Reforming the Pony
I was the ripe old age of twenty-four the first
time I ever heard the term 'Pony Club.' Up until that
time, my riding experience was limited to hunter shows
and the occasional trail ride. A home port change for
the submarine I was serving on at the time
necessitated a move to New Hampshire. As fortune would
have it, the closest barn to the sub base was also the
home to the Haverhill Pony Club. While the folks
seemed nice, and the facility was well kept, the real
clincher for me was that board included three lessons
a week with all the Pony Club members.
Having spent years with big prestigious show hunter
riders, going to a barn full of ponies and taking
lessons with kids didn't exactly thrill me. But not
having to shell out $80 bucks for a lesson did have
its benefits. It didn't take long for reality to make
itself known. For the first few days I kept quiet, not
sure how to broach the question of where all the
ponies were. I really found myself scratching my head
at the start of my first group lesson when I walked
into the arena and found myself among a group of
adults and kids, all on horses!
That evening, the club's DC took me out for drinks
and explained the goals and structure of the Pony
Club. They helped me fit in and the kids gave me an
honorary rating of F-4, or was it 4-F?
Over the next two years, the Haverhill Pony Club
guided my introduction to the world of eventing and
I've never looked back. The end of the submarine
overhaul and a career change ended my involvement with
the Haverhill Pony Club. For the following few years,
my involvement with Pony Club was limited to trying to
date A's and B's of legal age.
The years have passed and I now live with my wife
in Maryland. Not too many years back, a B Pony Clubber
asked to board with us as she went to a local college.
She was great. Shortly after she left, another B asked
to board with us. She too was great. Then came C-2
Pony Clubber Cassie……
I first met Cassie Frederick at the MCTA horse
trials. At the time she was struggling to solidify her
position as a training level eventer. The struggle
wasn’’t due to her ability, but to her situation.
Her ride was a loaner horse whom she got only after
the hunt season was over. As a result, in the spring
she was forever playing catch-up, and in the fall,
just when she got things rolling, she would have to
send the horse back to the hunt. In spite of all these
obstacles, she was still doing pretty well.
Like most good young riders, Cassie was bitten by
the horse bug at an early age. As a tot, she would
spend entire afternoons just sitting on horses while
they grazed and would scream for hours if her Mom
dared take her down. All Cassie ever wanted was a pony
of her own. Unable to resist her pleas any longer, her
parents finally gave in, and at the age of 12 she
received a Christmas present named Pasha.
Pasha, was a very (emphasis on very!) green
three-year-old who, while being tried out for the
first time, immediately dumped Cassie to the ground.
Unfazed, Cassie rolled to her feet and informed her
Mom, "He's great!" Cassie's judgment proved
correct, and the pair was quite successful, winning
enough ribbons to paper the bedroom and stall several
Cassie's success with Pasha, as great as it was,
was not so remarkable when you consider the background
of her riding mentor. Kittie, Cassie's mother, was an
'A' level show hunter rider, who is a teacher by
profession and has a wonderful natural eye for horses
and their training.
Easy wins in the hunter ring, however, soon got
old, and Cassie began casting about for something more
challenging. In the fall of 1996 Cassie joined Pony
Club, and like me thirteen years earlier, was
introduced to the world of eventing. To no one's
surprise, Pasha and Cassie ended that year with a run
at the Pony Club Nationals.
Cassie eventually outgrew Pasha. Fortunately, her
mother had others waiting in the wings. Unable to
afford made horses, the pair would scan want ads and
patrol auctions for horses that showed potential.
Under the watchful eye of her mother, some made it, a
few didn't, but no matter the outcome, Cassie never
failed to learn something. Cassie borrowed and begged,
and took what came. She rode what she sat on as best
she could and learned from them all.
Cassie soon mastered everything her small Pony Club
could offer. While her mother felt confidant helping
her at Novice and Training, when Cassie mentioned
wanting to take a crack at Preliminary, Kittie counted
herself out. For reasons that still escape me, Cassie
asked me for help.
Now as for the title of the story, it goes like
this. Around our barn, help is more valuable than
money. As such, lessons are exchanged for help. This
has several benefits. One, it frees my wife for
gardening. Two, it lightens the financial burden on
the parents. Three, and most importantly, because kids
earn the lessons themselves, they seem to pay more
attention to what is being taught and work harder at
Unlike the two previous Pony Clubbers we had,
Cassie was a fervent Pony Clubber. It soon became
apparent to us all that the 'Pony Club according to
Cassie' had rules for just about everything under the
sun - from how to fold a towel, to the proper way to
sweep a barn aisle, how to wrap a horse's leg, even
how much to fill a water bucket!
Now don't get me wrong. The standards the Pony Club
encourages are great -- no ifs, and, or buts. But they
are standards, not laws. While verbatim compliance is
sufficient for some, for others, it is the rationale
behind them that is important.
I count my wife, Audrey, in the latter group. After
four years as a USET groom, and countless more caring
for International mounts, she works to her own
standards, the quality of which no one could ever dare
doubt. My first recognition of the gulf between my
standards and my future wife's came when I was showing
off my nuclear-engineered muck pile. Knowing her
background, I had sought to impress her, and toiled on
the muck heap’’s square-ness for hour upon hour.
In spite of my efforts, she was unimpressed, and even
asked when I planned to 'square it up?' Figuring that
anyone with such a keen eye would assuredly keep my
horses in the style I desired, I married her.
So it was into Audrey's barn that Cassie walked,
and in spite of everyone's best intentions things got
off to a rocky start. Unaware of Audrey's background,
and in hopes of proving her worth, Cassie began to
note to Audrey various noncompliance with Pony Club
standards, even going so far as to cite specific PC
chapter and verse.
Audrey looked at Cassie serenely and went on her
way. For what seemed like an eternity, but actually
was just a few days, we turned a deaf ear to Cassie's
Pony Club raves. But suffice it say, Audrey soon had
her fill. Cassie soon learned in no uncertain terms
that Audrey did not care to be held to Pony Club
standards, her Olympic standards suited her quite
well, thank you very much.
To Cassie's credit, she took it all in and never
missed a beat. Soon she was asking Audrey the
rationale behind what Audrey did, and in doing so,
began to add Audrey's years of experience to what she
had been learned at Pony Club.
Cassie's willingness to change and explore new ways
of handling horses made it easy to like her, though
for a time, she was rather gun shy. This had its
humorous benefits, which everyone at the barn jumped
to exploit. A casual stare, a blank face, was sure to
elicit a nervous response of "What?" from
Cassie. The more we stared, the more nervous she got,
eventually however, she caught onto the joke.
Cassie is now a regular part of the crew. We always
look forward to seeing her. No matter how horrible the
weather, she is always happy and cheerful. We don't
hear much about Pony Club anymore, but knowing Cassie,
Pony Club will always be in her life. Somewhere out
there is a Pony Club that is destined to have her as
their DC, and when they get her, they're going to get
someone very knowledgeable and very special. Someone
who will have developed her own "best" way,
backed with solid rationale. This by the way, is what
I understand a graduate "A" is all about.
Unfortunately for Cassie, she had no sooner joined
our crew then her loner horse went lame, and any hope of
a run at Preliminary was banished for the foreseeable
future. Undaunted, Cassie turned her attention and
efforts towards her own horse, Irish, a big, loveable
five year old. The adventures of the two as they learned
to become a winning team, are stories in themselves……
other horse related stories by Michael Hillman
other stories by Michael Hillman