When the pony jumper division debuted in 1999, it was supposed to provide new opportunities for pony riders, a place where a child without the means to purchase a fancy model- and hack-winning pony could be competitive on the national level. And many ponies who weren’t stars in the pony hunter ring could find a new forte as jumpers. Plus, we’d be giving junior riders a jump-start on their jumper education. But, has the division gone this way?
After watching the pony jumper divisions at the State Line Tack Pony Finals (see p. 8), and having seen the pony jumper finals last year, I would have to say that I have my doubts. Yes, I did see quite a few brave, confident and sensible riders, many of them riding some truly capable ponies.
But I also saw several examples of the opposite. In the middle of one of the team rounds this year, I asked the person next to me if it was a speed round. I knew it wasn’t, according to the prize list, but judging by some of the ponies flashing past me, I had to wonder if I was watching a miniature version of the speed leg of the FEI World Cup Final. And, from the gasps I heard repeatedly from my fellow spectators, I wasn’t alone in my thoughts. Too many riders had no consideration for the concepts of pace, balance and rhythm. And because the jumps were relatively low’up to 3’6″‘they could get away with their break-neck technique.
Linda Allen designed the courses at the Dublin Horse Show in Ireland earlier this month, where she set also fences for pony jumpers. She built to 3’7″ for small ponies, to 3’11” for mediums, and up to 4’3″ for larges. At the European Pony Championships in Necarne Castle, Ireland, in July, competitors negotiated 4’6″ fences in the final round of the individual competition. The Europeans who keep trouncing us on horses are learning to do it right from the start. Their pony jumper riders are learning how to ride clean rounds, not just fast rounds.
Should we just start setting bigger fences? No, definitely not. The answer isn’t that simple. First, we need to recognize that the pony jumper division can and should educate junior riders and be a valuable building block for our international show jumping. It shouldn’t just be a place for daredevil children to show off. Course designers need to build tracks that ask technical questions and discourage speed. Trainers need to focus on teaching correct basics and look for ponies who are rideable enough to teach children how to ride a jumper correctly, not to just hang on to the mouth of a rip-snorting pocket rocket.
The pony jumper division can develop into a valuable training ground. But it has to become something more than it is now. The division has gotten off to a good, popular start, and kids are learning some good riding and having lots of fun doing it. But trainers and course designers need to keep creating challenges to help these riders learn to jump real fences, not just race over small ones. And, eventually, our pony jumpers should be jumping the big fences like the Europeans do.
Yes, it will take awhile to get there. But it won’t happen at all if we just keep accepting the division as it is now, instead of looking ahead toward what it could be.