Life Style

Pony Races Foster a Love of Riding in Brandywine Valley Youth

Photos by Jim Graham

The next generation is rising up on the backs of ponies.

The future of steeplechase racing in the United States has four legs and a tail, likes carrots, and measures less than 58 inches tall. These ponies are essential to the future of the sport, helping the jockeys of tomorrow get accustomed to competitive gallops. Pony races, junior horse racing and developing rider circuits nurture young jockeys with shorter races on smaller mounts, along with grownup supervision and mentorship.

Bareback racing dates to the Olympic Games in 700 B.C. But pony racing didn’t become official in the United Kingdom until 2007, when the Pony Racing Authority was formed for riders aged 9–17. It was a galloping success. Within a decade, 185 of the jockeys certified by the British Horseracing Authority listed that they’d started their careers in pony racing.

In America, trainer Regina Welsh took the reins of U.S. Pony Racing in 2013 as founder and director. Her goal was to expand the base of steeplechase racing by making the sport more accessible to young people whose families don’t own horses or large expanses of land.

Each year at Winterthur’s Point-to-Point, Lezlie Hiner brings a group of fledgling pony riders from Work to Ride, an inner-city Philadelphia polo group that has garnered national attention by fostering discipline and achievement in disadvantaged young people through equine sports. “Winterthur, Willowdale and Radnor Hunt are extremely welcoming. They’re very important venues for us,” Hiner says. “Pony races help the kids get comfortable with going fast, which helps when they’re playing polo.”

Work to Ride jockeys have been participating in pony racing at steeplechase events for 20 years. Last year, they rode for the first time at the Radnor Hunt Races. “Both the kids and the crowd loved it,” Hiner notes.

All young riders must wear an approved helmet, a protective vest, a yoke or neck strap, an overgirth, and safety stirrups. No whips, no spurs. All ponies and junior horses must be at least five years old.

Ponies are defined as equines under 14.2 hands high (or 58 inches) at the withers (the point where the neck meets the back). There are three main categories: large pony (13.2–14.2 hands), medium pony (12.2–13.2 hands) and small pony (12.2 hands and under). Some meets also run races for Shetland ponies, who top out at 10.5 hands and are known for their shaggy coats, broad backs and gentle dispositions.

Welsh organizes U.S. Pony Racing events at venues ranging from Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to Saratoga Racetrack in New York, where the aspiring jockeys meet the sport’s top riders. Events include lead-line trot races, where ponies and their young riders, typically under the age of 5, are led around the ring. In flat races, ponies and riders around age 10 vie to cross the finish line first. At age 16, the jockeys move on to racing horses.

“The purpose of pony racing is to grow young riders into jockeys. The hope is that kids become involved in the sport for their while lives, either as jockeys, owners, trainers or supporters.”
—Alissa Norman, Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation

All young riders must wear an approved helmet, a protective vest, a yoke or neck strap, an overgirth, and safety stirrups. No whips, no spurs. Check reins, grass reins, blinkers or any other equipment besides a standing or running martingale (a device for steadying a horse’s head) is not permitted. All ponies and junior horses must be at least five years old. Fifteen-year-old Ellet Sharp got her first taste of competition aboard a pony, winning last year’s Winterthur Cup on Fiona, a medium gray speedster owned by noted trainer Katherine Neilson. “Pony racing is a gateway into a great sport,” the young jockey’s mother notes. “Kathy took Ellet under her wing and is a great mentor. She is so happy to help the next generation.”

Family connections are woven into the fabric of pony racing. The Isabella du Pont Sharp Memorial timber race at Winterthur honors Ellet Sharp’s great-great-grandmother. The Alison Hershbell pony races at Winterthur are named for the Unionville native who raced ponies at age 7 and became one of the winningest jockeys at Delaware Park before illness forced her to retire in 2004. She died at age 30 in 2007. Her mother, Charlie Hershbell, has been involved in pony racing for decades.

Pony races provide the infrastructure for increasing the pool of riders in jump racing, which has relied heavily in recent years on jockeys from Ireland and the United Kingdom. Alissa Norman is executive director of the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation, a nonprofit U.S. Pony Racing partner organization that supports amateur and young rider programs to help ensure the future of the sport. Norman says the best hope for growing the ranks of American jump jockeys rides on the backs of ponies. “The purpose of pony racing is to grow young riders into jockeys who will ride in steeplechase races in the United States,” she says. “The hope is that kids become involved in the sport for their whole lives, either as jockeys, owners, trainers or supporters.”

Ellet and other budding riders are poised to take the bit between their teeth and ride on as the next generation in steeplechase racing. Next year, she’ll be 16 and plans to take the next step, moving from racing ponies to horses. “She can’t wait,” her mother says.

Related: Graham Watters Has His Sights on the Radnor Hunt Races

Eileen Smith Dallabrida

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