too, when they’re wild. Especially the ones that really don’t like to longe, and the ones that turn and then face you. To them I’m like, “We don’t want to do that. No, thanks.”
Catch riding requires a lot of skill, what type do you tend to end up riding?
I’ve been paired with the spooky kind, the kind with the motor, the ones that can be nervous, or the ones that are just really lazy. We call them tune-up rides. If a young-ish pony was naughty for a little kid, I get on and I’m like, “Hey, you can’t do that, you have to behave yourself.”
What or who do you learn the most from?
My trainers, they’re really amazing. They’re willing to bend over backwards for me. I love that they take so much pride and they care so much about how I do, and if I feel comfortable or safe on the pony that I’m riding.
Thank you for chatting with me, and good luck. But before we go, I have a USHJA Horsemanship Quiz practice question. How many feet are in a six-stride line?