California Riding Magazine • November, 2013

The Gallop:
It's Not Your Mother's Pony Club
Riding Centers, dressage and jumping tracks are part of organization's evolution.

by Kim F. Miller

Fallbrook Pony Clubbers Taylor Lawson, left, and Emma Oatman head
to the turn-out inspection. Photo: Keala Lawson.

Olympic eventer Gina Miles would like to see the U.S. Pony Club change its name to "Young Equestrians Of America," with "Pony Club for the 21st Century" as its tagline. Whether or not the 2008 individual eventing silver medalist gets her way, the new name would project an accurate message: The program is not about ponies and, more importantly, it has evolved.

Fallbrook PC team coach Olivia Loiacono and Taylor Lawson prepare
for stadium jumping round. Photo: Keala Lawson

The addition of Riding Centers and specialized tracks in show jumping and dressage has revamped a program that's always been known for its "ownership of horsemanship," as U.S. Eventing Association president Brian Sabo puts it. Amidst laments over the gradual demise of true horsemanship heard in most competitive disciplines, Pony Club has taught, tested and certified thorough knowledge of the horse and its care and well-being since its inception in the States in 1954.
Gina applauds efforts of the hunter/jumper and other disciplines to develop their own programs for teaching and rewarding horsemanship, but says, "You'll have a hard time creating a better system than what already exists through Pony Club."

Poway Valley Pony Clubbers. Photo: Nina Haynes

Pony Club's current tagline, "Where it all begins" is also apt. It's a knowledge-driven and relatively affordable entrée to the horse world and provides youth up to 25 the chance to "learn, do and teach."
Learning is accomplished through progressive levels of instruction in horse care, knowledge and riding skills. The process starts at the beginning, known as the D-1 level, and progresses to A, a rare certification of horse management know-how and/or riding skills that is as hard to earn as it is highly regarded.

The "do" part of Pony Club's mandate is showcased at rallies. These range from the relatively low-key mid-October rally hosted by the Fallbrook and River Hills clubs, to the national rally at the Kentucky Horse Park every summer. Self-sufficiency and independence are essential. "Parents and coaches are locked out of the stabling area," explains Lisa Sabo, an A graduate and eventing trainer who opened the Newport Mesa Pony Club Riding Center two years ago. "The stable management judges check their equipment list, cleanliness, feed charts, etc. They really learn how to run a stable and to manage themselves at a show." When Lisa takes those riders to competitions outside of Pony Club, they are the do-it-yourselfers trainers drool over.

Competitor Camping Ground.

The organization views teaching as a great way to build cooperation, confidence and leadership and peer-to-peer instruction is encouraged at every turn. Last, but not at all least, safety is emphasized in all Pony Club activities.

What's New: Riding Centers & Specialty Tracks

For most of its history, Pony Clubs were run by parent volunteers and required members to own or have the use of their own mount. The addition of Riding Centers five years ago enabled professional trainers to organize programs and use their lesson horses. From the participant's perspective, there's no difference between a Pony Club and a Riding Center. The Centers provide a more affordable entry point to the sport and helps professionals bring in beginners, many of whom eventually buy or lease their own horses and go on to compete in eventing, hunter/jumper or dressage, along with Pony Club events.

Trainer, A-rated Pony Club graduate and Newport Mesa Riding Center
chief Lisa Sabo confers with Jaya Mayne and Indian Blanket.

Specialized tracks in dressage and show jumping are now options once a member has attained their C-3 certification. The "traditional" track is offered at every level and includes horse and rider presentation, dressage, gymnastic and stadium jumping, plus riding in the open, a reflection of Pony Club's foxhunting heritage. Although it's made the ratings system look a little more complicated, the upside is worth it, observes Gina Miles. "It allows a lot more flexibility to tailor the program to people who want to focus on advancing in one discipline." Western is even an option at some Clubs and Centers, thanks to a pilot program for specializing in that discipline.

The new age limit of 25, elevated from 21 in 2006, gives participants more time to earn ratings. And, specializations increase the appeal and feasibility of doing so for young riders who moved beyond the program in pursuit of advanced experience in dressage or jumping.
The Riding Center idea has caught on quickly among eventing trainers, partly due to the extensive common ground the sport shares with Pony Club. Lisa Sabo credits it with building up the entry-level end of her Orange County Fairgrounds-based program.

Members of Lisa Sabo's Newport Mesa Pony Club Riding Center are
ready to rumble! The Center is based at the Orange County Fairgrounds.

Sandrine Siefert is more of a lone ranger as a hunter/jumper trainer who has embraced the Riding Center concept at her Hansen Dam Equestrian Center base. She already had a lesson program in place, so the Riding Center has not drawn many additional beginners. But it has attracted advanced Pony Clubbers who want to earn higher rankings in the new specialized track for show jumping. Additionally, she encourages her show and lesson clientele to join the Riding Center for access to what Gina describes as "an unbelievable wealth of knowledge," available online and through Pony Club's people and other resources.

