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Journey to Pony Finals Shows How Hard Work Pays Off

by Kathleen Landwehr | Aug 15, 2021, 6:55 PM EST

Competing at the USEF Pony Finals presented by Honor Hill Farms is a goal many young equestrians hope to achieve, and Kendyl Delp-Hartbarger did just that with Rocky Rode. Delp-Hartbarger’s desire to jump led her to the six-year-old Shetland pony gelding. The pair worked hard and learned together to reach the prestigious event.

Kendyl Delp-Hartbarger and Rocky Rode (Shawn McMillen Photography)

Eleven-year-old Delp-Hartbarger of Malinta, Ohio, got her start riding Western pleasure, but developed an interest in jumping two years ago. When her Quarter Horse mare needed time to recover from health issues, she and her mother Kelly Hartbarger began looking for a pony in the summer and fall of 2020. Hartbarger saw “Rocky” on a friend’s Facebook page after the friend and her son had gotten the pony as a project.

“[Rocky] just kept popping back up, so one day I said to Kendyl, ‘Why don’t we just go look at Rocky? Let’s go see what he is about,’” said Hartbarger. “He was pretty green. This was September of 2020. We went, she hopped on him, and I thought they were great to begin with. They just seemed like a natural partnership.”

It was a bumpy start as Rocky still had a lot to learn. His ground manners needed work, and he was a challenge under saddle as well. Delp-Hartbarger and Rocky went through a learning curve together. “At first he was a little bit fast and kind of hard to control, but the more I got a better seat, he calmed down and the more we worked, he got better,” said Delp-Hartbarger.

Delp-Hartbarger trailered in for regular lessons with Leslie Janiak of Oxford Farm in Swanton, Ohio, and started heading to shows with Rocky. The first few schooling shows showed the pair’s greenness, but they began to improve and find their rhythm.

“They went from crossrails to short stirrup to eventually doing their first A-rated show in May. Our first A-rated green pony show was at Waterloo [Hunt Club],” said Hartbarger. “She was third place a couple times but mostly not placing. But she had never shown in an A-rated show and at that level jumping either, so you have got a green pony and a rider who has never been under that much pressure before. I thought it was pretty good since we were all new to this.”

Delp-Hartbarger hoped to qualify for Pony Finals with Rocky, and her mom realized an 11.2 hand pony and a growing 11-year-old would need to try to make it happen in 2021. The family kept at it with Rocky, and the hard work paid off in June at Brave Horse III Horse Show.

“They ended up qualifying at that show as reserve champion in the small greens,” explained Hartbarger. “[Trainer Leslie Janiak] and a friend came up and showed us the score sheet and I was like, ‘How exciting! We are in second place. That’s awesome.’ We were just so happy to be in second place. And they were like, ‘That means you get to go to Pony Finals.’ And we were just like, ‘What!?!’ This pony that we bought that didn’t even know how to stop or pick up the right lead when we started with him had qualified for Pony Finals out of the clear blue.”

Pony Finals was all about the experience and demonstrating the partnership that Delp-Hartbarger and Rocky had formed. “It is such a blessing and an honor to even be able to go, to be able to say you went,” shared Hartberger. “What I said to Kendyl and what I am most proud of is she stuck with him. She worked with him all the time on little stuff like how to be a good citizen on the ground and in the stall and with grooming. All those things were so new to him.”

Delp-Hartbarger enjoyed getting to compete on a big stage with Rocky. “I just like that we went, and it meant so much to me that we even qualified because we put a lot of time into each other,” said Delp-Hartbarger. She also pointed out that learned a lot about riding while she was training for her goal.

Delp-Hartbarger’s main takeaway from her Pony Finals experience is showcasing the special bond she has with her pony. “I learned that it doesn’t matter if you don’t get a good score because you still have an amazing pony with you that loves you, cares about you, and will take care of you.”