BY CARRIE WIRTH | PHOTOS BY DAVID TRAXLER PHOTOGRAPHY & EQ MEDIA

The U.S. Pony Club’s (USPC) slogan is “where it all begins,” and at the 2021 USPC Festival, you could feel the youthful excitement in the air. Held every three years at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, USPC Festival hosts thousands of Pony Club members, their families, leaders and volunteers for the USPC National Championships along with mounted and unmounted multi-discipline clinics and workshops. Every corner of the horse park buzzes with competition and learning. The bond between the USPC and mounted hunting with hounds is at the very core of its mission. The USPC founders were foxhunters. They created the organization to provide education for all interested children, despite financial status. Since its birth in 1954, USPC has taught top-notch horsemanship, teamwork and sportsmanship through riding and mounted sports. They emphasize developing leadership, confidence, responsibility and a sense of community. The Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America (MFHA) and USPC have had a close relationship through the years. Many hunt clubs are aligned with their local Pony Club chapters and the MFHA encourages and facilitates the continuation of the connection.

The foxhunting booth at the USPC Festival. Photo by David Traxler Photography

THE BOOTH

The MFHA was on hand to support their longtime partnership during the 2021 USPC Festival. Director of Operations Billie-Jo Pearl and USPC foxhunting committee member Alex Wiess managed a foxhunting booth during the event at the Festival Trade Fair. Pony Club members browsed through habit, tack and hunt appointments, were treated to The Pack Junior lapel pins and MFHA educational resources. “The booth was busy,” said Pearl. “Many Pony Club members were very interested and wanted to learn more. Others wanted to share their first hunting stories with us. It was a wonderful opportunity for MFHA to connect with young foxhunters.”

Booth visitors signed a guest book and wrote about their experiences with foxhunting. “When the hunt came to my Pony Club, my favorite part was when I heard the different horn signals,” wrote Willa N. “We saw all the hounds come out and the obedience was crazy!’

“I have hunted two seasons at home and have loved experiencing the different hunt venues,” wrote Madison M. (Maryland Region). “There is truly nothing better than going out on a hunt on a fresh fall or winter morning with my horse!”

USPC Workshops

During the educational events, Aliina Keers, USPC Foxhunting Committee chair and kennel-huntsman for the Iroquois Hunt, led hands-on foxhunting workshops and introduced her young students to Tag, her retired foxhound and ambassador to the sport. Kids learned about the fine points of mounted hunting with hounds and took turns tooting a hunting horn.

Aliina Keers led hands-on foxhunting workshops. Photo by David Traxler Photography

FOXHUNTING SYMPOSIUM

Weiss led a well-attended foxhunting symposium in the Rolex tower. Joining her were Keers, Morley Thompson, MFH of the Camargo Hunt and MFHA Director of Hunting Andrew Barclay. Pony Club members listened intently as Barclay shared his story about being a horse-crazy kid, finding eventing and eventually discovering foxhunting. At 16, he went to work for the summer in England, where he was in the British Pony Club with the Beaufort Hunt Pony Club. After graduation and several other equestrian jobs, Barclay landed a whipper-in position at Green Spring Valley Hunt under the legendary Les Grimes. He took the reins as huntsman and served for 20 years. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Barclay said. “I was on horses all day long with a pack of hounds and told him to go to chase things.” Barclay described how and why the MFHA was formed and its role today as the governing body of the sport. He explained that the MFHA rules and guidelines are meant to protect the welfare of animals, hunting country and the membership.

Barclay talked about the MFHA’s Fairly Hunted Award for juniors who have hunted five times. He encouraged the attendees to learn about the hounds to enrich their foxhunting experience. Thompson shared his experience as a USPC member and how he began hunting at 11. He has been a master for 15 years and whipper-in for about 20 years. He explained that the Camargo Hunt, near Cincinnati, has close ties with their local Pony Club in the Miami Valley. “We’re fortunate that one of the DCs (district commissioners) of our local pony club is also one of our hunt members,” Thompson said. He explained that they do a couple of junior hunts each season on regularly scheduled hunt days. On those days, juniors can ride at the front of the field they ride in. They typically have three fields, with the third field a walk-trot group, the perfect low-stress introduction for horse and rider. They allow a junior to co-master each field and experienced juniors can be paired with one of the whips or ride with the huntsman for the day. “I always enjoyed those (junior hunts) as a kid and we try to encourage every way we can,” Thompson said. “We have a lot of other programs. We have a resale shop where all the proceeds go to scholarship memberships for young riders.” He said that they keep the junior dues and capping fees low to make it easy to participate. The Camargo Hunt also hosts a qualifier for the North American Junior Field Hunter Championship.

