Kaja Newell, a member of the championship Perkiomen Creek Pony Club that will be competing in the Prince Philip Cup at Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in April, practices the Egg and Racquet Race, one of the Pony Club mounted games. (Photo by Suzanne Bush)
They call themselves the Avengers, but they look more like pony-crazy young girls, trotting and cantering their ponies in wide circles, waiting to start practice. They’re bundled up against the cold, gray February afternoon, while their moms huddle under blankets along the side of the giant indoor arena. The ponies are fresh and eager to get to work—or to buck and spin. These shivering Avengers are not unlike the cool, notorious British super-agents. But their feats of derring-do are done on horseback. They’re the junior Mounted Games team from Perkiomen Creek Pony Club in Montgomery County and they are prepping for a trip to Lexington, KY in April.
As one of the four regional champions in Mounted Games, they will be part of a Pony Club contingent competing for the Prince Philip Cup at the Rolex Three-Day in April. As juniors, they will compete against other junior teams. Wayne Quarles, the US Pony Club’s Activities and Events Director, says that teams from all over the United States competed at championship events in 2013. Championships Midwest in Kansas City included teams from the West and Midwest; Championships East, which was held in Lexington, VA, included teams from the Eastern US. Four teams were selected based on their cumulative scores in the games and scores in Horse Management. “We had junior games at the Midwest with only a few teams,” Quarles explains. “Three of the four top teams came from the East.”
Horse Management is part of every Pony Club competition and it is at the heart of the organization’s mission. So competitors are judged not only on their skill levels at Games or Dressage, but they are also judged on their knowledge and application of principles that lead to safe, sound horse care practices.
Snow & Ice Interfere
On this freezing Sunday, they’re on their ponies for the first practice in weeks. Snow and ice and a fugitive polar vortex have been conspiring to keep them out of their saddles. But the forces arrayed against them serve only to accentuate their determination and spirit.
Patti Naji is the Co-District Commissioner (DC) for the Perkiomen Creek Pony Club. She’s been part of Pony Club for 15 years, and explains that Pony Club originated in Great Britain in 1929, and much of the terminology used in the rules and the nomenclatures for officials are throwbacks to Great Britain. Thus, she is a DC, as opposed to a regional director. Naji got involved when her kids were young. “What I do is organize the activities for the club. Try to make sure they’re prepared to participate in the competitive activities—although not all the activities are competitive. Many of them are educational.”
In fact, the core of the Pony Club mission is to educate kids about horses. Colonel Howard C. Fair, one of the founders of the United States Pony Club, explained it eloquently. “Our real job is to train our youngsters in the basic care and love of a pony or horse which they can train, ride, and enjoy to the fullest extent, and thereby appreciate everything that this wonderful relationship can mean to man and beast.” That was back in 1953—light years away from today’s milieu of electronics in which young people surf, communicate, entertain themselves, make friends, unfriend, tweet, snapchat and carry on virtual lives of dizzying speed and complexity.
Col. Fair’s high-minded sentiment stacks up pretty nicely against what seems to be an avalanche of distractions that compete for kids’ attention today. The facts behind these young ladies who would rather be in this freezing arena than almost anywhere else on earth are eye-opening. Today there are more than 600 Pony Clubs in the United States and more than 10,000 members. Pony Club now operates in 31 countries, with more than 130,000 members. Add to that all the parents who volunteer as coaches, drivers, cheerleaders, pony walkers, etc.
A Team Sport
Kaja Newell, Elise Barberra, Jaycee Blythe, Madison Cardamone and Leah Northington are the Avengers. Newell, who rides a sparkplug of a pony appropriately named Sparky, explains that Pony Club has helped her find more ways to appreciate all things equine. “I think along the way it has helped encourage me,” she explains. “Before I just rode horses, and Pony club actually helped me understand everything about horses and how they move.” Newell’s mother, Wendi Walker is the Club’s Treasurer.
Elise Barberra has been in Pony Club for six years. “Riding is not really a team sport,” she says, “but Pony Club really pulls everyone together as a team.” Barberra’s mother, Stephanie is Co-DC of the club with Naji.
Jaycee Blythe loves the way Pony Club helps her to meet people. She actually rides with a Pony Club that doesn’t do as much with Mounted Games. Since she loves games in addition to the other Pony Club activities, she competes on the Perkiomen Creek Pony Club in Mounted Games.
