Horse & Hound’s definitive guide to show pony classes *H&H Plus*

  • In the first of a new online series, Tricia Johnson explains why the British show pony remains the envy of the world, what it takes for a pony to succeed and shares exclusive insight from top judges on what they will – and won’t – forgive...

    The British show pony, one of the longest-established showing categories dating back to the 1920s, is alive, well and indeed flourishing.

    More than six decades after providing the inspiration for the society which bears its name (British Show Pony Society (BSPS)), the ‘children’s riding pony’ — as it is usually described in schedules — is still the envy of the world.

    Show pony classes are held at all levels, ranging from “fun” local or riding club shows right up to the championship peaks at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) — where they have been part of the schedule since the show’s inception in 1949 — and the Royal International Horse Show (RIHS), which began in 1907.

    Classes are held at most major county and society area shows too, with some very old and much-cherished trophies on offer for section champions. The BSPS summer championships have a particularly impressive trophy collection on offer with some cups dating back to 1949.

    Credit: The British Show Pony Society

    Also included below:

    What makes the show pony so special?

    “Most people who have been involved with them — despite their equine interests progressing into horses and other disciplines — will admit that there is something about the true children’s riding pony that captures the heart and the passion never quite diminishes,” says judge Jamie Mead, herself a highly successful jockey as a child with her family’s ponies under the Team Jago banner.

    Which ponies can compete?

    Show pony sections are divided into three height sections: 128cm, 138cm and 148cm, and can fall into different categories, each governed by an individual society’s rules. Broadly, these categories are: novice, restricted and open, which each depend on the level of an animal’s experience and winnings. There is also an additional section, the Pretty Polly (home-produced), which is open only to animals produced by amateurs, rather than professionals.

    Legendary show pony Pretty Polly, after which the BSPS’s home-produced classes were named.

    In the UK, the riding pony studbook is still administered by the National Pony Society (NPS) — first formed in 1893 as the Polo Pony Stud Book Society and renamed 20 years later— but most affiliated show pony classes on the competition circuit now take place under BSPS rules. In order to compete in these — and importantly, in qualifiers for RIHS — you therefore have to be a BSPS member and your pony has to be registered with this society.

    Ponies (UK), NPS and The Showing Register also run classes for their members, including qualifiers for HOYS which are run under HOYS’ own rules. All the societies run a series of qualifiers for each category of pony too, leading to prestigious finals at their championship shows.

    Whichever path you choose, always make sure to scrutinise the appropriate rulebook carefully, asking for advice from the relevant society if you are in any doubt.

    Even if your immediate ambition is not to compete at the highest level, it is always worth joining one of the societies and competing in classes affiliated to that organisation. In doing this, you are assured of a certain standard of judging and have access to excellent advice if and when needed.

    What is a judge looking for in the ideal show pony?

    Different judges will of course look for different things, but the first — and most important — thing is type.

    Holly of Spring

    Holly of Spring was an outstanding show pony who proved unbeatable in the late 1970s.

    “The show pony is supremely elegant, graceful and full of quality, yet should still possess adequate bone,” says Jamie. “The description of ‘pretty’ should apply to a show pony, but being ‘weedy’ is more of a crime than being of a stronger but still refined type.

    “A fine, quality head, set well onto a neck which can be more ‘swanlike’ than the hunter pony’s should blend into a good, sloping shoulder. A beautiful front is a prerequisite and when stripped (unsaddled), a lovely topline is always a plus. Limbs should, as in any showing class, be clean. In recent years, windgalls, thoroughpins and splints have sadly become more common than they used to be.

    “The pony’s action must be straight and true; they must move well and have that special something — the ‘look at me’ attitude that makes them stand out and grab your attention. Movement and presence are vital as no matter how good the pony looks standing still, without these qualities, it will never win.

    “Movement should be effortless and never rushed, and once the show has finished, ponies should be able to stand for a count of three or so for a final, subtle salute to the judge by the rider.

