A few weeks ago I was afforded a unique opportunity to interact with delegates in the 2014 United States Pony Clubs (USPC or, simply, Pony Club) National Youth Congress. These elected 18- to 21-year-olds represented their USPC region and came to Portland, Ore., from all over the country to meet for several days, learn about leadership, and work on a proposal that they would present to the USPC Board of Governors—a change that they wanted to effect in how Pony Club operates.

For those of you who have been horsemen and horsewomen since childhood, what is it that's kept you in the industry? Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

Seeing these committed kids got me thinking back to my teenage years and wondering about why some of us stay in the horse industry and others don't. During those years, there were several reasons why my friends would leave 4-H, Pony Club, the show circuits, or the horse industry altogether. Here’s how they ranked, roughly:

  1. Love interests
  2. Rising expense
  3. Other extracurricular activities crowding time
  4. Waning interest in competing horses
  5. Waning interest in horses in general

Any one of these could’ve sidelined me, too. I remember pouting as I walked away from at least two high school extra-curricular activities I enjoyed. My horse and the million-and-one activities we participated in were expensive and time-consuming, and I have no idea how my parents kept their budget and their sanity intact (Thanks, Mom and Dad!). And, sometimes, hanging out with friends seemed much more attractive than pulling a mane or cleaning stalls. And I clearly remember trying to “Get the boy out of your head, you’re competing right now!” while navigating a preliminary-level stadium jumping ride as said hottie watched from the rail.

Plenty of distractions and challenges, indeed, could’ve derailed me from my course. But for whatever reason, horses remained a major part of my journey—and still do, with my daily immersion in horse health information.

A big part of my horse journey was Pony Club. If you’re not familiar with the organization, its mission is to develop "character, leadership, confidence and a sense of community in youth through a program that teaches the care of horses and ponies, riding and mounted sports." Members learn together, ride together, and compete together, and they test for certification levels based on riding ability and knowledge.

Pony Club builds a unique desire for interesting life experience into in its members, that’s for certain: Some of my peers from Deep Run Hunt Pony Club and the Virginia Region have gone on to do some pretty interesting things in the horse industry and beyond. One teammate from my own Pony Club, for instance, has coached the University of Georgia’s riding program to five national titles. Another from a rival Pony Club in my region became a Pan American Team Gold Medalist and blogs for the Chronicle of the Horse. A fellow club member of mine who, incidentally, was a delegate from the first National Youth Congress in 1998, is a father of four (!) and leads a church in Central Virginia. Still another from my region is a visionary that’s researching cancer in a very unique way.

The two days were intense—the delegates covered a ton of leadership material and a variety of case scenarios, and I found it interesting to watch them work together, despite the many different types of personalities and leadership styles in the room. I was very impressed with how they diplomatically narrowed down a massive list of ideas to the one project that they really wanted to bring before the board, with the help of dedicated volunteer facilitators and national examiners (who conduct the highest certification level tests).

I found these NYC members were consistently:

  • Articulate;
  • Engaged ;
  • Respectful of their peers and of the facilitators; and 
  • Gracious to the facilitators, speakers, and the major sponsor of the NYC, SmartPak.

But even more impacting for me was that they were even there, because I know that list of reasons to leave the industry still exists even though the rankings might be different.

As you know, horses are expensive. And whether these young adults had several top-ranked mounts and all expenses paid or worked full time to support their horse habit, their hearts were all in it and they are committed to making Pony Club—and quite honestly, the world—a better place.

For the horse industry’s sake, I hope we keep a few of them around—I do think many of them will lead USPC and the industry into the future, the way one of my fellow inductees to the Academy of Achievement that week, Katherine Devereaux Byron, a Master of Fox Hounds in Maryland, has. She serves as an excellent ambassador for the foxhunting discipline and the horse industry.

Others, like Mark Lloyd, who I mentioned earlier for his cancer research, and David Courreges, a prominent attorney in Texas, have gone on to do great things outside the horse industry, but with horses still at the root of their experiences. Both men spoke words of wisdom and encouragement to the NYC members. And they and their spouses already have daughters who are climbing on ponies and will be some of the future members of the industry.

It’s the shared experiences with others and our horses, the sense of "centeredness" I feel when I’m around horses, and the passion for science and horse health that keep me engaged. So, what was it that has kept you in the horse industry, either way-back-when or now, when so many other things distract?

Delegates and Academy of Achievement Inductees at the 2014 United States Pony Clubs National Youth Congress, held in Portland, Ore.