Is it necessary to go through the Pony and Children’s levels to reach the top level?

18 October 2020Author : Theo Caviezel

The "question of the month" section is back on Studforlife! This month, we take a look at the degree of synergy between the Children and Pony circuits in show jumping. While the Children's circuit is available to children between 12 and 14 years old, the Pony circuit is available for 12- to 16-year-olds. Which one is the preferred choice for reaching the top level? That is what Olivier Bost, coach of the French youth teams, and Lisa Nooren, a Dutch rider who has climbed the ladder of this great sport via these two circuits, have tried to answer.

Olivier Bost: "I’m lucky enough to be in charge of the Pony and Children circuits in France, and it’s true that we tend to oppose the progression of children on horses and ponies. What I find important - perhaps even the most important – is, above all, a child’s state of mind regarding reaching the top level.

The Children's circuit, at European level (1.30m/1.35m obstacles) is really of a remarkable level, with high quality horses that are very well trained, especially in Belgium and England. The participants are often children who regularly accompany their coaches to CSI3* - 5* events and ride in parallel in the intermediate 1* and 2* classes. They are totally immersed in the world of the top senior professionals and accumulate a great deal of experience that will be useful for high level sport.

The first interesting point in this reflection seems to me to be related to equestrian culture. In France, we have a strong pony culture, with young people fighting to qualify for the European Pony Championships, and breeders and owners fighting to see their ponies there... Other nations have more of a horse-oriented culture and favor the breeding of horses and their associated circuits. Proof of this is that the breeding of sporthorses is much more developed than the breeding of ponies in Europe. We have about 10 nations engaged in the Pony Nations Cup vs about 20 in the Children’s!

I'm a big fan of the pony circuit, which is very formative and has become very professional over the last few decades. This has led some people specializing in it, and some point out that you can't, for some reason, ride both ponies and horses in competition. I don't agree with that idea, and my professional experience confirms that for me. You can ride a pony and a horse at the same time. However, it may be a logical consequence that at the age of about 12, some children specialize more in horses and prefer to ride at the international level until the age of 15, then switch to the Juniors. Some even do all three circuits, Children, Ponies and Juniors! There’s no preferred option for reaching the high level and all combinations should be examined.

Once again, the most important thing is this quest for high standards. Great sport places a lot of demands on a person and requires a lot of time, so the choice of event categories according to age and level is less important than the discipline, ambition and the child’s organizational skills.

Let's take the example of Mégane Moissonnier, she did the first Children's Championships in Comporta with me ten years ago and had already impressed me with her riding. I had therefore negotiated with a breeder so that she could ride Jimmerdor de Florys on the ponies circuit. She shone in Ponies, then in Juniors, Young Riders and now in the big league. Paul Delforge, for his part, rode in the Children’s circuit and then went straight to the Juniors and Young Riders’ circuits without going through ponies."

Lisa Nooren: "I participated in both circuits and should logically answer that yes, both are necessary for reaching the high level. However, I have to admit that my position is more nuanced. First of all, we need to talk about the economics of both circuits. Nice, easy horses that are suitable for a child to participate in the Children's events can be acquired for a reasonable price. But buying a pony in order to compete in the Nations Cups or the European Championships has become unaffordable! Italian rider Giampiero Garofalo, my boyfriend, who is also a rider for my father Henk, is a perfect example. His parents couldn't afford to buy a pony for this level, so he immediately started out and proved himself on horses. The Children's circuit therefore leaves more room for talent and hard work to make an impact compared to financial means. To conclude this point, I think that price is the first factor in getting into either or both circuits.

The culture and commitment of the national equestrian federations also allows for the more or less advanced democratization of these two circuits. In the majority of European countries, there have always been child riders since the creation of these events. But in the Netherlands, in 2011, I was the first Dutch rider to participate in the European Championships in that category! At that time, my federation swore by ponies and encouraged young people to go directly through the Juniors or Young Riders; they didn’t want to hear about the Children’s circuit. Now, we can see that most of the children go directly to horses and, even though the pony circuit is present since there’s still a national final, our young people are not as fanatical about that circuit as they are in France, for example.

To come back to the situation in the Netherlands, our riders are moving much faster on the Children's, Junior and Young Riders circuits and are pushed to do CSI1* or 2* international competitions in parallel with the Children's circuit to get to the top level. Moreover, during these CSIs, the children are surrounded by professionals, which allows them to gain experience. During the Pony competitions, the youngsters are most often hanging out amongst themselves. Moreover, I get the impression that the parents are far more motivated than the children themselves... That environment seems almost toxic.

However, the high-level ponies that jump at the European Championships are actually "just" small horses and teach us just as much! I can't speak negatively about my pony-riding career because I had a lot of fun. If I had to do it all over again, I would have moved to the Children's circuit much earlier."

Featured photo:

AuthorTheo Caviezel