The Virginia Pony Club doesn't refer to a clique of Shetlands who meet for drinks and golf, but to an organization of young equestrians that has launched more than a few Olympic contenders.
But it was mostly the mothers of the members and former members who reunited under a white tent at Frying Pan Park on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the United States Pony Clubs (USPC). They have good reasons for wanting to stay involved with pony club and with each other.
For starters, it was together that they watched their children endure the difficulties, mishaps and failures of pony-club competitions. One of the pictures displayed at the reunion was of a young rider falling forward off a horse.
"At rallies you have formals and they're kind of upsetting," said Andrew Fox, an 8-year-old pony-club member from Herndon. He remembers one girl who had to walk her horse up and down, up and down the stable before the rally, and then she got points off for having dusty boots.
His 10-year-old sister Lindsay Fox, also a pony-club member, supposes the girl could have wiped them off right before she mounted. "At rallies, you know formals, there's this one judge. I didn't exactly like her," said Lindsay Fox. Two years ago, when she was a brand new pony clubber competing in her very first rally, the judge told her she needed to do more. "I'm a D1 (beginner level) and I'm 8 years old," she said.
"Yeah, and that judge made two teen-agers on Lindsay's team cry," said Andrew Fox.
Andrew Fox had a rougher experience at games rally (relay races). He's small, but he knows how to mount a pony by himself. When he tried to mount at this rally, he couldn't. The pony had pulled the old trick of blowing out his stomach when he was being saddled, and the girth was loose. "The entire saddle was hanging down under the pony's belly," Andrew Fox said.
"And parents can't help," said his mother, Sue Fox-Murdock, a pony-club alumna, and district commissioner of the Difficult Run Pony Club. So Andrew struggled for about 10 minutes, hanging on the best he could, trying to set things right, until finally an official stepped in.
The adults in the audience let out a big, collective "Wow," said Fox-Murdock. That empathy for each other's children is part of what defines pony club for her.
THE STORY of the "Big E Club" defines it for Carol Noggle, regional supervisor, and parent of two pony-club alumnae. Back in 1988 or so, an eventing team that was to compete at a club rally at Frying Pan Park had a string of mishaps. One horse was lame. Two horses were eliminated in the cross-country phase. Another had problems in stadium jumping. So these youngsters came to the awards ceremony knowing they were placing at the bottom, that they'd been virtually eliminated from contention, said Noggle.
They made big Es for "Eliminate," with duct tape, and attached them to their shirts and helmets, and came in as the Big E Club. "It reflected their sportsmanship and team attitude," said Noggle.
Competing at rallies isn't the focus of every pony club. "Rocky Run is a smaller, more neighborhood-type club," said Beth Gilley of Herndon, district commissioner for Rocky Run, and mother of a pony-club alumna.
But for Difficult Run, which is the biggest and most active pony club in the area, said Lisa Marfurt of Herndon, mother of a 12-year-old pony clubber, competitions are important.
Phyllis Dawson, who competed at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, is a Difficult Run alumna.
When she first joined pony club at the age of 11, she told her district commissioner how serious she was, and the commissioner replied, "Don't tell me you're one of those little girls who wants to go to the Olympics." But when Dawson did go to the Olympics, the woman sent her a card, and wrote, "Phyllis, I always knew that you would do it."
"Pony club was my introduction to eventing (combined competition in dressage, cross country and show jumping)," said Dawson, who grew up in Great Falls. But most of her education came with her later training, and Dawson now owns Windchase, a 245-acre boarding, training and eventing stable in western Loudoun County.
PONY CLUBS teach responsibility, leadership and teamwork, said Margo Leithead, president of the United States Pony Clubs, who was the reunion's most honored attendee. "The most important function is the horse comes first," said Leithead.
"We have all these suburban parents who don't know diddly about horses. We need to pass the knowledge on," said Sue Elliott, a retired regional supervisor, who is now regional instruction coordinator.
Pony-club members learn about caring for their horses. Marfurt said, they keep track of their animals' shot, food and shoeing schedules, learn to keep ponies in both pastures and stables, and are marked off at rallies if their horses sport so much as a little dandruff. All members own a vet kit.
The self-sufficiency and responsibility of pony-club members is evident in the way they treat Frying Pan Park, where the club's two yearly events take place.
"Pony club basically sets up on their own and runs it by themselves," said Emma Hollenbeck, administration assistant for Fairfax County Parks Association. She said that members do most of the cleanup too, including stalls, and taking down the equipment on the field.
However, events are put on largely by the parents, who do everything from directing parking to judging events, to scribing for the judge, said Fox-Murdock. She attributes the large place pony club tends to occupy in member families to parent involvement in the competitions.
Competitions serve not only to bind parents to pony club, but to each other as well. "You're there from 5:30 in the morning until 5:30 at night. You have to be, in case your kid falls on her head. There's nothing to do but talk to other parents," said Marfurt.
Even several of the horses and ponies stay involved in pony club for life. They get passed from pony-club family to pony-club family.
"With the good horses, that's how it works," said Marfurt.