Denver horseback riding instructor Nancy Sachs was preparing to teach some of her students the fundamentals of jumping and pointed to the 1-foot-high hurdle over which they would first practice. "Have any of you ever jumped a jump that high?" she asked.
"Do you mean on purpose," asked one youngster in all earnestness, "or not on purpose?"
And THAT, says Sachs, who now laughs about the incident, is precisely why horse-loving youngsters across the world get into Pony Club. The emphasis is on learning to ride safely, keeping your horse under control at all times – and NEVER going over a jump unintentionally.
What Is Pony Club?
Pony Club is one of the largest junior equestrian organizations in the world, with clubs in 30 countries. The United States Pony Club, based in Lexington, Ky., has 600 chapters in 48 states and the Virgin Islands, and more than 12,000 members.
The first thing to know about Pony Club is that "pony" refers to the age of the riders, not to their mounts. Young people up to age 21 may participate in Pony Club programs in dressage, cross-country, show jumping, vaulting, foxhunting and other equestrian sports.
While horseback riding activities slow to a walk during cold winters, during warm weather clubs typically meet weekly, with most of the gatherings conducted on horseback. But at least once a month, members get together for an "unmounted" program to learn about such on-the-ground necessities as proper care and feeding of a horse, shoeing and veterinary care.
"It's a really good structure," says 15-year-old Lara Permut, a high school sophomore who lives near Boulder, Colo., who has been a member of the 12-rider Boulder Valley Pony Club for almost five years. "Riding horses can be such a dangerous sport. This gives kids the ability to have fun around horses without getting hurt as often."
Helmets, by the way, are mandatory at all Pony Club events.
Nine Levels of Equestrian Knowledge
Pony Club members have the chance to work their way through nine progressive levels of equestrian knowledge and riding ability. Older members are encouraged to work with younger ones, especially at the weeklong summer rallies that draw dozens to hundreds of riders.
"Oh, we camp out during Rally. The kids are in their tents," says Sachs, who is District Commissioner (Pony Club lingo for the person who fills out all the paperwork) for the 42-member Platte Valley Pony Club in suburban Denver. Her daughter is a member of the club.
"The kids are responsible for everything. There are no grooms around, no moms brushing horses. The kids compete as a team and are totally responsible for getting their horses in the ring. They show up sometimes with their clothes on backward, the saddle hanging off the side, but they do learn responsibility," Sachs says.
Not surprisingly, most Pony Clubbers are girls. Fewer than 10 percent of members are boys. Typically, "the boys must be VERY into riding and just naturally like girls," says Sachs. She says the five boys in her club appear quite happy spending so much time with girls – and she's surprised more boys haven't figured that out. "Unfortunately, most of the girls like their horses better than they like boys – which is why we parents do what we're doing."
National dues are $70 a year. Local and regional dues can vary, but they're roughly equal to national dues. So for under $150 a year, Pony Club members get extensive riding lessons, either for free or at a reduced rate. "We don't want any kids that really want to ride a horses not to have the chance to learn," says Sachs.
Pony Club members don't have to own their own horse, but they must have access to one. Many of the clubs meet at stables and equestrian clubs that have school horses available.
Pony Club began in England in 1929, and the emphasis remains on English riding. Even so, out west many of the horses are western horses, and the saddles used are western saddles. "Here in Colorado, we can't be too snooty about it," Sachs says.
For more information about the United States Pony Club – including contact names and telephone numbers for clubs in your area – check out the USPC Web site at www.ponyclub.org