United States Pony Clubs: Teamwork, Talent and Trust
Learn how this highly respected equestrian organization is helping to create the next generation of responsible horse owners.
Established in 1954, the United States Pony Clubs (USPC) is a highly respected equestrian organization that has become synonymous with developing well-rounded young riders. The USPC standards and curriculum are modeled after the British Pony Club, which was established in 1924. Pony Club is currently represented in more than 30 countries worldwide and in 48 states in North America. Over 12,000 members belong to approximately 600 clubs throughout the U.S.
USPC’s mission is to educate its membership about riding, horsemanship and responsible horse care. To that end, the USPC curriculum places an equal amount of emphasis on both riding skills and horse management. Unlike many other equestrian organizations, USPC members are not required to own a horse in order to participate in the programs or to compete in Pony Club competitions, known as rallies.
Members compete in teams at rallies held in their region. Each rally focuses on one of the seven disciplines recognized by USPC: quiz, eventing, dressage, show jumping, mounted games, tetrathlon (swimming, shooting, riding, running) and polocrosse. Each team has a designated Horse Manager who oversees their team for the day, making sure that they follow the rules, complete their tasks successfully and make it to the ring on time for their classes. Once they arrive at a rally, the team spends the first two hours setting up their stable for the day. The set-up is determined by an equipment list given to the participants in advance so that they come prepared to compete. Long packing lists and many hours spent studying the testing materials help them achieve their goals at each event. Parents are not allowed to help their children in any way at the rally. It is entirely up to the participants to work together as a team. This fosters a sense of responsibility and independence and encourages the team members to work together to achieve their goals.
After they finish setting up, a Pony Club official performs an inspection to ensure that everything is in its proper place. Then the riders and their mounts receive a safety inspection. Riders are evaluated on their riding attire and their mounts are examined to make sure that they are properly groomed and that the tack is in good, safe working condition. Next, they move onto to the riding portion, which will vary according to what type of rally it is and the rider’s individual skill level.
The Next Generation
According to USPC Executive Director Peggy Entrekin, the majority of members join USPC when they are 7 or 8 years old, while 11-15 year olds make up the largest group of current members. Pony Club members range in age from 4 to 25. New members quickly become familiar with the USPC curriculum, made up of standards that are designed to measure the progression of skills through a rating system.
Fourteen clubs exist in the Central New England region. Each club schedules its own meetings; some are mounted, others are unmounted. Each group has a leader, known as a District Commissioner. USPC Regional Supervisor Betsey Reeves is responsible for overseeing all of the clubs in the Central New England region. Her family’s involvement in Pony Club started 50 years ago when her mother founded the Groton Pony Club in 1957. She was heavily involved in Pony Club growing up and now, as an adult, takes great pride in the fact that her daughter is a Pony Club graduate and volunteer.
Betsey recognizes that Pony Club teaches far more than just riding, noting “this is an organization that teaches life skills, using the horse as a medium.” She routinely attends rallies held in this region and is always impressed by the goal-oriented members who continue to excel at these events. She is quick to point out that Pony Club graduates include not only a long list of accomplished horsemen, but over 40 Olympians as well.
Pony Club Standards
The USPC curriculum follows the Standards of Proficiency, which comprise the rating system designed to measure each member’s skill level at different stages of learning. The rating system begins with the D standard, which focuses on basic horse care. The D standard is comprised of three ratings: D-1, D-2 and D-3. The curriculum at this level is simplistic and is designed with the young rider in mind. Many enthusiastic horse lovers are able to quickly move through this standard, achieving the highest level, a D-3 rating very quickly. Some basic areas of knowledge may include working safely around horses and daily care of a pony and tack. Members at this level are capable of riding at the walk, trot and canter and over low fences.
The C standard curriculum is designed to take horsemanship to the next level, giving participants the opportunity to learn more about veterinary care and lameness in addition to several other topics of interest. Similar to the other USPC standards, this level is comprised of three different ratings: C-1, C-2 and C-3. Beginning at the C-3 level, a member may select to specialize in dressage or show jumping, or choose to follow the traditional standard, which includes riding on the flat, over fences and in the open.
The B standard is next for those who want to further their knowledge in training, riding theory and the mechanics of riding. Members at this level understand the reasons behind what they are doing and are therefore able to pass on their knowledge to the younger members.
The A rating is divided into two sections: the A rating tests riding ability, while the H/H-A tests the teaching, training and horse management phases. The H/H-A has the ability to care for a horse in a variety of different circumstances and to teach riding and horse care to others. Participants in the Traditional A are typically riding 3'9" fences and have skills that are equivalent to a second level rider. Riders must be comfortable training and retraining horses as well as accessing a horse’s conformation and movement from the ground and under saddle.
