“Daddy Buy Me a Pony”

It’s the clichéd request of every stereotypical over-privileged child that has been jaded by holidays or birthdays filled with mediocre toys like Playstations, Hoverboards, and iPods. But, please hear me out: I am about to make a very convincing case for buying a kid that pony.

I am not necessarily talking about the version of buying a pony that considers whether the pony was top 10 in the model and hack at Pony Finals and a stake winner at Devon. I am talking in the old school version of buying a pony where a show record is largely irrelevant as long as that pony is serviceable, cleans up ok, and does its job (most of the time). I am not necessarily talking about the “high six figures, serious inquiries only,” but perhaps the recently outgrown packer at the barn that can take a kid from Short Stirrup to Childrens’ and maybe even get him or her started in The Division (of course with no expectation that said pony can get the steps, or any ribbons).

Ownership of a pony encourages kids to take ownership of many other aspects of their young worlds, and develop life skills that will serve them well in the real world: So many life lessons can be learned from ponies, like:
– How to get back up after (a lot of) falls;
– Persistence can pay off, like (maybe) getting a lead change after the 98th ask;
– Sometimes that apparent barrier can be broken through after all, just like the brick wall that was the “out” of an in-and-out;
– Time management (because, you know, horse shows always run on time and adhere to a tight schedule). Joking aside, riding is a sport that requires time for preparation as well as execution, and preparation means taking responsibility for and care of another living being (that happens to be incredibly needy); and
– Determination, drive, and grit, because Lord knows nothing else is going to get a pony over 8 jumps in a row when that pony is convinced he’s done and owed a meal after 1.

In all seriousness, riding – and in particular, riding ponies – requires focus, strength, grace, determination, and dedication. You get out of it what you put in and owning a pony means a kid will be putting in a lot of hours (yes, sometimes it may seem like too many) at the barn. As much as my own parents often complained about the early mornings, late nights, long weekends, and overall time commitment riding required, they are to this day appreciative of all of the life skills I gained in the saddle and at the barn. And, not that I was a trouble-maker, but lessons and horse shows early weekend mornings certainly kept me away from any trouble that would have otherwise been available.

Riding is more than a hobby, it is every bit a sport, and a challenging one. It forces a rider to use body and mind to communicate and negotiate with a strong and often inflexible teammate to accomplish a goal. Few sports require as much strength and few athletes are as tough as riders. Despite the athletic challenge of riding, it is a lifetime sport. It might not be the sport that gets your kid a full ride to the college of his or her dreams, but it is one that most colleges offer, and that your kid will enjoy long after moving out of the dorms.

Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of our sport is there is no such thing as “everybody wins.” I am one of those parents that disagrees with ‘no keeping score’ and ‘everyone gets a prize.” Ponies always “keep score” and with limited exception, horse shows do not hand out “participation awards” (unless you count your bill as an “award,” because everyone gets one of those). Even at the most junior levels, riders are judged and ranked. Sure, every Devon lead-liner gets a lollipop, but only one is awarded the coveted Devon blue. Self-esteem killer? Not with proper guidance and management of expectations. Incentive? Absolutely.

Finally, riding instructors are among the toughest and strongest-willed out there but can also be your kid’s greatest role model and cheerleader. They do not coddle their students – quite the opposite. Riding instructors are people to whom your kid will (should) feel accountable, as they may someday have to be with an employer.
Ponies are not cheap, neither are riding or horse shows. But the lessons and memories gleaned through pony-ownership are invaluable and everlasting. So, next time you hear “Please buy me a pony,” consider it a far more sound investment in your kid and your kid’s future than anything the Apple Store or Amazon have to offer.

The Magic of Devon

I received, a few years ago, as a hostess gift, a candle called “Devon.” It’s arguably the best smelling candle I’ve ever encountered (and I am one of those that can spend hours smelling every single candle in a Yankee store). The candle smells like sugar, vanilla, and lemon – meant to be evocative of the famous Devon lemon sticks and fair. It smells so good that I’ve never even burned it – just left it out and open. It smells amazing – but it does not smell like Devon to me. Not My Devon anyway.

I had the surreal experience of going out to Devon this year as a spectator, instead of as a competitor. I was outwardly offended when security gave me a second look instead of a simple bored nod “good morning.” Of course, the difference is that this year I was wearing a sundress and it was noon. Typically, I would be dressed to ride and it would be 4AM. This year I sat in the stands instead of at the in-gate. This year I watched riders objectively instead of watching to see how lines rode and to know whose high score I was aiming to beat. This year I got to feel excitement watching each horse in the derby, instead of feeling nervous energy grow as they got further along in the jump order and I got closer to “on deck.” This year I ate tea sandwiches instead of sharing ritual Swedish Fish and iced Ginger Snaps with my horse before go-time.

