The Washington International Horse Show has its fair share of glamour. International equestrians rub elbows with DC’s finest at the President’s Cup Party, and celebrities like Bruce Springsteen and Zsa Zsa Gabor have been known to attend the competition, which begins today. There are all manner of hunter and show-jumping competitions and tens of thousands of dollars of prize money at stake.
But forget all that. The event that many consider to be the most fun involves child jockeys urging adorable Shetland ponies to lunge their squat, furry frames over mini-hurdles.
Now in its third year, the Shetland Pony Steeplechase takes place on Thursday and Saturday. A half-dozen riders aged seven to fourteen compete around a course of four jumps. The scaled-down event will likely leave you chuckling but also impressed at the tenacity of the tiniest riders and their smallish steeds.
Twelve-year-old Maryland native Taylor Willie plans to compete this year for the first time. She’ll ride a Shetland named Olney Kushion that she has been training by galloping up hills. In her preparations, she’s learned that Shetland ponies have tempers.
“It’s always a challenge,” Willie says. “They can be really naughty. They will run off with you sometimes, go the opposite way, or kick another pony.”
Another of this year’s riders, ten-year-old Savannah Smith from Maryland, has a secret to keeping her pony, Knight’s Taffy, under control: candy.
“I give her peppermints,” Smith says. “And before a jump I say, ‘Come on, come on, come on, let’s make it!’ She jumps everything I ask her to jump.”
The winner receives a Charles Owen helmet, and there are also awards for the “Safest Ride” and first through eighth place. The race allows young riders to compete among some of the world’s best equestrians. Surrounded by role models, the kids might be hooked on horses for life.
“The steeplechase teaches kids a lot of responsibility,” Nara de Sá Guimarães, one of the show’s directors, says. “They start waking up early and feeding their ponies. Then they get them tacked up and ready to race.”