Want a good start with horses? Try Pony Club

By Nancy Jaffer
June 19, 2016

Pony Club alumni Doug Payne
Four-star eventer and author Doug Payne is one of the best known Pony Club alumni from New Jersey.

Where do young people go to learn about horses if they’re interested not only in riding, but also in finding out how to take care of their mounts and make lasting friendships in the process?
Answer: Pony Club. Such star equestrian athletes as U.S. eventing coach and Olympic gold medalist David O’Connor and Olympic show jumping gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor are among the most prominent alumni. Of more recent vintage are dressage Olympian Adrienne Lyle; her cousin, Maya Black, a contender for the Olympic eventing team; New Jersey Pony Club eventers Doug and Holly Payne and scores of others whose names you’d recognize.

Yet while it’s nice to become a star, that’s not really the point.

“Pony Club is where it all begins,” said Karol Wilson, the U.S. Pony Club’s member services and regional administration director, quoting the organization’s slogan. She noted Pony Club is the largest equestrian educational organization world-wide.

“There’s a long-standing history with the New Jersey region,” said Karol.

“They’re excellent representatives of what Pony Club does, from the grassroots or beginning level all the way up to the A level and those who go on to be Olympians,” she said.

Pony Club emphasizes horsemanship, and in the process, other qualities are developed.

Members of the New Jersey Region Pony Clubs (njregionponyclub.org) are “learning self-esteem, self-discipline, setting goals, learning to fail.” says regional supervisor Cathy Brogan of Frenchtown.

“I think that’s one of the big things that we teach our kids: Everything can go wrong but tomorrow the sun comes up and you go forward. I think that’s a priceless tool. You don’t get an award for showing up, you’ve got to earn it,” she said.

Teamwork also is part of the package for the kids who become involved in Pony Club, which is a low-cost alternative to many other forms of equestrian involvement.

“They make lifelong friends and network together,” Cathy pointed out.

Riding lessons are  a key part of the package, of course, as is offering opportunities for “good shows at first-class facilities.”

The New Jersey Region staged unrecognized horse trials last month at the Horse Park of New Jersey. Next month, it has two shows at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation’s Gladstone facility. An open dressage show will be held there July 23, with a “day for eventers” July 24, featuring dressage eventing tests, combined tests and an eventing derby that includes both stadium jumping and a short cross-country course.

WOW Camp, with outside instructors, runs at the Horse Park at the same time as the U.S. Eventing Association’s  Area II YRAP (Young Riders Advancement Program). There are other instances of doing things with different groups, such as the animal adopt-a-thon at the horse trials, which drew 110 vendors.

New Jersey Region Pony Club competitors
New Jersey Region Pony Club competitors at the national championships. Cathy Brogan is at far right, middle row.

“One thing that really stands out for me about Cathy and what she has done for Pony Club in the New Jersey region is collaborating with other associations and educational opportunities and things beyond, outreach and cross-over type activities that Cathy fosters that give the Pony Clubbers an extra opportunity to apply Pony Club to the outside horse world.” said Karol.

“A lot of the regions we have across the country don’t have those opportunities, or they don’t capitalize on them. She shows that you can be in Pony Club and do other things and how they work together, rather than competing with each other.”

Although she is now the grandmother of seven, Cathy feels so strongly about Pony Club’s values and impact on young people that she has stayed involved, remaining in charge of all the clubs in the state, except for the very southern part.

New Jersey has three Pony Club Centers where members can ride horses owned by the facility if they don’t have their own animals. Cathy estimated 60 to 65 percent of her members are in that category, which is different from the case years ago, when many members owned mounts or could borrow them from friends.

“The traditional Pony Club model was the hand-me-down pony that went from one kid to the next,” recalled former USPC CEO Kevin Price.

The centers are Saddle Ridge in Franklin Lakes; Irish Manor Stable, Sergeantsville, and Piedmont Riding Stables in Hopewell.

