Across the length and breadth of the sun-kissed English countryside this week, what look like anachronistic re-creations of Napoleonic cavalry camps have been springing up in fields, farms, and pasture land.
Makeshift stables built from slotted-together iron fences with tarpaulin roofs stretched over them house up to 100 ponies and small horses, and the air hangs heavy with the hearty smell of equine by-products.
From the crack of dawn, children from the age of about 9 and upwards are busy brushing their ponies, washing their tails and plaiting their manes.
Parents, many of whom are more used to being waited on hand and foot by an army of Filipino servants, unload saddles and barrels of water from Mercedes SUVs while others help muck out the stables, scurrying across the landscape wheeling barrows of straw and shit, looking for all the world like Victorian farmhands (were it not for the Hunter wellies, jodhpurs, and Barbour jackets).
Yes, it is Pony Club season in the UK.
The Pony Club was founded in 1929 to encourage children to ride, and it has been enormously successful in this goal.
There is barely a British Olympic horseman or medal winner who has not at some stage in their childhood worn the distinctive polyester purple and pale blue Pony Club tie.
It is a noble institution, and as a kid who attended Pony Club myself (on my splendid steed Merrylegs) I have nothing but the warmest regard for this non-profit-making charity that does so much to encourage equestrianism in the British youth.
However, as for some of the people who attend Pony Club, well, that’s quite another matter.
Pony Club has always been something of a haven for pushy parents—indeed the phrase ‘she’s a real Pony Club Mum’ is a well-worn term of abuse in the British shires, denoting an excessively bossy woman—and as usually happens in the summer months, the conversation at British picnics and tea parties is once again turning to amazing stories of snobbishness, social exclusion, and the one-upmanship of parents via the proxies of their kids.
“It literally brings out the worst in any slightly competitive mothers,” says one veteran, “You just hear them from the other side of the field yelling, ‘Kick harder! Go ON Flossie!’”
The undercurrent of gossipy backstabbing contrasts with the genteel surface of Pony Club, and derives in large part from the broad mixture of social classes that attend the week-long camps, at which older children often camp on site.
Much like the British foxhunts, to which each local Pony Club is affiliated, Pony Club is one of the few environments where a broad cross-section of social classes meet.
The London mega-rich who have homes in the country rub shoulders with the professional middle-classes who have moved out of London and the rural yeomanry—tenant farmers, butchers, builders, and agricultural machinery salesmen—who are the lifeblood of the rural economy.
Pony Club is moderately expensive—about $500 per child, but this covers lunch, six hours of tuition a day, and all the hay their horse can eat—but not prohibitively so. It is also ‘public’ in that it is open to anyone—well, anyone who can get their hands on a pony.
One of the most important elements of Pony Camp is, of course, your pony.
The weeks leading up to Pony Camp are the busy season for pony sales as parents try to make sure their kids have the ultimate all-rounder that will do the showjumping as easily as the cross-country courses and the lake swimming (always the big highlight of the last day of Pony Club).
Good ponies start at about $2,200, but it’s not uncommon to see adverts in the weeks running up to Pony Camp asking for $10,000 and more for ‘nice movers’ and ‘cracking bomb-proof mares’ with ‘no vices’ among the ads for hay for sale and horseboxes for hire.
At the other end of the scale, the impecunious parents rely on ‘loaners,’ where an owner desperate to unload the costs of a steed which their kid has grown out of lends the horse for free in return for the temporary guardian covering costs of shoeing, fodder, stabling, and vet bills, which can easily exceed $200 per month.
Stories of excessive prices paid for ponies are the starting point for all Pony Club Camp bitching.
At our local Pony Club Camp in Ireland one year, the gossip was all about one mother who had lent her child her own show horse—worth around $30,000—for Pony Camp.
The mother tried to make out it was simply an emergency option because the child’s pony had laminitis (a disease of the foot caused by the animal gorging on rich grass) but the supposed sick pony in question was reported to be in perfect health.
Naturally, the perfectly bred beast trotted over every obstacle put in front of it with the child perched atop playing a largely symbolic role. It was all deemed rather unfair on the rest of us—but disaster struck when the horse, unused to the cramped on-site stable compared to its luxury accommodation at home, somehow got a foot stuck in a hay net and pulled a tendon.
“Of all the expensive horses here, something would have to happen to my one,” the distraught woman was heard to shriek as she raced to the stable.
Cliques form with alacrity at Pony Club.
The super rich band together in one corner, circling their luxury SUVs, and the locals create their own fiefdom out of straw bales.
The middle-class solicitors who have just moved to the country look from one to the other uncertainly, wondering to which camp they are most likely to be invited.
The children have a habit, wonderfully, of messing these parental preferences up, and friendships and love affairs usually form between children who each other’s parents consider deeply unsuitable for each other—too posh, too stuck up, too rough or too affected.
The redoubtable instructors who actually run the lessons at Pony Club tend to be of the no-bullshit mentality.
If you fall off, you get back on. They have little sympathy for rich kids with ‘all the gear’: stories abound of the parent who bought their child a Hermès saddle for Pony Club which was destroyed when the pony plunged into the river for a swim during the cross-country exercises, rather than jumping the brook.
Despite all the drama and gossip and bitchiness and backstabbing, everyone will be back again next year—because all that stuff fades into insignificance when the parents see the smiling, sunburnt faces of their children coming in from the cross-country course for the last time.
Then they load their horses into boxes, everyone pitches in to break down and clear up the site, and the kids say farewell to new friends forged in the heat of the showjumping ring.
Pony Club Camp is the stuff of which childhood dreams are made.
And if only the parents would behave themselves, it would be perfect.