My Devon smells like pine shavings from a paper bag. Like Quicksilver and Suave mixed with sweat – both human and equine. Like salt, hay, molasses, and sand, mixed with metal, paint, and wood stain. 80 years from now you could blindfold me and take me to Devon and I would know exactly where I am, based on smell alone.

Devon is different things to different people. To some it’s lemon sticks and a Ferris wheel. To some it’s the electricity of the lights on Grand Prix night. To many, it’s a goal; a dream. And one that a great many never achieve. This is Devon – it is different things to different people, but to everyone it is somehow magic.

My Devon is prep at 4AM, hack in the Oval at 5, a bath at 6. Check the order of go. Watch the jump crew set the course as the sun comes up over the Main Grand Stand. Watch the first one go. Go check to make sure no braids are rubbed out of place. Watch the course again and warm-up until we’re 10 out. Catch oxers off each lead and canter away. End on a vertical the same lead as Jump 1. Wait by the in-gate as the nerves come washing over and the excitement builds. Go in and make the next 90 seconds of your life everything you worked for over the last year and beyond. Be patient to the single oxer. Let the electricity of the ring and the crowd make him jump up to you. Smile when you land off the last jump because there’s no other feeling like this in the world.

This is My Devon. It’s hard work and it’s nerves. It’s sweat and tears – some of joy and some of disappointment. And it’s every part of magic.

We Were Barn Rats

“By most standards, I am not old. But horse show standards are not most standards. According to the horse show prizelist, not only am I “senior” but I am also an “older.” Add that to my “amateur” status and, according to the USEF, I am basically a talentless geriatric.

I remember my junior years well. I even remember my pony years as if they were yesterday. And as a true testament to my age, I will say with great conviction: Things were different back then. So, so, different.

We were barn rats. Our moms dropped us off at the farm on weekend and summer mornings around sunrise, and didn’t come to get us until the end of their workday. 10+ hours at the barn, and still, we would keep our parents waiting at pick-up time. We would ride anything that was breathing and serviceable. It didn’t have to have a famous name or a show record. We often traded horses because it was fun and challenging – and not just because a medal test might require it. We cleaned our tack, cleaned the tackroom, and helped with stalls, feeding, and turnout. Not to work off board, but because, as boarders, took a lot of pride in the place our horses – and often we – called home. We contributed because we wanted to and because it mattered.

We helped clip the show horses, and we knew how to poultice, pack feet, and bandage legs. If we didn’t know how, we learned and practiced and practiced and practiced until we got it right. Horse care and horsemanship went hand-in-hand with horse-showing and we didn’t know any other way. We knew how to give a show bath that could potentially get us a bump up in the competition. We could pull manes and braid (full disclosure, I can braid, but just because you can does not mean you should – it would take me 6+ hours to braid a small pony, but the point is, we knew how to do it and could if we had to).

The point of all this? We worked really hard to prepare for horse shows. Inside the ring and out. Which meant a successful horse show was incredibly rewarding – the culmination of a lot of hard work, a lot of sweat, and even some blood and tears. A ‘bad’ horse show was devastating, but something we’d always learn from. It was all a big deal. Something we took personally and seriously. We invested the time and the work and the return on investment was valuable and validating.

This sport is one in which you get out of it what you put in, and horsemanship is as critical to success in the ring as ever. Sometimes it’s time and work, sometimes (unfortunately) it’s money, and a lot of times it’s both. Either way, putting in the homework certainly has a significant impact on your relationship with your horse. Some of the most successful riders I know are the ones that are their own grooms, handlers, and sometimes, trainers. Call them barn rats, call them dedicated, or call them crazy horse people… I’ll just call them my kind of people.”

Horseless and Homeless: When Horses Define You

Two years ago, and in the span of one week, I found myself horseless and homeless (I know, First World problems, right?). One was not so big a deal. The other upended my world.

The “homeless” is not as extreme as it sounds – our family home of 10 years simply sold minutes after hitting the market (and before we had a new home), but it was all a positive change and part of a larger plan. The “horseless,” though, was much different. I had to make the difficult decision to put down my competitive show hunter. It was not planned and it left me feeling more lost and more out of place than not having a return address.

Please understand I have chosen carefully how to characterize Mucho: “competitive show hunter.” The expected “horse” would not do him justice and “friend” would just not be accurate. Make no mistake, I loved Mucho, but he was my teammate – a fierce competitor in and out of the ring. He was not a pet. Our relationship was risk and reward; persistence and drive. It was not trail rides and treats, sunshine or glitter. We were at our best when we were tested the most – and we respected each other the most in the show ring, where our shared desire to win always brought us together.

