This trainer sees the Pony Finals as first and foremost an educational opportunity for all involved.
I returned home from the USEF Pony Finals and had to take care of some “real people” business (that’s what we call it around the farm when one of us ventures out of the horse world into the general public). While I was out I ran into an old friend, and we took a rare hiatus to sit and talk.
After our greetings, she asked how we did at Pony Finals. I said we had an educational, exciting experience. My friend, who used to teach riding and had a successful junior career, said she spoke to one trainer who described the 2009 Pony Finals at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington as “pure carnage.”
I told her that I heard many similar sentiments from the front lines.
It sparked an interesting conversation that started with my friend shaking her head thoughtfully and saying, “Maybe the qualifying criteria should be more difficult for Pony Finals.”
I understand her point, but after the discussion we both agreed that the criteria wasn’t the issue. She and I recognized that we worked our way through our junior careers as working students, braiders, grooms, etc. We didn’t have the most expensive horses but got exclusive experiences in competition because we worked hard. We agreed that the kids riding the $15,000 ponies should have the same chance to experience a national championship as the kids riding the $150,000 ponies.
So, we moved on to the age old discussion concerning “the old days” of riding versus the new. All of us “old schoolers” like to jump on the work ethic of the kids today saying that if they knew their pony’s nature a little better they would be able to handle unpredictable situations that may occur on a difficult Pony Finals course.
We grumbled about the fact that to know the nature of their ponies the riders need to be true horse kids: around their ponies for hours a day, watching, learning, experiencing their pony’s way of doing things. We mulled over that idea for a while and decided with the diminishing use of multi-disciplined ponies in the ring, showing has become so specialized that many kids don’t have the opportunity to get to know a pony’s nature. Riding outside the show ring helps them predict the pony’s reaction to something totally unfamiliar. But today most kids and ponies are geared to one job and one job only.
All right, then who is responsible for this carnage at the Pony Finals?
My friend (who now teaches school) and I came to the conclusion that it’s the trainer’s ultimate responsibility to govern the type of experience a child has at Pony Finals.
Now, this revelation put me in an interesting position. Not only am I a trainer, but I’m also a mom of a pony rider and a competitor myself. I thought about it from each perspective before I totally agreed with our decision on this matter.
As a school teacher, it’s my friend’s responsibility to prepare a student before entering a final exam. Once pen is to paper, she realizes she’s ultimately out of control of the situation. Similarly, a trainer is responsible for the rider’s outlook on a competition even though it’s the rider’s gig when he or she enters the ring. Regardless of what happens on the test or in the ring, preparation and attitude are key to taking away a productive perspective of an experience.
There are several things for trainers to keep in mind when taking new blood to Pony Finals. The first thing to seriously consider: this is a National Championship. The Pony Finals are run just like any other national championship. There’s a strict schedule, there are strict rules of conduct and there’s a system.
Because the Pony Finals are the “entry level” of national championship competitions, trainers sometimes don’t put enough consideration into preparing their students. The standard phrase heard at most horse shows: “you will show in 30 minutes, which actually means you will show in five minutes or two hours, we’re not really sure” is quite different from the structure of an event like Pony Finals.
A national championship can be intimidating because of the increased pace and the expectation to follow the system, unlike the malleable shows young riders are used to attending. If the riders aren’t aware of this structure ahead of time, the system can cause extra tension and nervousness.
The Pony Finals are great practice since, from this point forward, these riders are going to be expected to operate within a similar system in every national championship. They can’t miss standing in the hole three out in the USEF Medal Finals. They have to be there, ready or not. Or, the show goes on without them.
If the kids are motivated enough and have the opportunity to make it to international competition, such as the North American Junior And Young Rider Championships, the restrictions and schedule are even more rigid. Prepare these youngsters so that something as basic as the system doesn’t shake them.
The next thing to seriously consider: this is a National Championship. It’s the job of the trainer to understand that these kids and ponies are not going to “just another show.”
The ponies and the kids have to be prepared in the ring. The riders are going to experience a new level of nervousness because of the atmosphere at Pony Finals. They have to be confident that they can handle the situation. Even if you go to the same shows you go to every year the weeks before the championships, establish goals that will carry over to the Finals. Then, the kids will have something familiar to work for when they get there.
At home, give them tasks and special exercises in the ring that are out of the ordinary so their problem-solving skills are tuned before they go to finals. For instance, if you know that last year the medal started with a one stride, practice it at home. If you know that the ring they will compete in is going to be larger than what they’re used to, practice lines that make the kids count to 11 or 12 instead of six or seven. As trainers, we have to be informed and think ahead. If the kid walks up to the ring and says, “Hey, this is like what we practiced at home,” then he or she will have a sense of calm from feeling prepared.
The last thing to seriously consider: this is only a National Championship. How these kids do at this competition will not dictate their future or the future of the world.
When we were at the Pony Finals this year at least 50 percent of the kids headed back to the barn in tears. What kind of fun is that? Trainers need to explain to the kids that Pony Finals are exactly what they sound like, finals. The kids take finals in school. The only difference is that this final is a lot more fun!
At Pony Finals the kids receive a score that’s much like a grade for each section, model, under saddle and jumping. The grade is based on what that child and pony combination accomplished at that moment in time. It should be looked at as an opportunity to go out and take a final exam on each aspect of showing a pony.
There are so many competitors that it’s not even about a rider comparing herself to everyone else. It should be about individual achievement of individual goals. It should be a litmus test for how much the pony and rider team have learned the past year and an indication of what they need to work on for next year. It’s their first experience of a national competition in the process of their career as competitors.
I told my kids that the only way to practice riding in a national championship is to ride in a national championship. And, I told them while you are at it, have a little fun because you earned it just by getting here. Both of my riders came out smiling from ear-to-ear and patting their ponies. They didn’t place in the top 10, but they know what they have to do to be there next year—and they can’t wait to get started.
Katie Maxwell, Landrum, S.C., is the owner and trainer of Sovan Hill Enterprises. She has 30 years of riding, showing and horse management experience. As a junior, she competed in the equitation, hunter and jumper divisions, and as a professional, she’s taken students from the beginning of their riding careers through the USEF Pony Finals, the equitation finals and the North American Junior And Young Rider Championships. She’s also the head coach of the Clemson University Equestrian Team.