Barclay and Thompson answered questions from the audience about the protocol for a person’s first-time hunting, hunt club emergency preparedness and GPS collars on hounds. Thompson stressed that, like USPC, the MFHA is a national network of clubs with like-minded individuals who want to facilitate participation for established foxhunters and those who want to learn. After the session, Natalie N., a member of the Northwest Region, was excited about what she heard. “This was my first exposure to foxhunting,” she said. “It’s kind of cool information. We’re going to try to reach out to the nearest foxhunting club, which is in another state, but we’re going to definitely try to get out there.”

Foxhunting workshop panelist Morley Thompson, MFH Camargo Hunt. Photo by EQ Media

THE MOCK HUNT

More than 100 USPC members participated in the mock hunt led by the Iroquois Hunt. Photo by David Traxler Photography

The mock hunt is a popular USPC Festival tradition. On a foggy Monday at 6:30 a.m., more than 100 Pony Club members arrived at the horse park’s steeplechase tower to participate. Some riders planned to introduce their horses and ponies to hounds and some borrowed experienced field hunters. After words of welcome from The Iroquois Hunt’s MFH John van Nagell and an explanation of the field master’s role, the hounds were released and led by Keers for an easy loop to get the group going. With the lion’s share of the group’s horses and riders good-to-go, the Iroquois Hunt hounds and staff led a lovely ride across the Kentucky Horse Park cross-country and steeplechase courses. The event was a success. Beaming riders, their ponies and horses returned safely to the starting place. Emma W. from the Sunshine Region regularly hunts her horse. “It was really fun,” she said. “She stayed on the buckle most of the time. She was very relaxed,” she said about her horse.

The field of the mock hunt on the ridge at the Kentucky Horse Park. Photo by David Traxler Photography

It was Payden M.’s (Carolina Region) first experience with hounds, and she was thrilled. “It was a really good experience,” she said. “This is my trainer’s horse. She let me borrow him. We had some exciting moments, but he was really good. I liked being in a group and watching how the hounds communicated. I want to jump next time!”

The mock hunt is a popular USPC Festival tradition. Photos by David Traxler Photography

Mock hunt participants gallop off into the fog. Photo by David Traxler Photography

Conservation panelists Holley Groshek and Jacob Stewart. Photos by EQ Media

LAND CONSERVATION PANEL

On the final day of the USPC Festival, Weiss welcomed a panel of experts to discuss land conservation. Jacob Stewart, private lands management coordinator for Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, Holley Groshek, executive director of the Equine Land Conservation Resource (ELCR), Barclay and Weiss discussed conservation and what it means for equestrians.

Weiss is a former Recreational Trails Program administrator with the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails within the Division of Parks and Recreation and serves on the Wakulla County Parks advisory board. She explained that foxhunting, Pony Club and conservation are inextricably intertwined.

Stewart said that for Kentucky private lands, with 17 biologists and working closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they advise landowners on the best ways to combine crops with wildlife preservation, focusing on hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. For public lands, Kentucky has quite a few wildlife management areas that may or may not allow various recreational activities.

“Funding sources, mechanisms of certain parts of public lands, often only allow for certain activities,” Stewart said.

Groshek told the group that in 1996, members of a USPC task force identified loss of land and access as the greatest threat to the future of equestrian activities. Out of that committee came the founders of ELCR. In 1999, ELCR became an independent 501(c)(3) with its own offices and staff. “On our website, you’ll see our online resource library,” Groshek said. “It’s the biggest collection of educational resources including tools, templates, important webinars on land issues.”

She explained how the ELCR focuses on six core issues: planning for horse-friendly communities, private land, access to public land, planning and zoning, best management practices and communicating the benefits of horses.

Barclay shared that the members of the MFHA have preserved 1.5 million acres of land, mainly through easements. The MFHA presents a coveted conservation award each year, sponsored by Marty and Daphne Wood (Live Oak Hounds), that has contributed to efforts across North America. “Without open land, our sport definitely doesn’t exist,” he said.

“I think it’s interesting how we can protect our land,” said Karinn B., a Pony Club member from the Carolina Region who attended the workshop. “I wanted to hear what they had to say about it. The farm I work at used to be 200 acres and then they put neighborhoods on it. A lot of us have seen that.”

Members of the MFHA have

preserved 1.5 million acres of land

mainly through easements. The MFHA presents a coveted conservation award each year, presented by Marty and Daphne Wood from Live Oak Hounds, that has contributed to efforts across North America.

“Without open land, our sport definitely doesn’t exist.”

Andrew Barclay

Director of Hunting, MFHA

THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT

The member response to the MFHA at the USPC Festival was overwhelmingly positive. Pony Club members at the event demonstrated that they are actively interested in foxhunting. They asked the right questions and they care about land conservation. Pony Club is where it all begins, and its members offer the optimism of a bright future for mounted hunting with hounds.

Pony Club members learn about the Fairly Hunted Award. Photo by David Traxler Photography