April 2017 | Montgomery County Pony Club Members Finish Second in South Africa
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Montgomery County Pony Club Members Finish Second in South Africa

Suzanne Bush - April 2017

Montgomery County Pony ClubJoe Naji, without stirrups, manages to stay balanced and secure while picking a tennis ball off the top of a cone.  Photo credit Shannon Gilson

Grit. It’s not just the stuff that gets stuck in the treads of your sneakers. It’s a way of living, a way of taking on life’s challenges with optimism and diligence. And it’s even reached that pinnacle of “big ideas,” the TED stage. University of Pennsylvania psychologist and MacArthur “Genius” Angela Duckworth has studied what separates successful individuals—students, doctors, salespeople, athletes—from those who struggle and often quit or fail. It all starts, Duckworth says, in childhood. She says that “grit, a child’s perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” is a better predictor—better even than either IQ or talent! —of the kinds of successes that child will have in the future—from career, to earnings and even to happiness.

Author Jenny Williams offers several keys to developing grit, from finding and cultivating a passion, to “recognizing that frustration, confusion and practice are par for the course,” to learning that “failure is not the end.” So, what does grit look like in person? It looks a lot like a Pony Club member.

“Being part of this for so long,” Joe Naji of North Wales, PA says about what Pony Club has meant to him, “staying committed to one thing as long as you can, you develop resilience, and that’s a big lesson.” He was a member for more than 15 years, and now competes in Mounted Games. A recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he’s planning a career in medicine.

In December, he and his sister Jen, along with fellow Pony Club veterans Jaycee Blythe, Elise Barberras and Kaja Newell, competed in the Nations Mounted Games Championship in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. They finished in second place, while the team from New Zealand won the competition.

Borrowed Ponies, Beautiful Country

Since the team couldn’t take their own ponies with them, they had to compete on ponies borrowed from the local Mounted Games group in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal. That fact hints at the level of organization and planning required to make a competition like this successful—which, by all accounts it was.

For one thing, the organizing group had to recruit ponies that were ready for international competition. “The home team does have some type of advantage because they’re on their own ponies,” Joe Naji says. “And they do try to come up with a pool of ponies for visitors that’s equitable and fair.” He says that they had a couple of days to ride the ponies and determine their strengths so they could develop a strategy for the competition.   “And actually, our team—the USA team—was at more of a disadvantage because the other teams also got there a week before.” He said that the other teams, from New Zealand and Australia, did get to spend an extra week working with the ponies they would use in the competition.

“It was really different, but definitely enjoyable,” Jaycee Blythe says. “The ponies were at a good level—better than we expected.” But the years this team has been together—since Pony Club days—have left a residue of maturity and flexibility in each of them. They don’t sweat the things that would immobilize others.

“The horses were all kind of in a field together,” Blythe recalls. She was trying to find the pony that had been described to her, but was working on some incomplete information. “It wasn’t even a real field,” she says. “They were just kind of roaming. I went up to the one I thought was my horse, and I put a halter on him.” She and her teammates laughed at the memory. “Someone from the New Zealand team yelled ‘Hey, what are you doing with my horse?’. I thought it was my horse!”

“The way they take care of their horses over there is different from what we’re used to,” Joe explains. “I think we’re more meticulous and uptight with our rules about fencing and the way they get fed. And over there, it’s a little more lax.” The horses, grazing in fields they were not accustomed to, were curious about the competition. “The horses were just roaming in this open field and sometimes they’d get out. Once or twice they jumped into the ring we were competing in!”

“It was beautiful country,” Elise Barberras says. “It was a lot cooler, and a lot greener than we expected it to be.” Like her teammates, Barberras has traveled before in competition. Like her teammates, she was amazed and intrigued by what they saw and experienced. “I think it was interesting to see the ways the games are run,” Jen Naji says. She works 13-hour days as an ICU nurse, and like her brother, grew up in Pony Club. Their mother, Patti is the district commissioner of Perkiomen Creek Pony Club in Montgomery County.

The sport of Mounted Games is new to South Africa, but Jen was impressed by how much the host country has progressed. “We’re used to seeing it really popular in Europe. Their (the South African team’s) experience level is different. They started Mounted Games much later, but it was so cool to see how it’s growing and they’re trying to expand it throughout Africa. It’s one of the best trips I’ve ever been on.”

