Pictured: Sophia Johnson, 15, member of Riverview Pony Club, schooling Falcon over cross country jumps at Peppercorn Ranch in the Upper Ojai Valley. Oct. 9, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.
by Kimberly Rivers
It’s all about the horse.
If you know a person who has horses in their life, it’s safe to say you’re familiar with them being unavailable due to something related to their horse: a show, a lesson or even just a ride. Sometimes a horse owner will have to trim their travel or entertainment budget because of horse-related expenses. Frequently, those with horses on the brain (as well as hay in their hair and dust on their boots) only want to talk about these amazing four-legged creatures that have seemingly taken over their life. They’ll tell the story of their equestrian life by noting the horses they’ve ridden along the way and the lessons they’ve learned.
When asked why they ride, or commit so much in the way of time and money to horses, many get a wistful look in their eyes as they recall the great rides, sometimes fleeting moments when a feeling of synergy passed between them and the horse they were on. Horse people are a different breed.
“It’s an addiction like being addicted to drugs,” says Greg Coulson, 73.
This particular addiction is good for the body and mind, but to those afflicted, it’s a pull as strong as any other. Today, in addition to giving riding lessons at Peppercorn Ranch, which Coulson owns and operates with his wife, Lauren Royce, in Upper Ojai, he volunteers as the regional supervisor for the Camino Real Region of the United States Pony Club, the largest equestrian educational organization in the world.
He runs the region with help from volunteers Jennifer Eman of Oxnard, who serves as secretary; Kim Goto Miner of Santa Rosa Valley acting as treasurer; Sharon Bonfield of Frazier Park, regional instructional coordinator; and Kimberly Rhodes of Simi Valley, horse management organizer. Each club also has a governing board.
A lifelong passion
Coulson’s love of horses and riding has been a lifelong addiction. He grew up in Ventura, attended Ojai Valley School (OVS) and “cowboyed a little” at Taylor Ranch. His early riding was all western. Later, when he attended University of California, Davis, he realized his all-western riding background didn’t cover all the bases. As part of the horse program at Davis he was asked to start young horses under saddle, some with the intention of being ridden in the English discipline.
“I figured I better learn English riding . . . I discovered I really needed to start over from scratch.” Coulson learned there were gaps in his ability and that with English riding there were additional “bells and whistles” that could be fine tuned with the horse that were more complex than with the western approach.
He likened the difference to a “piano and an organ . . . a piano can be fantastic, but an organ has all those rows of keys.” Some skills are associated with the breed, like a “cow sense” deep in their DNA, or jumping in their bones. Ideally trainers work with the natural tendencies of a horse, only asking it to perform what it can physically and mentally achieve.
All riding styles involve teaching a horse to respond to cues from the rider or handler. Generally, cues come from the seat, the hands and the legs. Some riders in some cases may use voice cues, although vocal cues tend to be less desirable in a competition setting.
The long sliding stop in a western reining competition is achieved by a particular cue, as is the piaffe (trot in place) in dressage, or the lengthening or shortening of a stride in the approach to a jump. But in all cases, certain breeds of horses, and individual animals within those breeds, will have a higher aptitude for a particular skill or movement. Skilled trainers support riders in bringing out each horse’s innate skills.
Coulson’s riding, training and coaching expertise focuses on three-day eventing, a genre within the English riding disciplines. Today, it’s hard to see the origins of the events, but they have their roots in the development of horses for war. As recently as a century ago, many of the movements asked of horses in the show ring were used as tests for horses ridden by mounted cavalry units.
While at UC Davis, Coulson obtained bachelor’s degrees in animal science and anthropology and then received his master’s in educational administration from California State University, Northridge. With over 50 years of equestrian experience, today he focuses on three-day eventing (dressage, cross country jumping, show jumping) but crosses the spectrum of riding disciplines including driving, breeding and training. He has led thousands of riders through lessons, from first timers to high-level, high-speed jumpers. He served as a fence judge during the 1984 Olympic Games Three-Day Eventing competition (held at the Santa Anita Racetrack) and has trained and coached many high-level eventing horse and rider teams. Coulson also serves as an expert witness in litigation involving equestrian accidents.
Coulson returned to OVS and ran their riding program for several years before founding Peppercorn Ranch. He has been a Pony Club leader since 1980. At that time the OVS program included the Ojai Valley Pony Club (no longer in existence) where students from Nordhoff HIgh School, Thacher School and OVS could board horses at OVS and would ride together and go through the program, competing as a team at rallies.
Coulson and Royce own and live onsite at Peppercorn. Royce has been riding seriously since 1977 and serves on the board of the Ventura County Chapter of the California Dressage Society. She’s also a Pony Club leader and at one time was ranked first- and second-level Dressage Champion in VCCDS and is an experienced riding instructor.
Roots of Pony Club
The roots of Pony Club can be found in the British Horse Society. In 1929, the British Pony Club was formed as a way to bring up new riders for fox hunts. Families realized they needed a process to train and foster new riders and ensure they could safely join in the hunt. Those processes, and what would eventually become the English riding disciplines of today, evolved from tests administered to the army officer cavalry. Horses had to be obedient and perform various movements, as well as have the stamina to run, jump and cover large areas of uneven terrain.
