Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pony Club: What is it? Should we join?

I first heard of Pony Club when I took my daughter to a great dressage barn up in Maine for lessons a few summers ago.  The barn owner made an obscure reference to having jumped 4 feet without stirrups and all that other crazy pony club stuff but she was done jumping.  I was mystified and wondered what she meant. 

When we decided to change barns, we soon found ourselves out of our depth.  Our first barn, like most hunter/jumper barns, took care of everything for us.  I had no idea what the pony ate or when, or any idea what to do about veterinary and dental care.  They arranged all of it and I wrote a check.  On show days the instructors loaded the ponies into their trailer and drove them to the show.  It was great!  Then again, I like knowing all that stuff and doing it for myself.  When we switched to eventing, our new trainer (a past pony clubber herself) was willing to show us what to do and stand next to us as we learned but she wasn’t going to do it for us.  This was just what we wanted but it was also a little intimidating.  We needed more support, more education.  Enter Pony Club.

I often describe Pony Club to non-horse friends as Girl Scouts but you bring your pony. The United States Pony Club is divided into regions which each contain a number of clubs.  Clubs can take 2 forms.  A Center is one in which a barn, and often one particular instructor, runs a pony club at their facility for the kids who ride there.  The advantage to this model is that kids who may not have access to their own mount can participate easily.  The downside can be that the education is less broad, coming primarily from the instructor they ride with each week.  In contrast, ours is a traditional Pony Club, meaning that it has no single location.  Many of our members keep their ponies at home (any equine animal being used by a pony clubber is known as a pony, regardless of size) and most of the mothers ride as well.  We have several barns in the area that host us and one that hosts our annual August camp.  The advantage to this type of club is exposure to many instructors from multiple disciplines and the presence of experienced horsepeople in the ranks of our sponsors (what they call the parents of pony clubbers).  I suppose the downside to this model is that it’s difficult to participate fully without your own pony or your own trailer but I’ve been really impressed with the horse community in our area and how much they have done to keep kids in the program.

Pony Club provides an enriching program of education in both horse management and riding.  Over time, members achieve “Ratings” based on their proficiency in these two areas.  Pony Club originally emerged from the eventing discipline so the traditional path is heavily influenced by the skills and riding style of the eventer but there are now other paths one can take through pony club at the higher levels.  Ratings are conducted once or twice a year depending on the number of participants and the levels they are testing for.  You can think of it like a karate test for a higher belt.  The candidates are being tested against a standard.  All can pass or all can fail or there can be a mix.  Sometimes candidates pass one portion such as horse management but not another, such as the riding portion.

The ratings are as follows:

Unrated – What we call a pony clubber prior to their first ratings test.
D1, D2, D3 – D1 is the first rating attained and is pretty basic.  By the time a rider reaches the D3 they are jumping 2’3” both in an enclosed space and in an open field as well as having a pretty hefty knowledge of tack, horse anatomy, veterinary care, etc. The D3 level is the first to require a record book which includes a good deal of information about your pony - farrier and vet visits, training, costs of everything.  My daughter is a D2, hoping to do her D3 next fall. 
C1, C2, C3 – This is pretty serious stuff. I observed a C1/C2 rating conducted by a national examiner and was seriously impressed with the young women who tested (and all passed).  The C2 is jumping over 3’.  The C3 gets particularly serious with candidates switching horses for part of the riding portion.  The young women in our club who are C2’s are juniors and seniors in high school. Ratings C3 and above are conducted on the national level.
HB – This rating means you have achieved a B rating in horse management but have not yet rated a B in riding.  Some candidates prefer to do their HB first and their C3 after. 
B – The “traditional” B rating is both horse management and riding and includes all possible riding options.  There are paths that allow a person to focus on dressage riding or hunter style riding in an enclosed space without jumping in the open.
HA – Similar to HB but at a higher level of knowledge.
A – The “traditional A rating” is the highest level in pony club and must be attained by the age of 25.  It is extremely rare that a rider makes it through this rating.  Not only does the rider need to be extremely knowledgeable and capable, they need to have a horse that can jump high for them as well as for a fellow pony clubber who has never ridden their mount before.

Now that you are thoroughly confused, I’ll tell you a little about why we LOVE Pony Club.  Elizabeth and I have both made friends in Pony Club.  In the beginning I called our new friends almost daily with questions and they were always there for us.  Our club conducts 2 mounted meetings per month April through November which means Elizabeth and her friends are taking their ponies places together on a very regular basis.  The impact this has on my daughter’s connection to her pony and her confidence is enormous.  The camp our club does in August was the greatest week of Elizabeth’s life.  As horse camp goes, it’s incredibly low cost.  Parents provide the supervision and the kids do all the work.  They muck their own stalls, take turns coming early to feed and late to do night check.  They ride twice a day and have a multitude of instructors.  They even completed a 3-phase event within camp.  I loved it so much I’m in charge of camp for next year.  We love pony club because we feel like a real part of our community.  We know people now anywhere we go – to a horse show, another barn, the tack shop.  Elizabeth is passionate about horses, not just winning ribbons.  For her Pony Club is as exciting as showing, maybe more so since there is no pressure during a mounted meeting, and her ratings mean a great deal to her.  On a practical side, your Pony Club rating means something to other horse people.  When you tell someone you are a C3, they know what it means.  Your rating is a clear indication of your knowledge and your capabilities as a rider.

