With the imported European sport ponies taking more and more accolades in the United States, a group of U.S. breeders discusses the current trends and future of our sport pony industry.
When most people think of ponies, an image of a cute and cuddly, but squatty creature comes to mind; a small horse who typically jumps quite well and exhibits a “daisy-cutter” movement often well-suited for the show ring. In recent years, however, sport ponies have made their mark in the show world, excelling in numerous disciplines and erasing America’s idea of a tiny “Thelwell” pony.
The concept of American sport ponies was popularized in the United States years ago, but no registry existed to provide necessary structure for their continued improvement and promotion. The American Sport Pony Registry began in 1997 as a division of the American Warmblood Registry in order to document, grade, and promote sport ponies. As a direct result of these efforts, the ASPR grew to such a degree that it launched as a separate entity from its AWR parentage in 2003.
According to the ASPR’s standards, “an American Sportpony is a pony in the general range of 13.2-14.2 hands (though some may fall outside this range), that looks and moves like a small horse, capable of competing in the Olympic disciplines of jumping, dressage and eventing, as well as in driving.”
Movement is paramount in the approval process. The inspectors look for ponies with regular and correct cadence, large strides, and an energetic and elastic rhythm, exhibiting significant impulsion and push from the hindquarters.
Jami Jensen, who breeds warmbloods and sport ponies at her Crooked Willow Farms, Larkspur, Colo., said that her German Riding Pony stallion, Crown Heartbreaker (Hattrick–Crown Iowa), exemplifies the sport pony standard.
In 2003 in Germany, the 14.1-hand black stallion was grand champion at his approval site and the following year was reserve champion of his 30-day stallion performance test by the Holsteiner Verband in Germany, beating out other horses, not just ponies.
He received first premium premier status (top 2%) from the ASPR in September 2005, and won the highest scores ever given by the registry of 9 for his breed type and conformation as well as a 9 for his spectacular display in free jumping.
“Heartbreaker is the whole package–excellent temperament, conformation, movement, and jumping ability,” said Jensen.
“Sport ponies are bred to do the wide variety of disciplines that children want to do. A large warmblood, while wonderful, can be very hard for a child to have enough leg to keep them on the bit and in front of their leg. Sport ponies are the perfect size, and many of them take kids into quite big divisions when they are ready,” said Jensen.
Matt Davis, the breeding/general manager of Crooked Willow Farms, considers the clients’ needs when selecting ponies for their breeding program. “Within our own breeding program we try and stay close to the breeding standard, which, in my mind, is a lot like ‘little warmbloods.’ However, we appreciate that there is a difference between the German and U.S. markets for these horses. Realizing that the largest part of our market is amateur adults and children, we place a very high emphasis on rideability and temperaments,” said Davis.
“The GRP and GRP crosses excel in the jumper rings in addition to combined training and driving. I also think they will have a big impact on the pony hunters in the same way we have seen the shift from Thoroughbreds to warmbloods in recent years in the other hunter rings,” said Davis.
Interestingly, the GRP, though considered a “type” as opposed to a true breed, was created by generations of careful breeding and inclusions of very specific Arabian, Welsh, British Riding Ponies and even Przewalski horses.
Jensen sees the sport pony market growing. “Pony jumpers are catching on and are more widely offered at the shows. Kids that can’t afford a winning hunter pony can still compete in the jumpers successfully.
We have also seen a big jump in the demand for dressage ponies, including amateur adults who want to show themselves,” said Jensen.
Other sport pony breeders, such as Polly Limond, of Pepper Knoll Farm, agree that the rideability of the pint-sized athletes is vital.
“Most of my clients are adults looking for a more manageable sized, good moving horse for dressage. I can’t tell you how many calls I get from petite older ladies who’ve been trying for years to ride a 17-hand warmblood and just don’t want to struggle with that anymore. They tell me that for the first time in their lives they’re riding something that fits them really well, and they are having a ball,” said Limond, who stands her GRP stallion Lateran (Lukas–Nenci) in El Cajon, Calif.
Size Doesn’t Always Matter
Fédération Equestre Internationale rules state that ponies competing in FEI-level competition must not exceed 148 cm (15.16 hands) without shoes or 149 cm (15.27 hands) with shoes.
