Pony Club Camp – Done!

Last week was crazy busy, and very full on. Well, it wouldn`t be Pony Club Camp otherwise!

Pony Club is a baptism of fire, I always think. You have six unknown ponies, six unknown riders of mixed abilities, and combined with the ambitious expectations of the parents, you`re under pressure to produce results. I had a fab little group of six year olds, who started the week unable to trot as a ride, wobbly in their rising trot, and lacking control over the ponies. But by the end of the week they all rode beautiful dressage tests; rode showjumping rounds independently, completed the handy pony course with minimum assistance, and pulled off their musical ride!

The ride consisted of one girl on a whizzy pony, who was confident but tended to go at 100mph and left the start box before I`d finished my instructions. The other girl was equally confident, carried a whip longer than her, had a pony who tended to gallop to the rear of the ride, yet wouldn’t move away from them. She always had washing lines for reins, and amazingly stayed on as her limbs flapped like windmills and her bum bounced around in the saddle. Next I had quiet, twin brothers, who were identical and on saintly ponies who did all that was asked of them, gave just the right amount of effort, and were generally fabulous at building confidence. These boys started off as my weakest riders but by the end of the week were much improved. I also had a little boy on an ancient, yet also saintly pony, who was nervous, yet more capable than he thought. The icing on the cake for my week would have been for him to say “I don`t need my leader” for an exercise, instead of being encouraged to go without one. Finally I had a very sweet, chatty boy who had the grumpy pony who had to be at the back. He was a daydreamer and several times he would forget what we were doing. He`s the one who watched five showjumping rounds and then trotted towards number one the wrong way! But he was very switched on about keeping away from the other ponies. He was also in charge of the ride`s social activities. At about 10.30am each day I would hear “Is it lunchtime yet? … Who`s lorry shall we have lunch in today?”

On Monday I did a thorough tack inspection to make sure it was all safe, and met the relevant standards, and then scored them for tack and turnout. Obviously they`d all had parental assistance, but I like to know how much input the child has had in prepping their pony. The twin boys were immaculately turned out that day, and the rest of the week, however I managed to split hairs in their scores by noticing that one twin hadn’t cleaned the underneath of his stirrup irons.

First of all we headed to Mounted Games, which is quite a good opportunity to assess them and learn about them as riders, as well as team building. I did a warm up trot individually and then in a ride, sort of, before splitting them up into pairs to make three teams. The ground was hard and not all of them confident or controlled enough in canter to involve that in the races, so we stuck to trotting only. We did the usual mug race, bending, flag race, relay race, round-the-world race, jockey race, ride and run, walk-trot-run, and the tyre race. By the end they had all relaxed, were chatting to each other, and I had sussed out the confident ones, the cheeky ponies, the nervous riders, and the steady, reliable ponies. Then after lunch we learnt our dressage tests and I saw them canter for the first time. They were only doing the walk-trot test, but the confident and more able ones needed pushing more, and the others could watch and be inspired to have a go on the lead. The pony I had in lead file was quite whizzy, and the pony I had at the back kicked anything and everything, so I moved said pony to the centre of the arena to prevent the whizzy pony whizzing up it`s backside. Thank God I did, because that is precisely what happened into the sturdy pony who was fifth in line and didn’t bat an eyelid. Running through a dressage test six times can be quite tedious, and boring for the little ones watching, but they were all very patient and gave the test their best shot. I was still doubtful however, that they would pull it off on competition day, and was worried that they would get their lefts and rights muddled. Or the pony would nap back to his friends.

On Tuesday we started off the day practising our musical ride, which was interesting because trotting all together was still a bit haphazard, but we cobbled together a floorplan and they pulled it off a few times. By the end of that session the six of them were coming together, and riding more independently, as well as being able to stay together in a ride. It was in this session that I made a deal with one girl that every time I told her to shorten her reins she had to give me a biscuit. By Tuesday evening I had accumulate seventeen biscuits…

The rest of Tuesday was spent on a Treasure Hunt and then a hack in the afternoon. They are little so it`s a walking hack for me and the parents, but then a couple of parents get a bit pushy about wanting their children to go over some cross country fences. I did my own thing though, by riding through the valley and getting the children to trot up the very steep hill in pairs (hopefully without leaders). It`s good for building confidence because they`re riding independently, and in the open. Any pony who wants to canter off soon changes their mind after a couple of canter strides, so there`s little danger there, and going in pairs means the ponies are less likely to nap or be silly. Then we wandered into the woods and did some more uphills and downhills, steering around trees, before finding a couple of tiny logs to trot over. All of them safely negotiated them much to my relief, and we then walked to the little water complex. This entertained us for a while, going in and out from different sides, and then we reached another field with a nice steep hill. So we finished our hack by having a couple of steady trots in pairs up the hill, along the top, and then walking down the fenceline and back to the others, before cantering up the hill with the poor parents.

