It reads like a who’s who of Olympians: three-day event gold medalist David O’Connor, twice world champ Bruce Davidson, pentathlete Conrad Adams, dressage’s golden girl Lendon Gray.
Then there’s New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman, world-renowned veterinarian Dr. Dean Richardson and, of all things, America’s Got Talent finalist Johnny Quale, perhaps better known by his stage name Prince Poppycock.
They seem a diverse crew , but the tie that binds them extends well back into their formative years. Each grew up riding in the U.S. Pony Club system, learning “the Pony Club way” to clean tack (with a toothbrush and hours of sweat equity), design a jump course (carefully measured and set with safety in mind) and team competition (sharing work and success in equal measure).
Formed in the 1950s based on the original British Pony Club model, USPC chapters number in the hundreds extending from northernmost Maine to southern California. Even Alaska and Hawaii have clubs, with active participation in English riding disciplines from dressage and three-day eventing to mounted games, foxhunting and tetrathlon.
The newest entry in the crowded field is a Virginia Region club, the Gray Ghost Pony Club covering over the geographic region tied to club namesake, Col. John S. Mosby of Civil War cavalry fame.
“Our members are spread throughout the Mosby Heritage Area,” said founding district commissioner Diane Fanta of Amissville. “From the Manassas Battlefield, through Nokesville, New Baltimore and Catlett to Amissville.
“We chose our name partly because of the historical geographical significance, but also because many of John Mosby’s attributes are those that are valued by Pony Club tenacity, creativity, improvisation and flexibility,” Fanta said.
The Gray Ghost P ony Club was formulated around the renowned USPC model, Fanta said, providing a balanced program that teaches members to be well-rounded horse owners and caretakers.
“Our members range in age from 10 to 21 with ratings of D-1 to H,” the next-to top level, she said. “We compete in dressage , eventing, showjumping and tetrathalon events as well as Pony Club quiz (bowl) competition at the regional and national level.”
Fanta acknowledged “pony” club is slightly mis-named because though most members indeed start out riding ponies, the club allows riders up to age 21 and most graduate to horses before completing their pony club education or moving on to college and beyond.
Many pony club members return to horses after college, Fanta said, becoming horse professionals, which is easy due to the well-rounded education provided by the club model.
Others become involved in adjunct professions such as tack shop owner, county extension agent or saddle-maker. Many equine insurance agents began their horse careers in pony club, as well as lots of veterinarians, said Beth Rera, the New Jersey pony club instructor and Master Saddler. “You can’t beat the education system,” Rera said. “It’s set up to be progressive; each level builds on the one before it.”
Though horse (or pony) ownership is not required to be in pony club, most members ha ve their own mounts.
The stated mission of USPC is “to provide a program for youth that teaches riding, mounted sports and the care of horses and ponies, thereby developing responsibility, moral judgment, leadership and self-confidence.”
Members of USPC have joined an organization dedicated to producing well-rounded horsemen and women and one that has produced many of the past and current Olympic and international riders.
The organization is unique because its educational programs place equal emphasis on the teaching of riding skills, horse-care fundamentals and team participation with sportsmanship. From the moment youth join USPC until they graduate, they are part of a broad network of activities and educational programs that promote the health and safety of both horse and rider.
Testing through standards of proficiency lead young riders through core curriculum and individualized instruction from the most basic D rating (able to handle a horse under supervision and walk and trot safely) to the A level (capable of training a young horse to the highest level of competition and capable to instructing younger riders to a top level). Though adult supervision is evident at every pony club event, no actual “outside assistance” is allowed, under penalty of elimination, in competition.
Adults transport junior competitors to shows and rallies, but from there youth team members form bucket brigades and a strong support network that goes well beyond building riding skills into group management and conflict resolution.
“They’re skills these kids will use well into their adult years,” Rera said.
Standards describe a clear progression of skills in riding and horse management and provide opportunities for goal setting, as members are encouraged to proceed though those skills at a pace comfortable for them. Certifications are given in an effort to recognize achievements and encourage members to gain confidence, independence and good safety habits while working with horses.
One of the things that separates pony club from other youth equestrian organizations is the emphasis that is placed on management. While members learn how to ride, they also learn how to care for their horse. Most clubs have a mentoring program as well, for peer-to-peer instruction.
Gray Ghost members get the opportunity to ride with top pros in northern Virginia, including Olympic veterans, and get to compete at some of the nation’ s best-known venues like Leesburg’ s Morven Park, Great Meadow in The Plains and the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington.
“The Virginia Region is so rich with talent,” Fanta said. “We’re lucky here.”
Winter months, Fanta added, are busy with unmounted lessons, ground schools and quiz practice, as well as regular mounted instruction in area indoor arenas.
The Virginia Region of the U.S. Pony Club will host a prep session Dec. 28 at Morven Park in Leesburg. To sign up, call district commissioner Margaret Compton at (703) 533-1522.
The USPC annual meeting and symposium is Jan. 23-27 in Colorado. Visit www.PonyClub.org
to register. Reach Fanta to get more details about Gray Ghost: (540) 937-2219 or mareboss@ aol.com .