This fall, the FEI’s measurement standard for ponies has come under scrutiny, as many ponies competing at the FEI-level were discovered to be over the height limit. A proposed rule change for 2007 will require all ponies to be measured on site at FEI competitions, and any ponies discovered to be over the height requirements will not be allowed to compete. The proposed rule change will be addressed by the FEI Bureau in November.
In the United States, the U.S. Equestrian Federation oversees pony measurement. The rules for pony heights are: small ponies are not to exceed 12.2 hands; medium ponies are over 12.2 and do not exceed 13.2 hands; large ponies are over 13.2 and do not exceed 14.2 hands.
A pony must be measured each competition year until it reaches the age of 6. Animals 5 years and under will be issued a USEF temporary measurement card designating the year measured. Animals 6 years and older will be issued a USEF standard measurement card that doesn’t have to be renewed.
Many sport pony breeders aren’t worried about the strict rules and intend to breed for fine athletic ponies who can excel in any discipline, regardless of whether their pony is oversized.
“My No. 1 priority is breeding a quality animal. Height is important in some sense, but it’s much further down the list, near color. However, as a breeder, I think it’s important to know size genetics, and what each pony is capable of producing,” said Nancy Ferebee who imported three pony stallions from Europe and began her business of Through Connection Ltd. “I have one stallion who’s slightly oversize, but that’s not going to stop his career as a competitor or breeding stallion.”
Ferebee pointed out that Euro-pean breeders have been breeding ponies for generations and realize that it’s important to have a well-bred animal; if that pony goes oversize, then many times they tend to be used as breeding stock and are bred to smaller animals.
“America has some really super ponies, and eventually they will be comparable to those in Europe. However, at this point, the ponies competing at the FEI level are in a very specific class of competition. The European breeders are breeding for the maximum-sized large pony, in order to accommodate those older children competing at the high levels,” said Ferebee.
With this in mind, Ferebee started her breeding business. “There’s been an increase in interest with the sport ponies over the last couple of years,” said Ferebee. “I started looking in 2000; my children and I were very involved in Pony Club, and I saw many children who had very suitable first ponies, but when they outgrew these ponies they’d jump to a horse, which wasn’t suitable for them. I saw German Riding Ponies on the Internet and thought they were just what kids need.”
Although some people think of the sport ponies as “small warmbloods,” Ferebee disagrees. “They’re very clearly ponies to me, which is part of the breed standard. All the top [German Riding Pony] stallions in Germany are in fact ponies; this way they retain their character, hardiness, intelligence, conformation and ability to be athletic. These ponies can get suspension, push off the ground into piaffes and passages and cover ground easily with their huge strides,” said Ferebee.
Though still in its infancy, Ferebee remains hopeful about the future of the sport pony industry. “We don’t have the mare base in this country yet; you see a lot of Thoroughbred mares and smaller pony mares being bred, but you don’t see a lot of sport pony to sport pony breeding necessarily,” added Ferebee. “America has a huge hunter market and a large Thoroughbred base; it’ll be interesting to see if the sport pony market evolves by choice of conscious decision-making or a lack of knowledge.”
Not Just Another Pretty Face
German Riding Ponies aren’t the only contributors to the sport pony market; many other breeds, such as Welsh ponies, are widely accepted into the ASPR.
“I do think that our Welsh ponies have all the characteristics that one would want in a sport pony; their athleticism, movement and disposition make them naturally talented and able to compete successfully in any discipline. I know that in other parts of the world the Welsh have been a cornerstone of the sport pony breeds, so it makes sense for them to be an important part of the foundation here in the United States too,” said Jackie Verkuyl, who breeds Welsh ponies at her Goldhills Welsh farm in California.
This year, Verkuyl’s Section B Welsh/ASPR stallion Gayfields Call The Cops exhibited his versatility at the Western National Welsh Show becoming the Supreme Champion in-hand, pleasure driving champion, hunter champion and long stirrup champion.
The chestnut pony, awarded first premium with the ASPR, has also competed and won at the advanced level of combined driving as a pair, and is currently one of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s top 20 hunter pony sires of 2006.
Barb Young, of Montrose, Colo., has been in the sport pony breeding business longer than just about anyone and knew what she was looking for when she picked out her Welsh stallion Telynau Falcon.
“He’s a super mover; he won on the line in Welsh shows and looked like he’d compliment my warmblood mares,” said Young.