Pony Club is also about leadership.  The older girls in our club conduct the lower level ratings, teach unmounted meetings and mentor kids who are working on a rating.  They also act as stable managers at rallies and as such go to bat for their riders over the rules when they deem a ruling unfair – this is sometimes amusing for the adults to watch but also gratifying to see typically shy horsey girls handle themselves with strength and determination.

Did I lose you at rally and stable manager?  The other major thing we do in Pony Club is rally.  There are 5 - 6 rallies in each region each year.  A rally has a theme – dressage, show jumping, eventing, tetrathalon (don’t ask, but it involves swimming and shooting and is super fun), quiz (tests horse knowledge).  Clubs form teams of 4 – 5 riders.  Each rider is considered and scored based on their own rating so a team can have D’s, C’s and B’s all together.  There is a written test in addition to the scored riding portion of the rally which resembles a horse show.  There are also inspections of each pony and rider team and of the teams’ stabling areas.  The stable manager is a member of the team who does not ride in the competition.  The stable manager makes sure each member of the team is where they need to be and is doing what they should be doing, that their tack is clean and in order and that they are doing things in the proper order.  Awards are given for both riding and horse management.  Some rallies are "qualifying rallies" meaning that competitors can qualify for nationals and compete in a bigger pony club arena.  Every three years nationals takes place at the Kentucky Horse Park so it's pretty exciting!

My favorite part of rallying is “turn back” in which each team must clean all their tack and reorganize their stable area to absolute perfection for one final inspection before they pack up to go home.  This is a GREAT life lesson!!!!  It is so wonderful to get home to unload and be all ready for the next day because the work was done right away, especially since it is usually very late at night by that point and you've already put in a 16 hour day.

What is the commitment?  Well, like all things with horses, pretty big, but in my eyes manageable and well worth it.  I’m sure every club is different but we have one “sponsor’s” meeting a month (skipping August and December), mounted meetings in the good weather, unmounted meetings in the winter.  A member is really expected to attend most of these meetings and a parent is expected to accompany them.  If a member is working toward a new rating there will be rating prep meetings to attend as well as the rating itself.  This can be extremely time consuming.  Rallies and camp are optional but add greatly to the experience.  As kids get older and have more commitments outside pony club or are more focused on showing, they will sometimes choose not to go to camp.  Many of the rallies fall on days we have a horse show so Elizabeth only rallied once in 2013 but we hope to rally much more in the year ahead!  Financially, Pony Club is a bargain as horse activities go.  We pay dues to our local club and our national organization.  We fundraise, requiring every member to do 3 - 4 shifts at a horse show concession stand in the summer and for one parent to join them for each shift.  Each mounted meeting usually has a fee – in our club the member pays the facility use fee and our club pays the instructors, making the fundraising well worth the effort.  Rallies cost about as much to enter as a schooling show.  The big expenses are the horse and transportation which is why I bought a trailer.  I can’t imagine being in pony club without a trailer.  I have friends who do it but it would drive me crazy to never be 100% certain how I was getting anywhere. 

Pony Club teaches kids to be independent and responsible.  They learn the skills and knowledge required to be good horse custodians.  Because of the heavy parent involvement, we learn about being good custodians as well.  Since having a horsey child can take over a good portion of your time, it’s really nice to find a group of non-competitive parents to bond with on the topic.  I can’t say enough about how healthy and productive the Pony Club experience has been for us.

One of my favorite things about Pony Club is the interaction between kids of varying age groups.  Our club has kids from age 8 - 18 and you are as likely to find an 11 year old and 16 year old chatting as you are to find two kids of the same age together.  My daughter has more in common with a pony clubber two years older than her than she does with most of the girls in her class at school.  The older girls are wonderful mentors and good friends to the younger girls.  As parents we love watching them build relationships built on more than just their age or grade in school.

I could go on all day and still only scratch the surface so if you would like more information here are a few links.  Pony Club's new website has a great page for parents with some basic information.  This D Level ratings flowchart will give you an idea of what is required both in knowledge and riding skill at the first 3 levels of pony club ratings.  Whether you join Pony Club or not, if you buy or lease a pony the D Level Manual is a great resource.  We have actually found the C Level Manual to be of even greater use.  It doesn’t take long to need that little bit more information about horse management issues when you have your own pony.  Both manuals are also available from Amazon for the Kindle.  There are other awesome Pony Club books, especially if you already know a good deal about horses and just want to expand your knowledge.

