Many of the world’s best riders in all disciplines cut their teeth at the Pony Club Championships. Catherine Austen discovers some of their memories and the lessons they learnt
If you said the words Stoneleigh, Weston Park, Sansaw, Shelford and Cholmondeley, thousands of adults across half a century of generations would know what you meant. When they were horse-mad teenagers, those were the locations of the Pony Club Championships of their era. While for many those heady weeks were the acme of their equestrian careers, they were also an early testing ground for many of the regular stars of this magazine.
“It was everything!” says Laura Collett, who first represented the Heythrop branch of the Pony Club at the championships as a 13-year-old in 2003. “The areas were such a cool thing, and to qualify for the championships was just amazing. I remember the cross-country course being ginormous. I didn’t know how to get my pony [Noble Springbok] on the bit, but I did jump a double clear.”
In 2004 and 2005, she won her eventing section on the Lucey family’s highly experienced Walnut, who took a series of children safely round the championships. In one of those years, the Heythrop team, consisting of Laura, Ginny Howe, Simon Lucey and Sophie Kirkpatrick, also won.
“I learnt so much about teams – how to be a team player, team morale – and it was so much fun,” Laura remembers. “It was a really big deal, and it was at Sansaw the first time I went that our district commissioner, Celia Plunkett, introduced me to Ginnie Keen, who was the pony chef d’equipe at the time. I went straight into pony trials the following spring, because I’d had enough experience at Pony Club level not to need to do BE100s or anything. Celia also rather rashly promised Laura and her team-mates during team training at Pony Club camp that, if they won the championships, she would organise two days’ training for them with her son-in-law, William Fox-Pitt.
“Clearly she didn’t think we would win,” says Laura. “But we did, she kept her promise and I rode Stunning and Moon Man.”
Matthew Wright was another event rider to make their championship debut very young. Aged 12, on his six-year-old pony Con, he was part of the winning Grove Hunt team in 1995, and finished second in his section. The following year, he won individually.
“I hadn’t done pony trials or anything like that at that stage – the pony and I were as ignorant as each other,” he says. “It was at Weston Park; there were 115 starters and just 29 went clear. I remember it like yesterday. The Grove hadn’t qualified for years and it was a really big deal.”
One year Matthew won the horsemanship award for both the eventing and the showjumping championships, and his prize was a week’s training with Peter Robeson. “It was the best week of my life,” he says.
He competed against lots of well-known showjumpers’ children at the showjumping finals – Hadleys, Pyrahs, Fletchers. “I felt the pressure to do well; I wanted to beat these famous people’s kids, but I was also in awe of them,” he says.
Alex Hua Tian remembers the pressure of having to jump clear in the second round of the showjumping championships so the Lord Leconfield Hunt branch of the Pony Club could win the team competition.
“I hadn’t had a great round in the first round on Chance Bid, but to be fair he was usually a very good jumper and we did manage to scrape a victory,” he says. “Learning how to jump under pressure teaches you a lot about character and about yourself.
“It was great fun – I am a huge fan of the Pony Club, and was a keen member of the Hong Kong Pony Club before I came to the UK. Four of us from our branch in Hong Kong went on to ride at the Asian Games and two at the Olympics.”
Rolls of honour
The championships rolls of honour are thickly scattered with event riders – Tina Cook won the senior dressage championships, Piggy French was part of the South Norfolk branch of the team that won the eventing championships, Ruth Edge won an eventing section on her first Badminton horse, Ice Dancer II, Harry Meade won an eventing section (and, if memory serves, was the last recipient of the “best boy” prize) in 2002.
And Jane Holderness-Roddam first competed in the area trials for the Beaufort Hunt branch of the Pony Club aged 10, riding a one-eyed pony called Little Robin.
“The championships then were at Highgrove,” she remembers. “Then they went to the Hanburys’ Burley-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire. And in 1964 the Beaufort were second to the West Norfolk, who won everything in those days, at Burghley. I was 16 and rode Our Nobby. We won the junior title, and our team also included Mark Phillips and George Weldon. I was told that if I showjumped clear I would be given my Beaufort hunt supporters’ club tie, and I did. I remember that better than the competition itself!”
A couple of years later Jane rode Our Nobby at Burghley Horse Trials, and in 1968 the pair won Badminton and went to the Mexico Olympics.
But top riders from other disciplines also have fond memories of Pony Club Championships past.
‘I don’t really like dressage’
Your correspondent remembers interviewing a very young Tom McEwen when he was a member of the VWH team that won the dressage championships. Charlie and Pippa Hutton were championship regulars, but the other two cast members varied. “I don’t really like dressage,” he announced on that occasion.
Now, with a CCI5* win under his belt, he says: “I had a lot of lessons with Pammy Hutton when I was young, and I remember we were made to do displays in various places dressed up as cats, which was very embarrassing.”
He was rather more comfortable as a member of the VWH team that won the eventing championships in 2006 and 2007. He first went on Con – quite a few years after the legendary grey pony had made his debut with Matthew Wright.
“Con looked after me for the first few times and sorted it all out for me,” says Tom. “I was lucky enough to be part of a branch that had a lot of boys in it, which was amazing and very encouraging. Lots of us are still riding, such as Felix de Giles and Peter Mason, who are both jockeys.”
Dressage rider Becky Moody was on the Rockwood Harriers’ dressage team every year from the age of nine to 19, and went to the championships five times. Her sister Hannah was team trainer.
“By the time I was around 14, I had done ponies and the junior Europeans, but the championships were still a very important event and a really big part of the year,” she says. “I never won, but one year, at Weston Park, I rode a four- or five-year-old stallion of Hannah’s and got into the prize-giving. There were 70 or 80 horses all galloping round together – I would die if I had to do something like that now.”
Becky did the showjumping and eventing area trials as well – “I was even on the area quiz team, which shows how keen I was.”
“The friends I made in the Pony Club are still some of my closest friends now,” she says.
A big deal
Showjumper Holly Smith was on the South Trent team that qualified for the showjumping championships when she was 11 or 12.
“My mum’s a midwife and she was working a night shift, so it was the first time I had ridden and bathed my pony and put everything in the lorry all on my own the day before, and I remember that I did a really good job,” she says. “I’d done some British Showjumping at that stage, but nothing serious, and the championships were quite a big deal. I did jump clear, on my section D pony Homer J.”
The tetrathlon championships have produced several future Olympic pentathletes, such as Georgie Harland, Kate Allenby and Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe. Aly Vance, now a sports television presenter, was a member of the Monmouthshire Hunt branch of the Pony Club’s winning tetrathlon team in 2002, and won as an individual in 2000. Something of an overachiever, she also won her arena at the dressage championships in 2002 – and won a section at the eventing championships in 2005.
Even racing has its representatives. Three-times champion National Hunt jockey Richard Johnson was on the Radnor and West Hereford branch of the Pony Club team at the eventing championships at Weston Park, alongside eventer Louise Harwood. And trainer Charlie Longsdon was on the VWH team that won the eventing championships back in 1990.
“I was 14 and a typical boy whose mother did everything for him,” he recalls. “I had a lovely, cool old horse called Ben Nevis. We thought we had done OK, but while we were waiting for the prize-giving I read my dressage test sheets and realised that there were 20 marks difference between the two – they had been added up wrong. We had to put in a last-minute objection, and those 20 marks were the difference between finishing fifth and winning.”
If you didn’t ever manage to qualify for these hallowed occasions, do not despair. You might make it as a rider yet. After all, Mark Todd, a member of the Cambridgeshire Hunt team on several occasions, never qualified for the Pony Club Championships either.
Ref Horse & Hound; 2 July 2020