What originally began as a friendly competition between British and American pony hunter competitors has turned into the most highly anticipated event for young riders every summer: USEF Pony Finals presented by Collecting Gaits Farm, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky (August 8-13).

First held at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1959, the British National Pony Society and the British Show Pony Society challenged American pony riders to an international Pony Hunter Competition. The Americans and British went head-to-head in the small and large divisions and were judged on conformation and performance under saddle, with jumping ability counting least. Although the Americans lost to the British at the inaugural event, the next year, they took home top honors.

Due to its success, in 1967, the American Horse Show Association created the modern iteration of Pony Finals as we know it today, with the Pony Jumper, Pony Medal, and Green Hunter Pony Championships added to the program in later years. Although the rules and judging criteria have changed slightly in recent decades, the Regular Hunter Pony and Green Hunter Pony Finals still seek out the top performances in conformation, under saddle, and jumping ability in the small, medium, and large divisions.

Today, to qualify and compete at Pony Finals is the ultimate goal for young riders around the country and is considered by many to be an important stepping stone in the sport. Many up-and-coming American riders are past participants, including Katie Dinan, Adrienne Sternlicht, and Lillie Keenan—all of whom were winners of the Buttons and Bows Showmanship Trophy—and Lucy Deslauriers and Maggie McAlary, who won the Easter Sunday Memorial Trophy for Pony Medal champions. For McAlary, competing at Finals was a critical part of her early riding career.

“Qualifying is already an accomplishment no matter what the experience is,” explains McAlary, who won the 2000 Pony Medal Championship and today competes with Double H Farms. “Use everything as a learning [opportunity]; know when you need to change something and acknowledge when something is working.”

For Pony Finals veteran Chloe Reid, who recently won the €25,000 CSI4* Prix Mohai in Šamorín, the competition was an integral part of teaching her to perform under pressure on a major equestrian stage.

Chloe Reid and Codarco at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida.

“Competing at Pony Finals gave me great practice at performing under pressure since there was no room for error,” says Reid. “Being exposed to that level of pressure at a young age has made me more competitive in the ring today.”

Although every pony rider’s ultimate dream is to take home the blue, red, and yellow tri-colored ribbon, there is one goal that Finals veterans near and far can agree trumps all the rest—don’t forget to have fun!

-Photo credits: Courtesy of Maggie McAlary; Erin Gilmore for NF Style (2). 

You can watch the live stream of USEF Pony Finals presented by Collecting Gaits Farm (August 8 – 13) on the USEF Network or keep up with the Championship on Facebook (@USequestrian@USEFNetwork, and @USEFPonyFinals) , Instagram, and Twitter (@USequestrian and@USEFNetwork).