Well respected judge and former top pony producer Stuart Hollings questions if the art of show pony production is in decline...
If the 2023 season taught me anything it’s that the dynamics of showing are constantly changing, and there will always be something that surprises you. Never in my lifetime did I ever imagine that I would witness a 138cm show pony [Swan Lake] take supreme honours at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) ridden by a 33-year-old jockey.
This did not sit well with me even though the combination came via the part-bred route rather than the mainstream show pony section. We produce riding ponies for children, and by allowing older jockeys to ride them, is the term suitability and craft of producing ponies going out of the window?
Ardenhall Blenheim’s back-to-back show pony of the year victories in 2022 and 2023 were not given enough credit. Putting aside Holly Of Spring’s record four consecutive titles (1975–1978), which I doubt will ever be challenged, we have to go back to 1959 and 1960 when Arden Tittle Tattle matched Blenheim’s achievement – that’s over half a century ago.
In a previous column I was concerned about the future of the HOYS intermediate show riding types, but now my attention is on the part-breds. If more adults compete in the class following the 2023 result – while numbers of smaller ponies ridden by children dwindle – I predict lobbying for the introduction of two separate classes: not exceeding 148cm ponies ridden by a child, and over 148cm shown by an adult. Justifiably so given that competitors are now paying an £18 contribution to HOYS on each entry, so they’ll want a level playing field.
Worryingly, more people are coming around to the fact that allowing adults to ride in plaited pony classes, particularly in show ponies as they do in Australia, could in time be the only solution to the decline in numbers.
New classes at London International
The new classes at London International (LIHS) were a triumph and have potential, with some modifications, to take showing in an exciting new direction.
More than 250 combinations appeared in the 12 British Show Horse Association Rising Stars finals and the animals were a credit to everyone involved. I wasn’t surprised having judged the Show Teams and Rising Stars (STARS) supreme championships in November, where the production and presentation were also of a high standard.
The competitors seemed to appreciate being judged by experts such as Robert Walker, Jayne Ross and Katie Jerram-Hunnable. This made me smile as ironically there are some who believe that top professionals shouldn’t even be on the judges panels.
The British Show Pony Society successfully introduced a new grand finale for cradle/nursery stakes riders and an inaugural lead-rein working sports pony final for natives. The five additional performance flat classes attracted 100-plus entries, not only from new competitors but also some legendary names in showing including former and current HOYS/Hickstead title holders, making it a particularly difficult scenario to judge.
Looking to the future, these two distinctive groups of newcomers and more established animals need separate classes as some of the results were confusing from the ringside.
Let us not forget Sarah Parker’s runaway 14-point victory with the Pennells’ home-bred Dales stallion Nipna Midnight Rambler, which must be a record. Her son, Owen, also flew the family flag when finishing reserve performance champion in the London Arena, highlighting an important aspect of any sport: the next generation.
Showing should not be defined by vitriolic social media abuse or bad sportsmanship but by the enthusiasm that was clearly on display at LIHS. Hopefully this will continue during 2024.
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