Big bows and tiny braids. A line of plump, multi-hued ponies, dappled coats sparkling like a basket full of equine Easter eggs. They move well. They jump with style. They’re infinitely tolerant of their small, human charges. Spend any time at Devon or USEF Pony Finals and you’ll likely witness some version of this scene.
“The Welsh pony and the Welsh-crossbred pony are still, to me, the gold standard. A Welsh pony with a great disposition and a little kid [on it]—there’s just nothing like it,” says Robin Greenwood of Grand Central Ponies in Southern Pines, N.C., one of the country’s premier hunter pony trainers for more than three decades.
In Greenwood’s estimation, U.S. breeders have virtually perfected the performance pony game; turning out beautiful, ‘typey’ ponies with the athleticism, sensitivity, and temperament to win tri-colors in top rings from coast to coast. So why is America currently facing a major show pony shortage?
“Right now, if you go out and try to find a ‘made’ pony for a competitive division at the AA horse shows, you’ll be looking for a long time. There just aren’t enough ponies right now,” says Robin, who believes a number of factors are responsible for the deficit. For one thing, breeders are producing fewer ponies than ever before, part of a gradual ‘scaling down’ process that began decades ago.
“We had some economic downturns in the ‘90s and the early 2000s that were more severe than what we’ve suffered [previously]. So, to start with, less little kids took up riding because it’s an expensive thing, and more breeders stopped breeding, or cut their breeding way back,” Robin explains. “Some of them had to sell their farms. Some of them felt that they just couldn’t move any ponies because no one was buying anything, so they left their mares open and didn’t breed as much.”
There are also cultural aspects at play in the sport which, according to Robin, have impacted the number of ponies that owners are willing to carry at any one time. “It wasn’t that many years ago, through the 90s, even, that just as people [with the means] would buy investment horses, they would buy a show pony and a green pony [for their kids]. But the expense of the animals, and the cost of keeping those animals in a show or training barn in most parts of the country is so overwhelming, that most people [now] prefer to have just one.”
Thanks to the growing need, however, that model may be changing, and America’s pony shortage is presenting an interesting conundrum. In some ways, it’s encouraged more deep-pocketed buyers to look across the pond for experienced jumping ponies for the show ring. But it’s also been a major boon for a select group of boutique American pony breeders who have managed to stick out the economic downturn. After many years honing their craft, these small-scale operations are finally finding their sporty, long-lashed, and (most importantly) kid-friendly progeny in demand like never before.
You can’t talk about pony breeding in America without mentioning Farnley Farm and Shenandoah Pony Stud in the rolling hills of Virginia’s hunt country. Now a third-generation family business, owner Hetty M-S Abeles and her daughter Damaris Abeles run the operation originally established by Hetty’s parents in the 1930s with Welsh, Dartmoor, and Cleveland Bay horses sourced and shipped from abroad. “[My mother, Joan Dunning,] told people, quite quickly, that the illusion that the ponies were for her children was not correct!” jokes Hetty, who started breeding ponies under her own ‘Shenandoah’ prefix in the 1950s.
During their 85 years in the breeding business, Damaris Abeles says, the number of foals Farnley has produced in a given year declined as the demand gradually shifted from breeding stock in the early years to the performance ponies of today. For instance, what began as 60-80 mares covered in a year in Farnley’s earliest decades shifted to about 40 foals in the 1960s-1980s, to somewhere between 12-18 foals today. But while the numbers may have changed, Damaris remains optimistic about the state of American pony breeding overall.
“It certainly picked up during COVID, but [in the last] four years or so, people really started being interested in the unbroken three-year-old ponies again. That’s great, because we really count on selling a third or more of them as youngsters before we have to break them.
“I think [there are] more trainers and competent riders that just want to bring one along themselves, and then they lease it to students, or maybe they’ll sell it in a year or something like that,” continues Damaris, who has taken on the challenge of modernizing Farnley, both in terms of its breaking and training program and how it markets its ponies (primarily on YouTube) to the world.