Clubs require a big time commitment from the volunteer parents. Centers require the same from professionals and still offer ample opportunities for parent involvement. For those who want a knowledge return on their time investment, the new Horsemasters Program for Adult Volunteers enables grown-ups to use any of the Club's education materials and earn riding or horse management certifications along the way.

Jenna DeWald on Tiberon. Photo: Keala Lawson

Now winding up his three-year term as US Eventing Association president, Brian Sabo believes Riding Centers will help "reconnect the bottom and the top of the sport. If we have trainers using Pony Club literature and attending testings and rallies, that will tie us all together again." That, the A-rated alum asserts, is key to renewing the sport's base so that up and coming professionals will have a steadily growing base of students to teach in the future.

Where Pony Club may falter, many agree, is in marketing. Gina Miles asserts that having "pony" in its name creates a stigma. "Kids are growing up fast these days. I think something that sounds more sophisticated and personal would appeal to them more. Plus, it has nothing to do with ponies!"

Many years ago, "pony" meant a youth mount of any size, hence its place in the program's name.

Pony Club Pros

"Being from a family that was not horsey at all and with limited means, Pony Club was a huge contributor to my career," says Gina. She encourages all students at her Templeton Farms training program, as well as those she meets in her equestrian celebrity travels, to become Pony Clubbers. Gina grew up in the Panache Pony Club in Davis, earned her A rating and is keenly aware of the contributions made by her mother and many other parent volunteers. Along with hosting the Gold Medal Eventing Pony Club, she pays that forward regularly with appearances at conventions and clinics and serves as a Pony Club national examiner.

Dan Murphy signed on as a volunteer with the Santa Ynez Pony Club when his two daughters were young. He was "clueless" about the organization's national structure then, but now he's president of its board of governors. He credits the horsemanship and life lessons his girls, Caitlin and Erin, learned in Pony Club with helping them earn admission to extremely selective universities: Boston College and UC Berkeley. Erin attained success on the eventing circuit, too, and she continues to ride regularly while tackling Berkeley's tough freshman course load.

Kyla DeWald with Seattle. Photo: Keala Lawson

"I think people don't realize that Pony Club gives you such a great base of knowledge, in addition to riding skills," says 18-year-old Erin Murphy. Rated C-3 in horse management and riding, Erin credits Pony Club with providing "the foundation for everything I know about riding."

Detecting early signs of colic or a minor hitch in her horse's gait are parts of the Pony Club knowledge she's drawn on in her recent riding, which included competing in the North American Junior/Young Riders Championships this past summer. At about 15, Erin branched off from Pony Club activities to event with trainer Gina Economou, (who runs a Riding Center) but eventually earning her A rating is a big life goal.

High-level success in any equestrian sport and Pony Club involvement are compatible goals, Dan asserts. "Look at (Area VI star) Maxance McManamy," he says. "She took time off to get her A rating this summer because it's important to her." A rising international event rider and the United States Equestrian Federation's Junior Equestrian of the Year in 2009, Maxance first went after her A rating in 2009, but was waylaid by a broken foot.

Lifelong friendships are another Pony Club plus. "It's like we are in this huge sorority and we know people and have friends all over the world," explains Lisa Sabo.

Most Members: California

California is rich with famous Pony Clubbers, most of whom remain active in the program. Gina Miles, 2012 Olympian Tiana Coudray, the Sabos, and Bea and Derek DiGrazia top a long list that also includes international jumping, dressage and event veteran Bernie Traurig and 2004 Olympic dressage alternate Leslie Morse.

Californians got in early. Pony Club started in Great Britain in 1929 and the U.S. organization began in 1954. The still-active Santa Cruz County Pony Club registered with national headquarters in 1956 and the Pebble Beach Pony Club, under the stewardship of eventing legend Dick Collins, followed in 1957. Today, California has the most Pony Club members of any state, topping Pennsylvania, Washington, Virginia and Maryland.

The Golden State has four of the national organization's 42 clubs in four regions. To find a Pony Club or Pony Club Riding Center, visit or call the national headquarters in Lexington, KY at 859-254-7669. If you want a Pony Club immersion, plan to attend the annual meeting and equine symposium in Portland, OR this January.

"A" For More Than Effort

Here's the test for an A rating in show jumping: "Candidates must be able to ride different mounts at various states of training, displaying a confident, consistent and effective performance on the flat and over fences. Candidates are expected to assess each mount's level of schooling and to ride with tact and empathy for its capabilities, demonstrating awareness and knowledge of different exercises for training challenges. After each performance, the candidate will evaluate and discuss the state of schooling, including strengths, weaknesses and discuss a plan for training each mount." Course work is set at a firm 4'3" fence height.