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First Ponies, Lasting Lessons

Top equestrians remember the ponies who taught them about sport—and life

by Glenye Cain Oakford | Aug 9, 2018, 7:01 PM EST

Equestrians never forget their first ponies. Woolly or sleek, magnificent or mischievous, they are the teachers who reveal the most fundamental and enduring wisdom about life with horses: that it is joyous, that it is hard work, that it is a partnership which demands compromise but also makes us stronger.

These special animals arrive from a remarkable variety of sources—sometimes handed down from siblings, sometimes expensively acquired, often bought cheaply from an auction or an ad or leased from the local riding establishment. They’re not always vetted. Sometimes they’re bought in haste by a non-horsey parent finally worn down by years of their child’s requests for a pony. Sometimes they arrive in an equestrian’s adulthood, a gift from spouse or to self, a dynamic and potentially life-changing force in a package no bigger than 14.2 hands.

The outsized effect they can have is extraordinary. They test our resolve and teach us to try again. And they reward us not just with ribbons and trophies, but with less tangible victories, too, like the whinny when they see us, the quick response to our signal through the reins, the shared language and confidence they inspire. Those are gifts equestrians never forget, whether they go on to a lifetime of happy trail-riding, competition at local shows, or Olympic glory.

Photo Courtesy of Kerry Millikin

Kismet
Kerry Millikin, Liz Millikin, Peter Wylde

When Kismet the $150 backyard pony joined the Millikin family around 1969, she began an extraordinary career as a kids’ first pony.

Three of her charges went on to become internationally competitive equestrians: Kerry Millikin, individual bronze medalist in three-day eventing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta; her sister Liz, who was long-listed for the U.S. Eventing Team for the 1996 Games; and show jumper Peter Wylde, who won team gold at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Kismet’s story is something of a fairytale—complete with a happy ending.

Kerry Millikin, then about eight, first got to know “Kizzy” over the paddock fence in a neighbor’s yard.

“I was horse-crazy, and I was really shy,” Millikin said. “I used to go down the street and sit on the fence and watch the horses. Kismet was just the sweetest pony. She was brown with black legs, and she had a beautiful big eye and a little bit of a star on her face. Her forelock was always so thick you could barely ever see it. And she had this white spot on her left forearm.

“And then she came up for sale. I pulled on mom’s shirttail and said, ‘Kizzy’s for sale! Kizzy’s for sale!’”

It took a little while to convince her non-horsey father, but Kizzy met her mother’s criteria: she didn’t kick or bite, and she could be caught. Eventually, the Millikins gave in—and when she arrived, Kizzy had a foal by her side. “Kizzy got led off, and then the foal came cantering out. Here I am, my first pony, and we get Kizzy and her foal! Isn’t that a riot?” she laughed. “We got her for 150 bucks: Kizzy, the foal, and a plastic Western saddle and bridle.”
There were responsibilities attached, of course.

“The deal was that I had to take care of her, and that was fine with me,” Millikin said. “That’s all I wanted, was to be with her. I didn’t know how to tack her up. I didn’t know anything.”

Millikin soon learned, thanks to lessons with Windrush Farm owner Marj Kittredge and to the kids’ own adventures with Kizzy.

“She’d do what we called ‘Kizzy turns,’” Millikin said. “We’d be riding her bareback, and all of a sudden she’d put her head down and turn, and we’d go flying off. The bareback riding was the best for teaching us to ride! We learned so much.

“We used to go riding out in the forest and pretend we were frontiersmen. There was a state park, and we’d pack a knapsack with lunch and take the ponies out. Kizzy was great for that.”
Photo Courtesy of Kerry Millikin
When Kerry outgrew Kizzy, the little mare went to her younger sister, Liz, who went on to become an international three-day eventer, too.

“Isn’t that amazing?” Kerry Millikin said. “Kismet means fate in Arabic, and it was fate that we ended up with her. From her I learned the love of the horse. She was tolerant and she was kind, so a kid could love her. You get a lot of confidence from a pony like that.”

Kismet came to Peter Wylde for a short time, but her effect on him was profound.

“I was seven and had just started riding, and my very close friend lived across the street from me and had some horses,” Wylde said. “They were friends of Kerry Millikin, and Kerry had Kismet. They were looking for someone to take Kismet for the wintertime, and my friend’s family said if I could pay $50 a month, she could live at their place for the wintertime.”

Wylde convinced his parents to pay the board, and for the next five months or so, Kizzy was his to care for, love, and ride. “I really, really wanted this pony, and she sort of became my best friend,” he said.

Galloping Kismet through the nearby Norfolk Hunt steeplechase course and its variety of small logs, stone walls, ditches, and drops, Wylde says, taught him to jump.

“The other thing I’ll never forget is cleaning her stall,” he said. “I would sit cross-legged in her stall with a little wicker basket and little brown cloth cotton gloves and pick the poos out of her stall with my hands, because they were too small for a pitchfork, and a pitchfork was too big for me!