My relationship with Mucho tested me as much as a person as it did a rider… every damn day. He was demanding. He was frustrating. He required a level of focus and persistence never before to me known. And I loved it. I was consumed by it – obsessed even. In so many ways, the challenge and reward of riding the unrideable defined me. Working with him was familiar. It was what I knew.

It has been said that horses mirror their riders. So, a challenging horse invites some serious introspection. Mucho was no different. Riding for me has never been a hobby, but with Mucho, every minute of every ride had (and had to have) a goal. Planning and hard work to achieve hundreds of seemingly small milestones on the tough road to whatever ultimate goal we set. There were days when trotting around the ring once without falling off was a goal; there were days where jogging second at indoors left us unsatisfied and wanting for more. We set our goals, worked harder than we thought possible to meet them, and adjusted accordingly. Reward the victories but don’t be distracted by them. Set the next goal and move on. Keep working; keep pushing.

You don’t realize how much this cycle defines you until it stops spinning or, in my case, is no longer at all. Priorities shift because life no longer revolves around a horse, your goals, and his program. For someone goal-oriented and reliant on structure, breaking the cycle can leave you feeling as though you’re fumbling around in the dark looking for something you can’t define. The expression “fish out of water” comes to mind, or even, “homeless.” It was not having a horse on which to focus my energy, that made me feel like I didn’t have a home. Because at the end of the day, riding is a part of who we are. Horses define us. Horse are home.

The Importance of Proper Turnout

I love looking at old riding photos. I look at photos from my Short Stirrup years with equal parts nostalgia and horror. Nostalgia because I miss the days where the color of the ribbon was not important. Getting around without (a) falling off or (b) going off-course was an accomplishment and a realistic goal. Blue ribbons were a distant dream but something to always work toward. Horror because – ohmigod – WHAT was I wearing?! My pony’s braids were the stuff of nightmares and my hair bows looked like dollar store Christmas wrapping. But in any case, my memories of Short Stirrup are fond ones.

Riding back then was about so much more than horse showing, and for horse shows, my barn rat friends and I adopted the mantra “Tomorrow’s success begins today.” We would spend every waking Saturday hour bathing, braiding, and cleaning our tack. Thirty-seven year old me hasn’t cleaned her saddle in a year. Seven-year-old me was obsessive. I took my bridle apart for every cleaning, and would spend upwards of an hour cleaning my reins after every ride. (Seven-year-old me didn’t get many dates).

I will never forget one of my first horse shows in Short Stirrup. It was a local horse show and the judge was a known local trainer and a real stickler about equitation and turnout. He was old school and took the time to approach each rider in the lineup and critique them. I have since forgotten what he said about my equitation but it could have been along the lines of “Honey, you might want to consider hunters. Or ice skating.” But I remember clearly what he said about my turnout (fortunately nothing about my pathetic hair bows). He firmly took my pony’s nose band, commented on how clean it was, and then tightened and straightened it.

To this day, whether it is me riding, or standing on the ground helping someone else, I am a stickler about nose bands (and bridles, generally). A clean, well-fitting, and properly adjusted bridle is about so much more than just good turnout. Cleanliness goes without saying. Dirty tack can ruin an otherwise pretty picture; Clean tack looks the show ring pat. The fit of a bridle is critical for a number of reasons. A good fit maximizes the efficiency of a bit and of a rider’s overall feel. Incorrect pressure on the nose band or the horse’s poll can have a significant (negative) impact on its rideability, and therefore its way of going.

A bridle should always flatter – and never detract from – the shape of your horse’s (or pony’s) head. For example, an animal with a Roman nose can benefit from a wider nose band that helps camouflage its convex shape. An animal with a tiny head can benefit from a raised nose band with some stitching. This is not much different from what fashion magazines tell you about what the pockets of your jeans can do for your rear end. Reins are largely a matter of personal preference, but the less distracting, of course, the better.

Ask any R rated judge, trainer, or rider, and it’s a universal truth: Tack is a crucial piece of turnout and overall look. Clean, quality tack serves more than just the short-term purpose of looking good in the show ring. Clean tack is well-cared-for tack and well-cared-for tack (if it is quality leather) will last as long as it is cared for. Quality tack is not cheap, but it’s an investment where you get what you pay for and you get out of it what you care for. It could be the endless hours I’ve spent cleaning them, but I’ve had some pairs of reins since the 90’s. Fortunately, the same cannot be said for my hair accessories.

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