Getting out of the ring is an important part of what Pony Club is about. In increasingly urbanized New Jersey, like other areas that continue to develop, “riding in the open is not a reality for most kids,” said Cathy, noting Pony Club counteracts that by enabling members to utilize the property of trail associations or canter through hunt country.

Other activities include the famous Pony Club Games, gymkhanas that you may have seen at Rolex Kentucky or the Central Park show. Public service also can play a role. Cathy noted, for instance, that members of Pinelands Riders in the Columbus area of South Jersey are helping out a woman who is ill and can’t take care of her horses, so they’re going to her farm to ride the animals and handle the chores.

Someone recently was commenting to Cathy about kids who weren’t behaving at horse shows.

“We don’t have that problem in Pony Club,” she replied.

“Even when we run a show open for the public, we’re not running a hunter/jumper show; it’s usually dressage or eventing. It’s a different group of people.  Eventing, you don’t go do it just because you want a ribbon, it takes more effort than that. And the same with dressage. You have to think about it.”

In Pony Club competitions, members are “being judged on how they interact as a team…not as an individual…and their care of the horse all day, from the time they arrive until they go home. They get penalty points if they aren’t correct.”

Everyone undergoes a formal inspection, and teams have a fifth member, the stable manager, who helps them.

Heather Perry and Camille Lieberman
Heather Perry and Camille Lieberman hacking out Pony Club Games ponies in Central Park.

She said membership in the region’s eight clubs has been relatively static, with approximately 160 kids involved, down about 20 from last year. Cathy noted it’s cyclical, with kids graduating all the time and then new children coming in.

Kevin Price, now executive director of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, is a graduate of the Fox and Hounds Pony Club in Burlington County.

He observed that there increasingly is a call for more horsemanship in various breeds and disciplines.

“The world of equestrian sport not as flat as it used to be, with a lot more horizons and possibilities for those entering the sport and who are in the sport,” he said.

Yet “Pony Club still in many aspects fills that niche of horsemanship and horse management because that is the central core of its whole culture. I call Pony Club a culture because it is the culture of managing and caring for the horse. Part of the Pony Club process also teaches a whole range of other skill sets to its members,” Kevin said, noting Pony Club has amplified its offerings to meet the changing needs of the horse community with a variety of tracks (from dressage and show jumping to horse management) that go beyond the eventing/fox hunting milieu that was its original foundation.

From the parents’ side, he said, they “are always looking at not only the value of riding horses and the activity their kids are involved in;  they are looking at the end value of how this can make them a better citizen and improve their potential to go to college and get a job. The Pony Club structure and the testing process (for certificates and certifications) is also backed up by that standard of education: `Here’s what I learned to be awarded that.’

“It’s a meaningful outcome for parents who say, `Yup, this has a lot of end value.’ They also see the growth of their child, not only the team and leadership skills they’re learning as they’re going through the process. Pony Club as an organization is hard to duplicate.”

He added the success of Pony Club, “all comes down to the quality of the volunteers and the passion they have to provide quality education that’s rounded. Cathy carries on that time-honored tradition and culture. If we could clone Cathy, it would be great.”

Much of her volunteer inspiration came from her late father, Bill Keegan, who was active at Watchung Stables and with the Spring Valley Hounds.

If something needs to be done, Cathy’s reaction is, “Well, just jump in and do it. don’t wait for someone else to do it. That was the way he was.”

Cathy first got involved with Pony Club at Spring Valley in New Vernon in 1978, when she became the leader there. Her 47-year-old son, Tim Brogan, is an adult member of pony club and his daughter, Barbara, 14, is also a member, carrying on the family tradition.

“The kids are the reason I do it; they’re awesome. It keeps you young,” said Cathy.

“You get a different perspective on life. It’s not just taking lessons. It’s a whole way of life, it’s a whole family. Everybody reaches out and helps everybody else,” Cathy said.

“If somebody’s horse comes up lame, somebody else will say, `Why don’t you try my horse for now?’ Everybody’s talking the same language. The goals we have for our kids are all the same: Make them very independent, very nice adults.”

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