When looking for my 5-year-old daughter Emily’s first horse, the biggest deciding factor for me (as a parent) was gravitational pull and the rate of acceleration. I figured that a fall from a pony would be much less serious and scary. I had been to enough horse shows with my wife, Kerstin, to know what a good horse should look like and I figured I’d just get a smaller version. So, after logging onto the Internet, I found Pixie Dust, a reasonably priced 11.2-hand Welsh pony located on the East Coast.
After talking to the owner over the phone and viewing a video, I went ahead and bought the pony. No trial ride, no pre-purchase exam—I didn���t have a clue. We simply had her shipped to California. When Pixie Dust arrived, we found her to be a sweet and personable partner for Emily. However, it was not all smooth sailing. She could be lazy at times and, while this was not bad in and of itself, her reaction to work could be frustrating. An occasional bolt or rubbing Emily on the rail were her go-to moves. At Pony Club she would duck around the jumps or decide to stop altogether.
And while there were some frustrating times, I was proud that Emily learned how to handle whatever that pony threw at her. Of course, this only happened after my wife and Emily’s first trainer took over and instructed her on how to ride. Having a good trainer seems to be a necessity, because if it were up to me, she would probably be doing lead line classes in a football uniform.
Having the right size mount also gave Emily the confidence to ride without fear. It also didn’t hurt that since dressage ponies are somewhat of a rarity on the West Coast, the “oohs and ahs” and “your pony is so cute” at shows made her beam. Unfortunately, not all attention at the shows was positive. We had to keep reminding her 6-year-old brother that booing his sister after her final halt salute was not acceptable. There is just no booing in dressage.
When Emily turned 8, we upsized and bought her a 13.2-hand New Forest dressage pony named Golden Star, who was also a nice jumper. Emily eventually decided that she wanted to concentrate on dressage, and I wholeheartedly backed her decision.
As she progressed through the levels, her patient and knowledgeable dressage trainer, Faith Grimm, made sure that she understood the reason for every exercise and training aid. And with a correctly sized mount, Emily was able to not only learn the movements herself, but was also able to assist in schooling the pony. All of her hard work paid off, and at 11 years old, she earned her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medal. She is now the third-youngest rider ever to accomplish this feat. She also did very well at the 2012 California Dressage Society JR/YR Championships South, winning the Second Level championship class and the equitation championship for her age group, 13 and under. In fact, Emily had the highest equitation score of the entire show.
I learned that utilizing dressage ponies when training children and teens is a strong practice in Europe. The European Dressage Pony Championships are quite impressive, along with the riders they produce. The power, grace and ability of those ponies are amazing. The United States is starting down that road to try and catch up with Europe due to the hard work of people like Lendon Gray, who established the Youth Dressage Festival and the National Pony Dressage Championships. With any luck and further dedication from the dressage community, this will grow.
As for Emily, she is sadly outgrowing Golden Star and will be moving on to her first horse. She hopes to compete in the Junior Rider division in a few years when she is eligible and, until then, will try and qualify for the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Seat Medal Finals in the 13-and-under division. She has lofty goals but can be very determined when she sets her mind to getting something done. One of the most important lessons she has learned from dressage is that there are no shortcuts.