Three-day eventing today includes, as the name suggests, three days of events, with a different “test” each day. Dressage is first, and takes place in a flat arena where the rider must direct the horse through a sort of a dance. Patterns are determined by the level of competition, and are revised every three years. Circles, diagonals, lead changes (meaning the horse changes the leading side at the canter), all done in collection, in which the horse carries its body in a poise that exudes strength and a readiness to respond to the rider’s every cue — much as a horse in war would need to charge toward the enemy then quickly change direction.
The second day is cross country, following a course over open land with jumps at speed. Distance, jump difficulty and speed are determined by the competition level. Distances range from 2.75 miles to 4 miles. High-level competition can be quite fast, with large and wide jumps, and usually features a time frame; penalties are given for going overtime. Water obstacles are common. Horse and rider must demonstrate a high level of endurance and ability. Coulson said that today, many of the cross country events are won and lost on those overtime penalty points.
The final day is show jumping, which consists of a jumping course in a flat arena. The course generally includes tighter and more turns, requiring horse and rider to have excellent timing and communication. Coming on the final day, it also demonstrates the horse’s ability to recover from the previous cross country event. Penalties for knocking off rails from the jumps or going overtime make or break the final scores.
Running the gauntlet
In order to be able to compete at higher levels, riders must demonstrate proficiency at the lower levels. The structure of Pony Club defines the testing and how one advances to the next level. While many members of clubs are children and teens, there is a masters division for adults. In addition, Coulson said anyone can join as an individual and work through certain levels on their own. Any trainer can start a club or center. Clubs typically depend on a core board of parents who govern, fundraise and plan events. Riverview Pony Club, supported by Peppercorn Ranch, hosts an annual derby which usually takes place at El Sueno Equestrian Center in Somis.
Pony Club’s horsemanship sections include horse anatomy and barn management. Participants are also taught to speak confidently to examiners at Pony Club rallies, who will talk with the rider after a test, ask them what went well and where they thought things could have gone better. Being able to teach and relay information to another person is another key aspect of the Pony Club program. Members who have some certifications can start doing lead line lessons with brand new riders to help practice their teaching and get comfortable with it.
Horse management at the barn is also scored, and riders are expected to have all required equipment on hand, including first aid kits for horse and rider. The tack must be clean and in good condition, appropriate clothing worn and the tack room organized properly.
The testing criteria might seem exacting to the unfamiliar, but Coulson emphasized that, “There is a reason for everything. Some of it seems silly . . . they are really about crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s . . . it may seem silly until someone lands in the hospital. My job is to keep our members out of the hospital.”
A 2018 research study found that “horse-related injuries have the highest likelihood of requiring hospitalization” based on emergency room records across the country and that the “majority of injured riders said they could have prevented the accident,” as the accident and injury were related to “rider/handler error.” These “avoidable” accidents were most commonly related to broken tack. In nearly every case, “educational impact” was found to be a contributing factor related to the “cause, avoidability and severity” of the injury, meaning that with better education that type of incident could have been avoided. (1)
The focus on safety, and developing skills in Pony Club, make the certifications well respected within the upper levels of equestrian competition, and they’re commonly listed on the resumes of those looking for work in the equestrian industry.
For love, not money
Today the two active clubs in Ventura County, Riverview and Santa Rosa Valley, are part of the 11-club Camino Real Region, which also includes four centers with current active membership. The clubs themselves are nonprofits, although Pony Club also includes “centers,” which can be a for-profit business operated by the trainer. In Coulson’s case, Riverview is a nonprofit organization. (Online correction: Riverview Pony Club is a nonprofit organization. Peppercorn Ranch is a separate for profit business owned and managed by Coulson and Royce.)
Both Riverview and Santa Rosa Valley focus on three-day eventing, but Pony Club offers competitive programs in dressage, eventing, games, gymkhana (timed obstacle racing), horse management, polocrosse, tetrathlon, western dressage and show jumping. Resource programs, primarily educational, are offered in distance riding, driving, fox hunting, hunter seat, polo and vaulting (gymnastics on horseback).
Membership fees may vary by club, but average around $250 for 12 months. Lessons and rally fees are in addition to that. Peppercorn does not charge a coaching fee for Pony Club members at rallies.
“COVID has been really harmful on Pony Club. We’ve lost a ton of members,” Coulson noted, adding that “dips” in membership are common over the years and seasons. “We expect it to come back up.”
Clubs rely on active parent volunteers who manage the club, including its fundraising. Recently Riverview raised funds to pay for the cost of its team (including horse transport) to attend the national championships in Kentucky.
Riverview owns 10 horses available to members. Access to horses, Coulson pointed out, is an obvious issue with riding and lessons. Today, with the cost of everything going up, it’s challenging for trainers to maintain a herd of horses fit and sound for riding and work. Many trainers are now requiring riders taking lessons to lease a horse to help cover the costs.
