Pony Club Mounted Games are fast, furious and very exciting to watch.
As well as having a lot of fun the children taking part are learning new riding skills - including vaulting onto a moving pony - and developing a real sense of teamwork and sportsmanship.
The competition is open to teams from all over the UK. It starts with two qualifying rounds - first at their Area Competition, and then at the regional Zone Competitions. The ultimate prize is the chance to compete in the championship final which takes place at the Horse of the Year Show.
Two teams from Ballawhetstone Riding Centre, one junior for under 11s and one senior, qualified at the Area Competitions, at Townley Park in Burnley in May, and are now preparing to go on to the Zone competitions, at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire, in July.
To appreciate what an achievement this is you have to understand that, generally speaking, the children taking part in the Pony Club Games competitions will all have their own ponies, many of them experienced games ponies.
The children can ride every night of the week if they want and, when they go to the competitions their mothers, who are typically experienced riders themselves, will do everything for them, getting the pony groomed to within an inch of its life and tacked up so all the child has to do is get on and ride.
‘We’ve always gone to the competitions as underdogs: the children here don’t ride all the time and the ponies are not specialist games ponies, they’re riding school ponies and the kids have to get them ready themselves,’ says Stella Hampton, proprietor of Ballawhetstone Riding Centre.
‘These kids have to help out and muck in [when we go away]: they are all up at six o’clock getting ready for the tack and turnout inspection.’
She and her sister-in-law, Zoe Hampton, took no less than 23 children and 14 ponies on the trip to Burnley. Most of the ponies travelled in Stella’s enormous horsebox (she had to pass her HGV test to drive it) while Zoe took the others in a trailer.
And whilst most Pony Club parents will find a livery yard where their child’s pony can be stabled when they are away, Stella says: ‘I just borrowed a field and put the ponies out there and we all stayed in the town hall in Burnley.’
Nonetheless, the Ballawhetstone kids really stepped up to the mark. Each team did eight races: they had to come in the first three in the heats for each race, to qualify to go into the finals which is where they got their points to add up to the overall score. One of the Ballawhetstone junior teams and one of the senior teams each came second overall in their respective age groups, a huge achievement that surprised even Stella and Zoe.
‘They’re actually doing it!’ was Zoe’s reaction.
And it’s clear that the children are learning a lot more than just riding skills: the games are tricky and mistakes are easy to make.
Stella says: ‘Nerves can cause them to make silly mistakes because they don’t want to let each other down. But I always tell them: “It’s not about making a mistake, everybody makes mistakes, it’s about how you deal with them and carry on”.’
Zoe adds: ‘It’s not just the riding: they’re making friends. They all have to look after each other and help each other out - they’re a team.’