Though Farnley adheres to an almost European breeding model—letting their young stock live out in herds with mostly limited training until their three-year-old year—they are thoughtful through every stage of the process. “[The ponies] get handling as foals, and they learn to load on the trailer and go for a little ride. That actually makes a big impression on them, because when we bring them back in as yearlings and two-year-olds, and it’s time to go to the first horse show, they step right on!” says Damaris.
“We spend a lot of time doing groundwork with them, because they haven’t been coming in [every day]. We have a very deliberate process of grooming in the stall, learning to lunge, learning about tack, and eventually, long-lining, where we’re driving them and they’re learning about bit pressure,” she continues. “We also hang out at the mounting block, where they have to learn to be patient and stand still [like they would for a child].”
Of course, ponies being individuals, some youngsters take longer to ‘come to the party’ than others. For these, more challenging personalities, Damaris has one, big, ace up her sleeve: bloodlines. “It drives me crazy these days that people don’t really know pedigrees, don’t pay attention, or don’t think they’re important,” she explains, adding that’s she’s often able to offer advice and head-off future problems based on knowledge gleaned working with dozens or more of a pony’s nearest relatives. “I might tell a new pony’s owner, ‘Given this family line, you’ll want to give them some time when you break them, because if he or she doesn’t like it at first, and if you press them, they’re going to say ‘no,’ and then it’s an uphill battle,’” she explains.
“Family lines definitely have their traits. I’m not saying they’re absolutely uniform, but to me, when a foal is born, I have a kind of a sense for what it will be like.”
It’s this kind of specialized, first-hand information that only a longtime breeder would know, and for prospective green pony buyers, access to a knowledgeable expert willing to help them along the way can be a strong selling point. The proof may be in the pudding.
Since 1966, Farnley has held periodic auctions, typically for young, unbroken stock, every four to five years. Lately, Hetty says, they haven’t had the inventory to make an auction worthwhile: the farm’s ponies have already sold.
From Europe, With Love?
These days, if you’re shopping for a horse with a certain amount of change in your pocket, there’s a good chance you’re looking in Europe. Or, at least, for a horse that was bred there.
For hunters and jumpers, in particular, the Old Country not only has the blood lines, they have a young horse training infrastructure that America, for various reasons, can’t compete with. Horses arrive on U.S. soil with miles and show experience that buyers can depend on, obtained at far less cost than they could hope to find here. Which begs the question: Are American’s top performance ponies heading in the same direction?
To be sure, there are more European-bred ponies appearing in the ranks at USEF Pony Finals and other top venues than in years past. According to Robin Greenwood’s estimate, about 15 percent, with much of that influx a direct result of the show pony shortage at home. That said, five to ten years down the road, will all of our country’s top ponies hail from across the pond?
“I don’t see it headed that way,” says Sara McCormick of Orchard Hill Ponies in Aiken, S.C. McCormick has been in the business for 13 years, specializing in pure and crossbred Welsh performance ponies for the hunter/jumper, dressage, and eventing. “Granted, the market for importing horses is really good right now, but you’re still looking at whatever you paid for the pony, plus another $6,000 for shipping, and getting it to your house, [and paying for quarantine fees, etc.].”
Like Hetty and Damaris Abeles, Sara—who stands six to seven stallions and produces anywhere between eight and 12 foals a year—prides herself on a thorough understanding of bloodlines and conformation. A former pony rider and trainer, herself, Sara sums up her breeding mentality in three words: “Really, really, fussy.” So fussy, in fact, that she set out more than a decade ago to breed what she couldn’t find for purchase on the market.
“I really want a super-athlete. They need to be able to go in any venue, and I want them to be pretty. But most of all, I want a solid brain: something quiet, something trainable, something easy,” she explains.
If recent sales are any indication, her fastidiousness is paying off in a big way.
