Course designer Anthony D’Ambrosio raised the bar to level 3 (3’3″ to 3’6″) at the U.S. Equestrian Federation Pony Jumper Team and Individual Championships, and this time most of the competitors were able to jump it. Last year, so many ill-prepared ponies and riders galloped so fast around the courses that editorial staff member Molly Sorge wrote a Commentary titled, “Pony Jumpers Need More Than Speed.”
Well, it seems as if many people took her words to heart. This year’s Pony Jumper Championships at the Virginia Horse Center (see p. 8) in Lexington–which attracted 34 riders from across the country–featured some excellent riding, especially on the final day, when the jumps were the biggest.
One of the reasons for this improvement was certainly initiated by the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, which sponsored the first USEF Pony Jumper National Championship Pony Jumper Clinic on Aug. 3, the day prior to the start of competition.
The clinic was open to all riders who had qualified for the pony jumper championships, and all but a handful of riders took advantage of the opportunity to train with Candice King, an international grand prix jumper rider. She’s been a member of the USEF Pony Hunter/Jumper Committee for four years and, being a mother, knows children and ponies well. King divided the riders into six small groups and spent 30 minutes with each group on flatwork, gymnastics and jumping.
“It gave the competitors exposure to the ring and some of the questions that were asked on the courses. And, additionally, the use of gymnastics helped prepare them to better ride the courses,” said USEF Pony Committee Co-Chairman Bill Moroney, who hopes to make the training session an annual feature.
While there were still a few riders who negotiated the pony jumper courses as if they were all speed rounds, most riders kept their ponies well-balanced and jumped from power rather than pace.
It was also refreshing to hear how the top pony riders prepared for the championships. Gold-medal winner Kevin Ferguson, a talented young rider from Florida, was one of several riders who said they regularly contested the children’s jumpers, up to level 4, with their ponies. His trainer, Alan Korotkin, also noted that doing the 3’6″ fences on a regular basis was key to their confidence under the pressure of a championship format.
It’s important that riders and ponies be able to prepare properly for the Pony Jumper National Championships. There’s nothing more heartbreaking for rider, parent and trainer than driving hundreds of miles across the country only to be eliminated in the second and third rounds when the fences are raised.
There’s actually a Catch-22 involved here. Often, show managers are only able to fill their pony jumper division by setting the fences at level 1 (2’9″ to 3′), so some riders become stuck at this level. Riders and trainers should encourage show managers to follow the USEF Rulebook’s suggestion of graduated difficulty, where in each subsequent class the fences are raised to give pony riders an opportunity to experience the situation they’ll find at the championships. The two groups need to work together so that the courses challenge the riders but don’t scare them off.
Eventually, it would be ideal if fence heights were raised to the maximum level in the championships–which is level 5 (3’9″ to 4′ in height and 4′ to 4’6″ in spreads). Then it would be a true test for our best pony riders–on par with what their peers jump in Europe–because the pony jumper division should be considered a stepping stone for the junior jumpers and beyond.