Young said that the sport pony market appears promising, but it’s too early to tell for sure how successful it will be. “It’s coming, but it’s not here yet. It will take awhile for the American-bred sport ponies to be seen as credible quality breeding ponies. If people want quality, they go to Europe. Ten years from now we’ll know more,” said Young.
The athleticism and temperament of the Welsh pony draws in many sport pony breeders. The 13-hand, Welsh stallion Rocko’s Gold (Tide Creek Black Gold–Evan’s Ordinary Angel) competes in the 3-foot open jumper divisions and wins against the full-sized horses.
“Rocko has a 12-foot stride; he, as well as other ponies, can do these courses,” said Julie Jensen, his owner from Dream Valley Ranch in California. “He’s got the warmblood movement and rides like a warmblood in a tiny package; I think this is what people are looking for.”
Not Just About Luck
Connemaras, a breed known for their athletic abilities and patient natures, have been used in sport for many years. Long-time breeder Joanie Webster chose Connemaras as her breed of choice in 1979 for these very reasons.
“Connemaras were perfect for our entire family, especially our three children who were able to love them and care for them with little help from Mom and Dad, primarily because they could ‘reach’ them–the perfect mount for your children!” she said.
Joanie and her daughter Lee traveled to Ireland to find the perfect foundation sire for their farm. “We selected *Canal Laurinston, yearling son of Village Laura, a three-time, back-to-back Supreme Champion Connemara at the Royal Dublin Horse Show. I believe mares have even greater influence on their produce than the stallion, so I knew I wanted a colt that had powerhouse mares behind him,” said Joanie.
During his 15-year career, the slowly graying *Canal Laurinston (Callow-feenish Mairtin–Village Laura) excelled in all six disciplines to which he was introduced: eventing, hunters, jumpers, dressage, driving, western pleasure and foxhunting. This year the 22-year-old stallion won the prestigious An Tostal Award from the American Connemara Pony Society, which recognizes outstanding achieve-ment, both competitive and non-competitive, of a purebred stallion.
“Chip,” as he’s affectionately known, was inspected by the ASPR in October of 2005 and awarded first premium status.
“Our daughter and I decided that our Connemara stallion had a lot to offer to sport pony breeding programs,” said Joanie. “Because Chip is almost 15 hands, I believe his value as a sport pony sire will be in breeding to smaller pony mares of various breeds.
He consistently passes on to his get his temperament and talent, balance and excellent way of going–all important traits for a competitive sport pony, of course.”
The Websters, like many others, realize the extensive growth of the pony market, but she said the ponies haven’t caught on in the West as much yet.
“As far as the market for sport ponies, it seems to be growing nationwide, though I do believe that sales have been traditionally stronger in the East. The visibility given ponies by such advocates as Lendon Gray has stimulated the sport pony market. She encourages riders, juniors and adults, to choose a mount that fits them so that they will be effective riders,” said Joanie.
There are many Connemara advocates out west as well. “My friend in California, Kathy Lucas, has several successful stallions at her Gately Farm,” said Lauren Hill, who breeds Connemara ponies for the show ring with her mother Denise Hill at Seaborne Farm in Creedmoor, N.C.
Some famous Connemaras include Hideaway’s Erin Go Bragh, also known as “the little horse that could,” a bay stallion who competed successfully at the advanced level in eventing with Carol Kozlowski. His get, including many Thoroughbred crosses, continue his legacy, often placing well at the upper levels.
Stroller, perhaps one of the most famous Connemaras, won the silver medal in show jumping at the 1968 Olympic Games behind Bill Steinkraus and Snowbound.
Approval Is No Easy Task
When a pony stallion is inspected and approved by the American Sport Pony Registry, it’s a big deal for the pony breeder.
All stallion candidates must be graded in-hand and at liberty when they’re 2 years old. If he scores 7 out of 10, then he will be issued a preliminary breeding license; however, before he turns 5 he must complete the under saddle (or in harness) portion of the stallion performance test, or submit a detailed show record.
A stallion older than 5 years must pass the entire inspection and performance test, and then he’ll be issued a three-year temporary breeding license. During that time, the stallion must have sired and registered 10 offspring, all scoring 7 or better at an approved ASPR inspection site.
For more information about the ASPR, see www.americansportpony.com.