Specialty Ratings at C-3 through A require an even greater level of skill in the area of their choice, either dressage or show jumping.
Special Opportunities & Events
In addition to rallies that are held throughout the country, each year the USPC holds National Championships in seven disciplines. Riders who compete at Championships become eligible by qualifying at one of their region’s rallies.
Many avid Pony Club members are familiar with USPC Festival, a weeklong celebration that attracts more than 4,000 members and their families. The festival occurs every three years; the most recent edition was held July 24-31, 2007 at the Kentucky Horse Park, which is home to the USPC National Headquarters.
This event serves as the National Championships for that year in addition to a multi-faceted learning experience for all attendees. Contestants compete in the seven disciplines recognized by Pony Club. The event mixes elements of a traditional horse show with many unique opportunities for learning. Following the competition, the later part of the week is comprised of workshops, lectures, clinics and camps.
USPC offers other learning opportunities including several college scholarships that members are encouraged to apply for. The scholarships are designed to support members in their academic pursuits. In addition, several colleges across North America offer special scholarships to Pony Club members.
Exploring New Horizons
When Pony Club first started, members typically kept their ponies at home in their own backyard. The entire family was responsible for the horse’s care. Today, many owners board their ponies at a nearby stable and do not have the same hands-on experience. The Pony Club curriculum helps bring this hands-on experience and the art of horsemanship back into the equation.
USPC has also found that many parents are interested in becoming involved in order to support their children and to learn more about horses. As a result, USPC recently developed the Horsemasters Program for Adult Volunteers, an adult education program designed to educate parents and other interested adults. The curriculum allows adults to work through various levels of achievement in certain aspects of horsemanship including horse care, nutrition, riding on the flat or lungeing, just to name a few. These volunteers are then encouraged to share their skills with the local Pony Club.
Other new developments include the Riding Center Program, which is currently under a five-year trial period. This initiative is designed to allow members who do not have access to a horse the ability to participate in Pony Club at a designated commercial boarding facility. The facilities must have a lesson program in place, be able to offer the core disciplines of Pony Club and be able to complete the administrative paperwork required to run a Pony Club Riding Center. Facilities interested in becoming a recognized Riding Center should contact the USPC directly for more information.
The Riding Center Program has been declared a complete success at Jordan Stables in Marlboro, Mass., one of only a handful of centers that offers the Pony Club program in the country and one of two in Massachusetts. Over 50 Pony Club members ranging in age from 7 to 17 participate in the Pony Club program offered at Jordan Stables. Assistant Center Administrator Sara Michas and Center Administrator Talia Martin work together to orchestrate the program. Weekly meetings take place on Sundays, where attendees participate in riding lessons followed by unmounted sessions where they learn new material. Members are grouped into teams of 4 or 5 depending on their skill level for meetings and for rallies.
Sara is continually amazed at how well the various age groups work together. “I’m so impressed with how kind and considerate the older members are with the younger members,” she explains. They are more than willing to jump in and help out, providing support and serving as mentors for the young children. Members also have the opportunity to make friendships that last a lifetime. They develop a close bond with one another by not only interacting at meetings and rallies, but at other fun social activities as well including field trips, dances and sleepovers. When asked what she likes most about Pony Club, ten-year-old Zoe Michas, a member of the Jordan Stables Pony Club, says with a smile, “I like everything.”
Hybid Farm in Acton, Mass., has also enjoyed great success as a Pony Club Riding Center. “I love how complete the program is,” explains Assistant Center Administrator and farm owner Rita-Marie McConnon. Similar to Sara, Rita is also impressed at how supportive the older members are. “The older kids are great mentors,” she explains. Rita was new to Pony Club when she was approached by USPC three years ago about making Hybid Farm a Pony Club Riding Center. Since then, she has continued to learn more about the organization. “I had no idea how many resources were available to us through Pony Club until now,” she explains.
Other recent changes include the increased age limit for USPC members, which was recently extended from 21 to 25, allowing members to continue to participate in USPC as they progress through college. Peggy reports that this change has been well received by the membership.
The education that USPC provides extends far beyond basic horse care and horsemanship. Many alumni become Pony Club volunteers, passing their horse knowledge and the treasured Pony Club experience on to the next generation of horse lovers. “Giving back is ingrained in our system. It becomes a part of our members’ lifestyles,” explains Peggy, “and they often choose to become volunteers in Pony Clubs in their communities,” she continues. For more information about Pony Clubs in your area, visit www.ponyclub.org.