For our family, the idea of having a pony and just riding it doesn’t quite work.  A pony enables our daughter to do a sport but it's not the equivalent of a lacrosse stick or hockey skates.  A pony is not just a pet but another member of the family.  Many days Pumba is Elizabeth's best friend.  They are a team and sometimes they get along and sometimes they don't.  A pony needs constant care and attention. Fortunately Elizabeth loves everything about having a pony from mucking to tacking, from riding on the flat, to going over jumps in the field (which sometimes scares her but she loves to do it anyway).  She's passionate about learning about horse illness, dangerous plants, how to wrap her pony's legs properly.  And she loves to just spend time talking to him, grooming him and giving him treats.  Buying Elizabeth a pony was a great decision and Pony Club has contributed a great deal to the happy circumstances we now find ourselves in.

Happy Pony Clubbing!



  1. As an HB pony clobber that sometimes struggles to communicate to prospective members what USPC is all about I LOVE your explanation.

  2. Kelsey I'm so glad to hear this. Pony Club truly is the best gift I ever gave my daughter. We are off to Champs again this year for Quiz. Hopefully in two more years we will go with a horse. It's an incredible organization!

  3. This is fantastic. Your explanation is spot on. I was in pony club as a kid. I started our local club 20 years ago and have been involved in it since. My 9 years old daughter is a D2 and moving up fast. I have a lot of knowledge on Pony Club but could never explain it to non pony club people very well. So this a great. Thank you so much for post this.

  4. Hi Im a Pony Club mom of two girls and just became a Horsemaster (Im green, lol!) Would you mind if we shared this on our Pony Club webpage? Thank you!

  5. Hi Im a Pony Club mom of two girls and just became a Horsemaster (Im green, lol!) Would you mind if we shared this on our Pony Club webpage? Thank you!

  6. Thanks! We are starting a PC in Savannah GA area and we just shared your blog post!

  7. Your explanation is fabulous! May it be used for marketing for USPC?

    1. Hi Laurie! My apologies. I replied to your comment in my email application and it was a no reply comment so you never received my response. I would love USPC to use this and any other post for anything it deems useful. I am planning to edit it this week, correcting the links to the new website. I am on the Membership Committee and now the Jt. DC of Norfolk Hunt Pony Club. Hard to believe how far we've come in Pony Club. My daughter is planning to do her C2 in August. I am so incredibly impressed with who she is becoming and Pony Club is playing a very significant role. Thank you!

  8. It is really a nice and helpful piece of info. I’m glad that you simply shared this helpful info with us. Thank you for sharing.!! Equestrian Riding Lessons

  9. I would just like to add that we have enjoyed our Pony Club experience, overall as well. However, we have found that there is a dark side. There are a lot of politics and it's important to navigate that carefully. There are moms there who are very controlling and worried about the club, and don't take new ideas or suggestions well. So, just like the PTA, when you get involved, you have to decide if you're up to the politics. If not just stay away from the sponsor's meetings and volunteer with a happy face! They'll be certainly glad to have more helping hands. Another dark side, in my opinion is the ratings. THE USPC has completely ruined the Pony Club ratings. In the UK they are a quite relaxed, unofficial event and the Pony Clubber earns a beautiful badge for her backpack. There is a list to follow but it is not a life changing serious event akin to the Military. The level of detail required for the record books is astounding. for the D3 level, there can be no dirt anywhere on the horse, at all. Not even if the dirt was accumulated walking to meet the examiner. The record book must have every date, every dollar, every detail, and every measure in ounces of every supplement. AND my daughter was strongly encouraged to type it. The dark side is that the kids either get very frustrated or THEIR PARENTS DO THE WORK, in which case the kids aren't learning anything! At the C1 level even the most attentive girls fail, or are offered a re-test within 30 days. That is very stressful to travel with a 100% clean horse to a regional testing center, and then have to do it all over again the same month. I wish we were in the UK where Pony Club encourages girls. Here it does nothing but discourage all but the most TYPE A extremely detail oriented girls OR those whose parents are willing to yell, scream, push, and do half the work for them. So, if you join Pony Club, skip the ratings. They're not worth it. (although, my daughter has learned a lot of respect and a lot of perseverance with complying to outside standards...so I am glad she has persevered through this level but she will never do another rating.) The only exception to my advice is if you truly have a driven, detail oriented extremely type A daughter who loves minute attention to detail and craves the award, or needs the certificates to attend college with her horse or something like that.

  10. This must be a criticism of your specific club or a particular national examiner. Yes it is the “driver’s ed” version of horse riding but not to a fault. No snobby political parents in our club either. We are all friends and enjoy the get togethers as much as the kids.