Recently, I had to ask a neighbor if we could borrow her field for an hour. Not a cup of sugar, just an hour of trotting time in an open space. I am lucky to have generous and understanding neighbors. They have a few horses too and daughters who rode in Pony Club, so they knew exactly what I meant when I said that I had a student who needed to practice riding “in the open” for her Pony Club rating.
Penobscot Pony Club is based in Newburgh and is a branch of the United States Pony Club. PPC has been around a lot longer than I have. Not having grown up in Penobscot County, I didn’t have the opportunity to join Pony Club as a young rider. My cousin did, so I vicariously pony-clubbed through her experiences. She would visit with me to go riding and tell me all the things she had learned, and then I would practice with my pony. That was 25 years ago. Now I have students in Penobscot Pony Club. They go to meetings and come back to tell me what they need to learn and then we practice with their ponies.
Pony Club awards ratings to its members depending on their skill and knowledge level. They start with D ratings and can move up through C and B all the way to the Holy Grails of Pony Club: the A and H-A ratings. Pony Clubbers may start at any age and continue to participate until age 25. Currently, one of my students wanted to test for her D-3 rating, and a skill she has to exhibit is control of her horse “in the open,” which means in an open field rather than an enclosed riding arena.
It may not sound like something one would have to master, but taking a horse used to being confined out into a wide-open space can be like letting third-graders out for recess. In the open, even the most staid, elderly school pony can turn into Seabiscuit. All of the exercises and instruction and practice done in the riding arena becomes necessary to each student taking a horse out in the field.
In the field, horses are faster, more snorty, more distracted, bouncier, more nervous and in the case of most fat ponies, hungrier. For every horse that wants to gambol about in the grass, there is a pony that wants to eat it. Dozens of children have involuntarily dismounted via somersault when a pony puts his head (and the child attached to the reins at the other end of it) down to snatch a snack on the fly. There is a lot to deal with out in the open and it certainly requires practice to master riding there.
In particular, there is the issue of stopping. The feeling of freedom and unlimited space can be intoxicating and there is not much that is more fun than a brisk gallop over hill and dale.
However, at some point, it must stop. Often the rider is ready for that stop well before the horse. Whether it is due to friskiness, a desire to get back to the barn in record time or fear of trolls lurking among the goldenrod, a horse may end up at full tilt without permission. In order to bring a horse back to a controllable gait in a hurry , a rider has to have great balance, strength (in the form of leverage) and knowledge.
Keeping a horse’s attention in the open is as important as having speed control. A rider has to be able to make transitions between gaits, turn, accelerate and decelerate with a horse in order to stay safe and have an enjoyable ride. Hence, the need for Pony Clubbers to be tested on their abilities out in the open. Pony Club or not, riding in an open field is tremendously enjoyable with the skills required to stay safe and stay on so as not to be taken out by hungry ponies, Seabiscuits or trolls.