Pony Club Could Be Our Silver Bullet

Jun 22, 2011 - 8:20 AM
“There’s a weakness in horsemanship in our country," says contributor Eric Dierks, noting the rarity of seeing a child care for her own mount in this day and age. Photo by Sara Lieser.

His first U.S. Pony Club Board of Governors meeting gives this professional a new perspective on horsemanship for the next generation.

There’s a weakness in horsemanship in our country.

In recent years and decades, competition has replaced horsemanship as the force driving most people to get involved in the equestrian world.

Newcomers to our sports want to compete without the knowledge of how to care for their equine partners, handing the accountability around to whomever they can. Our sports used to be about having a passion for the horse and building a partnership with him, but they’ve slowly morphed into a quest for money and titles instead.

Today it seems even the professionals end up handing their reins over to grooms with far more horse knowledge than they themselves possess. We’re paying veterinarians to evaluate lame horses, and we’ve trained them to tell us something comforting; we expect them to just make our mounts sound enough to show, no matter what it takes, so we may still compete and have faith in our investments.

Boarders are only seeing their horses once a month when the check is due and handing down instructions they heard from a friend or read on the Internet to their barn managers.

Riders are fumbling around in search of something, and they’re not even aware of what they’re searching for. It’s a humbling experience when something goes wrong, but to keep repeating same mistake over and over because you don’t have a base of knowledge is just redundant and shameful.

I’ll stop there, because I know you’ve heard this all before. And I’m actually writing this column not to complain, but to offer a solution. Because there’s already a system in place that can help us solve this problem—I believe it’s just dramatically misperceived.

Conjuring An Image

When I was a member of the U.S. Pony Clubs, I definitely enjoyed the friends I made and the team camaraderie we created through rallies, camps, foxhunting and other club activities. But horsemanship and stable management were the core mandatory skills we needed to succeed in and progress through the rating system.

Our club brought in guest clinicians such as Ralph Hill, Jimmy Wofford and John Winnett. We also participated in and volunteered at a local event. As I got older and further along in the rating system, I learned to become more self-sufficient and to give back. The older members stood as an example to younger generations, and we learned to teach them as older members taught us.

As I began competing more and went to the North American Young Riders Championship, lessons learned in Pony Club continued to bolster my career. I failed a handful of my ratings, but I always came back to try again. I was told things I didn’t want to hear, but I learned to listen and look at things from the speaker’s perspective. Pony Club is the base that made me the horseman and sportsman that I am today.

But today, working in the professional world as a trainer and competitor, I hear people voice misperceptions of Pony Club and even hear of conflict within clubs. I’ve heard complaints that Pony Club isn’t cohesive with riders’ showing agendas, or ratings and instruction aren’t consistent, or members have to make a choice between Young Riders or Pony Club. My favorite objection is “Pony Club just doesn’t do anything for me.”

I’ve heard these opinions strictly on the local level, from club and non-club members, parents, trainers, and even the occasional District Commissioner. The horse world’s perception of Pony Club has clearly gone downhill, and I believe horsemanship in this country has dropped as a result.

Relieved To Be Wrong

Having just been named to the USPC Board of Governors, I recently attended my first board meeting, and have to say, I was very impressed.

Before the meeting, I had my hackles up a bit. As I said before, I’d been hearing stories about Pony Club that were very different from what I remembered in my youth. I was dreading the thought of listening to the continuous, three-day stream of negativity we’ve come to expect from these type of meetings.

But the experience turned out to be completely the opposite. Thirty-five volunteers, including the Governors on the Board and the Advisory Committee members, packed the room, and it seemed to me that not one had a personal agenda—they all had the same goal in mind for Pony Club.

There was a mutual respect within the group for each individual and whatever he or she brought to the table from their personal perspective. The talking was not just planning, but doing, and the doing was about following through.

I walked into the board meeting with one perception of Pony Club and walked out with another, motivating me to deliver a message.

I can tell you that on the national scale, Pony Club has got the system down and keeps working to improve it. The organization provides a systematic way to instill a deep base of knowledge in children—one that includes everyday horse care and stable management and a sense of independence and accountability for one’s own actions.

There’s a riding standard as well, carefully complementing the member’s age or ability, whether they’re 5 or 25. USPC offers several specialized tracks to accommodate all varieties of aspiring equestrians, including dressage, eventing, show jumping and games. There’s even talk of creating equitation and western tracks in the future.

On a local level, we need to look more at what we could do for Pony Club rather than what our Pony Club can do for us. The reward will come back full circle to benefit us in the long run. It’s much like a small business—there are going to be personal needs in one region of the United States that are different in another. Each club is tailored to its area’s needs.

As for you club members, it’s important to convey those needs and help your local DC find the resources to meet them. It’s also important to tell others how you benefited from Pony Club. If you’re competing and have participated in Pony Club, make it known.

Many of our Olympians and World Championship riders came up through Pony Club, which should motivate young riders to look for knowledge in such a proven program.

There will always be discrepancies within a national system, but a system is better than none at all. And through strong communication and positive actions, any system can be improved.

Pony Club is that system for the younger generations coming up. The next wave of American horsemen and women can reverse the trend of hands-off horse care and stand as an example of accountable horsemen and women of the future.

Eric G. Dierks is a graduate “A” from Fox River Valley Pony Club (Ill.) and recently joined the USPC
Board of Governors. Based in Lexington, Ky., he splits his time between competing, training and teaching in eventing. A strong advocate of education, Eric believes that “The equestrian world is an art of peace, rhythm and communication. No matter what discipline, success is measured through horse and rider understanding.”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Pony Club Could Be Our Silver Bullet” ran in the June 27, 2011, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Columns

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