The cancellation of USEF Pony Finals two days before the start of the event was hard on children, their families and their trainers. Even Jill Hechtman, whose daughter Emma Hechtman has just graduated from ponies to full-sized jumpers, felt the disappointment.
“I’m a physician, and I lost a colleague to COVID that day,” recalled Jill. “With the cancellation of Pony Finals and negativity on Facebook and social media, it was just getting to me. I’m a doer, so I thought to myself, ‘What can I do to change the mindset here and change things into some positivity?’ ”
In talking to some friends she came up with the idea of running the 2020 Virtual Pony Final. Young riders can send in videos of themselves on ponies riding a course, and top judges will call them to go over their ride. They can either dress up in their shadbelly and polished boots for a mock show, or send in an older video from a previous competition. The event runs from Aug. 10-24.
There’s a minimum entry fee of $20 per round, as a direct donation toward medical costs for Alexis Halbert, the 15-year-old who suffered a serious fall in Tryon in July. Jill and fellow organizers Jimmy Torano, Ali Sweetnam, Sue Ashe and Michaila Zandri wanted to keep the entry fee low so that all could participate.
“When they canceled Pony Finals two days before there were countless stories of tragic situations,” said Jill. “Kids were scraping all their money together to go. People were coming from California. You name it, it was happening. It was so painful to so many people; this is a way to turn that pain around.”
Riders don’t need to set a prescribed course, and they may enter multiple ponies. Short stirrup riders may enter, as may pony jumper riders. Ponies needn’t have been qualified for Pony Finals.
“We take all comers,” said Torano.
Jesse and Tony Coppola, owners of the Tackeria tack shop in Wellington, Florida, saw a Facebook post about the event and offered to give a pony-sized bridle and martingale to the project. That inspired Torano to reach out to his sponsors to ask for donations. Charles Ancona donated a coat, Charles Owen a helmet and Equifit two pairs of boots. Torano then started going through his cell phone and reaching out for more donations, which quickly came pouring in. Johnson Horse Transport is donating $2,500, and another friend, Shane Guidry, sent $25,000. Human Touch has donated a massage chair to the Halbert family, and Hugh Kincannon, who manages Pony Finals, has donated three stalls for next year’s event. Torano also has had shirts and prize packs donated. All told, he thinks he’s received $30,000 in donations so far.
The monetary donations will go directly to Halbert, but the items will be distributed randomly to participants. Torano noted that he’s already received one entry, and she donated $80 for the critique of her round, well over the required $20.
“I’m pushing for and think by the end we’ll have $100,000 for [Halbert],” said Torano. “In my own mind the goal is $100,000, and when we get there the next goal is $200,000.”
Torano and Jill don’t know Halbert, but as parents they were moved by her plight.
Torano will serve as one of the judges who will call the participants—parents will be on the line with their children. He’s also recruiting other big names, including McLain Ward, to help give critiques.
“We’re not judging them against each other,” said Torano. “More than anything it’s just a conversation with these kids. They get to talk to judges who will say, ‘Hi, Susie, this is Jimmy. I got your round and was impressed with what I saw. I could see your pony was a little nervous when you started, but I like the way you settled him,’ and so on.”
To enter, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the following information:
- Rider’s name
- Pony’s name
- Trainer’s name
- Parent’s name and number for the judge to call
- Best time to call
- Screenshot of the donation
- YouTube link to the video