Scenes from Pony Finals

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.

Welcome to Pony Finals!

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!!”

Here come the ponies. This was a fairly normal scene around the Walnut Arena schooling area.

Tuesday was the first day of competition. There were two model classes and two under saddle classes.

The standard wooden totes filled with all the things you need to keep a pony perfect were strewn everywhere.

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.

The model, or the moment you bribe your pony with every possible promise in order for him to be good for a couple of seconds.

Each class started off with a large model section, then an under saddle the same day. That class’s over fences portion would then usually happen the next day.

The VIP tent was set up along two sides of the Walnut Ring and had great views.

The championship trophies and coolers were displayed at the entrance.

The main row of vendors was directly behind the VIP tent. There were also some vendors over on Vendor Row near the Stonelea and Claiborne rings, where they usually are for the other Kentucky shows.

A view of the back of the vendor row and the sun setting as I headed to my car at the end of the day.

This was the scene during the model classes the first few days. Since there were over 100 ponies in most of the classes, a lot of planning went into the flow of traffic to and from and in and out of the rings. Controlled chaos at its finest.

You can smell a mixture of citronella, hoof dressing, and show sheen permeating the air during the model classes the first few days of Pony Finals, which as a horse person I didn’t really mind at all.

I stopped this rider to see if she had any secret tricks to the model that she could share with me. She did.

Orders of Go were posted on these boards each day and there was live scoring on USEFConnect.com.

There was a Pony Finals sign with one of the official photographers by it so you could have your photo taken with your pony as you walked up to the ring, which is a fun idea for a championship show. At first I thought the superstar groom in this picture had an umbrella with him for the sole purpose of helping to get his rider’s pony’s ears up in photos, but then I remembered it had rained earlier. Still, excellent improvisation.

The model and undersaddle portions were understandably divided up into sections of 10 or so each to keep things running smoothly.

The course walk for the over fences portion.

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There was always lots of last minute preparation going in to the in-gate.

One of my favorite things about Pony Finals was the emotion. Riders were really excited when they had great rounds after so much preparation.

Olivia Markman and Benlea Mizzou took home first in the Small Pony Undersaddle.

Introducing Augusta Iwasaki from Southern California, the star of this year’s Pony Finals. Augusta, who is 11-years-old, was a force to be reckoned with all week, with strong performances in multiple classes. I was most impressed with her calm demeanor despite the high stakes.

Augusta gets a high five from Tasha Visokay, another member of her team who made the (very worthwhile) trip from California.

Augusta and her dad had a great celebratory explosion handshake.

The inside scoop on the winning horse, Kingston, straight from Augusta’s groom: Likes sleeping and treats.

After seeing her dominate the pony classes at WEF, Emma Seving was in top form at Pony Finals.

I loved seeing all the personal touches on rider’s outfits and ponies.

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.

 

One of the cutest ponies I saw the entire week! His name is Goosebumps.

Caroline Passarelli also had a strong week.

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.

I love the matching piping on the jacket.

Either from Maine or loves seafood? Either way, super cute.

Matching nail polish and bows.

Florida Gator bows!

Spongebob bows!!

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 ring crew did a great job keeping everything moving despite crowded in-gates, unpredictable weather and 150+ sized classes.

Britt Bardwell was another rider I enjoyed meeting. She had a great Pony Finals and was all smiles the entire time.

Taylor St. Jacques Pony Finals

The ribbon procession always included a pause at the in-gate for iPhone photos.

The personalization didn’t stop at the ring. Lots of stalls had some creative flair as well.

Rain came off and on on some days, leading to this re-imagined Small Green Pony course.

Some riders had to do their rounds in the rain, but toughed it out and kept smiling anyway.

Augusta, back again with another champion ribbon. I don’t think she minded doing the victory gallop in the rain.

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.

There were lots of great awards for specific breed winners, which led to ribbon processions with garlands about as big as the riders themselves.

Augusta’s score on Bit of Laughter, who she was overall grand champion with.

Things quieted down quickly after the show ended.

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.

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