As much as I wish I could’ve shrunk my 16.2 Irish Sport Horse into pony size for a week as a junior, this year was my very first time attending Pony Finals. Never having been before, I tried to get a feel for what it was like before going. Everyone I talked to over the past few months seemed to have his or her own Pony Finals take or story. “One girl cried during her round.” “My pony tried to kill me.” “There are so many bows…and emotions.” “All of the horse show dads come out.” Now that it’s over and I’ve had a week to reflect, decompress, and do a ton of laundry, I’ll start by saying Pony Finals is definitely like no other show I’ve been to so far, and I really enjoyed it.
The first day of competition was on Tuesday and this was the very first photo I took out of the thousands to come over the next six days. I would later learn that the Pony Finals scoreboard (pictured) is a crucial element to the show for young riders, many who have worked hard all year to qualify. Not only is it essential to get a photo of your round with your name on the scoreboard in the background as you go over a jump (next year’s Pony Finals #TBT), but it’s also important for a family member/groom/trainer/BFF/friend’s little brother/acquaintance to get a photo of the scoreboard with your name on it once you’re out of the ring and the judges announce and display your score. At one point a rider came out of the ring and her family was congratulating and hugging her and she started gesturing and shouting, “SCOREBOARD! SCOREBOARD!!”
There was arguably more happening on the ramp leading up to the in-gate of the Walnut Ring throughout the week than there was action in the ring itself. This was by far my favorite place to be, listening to the pep talks from trainers – one sang “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift with her rider as she went in, seeing the anxious hand-squeezes and “good luck” whispered into riders’ ears from parents who then nervously shuffled ring-side, one clutching a camera and the other an iPad to record video. It was also where the hugs, high-fives, pony kisses, ear-to-ear smiles, and celebrations occurred as each rider-pony pair exited the ring after a successful round. There was not a moment during the show day that this ramp was not lined with grooming kits and totes, sitting idly by for the finishing touches on many months, sometimes years, of hard work by young riders and their ponies, all leading up to this one in-gate moment.
There was no shortage of pictures of excited faces and hugs at the in-gate. Riders always had a big cheering section at Pony Finals and were ready to celebrate their success.
I know it’s hard to believe, but I think I was expecting even more bows than there were. However, the bows that I did see were at the top of their game.
Throughout the week, Pony Parent Land was buzzing with activity between the Stonelea and Claiborne rings. This shaded area for pony parents to unwind was hosted by the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation, which is a non-profit organization dedication to enhancing and improving the park. The entrance to Pony Parent Land was creatively decorated with “PonyMom”, “Adults Only”, and “No Horses” signs. Inside, there were complimentary massages, comfortable seating, magazines, raffles, refreshments and a daily happy hour around 2pm!
On the other end of the spectrum (and literally far from Pony Parent Land, probably on purpose…), there were also bounce castles, slides, and horseless horse show jumps set up between the Walnut and Rolex Rings for kids to enjoy at their leisure.
The ribbon procession always included a pause at the in-gate for iPhone photos.
At this point, it started raining so hard that I actually got stuck under one of the spectator tents for about 30 minutes after everything had ended one day.
Next to the Walnut Ring and its schooling ring there is a paddock that was home to a black horse during the later parts of the day. I believe he was a mounted police horse for the park, and I could only imagine what he thought of the goings-on of Pony Finals. I went to go feed him a peppermint after the show and spotted a tiny kitty in his paddock with him. I assume they are buddies.
If you’ve made it this far in the post, hopefully you’ll understand why I thought Pony Finals was such a blast. It was so much fun seeing riders from all over get excited and put so much energy and emotion into the sport. I also enjoyed seeing the new faces of junior show jumping in a very competitive setting. Everyone likes to joke about how much drama Pony Finals is with the young kids and overeager parents, but it felt like a totally different experience as a spectator. I couldn’t go minutes without seeing a rider smile big or hear a supportive comment from a fellow rider, trainer or parent. It’s truly a special week of competition and I really enjoyed capturing all the special moments for these young riders early in their equestrian journeys.