Opinion

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I have been called many things but never a pathfinder, until the British Show Pony Society (BSPS) championships three weeks ago when I was given the task of experimenting with a new method of assessing the conformation sections of the Blue Riband final for mini show ponies.

This was introduced with the best of intentions to raise the profile of in-hand presentation and make children, particularly in the first ridden class, more aware of the importance of this phase. And of course, manners in-hand were tested on another level.

Both divisions were judged as a conventional in-hand class, with ponies walking around the ring together and trotting past the judge individually prior to being lined up. Then followed the individual in-hand show, which is the norm. However, the major difference lay with the lead-rein ponies, as each leader presented their charge without the saddle and, wait for it, the most important component in children’s ridden classes — the child. I was informed that some high-profile handlers felt ridiculous, as though they had been mugged en route to the ring, as if “the saddle had been stolen and child kidnapped”!

I was concerned that handlers would become uber competitive and those with past in-hand showing credentials may fire off all cylinders in an effort to impress, producing an extended trot worthy of Charlotte Dujardin rather than maintaining the required, steadier lead-rein pace to accommodate young jockeys. Thankfully that did not happen.

Pros and cons

I don’t like to see a lead-rein pony being presented like an in-hand one anyway. There is a notable difference, with the leader being very much hands-on instead of in the background at the end of the rein, like a safety cord. However, I did welcome a chance to see these ponies stripped bare.

Some would argue that this is the only way to judge conformation, where 50% of the marks are at stake, as it can be a tad awkward seeing through tack, such as larger/smaller saddles and big thick numnahs, which are purposely used as tricks of the trade. There were fewer hill and vale top lines on display, which I attribute to the fact that there are many younger and blood ponies competing in these classes nowadays.

Before the first ridden ponies entered I did warn my stewards to have plenty of nets to catch loose equines and stretchers for the jockeys, but I was pleasantly surprised and relieved that the majority fared well. I presume this is as a result of practising more beforehand, which can only be a positive step.

On reflection, this new method of judging the conformation phase has legs with further trialling — and in all ridden classes, not just first ridden, when the timetable permits. It was, though, a thumbs-down from me in the lead-rein class as the picture looked strangely incomplete without a child in the mix.

Is this the way forward? The BSPS eagerly awaits feedback.

Ref Horse & Hound; 14 September 2017