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Ponies: They’re Not Just for Kids!

As we look toward the 2017 USEF Pony Finals presented by Collecting Gaits Farm, we asked Welsh Pony & Cob Society president Dr. Ruth Wilburn to tell us why she loves ponies and to reminisce about Rocky, her first Welsh pony.

by Glenye Oakford | Jul 31, 2017, 4:11 PM EST

If you think ponies are just for kids, Dr. Ruth Wilburn begs to differ. Wilburn is president of the Welsh Pony & Cob Society of America and breeds Welsh ponies under the name of the Rollingwoods Farm she owns in Olive Branch, Miss., with her sisters, Joanna Wilburn and Sally Ross Davis. Wilburn is also an accomplished carriage pleasure driving competitor with her Welsh ponies, and she knows as well as anyone how competitive and fun ponies can be for adult and junior equestrians alike.

Dr. Ruth Wilburn and Rollingwoods Cookie Thief, a full sibling to Rollingwoods Knee Deep
(Photo: Janice Thompson/Pony Prints Plus)

“That’s the nice thing about the ponies: the kids can ride them and the adults can drive them,” said Wilburn, a veterinarian who operates the Olive Branch Animal Clinic in Olive Branch. “I have a trainer here who grew up doing grands prix and stuff out in California. She started working with my ponies and said, ‘Why didn’t I learn about this a long time ago?’ She has one of my half-Welshes who grew into a ‘hony’—he’s 15 hands—and she competes him in dressage; they’re starting to show at third level now.

“So ponies aren’t just for kids—there’s a size and a shape for everybody!” Wilburn said. “And they’re easier. They don’t eat as much, and you really don’t want to feed them a whole lot, because you don’t want them to founder. I remember once at a show with one of my trainers, and she had a German groom there. The groom said, ‘Oh, I love these ponies! You can just put the harness on from one side! You don’t have to go to the other side because you can just reach over.’ So ponies are practical! And they last a long time. When ponies are 20, a lot of times they’re just getting good.”

When Wilburn arrives in Lexington, Ky., for the 2017 USEF Pony Finals presented by Collecting Gaits Farm (Aug. 8-13), she’ll be cheering on the Rollingwoods-bred ponies. One of them, Rollingwoods Knee Deep, is featured on the cover of the Summer 2017 issue of US Equestrian magazine alongside owner Alexa Lignelli and her sister Agatha. The magazine will be available online at USequestrian.org (hover your cursor over the Network & News tab) starting Aug. 8 and at the US Equestrian booth at Pony Finals.

Wilburn also will be on a mission: to celebrate and promote the Welsh bloodlines on display among the hundreds of small and large ponies. The Welsh Pony & Cob Society of America, along with a group of Welsh breeders, will present awards through sixth place to the highest-scoring purebred Welsh, half-Welsh, or part-bred Welsh ponies in each of the Small, Medium, and Large Regular Pony Hunter and Green Pony Hunter sections. The organization also will award perpetual trophies to the overall highest-scoring purebred and half- or part-bred Welsh ponies in the Regular Hunter Pony and Green Pony Hunter sections. And they’ll provide a $250 scholarship to the rider of the overall highest-scoring ponies in the Regular Pony Hunter and Green Pony Hunter divisions. (To be eligible, ponies must be registered with the WPCSA; for more information or to check eligibility, stop by the WPCSA booth or contact the organization at [email protected].)

Rocky Got Things Rolling, Literally

Wilburn’s love of Welsh ponies started in earnest after she graduated from Auburn University, when, on a visit to Kathy Reese's Smoke Tree Farm, she found a flashy chestnut roan stallion bred by Tiz Benedict of Severn Oaks Farm. His name was Severn Sirocco. “Rocky” was just 12 hands tall, but he had a big impact on Wilburn’s life.

“He got me started on the path of driving,” said Wilburn, who grew up riding. “I’ve made so many friends through the ponies and driving that I would never have made if I hadn’t gotten involved in this. I’ve been all over the United States showing ponies, and pony people and driving people are all very much about the animal. It’s not about the prize or the money, and if you need help, they’re there to help. If a piece of equipment breaks, there are five people there to hand you a piece of equipment. There’s a lot of camaraderie in the pony world and the driving world.”

Wilburn initially bought Rocky to be a breeding stallion, but his kind, sensible temperament made him more than a one-trick pony.

Severn Sirocco, known as Rocky, got Wilburn hooked on Welsh ponies and carriage pleasure driving. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Ruth Wilburn)

“The kids could lead him around by his forelock,” Wilburn said. “He wasn’t ‘studdy’ at all. We used him for the lead line class at our big all-breed charity horse show with a five-month-old child in a basket saddle! Nobody would ever guess he was a stallion.

“I had a friend who had started doing combined driving. She said, ‘He’s so gentle and so good, let me break him to drive and then you can go to combined drives with me.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So we sent him to her, and she called me and said, ‘Are you sure he’s not broke to drive?’ She had put the harness on him and ground-driven him, and he acted like he’d done it before, so they just hooked him up. She said, ‘He acted like he’s been doing it all his life.’

“He taught me how to harness a horse. I knew nothing about driving at all. When we got him back, we literally had a Xeroxed page with ‘How to Harness Your Pony or Horse’ on it! We put it on his back and started putting the harness together on him. We got in the carriage, and he turned around and looked. He wouldn’t move at all.  We thought, ‘Well, this isn’t working.’ After a few minutes, we got out and started looking at everything. Well, we had it hooked up wrong, and it would have been a disaster had he taken off. He saved us.

“It evolved from there,” she continued. “We took him and showed him, and he became my all-time favorite pony. We won a bunch in halter and he won a bunch in driving. He won almost every time you went in the ring. People were always amazed that he was a stallion.

Rocky earned plenty of awards in the show ring, and he was a character outside it.

“He loved to drink out of cans,” Wilburn recalled. “He loved Coca-Colas, and we had to be so careful at shows, especially if the drug-testers were there so he wouldn’t get an accidental Coca-Cola positive! I’d really hate to be set down for caffeine because he drank a Coke! He would hold a can in his teeth and turn it up in the air.”

A Long Line of Fun

Rocky died in 1996 at age 18, but by then the Wilburn sisters’ purebred and half-bred Welsh breeding operation had grown from a few ponies to about 40.

Rollingwoods Knee Deep, US Equestrian magazine’s Summer 2017 cover boy, is by JD Cops and Robbers out of Rollingwoods Lorna Doone, a daughter of the Gayfields stallion Sleight of Hand and one of the first mares Rollingwoods bred.

“That whole line is fun,” Wilburn said of Knee Deep and his relations. “They like to get into a lot of stuff! They have a lot of personality. They’re very smart, and they’re always thinking, but they’re not spooky. They’re athletic and good with the kids. And almost everything that was out of that mare has been outstanding, so we were very blessed to have her.”

Lorna Doone, now deceased, was ridden both English and Western, as well as driven, and was one of the few broodmares to earn the WPCSA’s Legion of Merit as an individual and an Order of the Dragon as a dam.

“I’m just so glad he ended up in a home where they love him, and it’s obvious they do,” Wilburn said of Knee Deep, who most recently was reserve small pony hunter champion at Devon. “They take such good care of him. As a breeder, you can only hope for every pony to go to a home like that.”

To watch live coverage from the 2017 USEF Pony Finals presented by Collecting Gaits Farm, tune in to USEF Network Aug. 8-13.

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