I rode show jumping horses for 40 years, I have so many amazing memories and am grateful for the success I enjoyed in my career.
My most precious recollections go back to my years of riding ponies in the hunter and jumper divisions. Of the many topics I address in my blog, the destruction of the pony division by horse shows and trainers is the most personal to me. It has damaged the development of North American riders to a degree that is immeasurable and is one of the top reasons the ratio of juniors to amateurs has changed so dramatically in the past 25 years.
Let’s look at the pony jumpers. Some have forgotten that many ponies can jump BIG jumps. The best example is easy, the unforgettable Stroller.
“He was a member of the British team which competed in the 1968 Olympics. Ridden by Marion Coakes, Stroller won the silver medal falling short of only four faults from the gold medalist Bill Steinkraus. Stroller was the only pony who won the Hickstead Derby. His achievements include Winner of the 1967 Hickstead Derby, 1970 Hamburg Derby, 1965 and 1971 Queen Elizabeth, II Cup.
Read more: Famous Jumping Horses – A Knowledge Archive
I have watched three other ponies compete against horses and win ribbons in the International Ring at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Canada in the 1.50m division. There have been few horses that could compete with Jewel in the 1.20m division in Western Canada for several years. The European Pony Championships have height specifications of 1.35m. Ponies can jump and be as good as a horse at an international level, except in the United States, where apparently they can only jump 0.80m.
The exception is the USEF Pony Finals in Lexington, Kentucky, which has jumps set at 1.20m. However, this is an outlier, as most major shows in the US do not even fill a pony jumper division with heights of 0.90m. The numbers in the pony division have decreased by approximately 80% while the number of horses at the horse shows has gone up by a similar number in the past 30 years.
Why is this a negative for developing riders? How did the number of participants in the pony divisions dwindle so drastically?
Many junior and amateur equestrians ride with a certain level of fear. There can be many different reasons for this debilitating emotion, but the clear leaders amongst jumpers are the thought of falling or losing control of the horse. This is the number one issue I see at clinics. It is absolutely essential that a rider not only controls their fear but eliminate it altogether. The rider needs to be “present” and “in the moment” when jumping in order to ride effectively and to their highest level.
There is a physical and psychological difference for a child learning to ride on a pony as opposed to a horse. On a pony, the ground is a lot closer if you do happen to fall. Riders need to learn that falling does not necessarily mean getting hurt—in fact, riders rarely get hurt when experiencing an unexpected dismount. By the time I was 13 years old I had fallen off over 100 times. You learn to get up and get back on and it is a non-issue.
I remember a clinic in 1985 with Ian Millar when he taught the group how to safely fall from a horse so you do not become injured. This seems like an important and necessary skill to have when riding horses. Can you imagine if an instructor was to do that in 2017?
The second major difference is learning to physically control the animal, which is obviously far easier on a pony due to their smaller size. This teaches the rider at an early stage how to correctly use their body to influence their equine partner for proper results and most importantly safety. Having a child on a smaller animal instills confidence at an early stage, which many riders will feel for a lifetime of riding.
Two things have wiped out the ponies: horse show management and trainers.
Kids used to start in the pony division so they could show over smaller jumps as the lowest height a horse could show in was 3’6″. Horse shows started making the fence heights lower and lower in order to get more entries. Soon it was no longer necessary to start your career on a pony, as you could show your horse over x-rails. Richard Keller, another great coach of mine, used to joke that one day there would be subterranean jumpers, they would dig a hole and drop a rail in it so the horse didn’t have to jump at all.
This padded the bank accounts of horse show managers all over North America as there were many riders who wanted to be a part of the horse show experience. It didn’t matter that many of these new equestrians could barely sit on a horse, the money was pouring in. Coaches no longer had to train riders for years to be good enough to compete, they could throw a novice on a schoolmaster (possibly altered with medication) and take them to the horse show.
To me, there is a much more important loss: the bond that forms between a child and their pony.
I have heard many trainers say that they will not work with ponies because they are harder than horses. Interpretation: ponies are small so they cannot ride them. This means that they would actually have to teach the kids how to ride, instead of plopping them on a programmed and prepared horse. Many of the best young international riders today are coming from countries like Ireland and Spain where, as young riders, they learn how to be an overall horseman, often on ponies.
I have been asked how I would go about making the pony divisions relevant again. It comes down to showcasing the event, something European show managers do very well, but North Americans simply don’t care about. In order to grow the sport, you need to promote it.
For years the show managers here have made millions of dollars by putting up a rectangle of flags around a grass field or a patch of sand in the desert, a few jumps, and little else. In 2017 that has changed, as the numbers at the horse shows are significantly down from in the past.
Horse shows in Canada and the US used to do a feature class, the Grand Prix. All the rings would finish early on Sunday so that competitors, owners, trainers, grooms, etc. could go and watch the big class. That does happen at a few shows still today, but rarely.
Every day at the show should have one “feature class.” The list should be, in no particular order; Grand Prix, Hunter Derby, Young Horse Jumpers, and yes, a pony class. Showcase the future of the sport along with the present. Other sports do it, Europe does it, but not North Americans. The College sports, Little League Baseball, Junior Hockey in Canada, etc., fans love to see younger players compete.
From a riding perspective skipping the pony divisions is a detriment. To me, there is a much more important loss, the bond that forms between a child and their pony. The endless hours that are spent together; trail riding, grooming, riding bareback, hanging out with your best friend. These are memories that last a lifetime and are irreplaceable. Many of my favorite memories are being with my pony and watching my daughters with their ponies.
For me, that is what this sport is about.
About Jay Duke
Jake Duke is a show jumping rider, course designer, clinician, and Canadian Equestrian Team member, who has represented Canada in Washington, New York, and Toronto. A four-time Canadian Junior Champion and Leading Rider at the Spruce Meadows North American Championships, Jay has an extensive background with horses of all levels and breeds. For more information about Jay, visit: jayduke.com.