    “Manners are important as these ponies are ridden by children, but they are not police horses and providing they do not boil over and misbehave, being ‘on the edge’ is acceptable,” Jamie maintains. “It should also be remembered that this is a showing class and the overall picture counts. A well-matched combination of pony and rider is the ideal; if your jockey is too big, the result is an imbalance and in these classes in particular, the picture counts for a lot and can be ruined.

    “After many years at social occasions trying to explain to someone who isn’t horsey what a show pony is, I have learned that the best illustration is to give them a human equivalent,” Jamie concludes. “If a show pony was a person, I say think of a star such as Audrey Hepburn or Rudolf Nureyev: the perfect combination of beauty, elegance, style and charisma.”

    Charlotte Dujardin riding Ardenhall Royal Secret at the Royal International Horse Show

    Fellow-judge Fi Cabrol agrees. “As its title suggests, I am looking for a ‘show’ animal with natural glamour,” she says. “It should show this glamour through its beauty, health, vitality and confident, light way of going. I want to see a pony that looks like it’s enjoying the ring and the atmosphere, and is happy to listen to its jockey.

    “Its type must be unquestioned, but I do like a pony to show strength through its back, have a good length of rein and have good limbs/clean joints. The footfall should be light, elegant with a good degree of cadence and a little ‘flash’. Bone should match the frame, and the frame should be in a balance of front, middle and hindquarters.”

    Judges’ tips to produce a winning performance

    Work on the walk

    The first thing the judges see is the walk and being the slowest pace, this gives them time to have an initial good look at the pony.

    “In my opinion, not enough time seems to be devoted to producing a good walk,” says Fi. “Too often I see ponies on a short rein hardly being allowed to move, and jockeys perched in their saddles, with their hands low, seeming to just be waiting to trot.

    “Overlooking schooling for the walk is a mistake; get the walk right — with the aim of having a relaxed, forward pony and a child sitting well into the saddle — and the other paces will all fall into place.

    “It does look very obvious sometimes that most ponies are used to walking round the school at home just a few times any old how, before the rest of their schooling session is all about the trot and canter.”

    Sometimes, less is more

    “The main mistake I see in individual shows is that they look rushed and hurried,” Fi advises. “It may feel daunting to do a show but try not to look like you want to get it over with as soon as possible.

    “This may be why I see so much over-riding, which forces the pony out of balance, leading to too fast a pace and messy downward transitions. Sitting still is one of the hardest things to do sometimes, but should be learnt.

    “Saying that, a pony that is going in a disinterested, backward, lacklustre way will never find favour.”

    Make the picture perfect

    “In the conformation phase, I see too many children trying to stand their ponies up square, which will do few of them any favours,” Fi explains. “On the side that the judge is looking, the front leg should be slightly forward and the back leg slightly behind their opposite pairs. As the judge moves round the legs, then get adjusted accordingly. Competitors should know their pony’s faults/good bits and minimise/maximise accordingly. Practise, practise, practise at home and take pictures to see what looks good! Be your own judge!”

    Unacceptable conformation faults for show ponies include:

    • Curbs
    • Bog spavins
    • Deformed/odd feet
    • Being back at the knee
    • A pony that plaits when it trots — particularly in front

    Fi’s pet hates:

    • A pony that is strong
    • A pony that naps — including being completely backward in its way of going
    • A pony falling-in around the corners instead of having the correct bend

    Fi can forgive:

    • A novice pony working slightly off the bridle
    • A pony that is a little ‘jolly’ as long as it is still listening and settles
    • A rider double-checking with the judge what they have to include in a set show

    Common turnout mistakes to avoid

    • Large, ‘over-blinged’ browbands that dwarf the pony’s head
    • Very short jackets. Fi says: “My opinion is that no-one over the age of eight should wear a jacket that does not cover their bottom!”
    • Shiny black hoof varnish that shows up every ridge. Fi warns: “It can be very bad for the pony’s feet if it is not removed according to the manufacturer’s instructions.”

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