Imagine the scene …….the noise is deafening, you are aware that, there are hundreds possibly thousands of people in front of you (some friendly, some foe), yet lights are blazing with such ferocity that you can only see a few tens of metres in front. Adrenalin floods your system and beneath you, your horse twitches and snorts nervously. This is not some scene from the movie Gladiator, yet it may as well be, for what you are about to undertake is a test based upon ancient cavalry drills. This is Mounted Games at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS), a coveted opportunity for six teams selected via a knock-out competition over the course of the summer months from over 250 teams across the country, to compete for the Prince Philip Cup.
The Mounted Games Team of Strathearn Pony Club have impressively qualified for the third year in a row to compete at HOYS in October 2013. Drawing its membership from all over Perthshire; from Kinross in the South to Pitlochry in the North and Auchterarder in the West, this is even more remarkable for the fact that the Club has not traditionally been strong in this discipline. Three years ago was the first time Strathearn ever qualified or indeed came close to qualifying. It is a testament to the current and recent team members, their coaches – Alistair Brewster and Vaila Leggat – and parents that this feat has been achieved.
Mounted Games is a very exciting spectator and participant sport. Many a ‘non-horsey’ person on having watched HOYS on TV in years gone by will remember and enthuse about “those incredible kids on little white (grey) ponies”, their bravery, speed and skills.
Introduced in 1957 at HOYS the competition was conceived by HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh when he recommended to the Show Director, Col Sir Mike Ansell, that a “competition based on Cavalry techniques would be entertaining, visually engaging and enhance rider skills and teamwork”. Additionally the aim was that the competition would be aimed at “ordinary children on ordinary ponies” (hence the prevalence of little grey welsh ponies!). This opened up riding as a sport for all. Unlike many other equestrian disciplines anyone can become involved; any sort of pony will do and on any bit of rough land to practice on.
The beauty of Mounted Games lies in the great foundations that it provides to children both as riders (many top equestrians participated in Mounted Games valuing the balance and communication with and understanding of your horse that it teaches) but possibly more importantly the life lessons it imparts. Teams are made up of five individuals with different skills and personalities. Like any sport, anyone can have a good or bad day at the office. The children need to learn how to cope with disappointment and how to support and encourage each other when things have not gone as they would have hoped. They learn about tactics and an appreciation of each others strengths and weaknesses. Whilst in the arena, any errors have to be corrected quickly with no outside assistance and often with reference to quite complicated rules, teaching an ability to be calm and decisive under pressure. Add to the mix the often unpredictable pony and sometimes equipment failure or dubious line judging and they learn that life is not fair but you must re-focus and move on if you are to achieve. All of these pressures are multiplied tenfold at HOYS where competitions are run in front of large audiences and, in the later stages, on live TV and every grimace or tear is beamed up to a massive TV screen for all to see.
Many an early morning will be spent feeding and caring for their pony before school and many a wet and cold afternoon training and keeping the pony fit enough to compete without risk of injury. But it is not all hard work. Great friendships are formed across teams and several of the competitions involve camping overnight. The children (and parents) socialise together after a hard days competing and the ponies all corral and graze together. Depending on location the children can enjoy hacking out their ponies with their new found friends and even swim together in the sea.
But with the nights drawing in, all the Strathearn A team are focussing on is the ultimate prize and fund-raising. The teams will all camp for the entire week of the competition in October, in a car park bordering the M42 in Birmingham where they have to live and cook and care for their ponies.
They have to build their own tack room and be smartly turned out at all times in good old Pony Club fashion. Their once daily training/exercising slot is at 5am with competitions generally at 2pm and 8pm and bits of sleep grabbed in between. It is all terrific fun but gruelling, exhausting and expensive (hence the fund-raising). A very generous offer from Gleneagles Hotel has given the team a location to practice indoors in conditions as near as possible to those of HOYS in the run up to the Competition. Halleys Horse Feed is providing the ponies with hay-bricks to keep the boredom at bay, the children are doing a supermarket bag packing event and the Club has set up a “Just-Giving” page which any donors and particularly previous club members can use to donate funds no matter how small.
In the meantime, come and see the team in operation at Scottish Horse of the Year Show on 28th and 29th September. This is a free event at Gleneagles Equestrian Centre. And, put the date in your diary October 9th to 13th Horse of the Year Show in Birmingham televised daily from the Thursday on Sky Sports.
And finally, think you have a budding star in the making in the family? Please contact the local branch of the Pony Club and come and try out this amazing sport for yourself (or your children).
“As a Member of The Pony Club, I stand for the best in sportsmanship as well as in horsemanship. I shall compete for the enjoyment of the game well played and take winning or losing in my stride, remembering that without good manners and good temper, sport loses its cause for being. I shall at all time treat my horse with due consideration.” Quote from The Pony Club Mounted Games rulebook.