With ten years of history in Pony Club, Leah Northington says she has done a lot of different activities. “I’ve been in Pony Club since kindergarten,” she says. “Before when I first joined I did gymkhana, but I really like games now.” She also does Dressage and show jumping.
Madison Cardamone has been in Pony Club for three years. Her mother Betsy is the Club’s Secretary. “I like it because I make a lot of friends, and there are a lot of different options [in Pony Club],” she says. Her favorite activities are show jumping and Mounted Games.
Balance and Speed
His Royal Highness Prince Philip of Edinburgh encouraged the Pony Club to create an equestrian discipline that would reflect some of the techniques used by the Cavalry, and to add a discipline that could bring more children into the ring. He believed it would be an opportunity for children who didn’t have expensive, Dressage or show-ready ponies to experience equestrian competition, and to develop basic riding skills. In 1957, the first Prince Philip Cup was awarded to the team that was best at the new discipline called Mounted Games.
“Mounted Games on horseback is a riding discipline, just like all the others,” Naji explains. “It’s one of seven disciplines the Pony Club officially endorses competition in.” It can be done in teams of five where you have to have a minimum of four riders. It can also be done in pairs and individuals.” While the Avengers team is an all-girl team, Pony Club teams are often composed of both boys and girls. “Boys and girls compete equally,” Naji explains. “Competition is on an equal footing just like all equestrian sports. In fact, when my kids were involved we had a team of three boys and two girls.”
Prince Philip’s vision of Pony Clubbers’ having fun while practicing basic riding skills has grown into an engaging, challenging discipline which focuses on riders’ abilities at mounting and dismounting, picking up objects such as pennants, handing off objects to other riders, placing something into a container, etc. “It involves being very balanced on your horse, being able to do things going at a fast pace,” Naji explains. “Now this is a junior level team, so they’re not going as fast as the riders you may see in YouTube videos.” She says that using these games to build on fundamental skills like balance and coordination is a process that ultimately results in better equestrians. “They start out like any equestrian sport. You start out slow at a walk and a trot and then build up to a canter; and eventually at the top level you do it at a gallop.”
Relay Races on Horseback
The Avengers’ coach, Alicia Royer, was once part of Naji’s Pony Club team. She was an all-around competitor, Naji says. “Alicia was a junior, senior and advanced level games player. She also evented, did show jumping and Dressage in her years in Pony Club.” She says that each of the games included in the Pony Club’s portfolio of Mounted Games has common principles. “They’re relay races on horseback,” she says. “They involve being very balanced on your horse, being able to do things at fast speed.”
Royer is setting up the course for the first game, the Egg and Racquet Race which features an egg on a tennis racket. Each rider must keep the egg—a wooden “egg” from a craft store—on the face of the racket as she rides through a series of bending poles, returns to the starting point and hands the racket off to the next rider. Riders can’t touch or drop the egg. If it’s dropped, the rider must dismount and replace the egg on the racket. Tick. Tock. Every second counts.
Royer patiently coaches the riders as they make their way through the bending poles, and as they hand off the racket to the next rider. She reminds them to be patient, to keep their eyes on the egg, to be careful when handing the racket off. She doesn’t let the girls get frustrated with the inevitable mishaps.
Next up, the Three Legged Race, in which one rider gallops from the start line to the changeover line, where a teammates waits, dismounted and holding her pony. The rider is carrying a feed sack which she tosses to her teammate as she crosses the changeover line, dismounts and steps into the feed sack with one foot. Her teammate steps into the feed sack also. Then the two teammates, and their ponies, race back toward the start line. “Talk to her. Talk to her,” Royer shouts, urging the girls to count off their strides. It’s chaotic and fast and clearly a lot of fun as two girls and two ponies race to get 11 legs across the finish line.
And on it goes. Game after game. The girls may miss handoffs, then make spectacular recoveries, ponies act up and then act like champions, the arena is freezing but through it all Royer and her team remain focused.
Late afternoon, the girls are walking around the arena, cooling their ponies. Snow has started again. These girls and their moms and their coach have spent the better part of a Sunday afternoon working at play. And improving their game. In doing that, they’ve been fulfilling Pony Club’s mission for Mounted Games: “to provide a mounted sport that teaches the basic natural aids of hand, seat, leg, weight and voice as well as physical coordination, self-confidence, teamwork skills, and the proper care of mounts…”