I was 12 years old, in 1966.
My horse was Hootenanny, a 16 hand Belgium/Cross, golden chestnut with a blonde mane and tail. He had a white blaze, two white hind socks and a twinkle in his eye. He was my best friend.
My father was my coach and we used to win the jumper classes at the local Delaware Valley Horsemen’s Association shows. Hootenanny was all heart. There were three older girls, Sharon, Geri and Betty Mae who were my mentors. They advised me to join Pony Club where I could ride with other kids and learn.
At that time, the area Pony Club was Kingwood Fox Hounds. My first mounted meeting was held at the commissioner Joanie’s, Old Fox Farm in Hillsborough NJ.
My father was helping me tack up, when Joanie informed us, “The kids are supposed to do everything themselves,” and chuckled. Joanie was of small stature with a face as beautiful as a China doll. Her eyes sparkled; her smile and her voice clearly reflected that she loved the work she was doing with kids and horses.
Joanie gave the lesson in a field behind her house. I could tell that the other kids knew a lot more than me.
The word, “dressage” was introduced to me on this day. Dressage is a French word that means training. The purpose of dressage was to achieve balance and softness.
“The horse has two beats at the trot. Keep the rhythm 1,2,1,2,1,2,” Joanie explained.
Then Joanie taught us the turn on the forehand. One girl saw that I was having difficulty understanding, so she dismounted to demonstrate. She was on her hands and knees on the ground and said, “His back legs pivot around his front legs like this.” I was impressed that she helped without being asked. Pony Club was about working together.
We also practiced precise circles, square halts and straight lines. A free walk was introduced to me. “It is a fast walk on a loose rein. Sit deep in the saddle and squeeze one leg at a time,” Joanie explained. “You want him to stretch his head and neck without breaking to a trot.”
At the end of the lesson, Joanie gave me a C1 rating.
Kingwood was hosting the regional three-day rally that year for C2 and B rated riders. At that time, the ratings were D1, D2, C1, C2, B and A. My mentors, Sharon Geri and Betty Mae were B rated. C2s and Bs competed at a three-day rally, while the lower ratings competed at a one-day rally.
The next lesson was a cross country lesson at Hobby Horse Hill where the rally would take place.
“Alright you guys, follow me,” Joanie announced, sporting a pair of army green fishing boots as she marched down a path leading to the woods. The parents walked with her and the pony clubbers followed on their horses.
None of the jumps were over 2’6”. The challenging part of cross country jumping was that the jumps were in strange places or cast funny shadows.
The first jump was a log placed five feet in front of a creek. The horse would jump over the log, land in the creek and then gallop up a hill. Another was a log over a ditch and another was a rail set up at the top of a bank. My favorite was a fallen down tree in the middle of a creek. I remember trotting through the creek and the cold water splashing on my horse and me. I remember laughing and just having fun. It was a breath of fresh air from competing in the show ring for the blue ribbon.
We walked along the edge of the woods and Joanie stopped at an opening. “This is a slide,” she announced. “Shift your weight back and your horse will sit back on his haunches and slide down. When you get to the bottom, trot through the creek until you get to the next slide, go up it and gallop back to the group.”
I looked down at the steep narrow path. “Is she serious?” I asked the girl sitting next to me on a big bay horse.
“Of course,” she laughed. “It isn’t as bad as it looks. I’ll go first, just watch me.”
The girl was a few years older than me. Her name was Betty and she was an avid fox hunter. This type of terrain was very familiar to her.
“Ooooohhhs and ahhhhs” could be heard from the parents as she made her way down the slide, then splashed through the creek. Only her horse’s hoof beats were heard as he climbed up the second slide. Joanie’s face gleamed with confidence, but everyone else held their breath. Seconds later, the bay horse came out of the woods and galloped back to the group. As the parents cheered with relief, Hoot started dancing in the direction of the slide. He wanted his turn to perform.
