Today was my first full day at the Kentucky Horse Park (Lexington) in preparation for the USHJA National Pony Derby Championships, USEF Pony Finals and the USEF Pony Medal Finals. The night before we trailered here I logged into a USEF Zoom meeting for all trainers, parents and exhibitors. Here were my key takeaways from that meeting:
- You (as in every single person) will be expected to wear a mask at ALL times. Mounted riders are the only exception.
- Absolutely no crowding or gathering anywhere. Which means you can’t hang out with friends around the barn or rings.
- Golf carts are permitted but may only be occupied by the number of seats. So if your cart has four seats then only four people may sit. People are not allowed to hang off the sides.
- No spectators.
- When you go to the ring for your trip, your trainer will go to the ring with you. You’re allowed a groom and one parent. (Sorry Mom, you’ll count for two of those.)
- The entire USEF Pony Finals will be available via live feed online for free.
- The pony hunters have been moved to the Rolex Arena.
- They really know how important this event is for all the pony riders, and they really want to make it happen while taking every precaution.
So, if you have it in your mind to wear a mask at all times and be prepared to leave the Kentucky Horse Park if you want to mingle with barnmates, then I think you will have a good experience.
Pro tip: Bring several masks because as the day goes on they get sweaty and dirty.
I called a show number and wound up on the phone with Hugh Kincannon, the USEF Pony Finals show manager. At the time I wished I had prepared my stabling question more eloquently, but once he answered the question we ended up talking about the heart of Pony Finals. It sounds like a very complicated event to organize and manage this year, but he spoke about how much it means to the kids who have worked towards this goal for a very long time, and he said he really wanted to make it happen for them.
I was struck by the fact that he really got why I love going. He said he remembered growing up and looking forward to a special horse show, and he said he knows there are kids who only go to two or three shows a year, and USEF Pony Finals is so special to them.
After 15 hours of trailering, I arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park and noticed some of the show management changes immediately. The first thing was all the signs. They are outside of barns, restrooms, rings, vendor tents, concessions, etc. They really are everywhere. There are also stations with ropes set up to move people carefully through food areas and checking in at the show office while maintaining 6’ distancing. Even many of seats are roped off and closed in the stands of the Rolex Arena.
I spent the day preparing to show in the Kentucky Summer Classic, which is an A horse show that hosts the USHJA Pony Derby Championships and is held before USEF Pony Finals begins. For me, it’s a great way to get my pony back into show mode. I’m not the only one thinking this way. There are 60 other large regulars in my division! Throughout the day I saw everyone wearing their masks and keeping them on. Horse show staff members were driving around in golf carts to prompt people to disperse in case they forgot not to gather. I thought I might hear grumbling or complaining about the masks, but I didn’t. I did hear a woman on a horse in the schooling area say loudly, “Oh great, the ponies have arrived,” but that didn’t bother me. In just a few days the Kentucky Horse Park will be pony land again, and the ponies will have priority in that schooling ring.
Overall, the horse park still has its grand feeling. I toured the Rolex Arena with the giant grandstand on one side of the ring and flags lining the fence on the other. Beyond that is a lake with fountains, and in the corner is a massive jumbotron. The thought of showing there is so exciting. In many ways people seem like they are walking around focused on their own business and the task at hand. You don’t see people standing or milling around talking at all. They are there to show.
I went back to the barn this evening for night check. The people who were still there were all wearing masks. I saw a junior rider in her stall with her pony. I said hello and asked her name. It turns out we met over the winter at a show since we both braid our own ponies. Her name is Isabelle Mesiarik. She will be showing in the large greens, and she’s excited. She talked about all the time and work she has put into bringing her pony along. She knew she had the option to reinstate his green year, but she has been dreaming of taking her pony to USEF Pony Finals for a long time, and since she is 17 years old, it’s now or she will never get to go. So there she was; her mom drove her back to the show so she could care for her pony, mask and all.
I think Hugh is right. The Kentucky Horse Park will be full of riders like Isabelle and her pony who have been dreaming of Pony Finals for a long time. I hope he knows that all the staff’s hard work to make this event happen means so much to riders like her.
Ella Doerr, 17, from Avon, North Carolina, is a recipient of the USHJA Youth Leadership Award, the USHJA Youth Sportsmanship Award and the USHJA Foundation Gochman Family Grant. Since she was 7 she’s bought and paid for her ponies with her own earnings while keeping them at home and performing all their care. She’s brought them along from just broke to zone championships and USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky). She’s the brand ambassador for multiple companies and chairs the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Youth Group. She volunteers for charities and has managed three horse shows to raise funds for terminally ill children.