A spotlight’s on ponies at their dressage show

By Nancy Jaffer
July 17, 2016

Pittstown trainer Lauren Chumley was a winner with Nikolas at one of her favorite shows, the National Pony Dressage Cup. (Photo by Jennifer Keeler)

It all started with a discussion on the issue of dressage ponies that Jenny Carol had with a friend over dinner in 2007.
“I never felt kids were getting the respect they deserved for riding the ponies,” she said, explaining that in dressage shows they were competing with long-striding warmbloods.

She had the answer: a dressage show just for ponies, “so ponies could be with other ponies. It would be a level playing field.”

So in 2008, the National Pony Dressage Cup was born. It was one of those, “if you build it, they will come” type of things, and come they did to Jenny’s home state, Ohio, from as far away as Kansas and Florida.

Eventually, the show ended up at the Kentucky Horse Park, which is where Jenny thought it should be all along.

The 32 ponies who took part the first year increased to 118 this year, representing 18 breeds in 23 divisions before the show wrapped up last weekend. And more adults than kids are riding. Jenny figures two-thirds of the competitors are grown-ups.

“The middle-aged woman is our target customer for ponies. They feel comfortable size-wise. It’s not as intimidating as a giant horse,” she said.

It’s one thing if a woman is very tall, she pointed out, but a pony “matches size-wise a lot of people a lot better. They can influence the movement of that animal much more effectively than on a really large warmblood.”

Jenny, who is 5 feet tall, noted that if she gets on a 16-hand horse, “my legs hardly come down to where they belong.”

The Cup is an annual highlight for many riders, including Pittstown trainer Lauren Chumley, whose clients are as enthusiastic as she is about the event.

“There was a really long time where there that wasn’t much for dressage ponies, but they’ve really worked to make this show a big deal and they’re doing a good job,” explained Lauren, who has competed in most of the Pony Cups over the years.

“She has been a devoted follower of the Pony Cup,” said Jenny.

“She’s an incredibly hard worker. She has so many ponies and does so much with them, they have such a well-rounded balanced career,” continued Jenny, noting many of them jump and event as well as doing dressage.

The 5-foot, 5-inch Lauren has been riding ponies for years, but the Cup is always a highlight of her season, and she praised the way it is run.

“They brought in some great judges,” said Lauren, observing, “Not all judges are pony-friendly,”

She cited Lilo Fore and Lee Tubman for doing a wonderful job, “They had great comments and great feedback.”

Jenny noted, “We try to encourage people at all ability levels to come and really enjoy the sport. We want to reward people no matter what their level of competition is.”

She mentioned that even introductory classes have money prizes.

Lauren competes ponies at all levels. Avatar’s Jazzman, a petite Morgan, has just started Grand Prix.

“It’s not a good Grand Prix yet, but I think it will be because he’s actually pretty gifted in piaffe and passage, which is unusual, but I’ll take it. We just have to get the whole thing cleaned up,” said Lauren.

She was reserve champion in the FEI open division with the Morgan, owned by Melissa Dowling.

Lauren has been getting help from veteran Grand Prix rider Jim Koford, who also competed at the show.

“He’s really helpful with the Grand Prix and very supportive. He’s told me when you start the Grand Prix, you’ve got a good year of messing it up before you get it right,” commented Lauren, noting she hasn’t had much experience at that level.

Unfortunately, adults can’t take a pony in CDIs (international equestrian federation dressage shows); the little guys are only eligible in pony classes restricted to juniors.

“There’s no way I can even fake being a junior,” chuckled Lauren, 32, who is based at Stonebridge Farm.

At the other end of the scale, she won the First Level championship with an overall average of 70.62 percent on Nikolaus, a 5-year-old imported from Germany 2 and 1/2 years ago.

“He’s just five years old, but he is super athletic and very naturally balanced. He has the best brain in the world. I event him too,” she said, noting he had his first beginner novice division outing the week before the Pony Cup.

The eye-catching dun, also owned by Melissa, is a branded Westfalen Riding Pony. He has a distinction in Lauren’s life.

“He’s the only horse in my entire career who has bucked me off when I was breaking him in Flroida,” she said.

“Not only did he buck me off, he bucked me off twice in five minutes. I remember lying under the palm trees saying, `Wow, I’m on the ground again.’”

Nikolas is nearly 14.2 hands, the limit for ponies, and she noted he might grow over that height (warmbloods often have a late growth spurt).

“But I’m fine with that. Then I could do a CDI,” she said.

In his first time showing at Second Level, Nikolas also claimed the open title there with an average of 67.456 percent. He edged Lauren’s second mount, Welsh cob mare Sham’s Chinaberry (67.444 percent), who took the Open Welsh breed award. Chinaberry was reserve champion at Third Level Open as well.

Lauren catch-rides Chinaberry for owner Liam Rowe and his mother, Pam Carter, of Ringoes every year at the Pony Cup; it’s the only show the mare does all year. Chinaberry is trained by Lauren’s friend Bridget Hay, but at 5-11 tall, Bridget “looks completely ridiculous on her,” Lauren said, so that’s how she got the ride.

Lauren is eclectic in her appreciation of breeds. She also enjoys Norwegian Fjord Horses, and her 5-year-old mare, FMF Liesl, finished with the reserve Training Level Open ribbon under the guidance of her assistant trainer, Jessie Hayes of Pittstown.

Their score of 67.509 percent brought them the Neil Sorum Memorial Award for the highest single score earned by a Norwegian Fjord. This sturdy breed has a dun coat and distinctive jaunty black mane edged with grey, cut so the hair stands up straight to emphasize the curve of the neck.

Lauren also trains the successful mother/daughter team of Alayna Borden, 17, a senior at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, and her mother, Karen, 48. Both ride Hakuna Matata, owned by Marsha Montgomery of Whitehouse, a friend of Lauren’s. Marsha, who bred the mare, trained her up to Prix St. Georges, but isn’t riding at the moment, so the timing worked out for Lauren to connect the owner and the Bordens.

Hakuna Matata
Hakuna Matata did double-duty at the National Pony Dressage Cup with the mother-daughter team of Karen and Alayna Borden. (Photo by Jennifer Keeler)

Alayna, who stands 5-5, took the Third Level Junior/Young Rider title with a two-day average of 63.398 percent. Not to be outdone, her mother, who’s 5-8, rode the Oldenburg mare to the Third Level Adult Amateur Division Championship with 64.872 percent. Hakuna Matata also received the Oldenburg breed award.

“She’s such a blast to ride,” said Karen, who asked her daughter for permission, willingly given, to participate in the show too.

“It’s such a nice change of pace from your typical dressage show,” she said.

“For me, it underlines the whole idea of how dressage is for every single horse or pony. When you see those little Welsh cobs giving their all in the extended trot across the arena, it’s such a breath of fresh air from what we’re typically showing against.”

Karen, who works as a pharmacist, noted what fun it is to ride as a partner with her daughter.

“We’re not competitive against each other. We support each other. We ride a little bit differently, and when we’re trying to figure things out, we bounce ideas off each other.”

She added, “I’m very lucky, because she was born with the horse gene. I say to her, `I don’t know what I would have done if you were born with the cheerleader gene.’”

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