‘The best days of our lives’: We compare 1950s Pony Club with today *H&H Plus*

  • Mobile phones, tack and jods may have reshaped our riding culture, but is a Pony Clubber’s lifestyle so very different? Andrea Oakes compares the 1950s with today

    The fifties…

    “I remember that day clearly,” laughs Sarita Perkins, referring to an old photo from the 1956 Pony Club interbranch championships. “Look at the jump – it’s tied up with string over an old bathtub. I was riding a tricky horse called Punch. He was a devil; he did a lovely cross-country round but wouldn’t go over the first fence in the showjumping. I was so disappointed!”

    Sarita, now 75, enjoyed rallies, camps and competitions as a member of Cornwall’s Western Hunt branch. Her elephant-ear jods were typical of the time, worn with a tweed coat and – for cross-country, but not always at home – a velvet hat with an elastic strap.

    “We didn’t have a clue what a dressage saddle was,” she says, explaining that riding skills were largely developed on the hunting field. “We had a choice of two bits, a snaffle or a double bridle, and as nobody had transport we hacked to rallies. We used straw bales for fences or we’d jump the banks and stone walls.

    “We had no fear,” she adds. “We knew the local farmers, so if we wanted a gallop we’d jump our ponies into a field then out again.”

    While none of the instructors was qualified, Sarita explains that the coaching was excellent. Summer camp was a highlight.

    “We slept on camp beds in a rhubarb shed,” she says. “The ponies were either turned out or tied in lines, but the main difference to now was that there were so few organised activities. We just played and were free to ride anywhere without the horror of traffic – and we’d hack to the woods, tie the ponies up and swim.”

    Sarita became district commissioner of the Four Burrow Hunt branch. She followed up eventing her own horses by producing, with Lucy and Padraig McCarthy, some of the sport’s finest – notably Simon Porloe and World Equestrian Games silver medallist Mr Chunky. But the foundations were laid in the Pony Club, where riders learnt manners, courage and horsemanship skills.

    “We sometimes hired a large lorry to go to different branch hunter trials,” she recalls. “Six of us children would sit in the back, holding our ponies, and we always stopped for fish and chips on the way home. Such happy days.”

    In the 1960s, Rosie Wyvern-Batt enjoyed her time as a member of the North Cornwall.

    “We would ride bareback for miles,” says Rosie, 70, who attended as many rallies as she could with her 13hh gelding, Rupert. “Every Friday after school, I hacked to stay with friends so we could hunt on Saturdays. I’d jump in and out of the railings at the Lanhydrock estate on the way – no one knew it was me.”

    Rosie recalls going to her first show decked out in hand-me-down jodhpurs and her best leather shoes, with Rupert wearing a cloth-lined general purpose saddle with a string girth.

    “My father insisted I wore a proper Harry Hall hat. When he realised I was so keen, he took me to a smart outfitter for a tweed jacket and some thick jods with leather knee pads.”

    Her next ride, ex-racing pony Flying Star, had a sharp turn of speed and an ability to jump any bank he was put at.

    “The big thing when I was 14 was gymkhana,” says Rosie, recalling a “ginormous” cup she won at the St Minver show. “We had to win to pay our share of the lorry and the next week’s entry fees, so it was very competitive.”

    Rosie recalls canvas New Zealand rugs, kaolin poultices and a feeding regime based on oats, boiled barley and cooked linseed. It was an all-round equestrian education that paved the way for employment with Olympic eventing gold medallist Bertie Hill.

    “We had no facilities, but we did a bit of everything – and all on a shoestring,” she says.

    The present day…

    Fast-forward more than 50 years to present-day Pony Clubber Emily Gallian, 13, an enthusiastic member of the East Essex Hunt branch. She keeps her ponies at home, with 14.1hh Folly set to take over from 13.2hh Connemara-Welsh mare Quest.

    While the Pony Club tie remains, Emily’s kit revolves around modern materials and safety standards – including half-chaps, crash helmet and back protector, with a Pony Club sweatshirt adorned with 29 badges earned for achievement tests and team appearances.

    Folly wears a grackle noseband and a Bombers Bits “happy tongue” snaffle; Quest was fed supplements to guard against ulcers and both have benefited from regular back treatment, saddle fitting and dentistry checks.

    “Ponies are more pampered nowadays,” admits Emily’s mother, Charlotte. “I don’t remember being concerned as a child that the ground was too hard for jumping.”

    Where members once carried a 2p coin for an emergency call, Emily takes a mobile phone with a tracking app.

    “It gives her more freedom and she can hack for hours,” says Charlotte. “But she does miss the opportunity to ride with friends, as a busy road divides us from them.”

    But with her own transport, Emily enjoys a similar range of club activities. The branch benefits from good local facilities, using indoor schools and venues for rallies and team training. At camp, the children sleep in tents or lorries and the ponies live in pop-up stables.

    “I have so many good memories of staying up at night and mucking around,” says Emily. “One year we had a musical ride in the water, with a boy jumping in on an inflatable shark.”

    In common with both Sarita and Rosie, 16-year-old Waveney Harriers member Lotte Finch has developed her eventing skills and passed her B test. She may have separate jumping and dressage saddles and an air jacket but, like them, she has progressed through the Pony Club system – from 12hh Tizzy to her current ride, 16hh Basil.

    “There are lots of main roads around us so I can’t ride to meet friends, but we’ve enjoyed pony sleepovers and travelled to the coast for beach rides,” says Lotte, who uses grassland at home for schooling and cross-country practice. “We camp at a sheep farm in Beccles. For six weeks beforehand, we all help to prepare – clearing out the big barn used for meals and activities, and setting up showjumping and hunter trials courses. It’s almost as much fun as camp itself.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 2 July 2020