“For us, as soon as a foal is born, within posting them on Facebook or elsewhere, they’re usually sold within four hours,” Sara says. “I feel very lucky.” The demand has been so high, in fact, that Orchard Hill refuses to take deposits and has stopped doing a pre-sale wait-list, opting instead for a kind of first come, first served social media model.
“I think [the shortage that’s currently happening trickles] down from the biggest breeders in the country no longer being there,” continues Sara, who remembers a time, not so long ago, when major Welsh Section B breeders such as Gayfields and Smoke Tree Farms, both in Arkansas, were pasture breeding 10-15 mares a season to a single stallion.
The natural ebb and flow of the breeding business, in addition to the changing economy, has made large-scale operations like these almost non-existent anymore, according to Sara, who says she herself is no stranger to the ups and downs of the industry. “It was hard to be a breeder when the markets were bad. I stuck it out no matter what,” she says. “I’m not saying it wasn’t [difficult] for us, too, financially, but I kept going.
“[Today,] there’s just not as many of us breeding as their once was. There are a lot of small operations where people are breeding two to three ponies [a year],” she continues. “There’s also [a core group of performance pony breeders out there like me] that have been doing it forever and have lovely ponies. They’re good at breeding Welsh crossbreds and what are often the top ponies in the nation.”
Like the Abeles, neither Sara McCormick nor Robin Greenwood say they are losing sleep over a potential ‘European pony invasion’ for a number of reasons. Aside from whether or not a European pony will actually arrive and measure for the division it’s intended for, there’s also the question of its training and temperament. And while this uncertainty is inherent with any import, the risk factor goes up with mounts intended for the highly specialized, kid-centric pony divisions.
“[Europe] doesn’t have the hunter divisions like we do, so their horses and ponies are trained as jumpers to ride forward up to the jump,” explains Robin. “Those [ponies], when they come in, don’t quickly translate to the ‘soft-reins-to-the-soft-distance-type’ ride.
“So, while you can get the right ‘type’ of pony, you don’t always know what you’re going to have when you get it home.”
Plus, buying a pony on U.S. soil is just cheaper. A lot cheaper. For example, many top performance foals hit the ground costing $10,000 or under, a price that would barely cover import and quarantine fees from Europe. With that math and the rising demand in mind—along with the fact that it generally costs less to house, feed, and maintain a pony when compared to a full-sized horse—training board for a greenie or even opting to breed your own prospect doesn’t look quite so bad.
“People are sitting on them, or there are more people breeding themselves, and not looking at [carrying young ponies] as such a scary, long-term thing,” Sara says. “I think more and more, people are willing to look at it now as an investment.”
And, when you opt for a quality American pony stud for your breeding venture, once again, you’re not in it alone. “We ship out a ton of semen a year, [but clients] don’t just call me and say, ‘I need semen.’ It’s a discussion and a plan,” explains Sara, who uses her eye and expertise to counsel potential breeders on achieving the right match for their mare in terms of both conformation and temperament. “We want a foal that’s nice to ride, and nice to handle, because that means its life will be better; it will be more beautiful, and it won’t end up in a bad place or on the ‘LTD’ lunge to death list,” she says.
“I want everyone that [buys from me], and that I ship semen to, to have a plan so we can make the best pony hit the ground.”
With this kind of longstanding dedication to their craft, it’s heartening to realize that breeders such as Orchard Hill and Farnley Farm/Shenandoah Pony Stud have not only weathered the economic storm, but finally, are starting to reap the rewards of a new day. And, for many in the know, the future of American performance pony breeding is once again very bright indeed.
“[I think these] breeders that have outlasted the downturns and bred a lot of ponies every year will continue,” says Robin. “I know, right now, there are a lot of green ponies again; a lot of them are with trainers that have them for their kids, or with people who aren’t going to buy a show pony right away, but are buying a green one for investment.
“There’s a great market for it, and American ponies are still very much in demand. There just aren’t enough of them.”
Photos courtesy of Kate Kosnoff (@kateattheingate_)
Written by Nina Fedrizzi
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.