Hoot took his first step going down the slide and I thought my stomach was going to come up through my throat. The view going down was scary so I closed my eyes and leaned back. I grabbed the pommel and let my horse do the rest. Hoot sat back on his haunches and slid down the slide as Joanie said he would. The cold water splashed against my legs as Hoot tugged through the knee deep creek then made his way back up the other slide.
Hoot did everything with confidence and stopped at nothing. There was an opening on the C2 rally team and I was advanced to a C2 rating to fill that spot because of Hoot’s jumping abilities. Hootenanny stayed at Old Fox Farm until the rally and I had so much to learn over the next two weeks.
There were two other girls, Janet and Kathy who kept their horses at Joanie’s farm. They mentored me and encouraged me. We wrote letters on plastic buckets to make a practice dressage arena.
Joanie drilled me with book work. She taught me about first aid, sick horses and lame horses. She taught me the bones in the horse’s hoof and leg. Joanie gave me facts about fox hunting and said, “Horse shows originated from fox hunting.”
Joanie and the girls showed me how to care for my tack. They taught me how to clean stalls and the different types of bedding, grain and hay. I had no idea of how much I did not know.
There was a whole list of what we had to bring to the rally. Everything needed to be painted green, our pony club color and everything needed to be labeled and clean.
I remember my mother running to different stores to get the proper color towels and wash clothes.
I was the youngest member of the team and in a bit over my head. Hootenanny was my only saving grace. Janet was the team captain and Kathy was the stable manager. The other riders were Betty, the avid fox hunter, and Pam. Their horses were pretty good, but could not jump as well as Hootenanny.
The morning of the rally, we drove in a caravan to Hobby Horse Hill. There was a huge tent set up for stabling. We bedded our stalls and hung water and feed buckets, then set up the tack room.
That afternoon, we took the written test and I was able to answer 90% of the questions thanks to Joanie.
During this time, stable judges inspected and left a note in the tack room stating that one horse did not have enough water and one stall was dirty. Janet was mad when she read the note.
Next, the team walked the cross country course with Joanie. Everything on the course was familiar to me except the starting box.
After dinner, we returned to the barn for night check and then retired for the night with our chaperones.
The next day was a full pony club day beginning with barn chores at 7:00 AM. Dressage was the first riding phase of the rally. Each rider was to report for formal inspection 15 minutes before their dressage time. Official rally time was announced throughout the day.
As I was warming up for dressage I could see my parents approaching. I thought I looked pretty sharp with my shiny boots, sparkling tack and meticulous horse.
My mother headed for the bleachers and my father walked toward me, even though he was not allowed in the warm-up area.
“I’ve been watching the inspections. Is under his tail clean?” Before waiting for an answer, he pulled out his own handkerchief and wiped under Hootenanny’s tail. “It’s clean now,” he squinted his eyes and slipped out of the schooling area.
At my formal inspection I remembered how to stand next to my horse as I was very nervous. To make matters worse, the inspector was very grouchy. She said Hoot was dirty and my tack was dry.
She explained how my saddle pad was pressing on my horse’s withers. She loosened the girth and put her hand under the pad and pushed it up into the pommel. She asked how long I have been in Pony Club and glared at me. When I told her I only joined a few weeks ago, she smiled softly.
I was disappointed and mounted Hoot and headed for the dressage ring that was set up inside the new indoor arena. The ring was framed with a white plastic chain and flower pots at each of the letters. Two mirrors hung on the walls and a smell of cleanliness filled the air.
Hootenanny had never been in an indoor ring before and he had never seen himself in a mirror. We made a nice entrance and trotted down the center line. Hoot was confident and had a little spring to his gait that gave us excellent scores.
Every time we’d pass one of the mirrors, Hoot would turn his head and look at himself. I said to him, “Yeah, that is you in the mirror.”
After my finishing salute, the judge told me I was not allowed to talk during a dressage test. I remember his German accent, “Your horse is very obedient to you. He is a big horse and it is like you are riding two horses.” He praised me and encouraged me to continue practicing.