Coulson said that many people think trainers are getting “rich” giving lessons, which is really rare. “Yes, when you look at the money coming in, it looks like a lot, but it’s about the net.”
In other words: After expenses, the take home pay dwindles. “It takes just one vet bill of $2,000 or $3,000 to tear through your budget.”
When asked about what a person should look for in a horseriding and training facility, he responded, “Don’t be impressed by fancy white fences, people dressed to the nines.” He said he watches how attentive people at facilities are to the horses, are they walking far ahead of the horse they are leading and distracted, “are things sloppy.” Any training facility should have a “program or plan.”
This is where the structure of Pony Club acts as a clear and consistent guide to both instructors and students. Setting goals and achieving milestones help keep members motivated and engaged, and learning.
Many of the horses at Riverview were donated to the nonprofit club. Coulson’s for-profit business pays for the feeding, veterinary, farrier and other expenses, in exchange for also using the horses in paid lessons. It allows the club to have horses for its members to lease and ride.
Since the horses are donated, it’s “rare to get a premium horse” said Coulson. But with training and lessons both horse and rider can excel.
All about the horse
In 2017 a 15.3-hand Quarter Horse gelding, originally from Mexico and now owned by Riverview Pony Club — registered as Red Barron but affectionately called “Ace” in the barn — took third place in show jumping at the U.S. Pony Club (USPC) National Championships held every year at the historic Kentucky Horse Park. Ace was ridden by Elaine Sanders, then a member of Riverview and now working with the U.S. Olympic rider Phillip Dutton in Pennsylvania.
Today, Ace is 19 and is being ridden by Shelby Spangenberg, 16, of Thousand Oaks.
“It’s about being better for my horse,” said Spangenberg. She trains with Coulson and enjoys the responsibility and learning about building a connection with the horse. “It’s not just physical,” but also “being able to read your horse, to talk without words.”
Spangenberg and Riverview teammate Sophia Johnson, 15, who attends El Camino High School in Ventura, travelled to Kentucky Horse Park in July for the USPC championships. Johnson rides a 19-year-old American Warmblood gelding named Arogon’s Elegant Falcon, or just Falcon, who sticks in at 16.2 hands. Johnson rode Falcon to a solid score that helped the team overall at the championships.
Riverview had the best overall team score for riding, but the win is in the details. Club members are responsible for managing the barn, parents and trainers must stay out of the area. This means it all falls on the members to “sink or swim.” So while the team won in the riding portion of the competition, they were docked points when a few details got missed on the horse management side, and Riverview lost by 7.23 points.
Both Johnson and Spangenberg had a lesson last week at Peppercorn Ranch, where Couldson told them they’d do some light jumping. It had been a while since they’d jumped and he wanted to “ease” them back in.
The love of the horse, and the feeling of riding, keeps people coming back day after day, year after year. But for these young riders, they say the stress release, competition and feeling of success also drive them.
For Spangenberg, “riding makes you forget about school and other things, it’s just you and your horse.” She said she likes the “sense of responsibility” that comes with riding and the Pony Club program, which helps keep her motivated to keep learning.
“We are both insanely competitive,” interjects Johnson with a happy laugh. Johnson has been riding at Peppercorn since she was 7, “it’s the first and only place” she’s ridden. “Rallies are really fun,” and going as a team is important, “you win by working together.”
Both riders said meeting people from other clubs and making friends is a big benefit to Pony Club. They also expressed joy in those moments when they and their horse are in sync, a feeling they are always chasing.
“It’s like getting to the top of a big hill you’ve been climbing all day,” said Spangenberg. Horses are living creatures just like people. “They have good days, bad days . . . I have to figure out what mood he’s in.” She tries to work with Ace, “not just make him do it.”
“Yes, there is a huge payoff,” agreed Johnson, when things click in those moments horse and rider are working together achieving the movement correctly, or getting good timing on the jump.
When it comes together, it looks effortless and feels glorious.
During COVID-19, without shows or tests taking place, riders were unable to progress through the levels. The sport is expensive, so many riders took the down time off altogether. For many trainers and instructors, it’s been a big blow to their livelihood, both within and outside of Pony Club.
Coulson said it’s slowly coming back, but that the cost of hay and the recurring expenses associated with keeping horses always means very few people make a lot of money in this line of work.
This is where it comes back to the love of the horse. Coulson pointed toward a stall with a 6-year-old chestnut gelding wearing a fly mask. He laughed, saying that, at his age, he really shouldn’t be getting a young, off-the-track thoroughbred . . . but he did. Just talking about the horse made him smile.
“He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, he’s a beautiful mover,” said Coulson of the horse he named Spider Man.
1. Fernanda Camargo, William R. Gombeski Jr, Polly Barger, Connie Jehlik, Holly Wiemers, James Mead & Amy Lawyer | Pedro González-Redondo (Reviewing Editor)(2018) Horse-related injuries: Causes, preventability, and where educational efforts should be focused, Cogent Food & Agriculture, 4:1, DOI: 10.1080/23311932.2018.1432168