It was at this point that I should introduce you to Super Mum. Mother of three kids and ponies at camp, all were immaculate for tack and turnout inspections (including plaits), and she managed to run laps with both twins, get everywhere on time, with toddler in tow, and still finish the week smiling! I want to know her secret!

Anyway, we reached the halfway point on Wednesday and it was a morning of showjumping and Handy Pony. The showjumping was all about the jumping position, trotting in a straight line towards and away from jumps. The smaller ones just needed to remember their jumping position and to stay in it all the way over the jump. But that will come as they get stronger, the steering more automatic, and their balance better. I put the jumps up a bit for the two girls, who have more experience and less fear. The whizzy lead-file pony jumped beautifully, and the Thelwell-style jockey definitely utilised her sticky-bum jodhpurs as her limbs spun like windmills as she careered towards the jumps before bouncing over them. I`m not a hundred per cent sure how she stayed on …

After lunch I had a change to my timetable, and had to cover a senior ride for their stable management lecture whilst my kids played games with one of the senior helpers. So I quizzed them on the C-test syllabus. I came away feeling quite sorry for teenagers. I wish teenagers could be put in our shoes, and try to speak to a row of cross-armed, slouched, surly teenagers, who radiate negativity. If they did then I`m sure they wouldn’t give as much attitude as they do. My approach is to question them and as soon as one rolls their eyes or starts twiddling their thumbs, then ask them a tough question. As they squirm you get a slight hint of satisfaction. And hopefully they pay a bit more attention to you. Engaging with them I find they let their guard down and are actually a happy bunch of kids, but they just aren`t interested in learning theory, which is a shame. I find teaching individual teenagers very rewarding, especially when you know what buttons to press to get them out of the mood swing, and you build a rapport with them, but teaching a group of teenagers is my worst nightmare.

On Thursday morning we had another dressage test practice and showjumping session, and it was great to see improvements from earlier in the week. The dressage flowed a bit more and there was no ad-libbing. Even the nervous rider (who had more ability than he gave himself credit for) managed to ride it unaided and the transitions were getting closer to the markers. In the jumping we tried a couple of tiny uprights, but the ponies started jumping them and it all became a little scary when a couple toppled out the front door. Both unhurt, it confirmed my plan for competition day. Then after lunch we were onto the junior dressage tests.

It`s very hard to judge these tests because you have to be fair, positive, provide constructive criticism, and build confidence.  I judged another ride, and had one stand out winner, and then I watched my little riders do their tests and was pleasantly surprised by the fact that they all stayed in the ring, trotted when they were supposed to, (mostly) walked when they were supposed to, gave some beautiful salutes, and all did it independently! They even enjoyed it!

Friday is competition day, and we started with some showjumping, which I judged on style and position, to emphasise what I had been teaching them earlier in the week. There were some dodgy turns, and lack of folding over fences, but they all had smiles on their faces after and tried their hardest. Again, the girls jumped slightly bigger to their delight. And then we went over to Handy Pony, which rewarded those who took their time and were accurate. I was really pleased that the only help all the children had was to remount at the end of the stepping stones, to keep the pony still while they reached to “catch a fish” and to pick up the letter off the table (which was knee-high to the ponies).

We finished with our musical ride in front of the parents which went quite smoothly, and when they did forget a bit of it they managed to carry on unphased – you`re never to young to learn to think on your feet! They dressed up in the theme of Alice in Wonderland – Alice, The Queen of Hearts, The Mad Hatter, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the King of Hearts.

All six thanked me at the end and gave me some presents, which was lovely. When I asked what the best part of the week was the answer was “showjumping…dressage… EVERYTHING!” and that came from the nervous little boy! I had a great week, and was really pleased with the attitude and progress of all my riders. We all had fun and the ponies all behaved brilliantly. Even better, we had the sunshine most of the week and avoided the worse of the rain showers.

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