Every August hundreds of ponies, junior riders, family members, spectators and vendors flock to the Kentucky Horse Park for the USEF Pony Finals in order to watch the best of their divisions compete in the spectacular setting. A huge jumbotron presents each rider and pony; flags and tents line the ring, and there are up to six judges for each event.
The award ceremonies are grand, with flowing ribbons, shiny trophies, coveted coolers and, of course, victory gallops. Escorts are stationed at every crosswalk to give kids and ponies the right of way.
For one week a year, the massive venue is full to capacity with just ponies. Talent and cuteness are everywhere you turn. Many come just to learn and take it all in. Riders who compete in just a handful of shows show on equal footing against athletes who travel the country showing every weekend.
It’s an extravagant event featuring beautiful ponies and accomplished riders. USEF Pony Finals is fun, competitive, educational, and it is truly everything pony. It’s a grand affair like no other, and not one that any pony lover should miss.
But for newcomers, the sheer number of things happening can be overwhelming, so junior reporter Ella Doerr put together a guide to help you through your first experience.
The Model Clinics
Outside of showing, the free model clinics are some of the most sought-after activities at Pony Finals. You must sign up for a timeslot at the welcome meeting as space is limited. This clinic is extremely informative and provides the opportunity for you to practice modeling and receive individual input from experienced professional trainers and judges. If you’re participating, it’s a good idea to wear your show boots and put on your show bridle. Auditing is open to anyone, and all questions are welcome. It’s a terrific opportunity to learn about showing in-hand.
The USHJA Clinics
The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association offers several free professional clinics during USEF Pony Finals. Topics from past years have included conformation, choosing your next horse and presentations by Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital. The 2019 sessions include longing, bits, sports psychology and from the judge’s perspective. It’s a great opportunity for some free knowledge. Look for information about them in the show office and on the bulletin boards.
The Marshall & Sterling USEF Pony Medal
Whether you’re qualified for the Marshall & Sterling USEF Pony Medal or attending as a spectator for the first time, be sure to go watch the USEF Pony Medal. Hundreds of ponies compete in the great Alltech Arena in the pony equitation. It’s as intense as a big equitation final, except with ponies.
Each afternoon, USHJA hosts daily ice cream socials at their booth, and the USHJA Foundation is hosting a Horseless Horse Show on Aug. 6 at 4:30 p.m. in the grass area near the vendor row and Walnut Rng. This fun activity will be a silly way to support the USHJA Foundation and have fun with friends. Be sure to visit the kids’ bounce house and play area that is wildly popular with siblings and young competitors near the VIP tent area.
When you’re ready for a break from the sun, be sure to check out the museums at the Kentucky Horse Park. The USHJA Wheeler Museum is inside the USHJA headquarters, featuring photographs and artifacts from many great equestrians and horses documenting the exciting history of our sport. The Kentucky Horse Park offers the International Museum of the Horse which is the largest museum in the world dedicated to the history of horses and their relationship to humans. The KHP Visitor Center also has a kids barn with hands-on activities, and the breeds barn is great for young horse-loving kids.
The Kentucky horse Park is massive, so be prepared for lots of distance walking if you don’t rent a golf cart or bring a bike. While driving your golf cart, use regular road rules, and remember that ponies always get the right of way. Consider offering walkers a ride; it’s a fantastic way to meet people.
Are you creative and have a lot of barn spirit? The golf cart parade and theme contest is held in the Alltech Arena. Friends get together and decorate their golf carts and enter the contest. This event is judged mostly by audience applause and is a fun way to get barn spirit going. Many barns plan their theme and costumes months in advance.
Emerson Burr Horsemanship Grant
USEF Pony Finals competitors may compete in the 20-question written test during office hours. The top four in each age group move on to the hands-on phase, after which winners are chosen. It’s a fun way to test your horsemanship knowledge, and you might win a $500 grant.
Pony Finals hosts many terrific vendors, and you can get anything you could need from last-minute tack and pony shampoo to the latest show jacket fashion. Keep your eyes out for the official USEF Pony Finals apparel; these make terrific gifts for family and friends back home.
The Cross-Country Course
One of the most fabulous benefits of going to USEF Pony Finals is the opportunity to hack on the famous cross-country course. You’ll be shocked at how big those jumps are when you walk up to them. Remember that the course is only open for flatting. You and your pony can have some quiet time riding out on the course together, over the rolling countryside. It’s the perfect way to help you and your pony to relax. I met up with a friend from another barn, and we had a blast.
Make New Friends
People come from all over the country to compete in and watch Pony Finals. It’s a really fun horse show that’s extremely well organized. So go to the ring and watch the other exhibitors, cheer everyone on, make conversation in the bathing area, participate in the activities and talk to the riders next to you in the schooling ring.
Are You Shopping For A Pony?
Many ponies are available for sale at Pony Finals. It’s a terrific opportunity to watch them go and try them. You will find advertisements the ponies at most of the bulletin boards.
Silence In The Show Ring
One thing that is quite unique about USEF Pony Finals is the silence when you’re in the show ring. It’s strikingly noticeable because of the crowds around the ring. No one is allowed to coach, cluck or call out instructions to the rider. It’s just you and your pony out there in that big ring. It’s so quiet that you can ride to the rhythm of your ponies hoofbeats, but be sure to keep your fingers closed on the reins because as soon as you land after the last jump, the crowd suddenly erupts in cheers—this sudden noise can be startling to some ponies and cause some greenies to do a little scoot.
Take Care Of Yourself
You will probably have help looking after your pony, but make sure you take the time to take care of yourself. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Skip the pancakes and pastries at the hotel breakfast and opt for eggs or oatmeal for protein which will give you energy all day, and remember to wear sunscreen.
Inside The Ring
Remember your leadline days when the coaches told you to keep your heels down and smile? You’ve been preparing for a long time, so now just go out there and keep your heels down, and soak it all in. Your trip is over so fast, but the memories will last your lifetime. Enjoy yourself, take relaxing breaths, and pat your pony because in the end it all comes down to the partnership between you and your pony.
Ella Doerr, 16, from Avon, North Carolina, is a recipient of the USHJA Youth Leadership Award and the USHJA Foundation Gochman Family Grant. She competes in the pony hunter division and the equitation, and she keeps her ponies at home.