By Zazou Hoffman
The pony hunter ring allows the rider to get a real sense of what the judge is looking for in a hunter. Because the classes are smaller, broken into small, medium, and large pony divisions, the rider and the parents can watch every round; i.e. the whole division from beginning to end. So you can see what the judge rewards in the way of conformation and form over fences as well as in the under saddle classes. From watching and studying the same ponies over a two or three day period, you will learn various judges tastes (each day the judges rotate rings) and can begin to understand what wins. Often it seems that only the “name” ponies, which tend to be the most expensive ponies, are rewarded, but there are exceptions. And here’s the thing–there is camaraderie at the pony ring that gets lost in Children’s Hunters where the divisions have a ginormous number of entries. Your brain would turn to mush if you sat and watched every round, sometimes over a hundred. You never really get to see what the judge wants. Watch and learn at the pony ring as much as you can.
Don’t be too quick to move out of the pony ring, but if you are getting frustrated with competing against the top ponies, try some pony equitation classes and pony medals. Use the pony ring as a place to learn. Take notes on which ponies win consistently, try to watch videos of the best pony rounds from the indoor shows. On the East Coast many of the best pony riders are in their late teens. The Green Pony division is beginning to emerge on the West Coast and there is a real need for competent riders to help train the ponies that show exceptional talent.
Having the chance to show large pony hunters is an advantage in the transition to horses. Large pony hunters actually jump the same height, 3′, as Children’s Hunters (horses). It is more challenging for a pony than it is for a horse to jump that height, and also to cover the longer distances between fences. So pony riders who successfully pilot a large pony around generally feel comfortable with the height and make the transition to horses more readily. After jumping a 3′ course on a pony, you are ready for the next leap onto a horse.
When I rode ponies, I had a couple of difficult ones. They taught me to be a tenacious rider, which got me noticed by other trainers. I was lucky to be asked to catch-ride many wonderful and nationally known ponies. At the same time my mother had a green hunter horse, Andy Warhol, who was ready to move into the Children’s Hunters. We learned together. He was Small Junior Hunter size, so as I advanced, so did he. This is where we learned about another great transition division, the Modified Hunters. At 3’3″ it is an obvious transition height into the Small Juniors, which are 3’6″. One consideration is that there is no prize money because it is an unrated division and there are a ton of competitors. It’s a great practice division, but it’s meant as a transition to the 3’6″. When I moved into the Junior Hunters I can’t say it was seamless, but I did it. The Modified Division helped.
Once again the Junior Hunter Divisions are smaller, as in the ponies, and I took advantage of this by watching and getting a real feel for what the judge was looking for. Here in California, especially at Thermal, we have some of the finest hunters in the country competing. It is amazing to see such great athletes, with flawless conformation and movement, beautifully presented. They are like the most amazing Breyer horse models, but you can go up and touch them and ask the rider questions about their personality and what it’s like to ride them.
If you are already competing on a horse, Children’s, Modified or Junior, take the time to watch the 3’6″ hunters. Watching has taught me a lot over the years, not only about what the judge is looking for but also about the ride.
Zazou Hoffman is a 16-year-old from Santa Monica, CA. As a 13-year-old, having only shown locally, she decided to apply for the Ronnie Mutch Working Student Scholarship. She won, which led to working with respected East Coast trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan. Through hard work and commitment, by Jan. ’07 Zazou was one of seven elite riders chosen to work with Olympic Chef d’Equipe George Morris in Wellington, FL. She has competed in the Medal Finals for the past three years. She counts her win at the Maclay Regional, her 4th in “the Medal” at Harrisburg, her 5th in the USET Talent Search East at Gladstone, and her 3rd in the WCE amongst her notable accomplishments.