Ah, USEF Pony Finals, the Disney World of horse shows. Hundreds of children from across the country gather for pizza parties, clinics with top professionals, vendors galore and free ice cream—oh, and a championship horse show that’s just for pony riders. It’s the stuff of dreams for young equestrians, with the chance to see friends from all over and revel in all things pony.
But should a children’s competition go forward in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic? It’s on the calendar for Aug. 3-9 in Lexington, Kentucky, set to take place at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Across the internet, parents, trainers and participants have weighed in with their thoughts. The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association sent a letter to the U.S. Equestrian Federation recommending the event not take place. We asked Robin Greenwood, head of the USHJA Pony Task Force, and USEF CEO Bill Moroney to give their opinions. What follows is a shortened version of those conversations.
Let’s Run The Show
We looked at all of [the USEF] championships in light of COVID as to where they were going to be held, how they would be held. We sat on pins and needles for a little bit to figure out how long the period of suspension would go on and how events would be affected. In a way, we’re still monitoring that every day. We all live in this time where each day brings something new: new challenges, new opportunities also.
One of the important things is equestrians are goal oriented. The goals are all different. Some want to compete at a championship; others have a goal of wanting to win at a championship. One of the things that’s interesting about this time period is asking: How do we help people stay physically and mentally well and focused? Giving them goals to strive for and to achieve as much as we can is very helpful, especially for adolescents.
There are so many benefits to being involved in sports, especially for young people. The goal here is to provide opportunity, as safely as possible. We have a COVID-19 action plan that will be in place.
There’s an assumption, and probably rightly so, that children might have a more difficult time abiding or complying with certain restrictions because they’re kids. They want to play together. They may not understand the situation, and why we’re doing what we’re doing with face masks and social distancing and temperature checking that’s taking place. This is a time for trainers and parents of children and older children [as well as] younger children, for all of us to be part of the community, [to be] responsible to educate each other and help each other stay in compliance.
One of the things we’ve learned out of this process is that it’s really important for organizers to have meetings prior to the start of an event, and again during the event, to answer questions, to keep reminding people, also to have people on the competition grounds. I can remember being a young kid, and your parents set the ground rules for you, and you followed them or you got in trouble. Nobody wanted to be in trouble because you wanted to go to the barn, and what’s the first thing Mom and Dad were going to punish you with? You can’t go see your pony today because you didn’t do your homework or you didn’t follow the rules. I see this as a situation where parents need to be parents; trainers need to be mentors; people need to set the rules for the youth to comply with. And we need to help them do it. We need to explain to them why we’re doing it. We will do our best job.
I’ve spoken with [Pony Finals manager] Hugh Kincannon pretty much on a weekly basis, sometimes a couple times a week. He’s a great organizer of events. If he came to us and said, “Look, I don’t think we can pull this off,” we would be faced with a cancellation. We’re not there. He’s feeling good about the numbers [of entries] that we’re seeing; they’re not nearly as high as they’ve been in the past. That makes it easier, to some degree, to manage the situation.
For those that are nervous, it’s just like with [USEF President Murray Kessler] wrote in the letter to members a few weeks ago. He said, “If you’re not comfortable going to a horse show, just don’t go. Make the decisions that are right for you.” That concept is still there. If a trainer is nervous, they need to be honest with their customer that they don’t want to go. If a customer doesn’t want to go, they need to be honest. If a parent doesn’t want a kid to go, they need to be honest. This is a time for people to be responsible in what they do. But for those that want to come, be in compliance.
Prior to that letter [from the USHJA] coming, I’ve heard, “Are you going to be able to go [forward with the event]?” and, “What are you going to do?” We take all feedback in. [The USHJA’s] feedback was just as important as any other person’s. I’ve had people reach out to me personally in all different age groups, and even some juniors writing us letters, “Are you going to run this? Are you going to run that?” They all matter; all the feedback matters. At the end of the day our job is to weigh out the pros and cons and weigh out the balance, and if we can produce the event, and we can do so to create a goal for many, many children to take part in and achieve their goals and do it as safely as possible, then I think part of our job is to do that. If we get closer to the event—like anybody’s event—cancellations are happening every day.
[Pony Finals] won’t be so social this year. The bouncy house village, don’t expect to see it; the VIP, not going to happen. This is going to be a very amenities-stripped-down event. There will be food services, there will be places to go get a drink, there will be some vendors, but the social events, pizza parties, ice cream socials all of those things, right now don’t come expecting any of that.
USEF Pony Finals Should Be Canceled
I describe Pony Finals as much more of a social event than it is a horse show. It is a very large gathering of children. Many of those children are quite young. My No. 1 concern is the pandemic and the spread of the coronavirus. My No. 2 concern is offering an event that’s extremely special and exciting for these kids and not having any of them or the families understand what it would look like when they got there. Many parents, more than trainers, thought that was OK. The kids had worked hard, and they earned the opportunity to ride at Pony Finals, which I understand completely; I totally get that. The concern is if they follow the protocol riders need to leave the grounds as soon as they’ve shown.
