By Britney Grover
Portraits by Shawna Simmons
Standing by the pony ring at a horse show can give you a glimpse into life as a pony rider. It’s a world of young riders who are talented, determined, fearless (or at least they seem to be) and who are paired with pint-size equines that often have big attitudes and challenging personalities. But the pony riders take it all in stride, whether their ponies are sweet, wonderful and adorable or tough as nails and giving their equally small riders a run for their money. The pony ring is where many top riders embarked on their equestrian careers, often forming a bond with a pony that’s remembered for a lifetime. Sidelines caught up with six pony riders at the Devon Horse Show, to find out more about life in the pony saddle. Each rider shared their journey and love for ponies. While we celebrate our six riders — Maddie Tosh, Alexa Lignelli, Emma Hechtman, Olivia Sweetnam, Vivian Golden and Allison Coleman — we also celebrate pony riders everywhere and, of course, the power of ponies.
From Milton, Georgia, 13-year-old Maddie Tosh has been riding her entire life — thanks to her trainer and the rider she most admires: her father, Hunt Tosh. Though she started riding at a young age, showing didn’t exactly come easily to Maddie. “Something people don’t know about me is that when I started out showing, I would cry all the way around the course,” she said. “I was terrified, but I really wanted to do it so I kept showing — but I cried a lot!”
Now, Maddie is a successful pony rider with her sights set on the junior hunters and equitation and hopes someday to be a professional, just like her dad. When she’s not riding, Maddie likes to hang out with friends, play with her puppy, Maggie, her miniature horse, Whoopie Pie, and her two goats, Flip and Flop.
Alexa Lignelli has been riding since she was 4 years old. Now 12, she lives in New York City, New York, where she trains with Stacia Madden for equitation and David Belford of New Hope for hunters. Her favorite showing experience so far was her very first Pony Finals on Knee Deep, but when asked about her favorite pony, Alexa replied, “I don’t have a favorite — each is special for different reasons.”
Though she’s deciding what her riding goals are along the way, horses have already taught Alexa perseverance, discipline, courage, kindness and trust. Outside of riding, Alexa likes to play tennis and wants to travel to Italy, where her family is from — which may explain her hidden talent: She loves to cook!
Emma Hechtman is a girl who knows what she wants. At 13 years old, she’s already making plans in and out of the arena — she hopes to be a hospital CEO someday. After she’s finished successfully riding ponies, Emma hopes to advance through the junior hunters and then the jumpers. Living in Tampa, Florida, and training with Ali Sweetnam, she’s well on her way to achieving her goals. So far, her favorite showing experience was walking out of the conformation hunters at Devon with a score of 87, but she knows things don’t always go so well.
When asked what she thought the hardest or scariest thing about riding is, her answer was simple: the ground. Horses have taught Emma sportsmanship that will help her in all her goals. “Always support your friends,” she said. “Hold your head high when you lose, and low when you win.”
Ten-year-old Olivia Sweetnam is a pony rider born not to one equestrian parent but two: her mom, Ali Sweetnam, rides and trains, and her dad is Irish grand prix rider Shane Sweetnam. Like her parents, Olivia is all in when it comes to horses: When Olivia grows up she wants to be a professional rider and take over the family business, Sweet Oak Farm in Wellington, Florida.
Training with her mom as well as Danny Arendt, Olivia’s accomplishments already include winning Small Pony Over Fences at the 2016 Pony Finals when she was just 7 years old — a year after she began showing small ponies. But showing multiple ponies isn’t easy. “In my opinion it’s hard to switch ponies or horses because no pony rides the same and it’s just hard to transition!” she said. When she’s not riding, Olivia likes to do gymnastics and play on the trampoline — both of which will help her in the saddle, too!
Pony Finals is hands-down Vivian Golden’s favorite show to go to, and she’s worked hard to get there. From Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, 10-year-old Vivian trains with Amanda Lyerly and has been riding for eight years. “Dressed To Go is my favorite pony because he is sweet, friendly and always tries his hardest for me,” Vivian said. “Horses are always teaching me new things, but probably most important is that they’ve taught me humility.”
Horses also brought Vivian another four-legged family member in her favorite showing experience, the Middleburg Classic, where she adopted her dog — not to be confused with Pitbull, her surprising favorite singer — from Danny & Ron’s Rescue. Someday, Vivian would like to be Champion at Pony Finals and then go on to become a Grand Prix rider. But the lesson of humility shined through when she admitted the hardest part of riding is “for sure getting bucked off — it happens a lot!”
For Allison Coleman, horses are a way of life. Even when she’s not riding her small and medium ponies, Allison simply enjoys being around horses. She’s been riding for four years and is now 10 years old, training with Ali Sweetnam in her home town of Wellington, Florida.
Also a theme in her favorite horse book, “Black Beauty,” Allison says horses have taught her to be gentle to animals. But it was “The Wizard of Oz” that made her own favorite horse show experience when she, Olivia Sweetnam and Lily Stoughton jumped to victory in the Small Pony Hunt Teams dressed as characters from the classic. Allison’s goals are to become an equitation rider and show a horse in the George Morris Excellence in Equitation. Though she admits putting her life at risk to ride can be scary, in the end she thinks it’s worth it — after all, there’s no place like horseback.
Photos by Shawna Simmons, www.sasequinephotography.com