I was very excited when I came out of the ring after speaking to the judge. It was the first time I spoke to a real dressage judge and the first time I spoke to someone from another country!
The cross country thrill began with the count down in the starting box! With sixty seconds to go, Hoot and I entered the box and waited patiently. Then the starter began to count “10, 9, 8…” and my stomach started doing flips with excitement.
“3, 2, 1, have a good ride,” the starter smiled up at me as he clicked on his stopwatch.
“Let’s go Hoot,” I commanded, tapping my boots against my horse’s sides. We trotted out of the box, then picked up a slow gallop toward the woods. In all of the excitement, I made a wrong turn on course and forgot where I was going; then a fence judge whispered “go the other way.”
I knew fence judge wasn’t supposed to tell me, but she was one of our own Pony Club mothers cheering us on.
We finished with no jumping faults, no time fault and a perfect vet check while we were cooling out. I was very proud of myself and very proud of my horse. The weeks that I had spent at Joanie’s farm had paid off.
Janet’s horse gave her some trouble on the course but did an excellent dressage test. Betty and Pam also had perfect cross country rides but did not do as well in dressage.
We put the horses away and prepared for another stable inspection. Water buckets were topped and everything was cleaned to perfection and put away. Kathy gave a sigh of relief and said, “The judges are walking toward us and we’re ready.”
I finished eating a donut, picked up a napkin to wipe my mouth and found my spurs under the napkin. They had not been cleaned and there was no time to clean them!
Janet had a brilliant idea. She buried the spurs in one of the grain cans in just a nick of time.
Again, the inspection did not go so well for me. I still had not mastered cleaning tack. One of the inspectors asked me, “So how often do you clean your tack?” I was raised to never tell a lie and nervously responded, “Oh, I guess about once a month.”
I’ll never forget the look on my teammates’ faces. It was not the same inspector who did my formal inspection that morning, and she also asked me, “How long have you been in Pony Club?”
“Three weeks, and since then I have been cleaning tack every day.”
The inspectors mumbled something to each other and then left.
Janet reprimanded me and said, “Don’t ever tell anyone that you only clean your tack once a month.”
I put my head down as I was embarrassed that I let my team down. Kathy stuck up for me and said, “You’ll catch on Peg. You and Hoot did a great job today.” Betty and Pam said nothing.
That night after dinner, we all went swimming in Joanie’s pool and then headed back to the barn for night check, picking up droppings and filling water buckets.
On the third day of the rally, we arrived at the stable area at 7:00 AM to do chores. At 9:00, the team walked the stadium jumping course with Joanie. The jumps were three feet in height and brightly painted. Some of the turns were tight, but it was nothing that Hoot had not done before.
Kathy stayed in the stable area while judges came for the last stable inspection. This time we earned a perfect score. It was a miracle!
In stadium, Betty’s horse went clean, Janet’s horse had a refusal and Pam’s horse pulled a rail. We needed another clean round.
Hoot was in his element with the ringside crowds and bright jumps. We delivered a clean round and bumped our final standings from fifth place to fourth place out of nine teams. Hoot’s clean rounds made up for my lack of stable management skills. The rally was a humbling experience as my teammates were very patient with me.
A few years later, Kingwood Fox Hounds changed their name to Amwell Valley Hounds.
Now as a middle-aged woman, I often reflect on the old Pony Club days and how much Joanie did for me and the other kids. I’ve been teaching riding for thirty years and encourage students to join Pony Club. From time to time, I have given volunteer clinics to Pony Clubbers in honor of Joanie and my early Pony Club days.
About the Author
Peggy DeForte Vurgason began teaching horseback riding at the age of 15 and later went on to ride professionally. Today, she competes in Western Dressage and trail riding on her horse, Homerun Joe, and along with her husband George and his mule, Billy John. Peggy is the author of The American Riding System, the fiction series Long Ears and Short Tales, and the soon-to-be published novel Hootenanny Spirit.