Pony Finals is hugely expensive. There’s a big group of kids who come to Pony Finals who have ponies and get to show a reasonable amount, but their goal for the year is to do that event. It’s like a family vacation. There’s a lot of planning and organizing and money spent to get there for that week. I hope or want people to know it’s not just going to look a little different; it’s going to be a very different event.
My primary concern from the beginning has been whether children can comply with mask and social distancing rules. I personally think that developmentally a lot of these kids just can’t comply, even though they’re trying. They just don’t understand, or they think, “Oh I’m just with my friends. I know all these kids, we’re fine.” That’s my biggest concern for the spread of COVID. It’s a lot of kids who are social by nature that just can’t help socializing and getting too close to their friends.
I get out of my car at the supermarket every third time and walk 10 feet and have to go back to the car to get my mask. If you’re a kid, and you get a sandwich and sit down, and your other friends come with their food, and then you start talking, and [you put your] heads together talking about what you’re going to do later at the hotel—I don’t think it’s a realistic possibility that they can social distance. It’s not a criticism of the kids. I feel like it’s asking more than they are capable of doing at certain ages.
Normally, Pony Finals is the epitome of a kid’s fantasy about showing a pony. There’s the opportunity to ride in the Walnut Ring, which it won’t be in this year, and to see and possibly meet the older riders that you’ve looked up to. You can be in the same space to have conversations and actually talk to them or sit with your friends you haven’t seen in a long time. Maybe they’re at Pony Finals for the first time too.
There’s so much eye candy. There are ponies everywhere, beautiful ponies and lots of booths selling anything a kid could possibly want from a sparkly crop to the best shadbelly money can buy.
Bill Schaub organizes a model clinic every year that the kids and parents love. There’s a judges’ opinion clinic where two judges sit on a panel and answer questions from the audience about anything. “Well my pony trotted, but that pony had a rail down. Who should win?” All sorts of questions about what is a judge looking for in the ring, and how does he make those decisions as to who wins. There’s a sports psychology clinic. There’s the Emerson Burr knowledge quiz and a foot jumping contest. There’s a golf cart parade and usually a pizza party. And there is the Griffin Gate hotel, which is way outside of the scope or responsibility of Pony Finals management. But if you’ve ever been in the lobby of the Griffin Gate during Pony Finals in the evening there are 50 kids down there or out at the pool.
Essentially my understanding is that none of those things are happening. Gatherings like the golf cart parade and foot jumping can’t happen, nor can the pizza party. They’re mandated not to be on the showgrounds. So I can’t get my head around a picture of what it looks like, and I’ve been there many, many times. For someone coming the first time, it’s very difficult to comprehend.
Hugh Kincannon is a magician. If ever there is to be a show under these circumstances of that size, Hugh Kincannon is the person you’d want running it, and he is. I was very surprised by the number of people. I’ve been outspoken about the fact that I just don’t think it’s the right year for it. There’s a large argument, mostly from parents and understandable because I know how we all feel about our kids, about the disappointment. Devon [Pennsylvania] was canceled, the [2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are postponed]. Disappointment is part of life. Your horses get hurt, for example. I totally get it, but I just don’t get it enough to think that it’s quite honestly a worthwhile risk.
I feel that I need to go. I’m also the chair of the Gochman Grant committee. I have one client who would like to go. So if I’m going I will take them, but I am up in the air about taking my own. I haven’t entered, and I’m up in the air, but I do personally have to go. I have the Gochman Grant kids and as chair of the task force, I feel it’s my responsibility to be there, especially in light of it being a tricky year.
We’re talking about 600 kids. If something doesn’t work out the hindsight question is: “Who gathered 600 kids together in the middle of a pandemic?” But somehow to me, it’s very different from a regular horse show. The argument I see a lot is, “No, it’s not different.” I feel like it is very different because most of those kids, when they go to shows, there’s not the level of socializing. They’re seeing kids when they show in the same area that they always see. I feel like it’s much easier to keep an eye on your kid, whether it’s the parent or the trainers, when they’re doing a division at a horse show rather than when they are at pony Disney Land.
Even [USHJA Pony Hunter Derby Championships—East], which runs the week before is different. A lot of people have said, “Why would you do pony hunter finals? Why would one be canceled and not the other?” Pony Derby Championships for me is still a very different event. There’s a regular horse show and then there’s the derby class. You don’t have the same amount of kid excitement about the whole event and herds of kids running everywhere that you do at Pony Finals. I feel that Pony Finals is more difficult to control than any of those other events we might speak about.