Learning Life Skills Through Horses

Pony Club teaches youth horsemanship, responsibility, teamwork

By Jess Clawson
Youth in Clarke County and the surrounding areas are working together to learn about good horsemanship and support Clarke County land conservation through the Blue Ridge Hunt Pony Club.
BRHPC is a branch of the United States Pony Club (USPC), a national organization for youth that teaches horseback riding, mounted sports, and the care of horses and ponies. Participants — from age six to 25 — learn horsemanship as well as responsibility, moral judgment, and self-confidence. Members participate in mounted and unmounted instruction, represent the club in regional and national competitions known as rallies, and learn to become well-rounded horse people. They achieve certifications along the way: those who attain A level are considered ready to become a professional horse trainer.
The local club is based in Clarke County, with members residing in surrounding counties, Northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C. BRHPC is historically important to the area and to the national organization: it was the first Pony Club chapter formed in the United States.
In 1953, a temporary advisory committee including local resident Alexander Mackay-Smith called a meeting of 22 interested people to propose establishing what became USPC. By the end of 1954, there were 22 member clubs in seven regions across the country. Currently, there are nearly 600 Pony Club and Pony Club Riding Centers serving over 10,000 members nationwide. Pony Clubs exist worldwide, with clubs in 30 countries.
USPC was modeled after the British Pony Clubs. “Many of the first Pony Clubs in America, such as BRHPC, were grown out of a [foxhunt club],” says BRPHC district commissioner Anne Williams. “Foxhunting, therefore, remains one of the disciplines of the USPC, and members are still educated about the sport.”
The focus of BRHPC, according to co-district commissioner Mary Schwentker, is horsemanship. “We provide opportunities to learn life skills through horses,” she says. “The certifications provide an opportunity for our members to set goals and work hard toward those goals. Our members learn to be independent and responsible to their horses and team members at rallies.”
Youth who are genuinely interested in horses can join Pony Club to build a solid foundation for horsemanship. Williams says, “I have worked in barns where children arrive, get on a pony, have their lesson, dismount, and go home without ever learning how to care for the pony. Pony Club is the whole package. It enhances the mounted instruction children already receive and introduces them to the complexities and importance of horse care. We are fortunate that local trainers and instructors recognize that aspect of Pony Club in our area and encourage their students to join so they will be well-rounded.”
Members seek out Pony Club because it’s fun, too. “BRHPC is like a family,” Schwentker says. “We have many activities throughout the year, both mounted and unmounted. Our members work hard but always have fun.”
Many BRHPC members ride competitively as well as participate in pony club. “The pony club program places a strong emphasis on horsemanship, knowledge of horse care, and management,” says Schwentker. “We are producing individuals who can be successful in the show ring and also have depth of knowledge in regard to horsemanship. They are self-reliant, they know the importance of volunteering and giving back to the sport, they know what it is to win and not win with grace. People coming from Pony Club are some of the most well-rounded horsemen in the sport.”
Local top riders with Pony Club roots include Schwentker herself — a USPC national examiner and eventing professional, as well as United States Dressage Federation silver medalist; David and Karen O’Connor, Cathy Frederickson (also a national examiner) Stephen Bradley, Sara Kozumplik, Phyllis Dawson, and top amateur Dr. Dorothy Eisenberg.
While Pony Club has traditionally built the curriculum around the sport of eventing, members can now choose to specialize in eventing, dressage, and show jumping. Further, there are also rallies in dressage, eventing, foxhunting, mounted games, polo, and others.
“Today, you could go through all of the [national level] certifications on a horse management track and never ride at all,” says Williams. “Or you could be on a dressage track and never jump, or a show jumping track and never ride cross country, and still reach your A certification.” It’s very different from when she and Schwentker were in Pony Club, she adds, but it furthers the goals of Pony Club to be accessible to everyone, no matter what their interest is.”
Rallies are a good experience for young riders. They compete on teams of three or four riders and a stable manager. “The opportunity to compete on a team in equestrian sports is often not seen until international competition,” Schwentker says. “No parents are allowed in the barns or the warm up. Members are judged on their stable management, turnout of the horses, and tack before and after their rides — in addition to their performances in the ring. They are responsible to get to the inspections and rings on time. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn responsibility and teamwork.”
At each of the regional rallies, up to four individuals will form a regional team and compete at the USPC National Championships. Pony Club members also have the opportunity for international exchange teams in games, polocross, eventing, and foxhunting.
The local chapter benefits the Clarke County area beyond producing well-rounded and knowledgeable horsemen. “Clarke County is a haven for horse people, especially fox hunters,” says Williams. “We are so very fortunate to live in an area where so much land is in conservation easements and protected from development. Our young people are hopefully going to be the next stewards of this amazing county, and that’s why Pony Club is important for them to be a part of.”
Every summer they have a weeklong camp at Long Branch to help prepare for rallies and certifications, where they focus in part on land conservation. “We are very fortunate to hold our camp at Long Branch. Last year we took advantage of learning about the recent improvements the organization has made to the actual Long Branch stream that runs through the property,” says Williams. Local member Lindy Davenport organized a lecture and tour of the waterway protection effort taking place at Long Branch. Members had the opportunity to learn about the fencing that had been installed to protect banks and how keeping a herd of horses out of the stream would benefit the water. “It made the kids look at how everything they do, even something as simple as turning a horse out, affects something else in the environment.”
Longtime supporter Iona Pillion often takes members on long trail rides so that members, especially those who do not participate in fox hunting, “can see how lucky they are to have landowners who support the sport and the land itself to enjoy,” says Williams. “She is always quick to remind the kids of these points.”
The national organization also emphasizes land conservation. “The USPC includes a land conservation requirement in each of the horse management certifications,” says Schwentker. At the lowest level, “Members are required to know three locations where the activities take place. As the members progress through the A horsemanship test, they need to be able to discuss the area’s land conservation concerns and initiatives.”
Pony Club prepared Schwentker for her career as a professional. “My experience in Pony Club has given me a strong foundation in horsemanship,” she says. “From here it has been easy to gain the knowledge needed to compete successfully at the upper levels of eventing. Even if I had chosen a career outside of horses, I am certain that the life lessons learned in Pony Club would help me to succeed in any field.”
Pony Club also encourages volunteerism. “Pony Club encourages members to give their time generously, whether that manifests itself by requiring older members to teach younger members, or seeing alumni who want to return to be club leaders, judges at rallies, and becoming involved with the Pony Club at the national level,” says Williams.
Anyone wishing for more information on joining the club or upcoming activities can contact Anne Williams at 540-303-3931 or annewilliams81@gmail.com.