Kaja Newell, a high school sophomore and the youngest member of the team, said that “English was everyone’s first language, but, sometimes they didn’t understand our English—like our slang.”

What are mounted games?

Mounted Games is one of seven disciplines in which Pony Club members compete.  It was originally introduced in response to His Royal Highness Prince Philip of Edinburgh (yes, that Prince Philip) encouraging a discipline that would harken back to Cavalry skills. It was an avenue for kids who didn’t have expensive Dressage or show ponies to experience equestrian competition. It focuses on riders’ abilities at mounting and dismounting, picking up objects such as pennants, handing off objects to other riders, placing an object into a container, etc. Patti Naji explains that the discipline “involves being very balanced on your horse, being able to do things going at a fast pace. Using these games to build on fundamental skills like balance and coordination ultimately results in better equestrians.”

And the good news is that Mounted Games is a sport for all ages. Boys and girls—and men and women—compete against each other on an equal footing. There are not gender-based teams. But there are groups segregated by age.

“We have an older division now,” Joe Naji says. It’s the division in which his mom, Patti, still competes. “We call it the fossils,” he says, laughing.

Do it. Try it. Go for it.

The selection process for international competition is not as formal as Olympic trials. That’s partly because Mounted Games is a sport that is still growing. The focus is on friendship, and on expanding development of equestrian skills. The US Mounted Games Association’s mission includes the goal of keeping equestrian sports financially accessible to the public.

“We were selected for the team,” Joe Naji explains, through a tryout system the organization maintains. “There are certain competitions in the US that they consider tryouts.” He says that he and the rest of the team had formally expressed an interest in the Nations Cup competition. “The tryout is more based on the observations of the coach and others from Mounted Games Association. It’s not exactly a point system, but you’re being judged while you’re competing.”

As they reflected on how much they’ve learned about life from spending so many years of their young lives with horses, they projected the attributes researcher Angela Duckworth describes as grit. “Being around horses teaches you so many life skills,” Jen Naji says, “like hard work, diligence, working together and common sense. Do it. Try it. Go for it,” she says about the value and fun and experience of Mounted Games.

When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Arrives

The team’s coach is from England, and met up with them in KwaZulu-Natal, but the team spent a couple of days working together on their ponies before he arrived.

They are supportive of one another; they value the individual strengths each brings to the team and they understand that progress doesn’t happen without challenges. “The more we got to compete together,” Joe says, “we figured out what was working and what didn’t work. Who had to be on what ponies for particular races.” Blythe agrees. “That was really cool. We were all enjoying our own ponies but we figured out that we should switch sometimes. We all pretty much figured it out together.” 

“You do this one thing and you practice for so long,” Joe says. “It doesn’t matter how many times you fail, there are good life lessons.”

Those life lessons came in handy when the five teammates arrived in Johannesburg. “We’re kind of used to traveling at this point,” Newell says. They’ve competed together in England and Australia and are looking forward to competing in New Zealand in 2018. “Navigating was a little tough—getting through the airport, trying to communicate with each other. We got separated and didn’t have phone service.” But they did not panic. They figured it out, found each other and caught their connecting flight to the Province of KwaZulu-Natal like seasoned travelers.

At home, each of them takes responsibility for caring for horses, whether they’re working or in school. Barberras, who is a senior in high school, is planning to take a gap year next year before going on to Delaware Valley University to study equine science. She says that sometimes people don’t realize how much hard work horses require. “We just have a different kind of work ethic. Kids I work with, they complain about their job a lot of the time. I tell them, ‘look you work in a nice restaurant, you’re not outside in the cold carrying buckets of water.’ It’s actual, physical labor.”

Newell says that her horses have given her valuable gifts. “I appreciate what I have more, and how important it is to care for others. And my horses have made me a better person. They make me happy.”

Blythe, a junior in high school, says that she learns from her horses, too. “Horses taught me a lot of responsibility. I take care of them before school—feed, do stalls and stuff. And they’ve also taught me that even if you’re not having a good day, it’ll get better.”

And then there is trust. The horses trust humans to take good care of them. The riders trust the horses to be fearless and do the things they’ve practiced. The horses trust the riders to keep them safe. On and on. “I think it’s hard to do what we do without having trust with your horse,” Blythe says. “Without trust between them and us it would be impossible to do the things we do with games.”

And in the many years these young people have been involved with horses—learning from them and teaching them new skills—it turns out that they’ve learned a lot about themselves. And about the importance of grit.