“It was my first experience with an equine, and, you know, that goes a long way,” Wylde said of his months with Kizzy. “It’s very formative. To start off with your first relationship with an equine being almost your best friend, to develop the appreciation as a kid that these animals are characters in themselves and have personality—there’s a real value to that.

“She was every day of my life that wintertime, and that created what I have done for the rest of my life.”

Wylde and the Millikins eventually lost track of Kizzy, until an odd twist of fate brought them together again.

In 1987, Wylde was visiting a student at Beaver Brook Farm in Holliston, Massachusetts, when a fuzzy brown pony came past with a young girl in tow on the leadline. “It was just this typical pony-and-kid moment,” Wylde remembered. “The pony was dragging her across the driveway, and then the little girl, who was also about six years old, said, ‘Kizzy, stop it! Kizzy, stop it!’ I had been talking to her grandmother, and I said, ‘What did she just call that pony?’ She said: ‘She calls her Kizzy. The pony’s name is Kismet.’

“Here I was, 22 years old. I hadn’t seen Kismet since I was seven. And I must say I welled up a little bit. There was the big moment with me being reunited with this pony, my first pony, and seeing her teaching another little kid how to be a horse person.”

In November 2003, Kerry Millikin—unaware of Wylde’s earlier Kismet moment—visited Beaver Brook to watch a young cousin’s riding lesson. “After she rode, her mom said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to come see this old pony!’” Millikin recalled. “She said it had been Peter Wylde’s old pony, and my eyes lit up. I thought she was long-dead, because I’d kind of lost touch with her.

“It was getting dark, and you could hardly see. But I could see that white spot on her forearm. And then I could see her eyes. And, this is funny, but I could smell her smell. As a kid, I used to lie down and sleep with her with my arms around her, and she always had this thick mane, and, you know, you’re always hugging your pony. I said, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Kizzy’s smell!’ I got choked up when I realized that I’d found Kismet. I couldn’t believe it.”

Kismet died in 2008, Wylde said. She was older than 40 and had spent only a fraction of her life with him and the Millikin sisters, but Kismet left a deep and lasting mark on them.

“For some people, horses are machines that you just get on and ride,” Wylde said. “But some people really develop this understanding of the character and the personality. I think that’s what makes someone a really good horse person, that ability to bond and connect with animals. I credit her with a lot of that.”
 
Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Hart
Miss Roseanna
Rebecca Hart
 
Paralympic dressage rider Rebecca Hart was a self-described “barn rat” as a child, working in exchange for lessons at Hobby Horse Farm in Fairview, Pennsylvania, with trainer Ray Herhold. It was there that Hart first met Miss Roseanna, a strawberry roan lesson pony of unknown origin that became Hart’s favorite.
 
Miss Roseanna was “never malicious,” Hart remembers, but she could be strict, and that gave Hart a foundation in some important aspects of horse-handling and riding.
 
“She taught me many things!” Hart recalled. “She taught me how to avoid teeth and also how to fall off, how to tuck and roll. But she was one of the sweetest and kindest ponies out there, even though she taught you how to be proper around horses and to pay attention.
 
“If you were going to a jump and it wasn’t the right moment, she’d stop on you, like she was saying, ‘Sorry, but you put me in a bad spot, and you’ve got to help me here, too.’ You had to learn to sit up, look at your line, and figure out how many strides that was and where your take-off spot was. If you didn’t, you might be jumping that jump without her!”
 
But it wasn’t all tough love.
 
“There was a creek near the barn, and you’d go down this giant hill to get to what we called ‘the flats,’ which was basically a small creek that ran through Fairview,” Hart said. “We’d go splash around in the creek and then we’d go galloping up the hill. It was a grand time.
 
“I think she taught me some very important life lessons that people can really gain from horses. She taught me the value of hard work and that riding is a privilege and not a right. She taught me that you could have a ton of fun doing it, but you had to work for it.
Rebecca Hart at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (Getty Images)
 
“She taught me how to enjoy the serious side of horses by introducing me to the show world that I have grown to love, and I truly appreciate the sport and the people. But, at the same time, it’s okay to go splash through water puddles and have fun. It’s good to enjoy the horse and learn the character and personality that each individual horse has. She taught me to embrace that and enjoy them as partners. You don’t always have to be so strict. You can just enjoy the process of figuring out the communication and the language that is riding.”
 
These are concepts Hart, now a Paralympian, still applies to her riding and training program.
 
“I brought those lessons that Miss Roseanna taught me into my career,” Hart said. “We always make sure that we take the horses on hacks down the road. We need them to enjoy their job and their sport just as much as we do. Miss Roseanna taught me that, and I didn’t even know that’s what I was learning until I looked back on it.”
 
King's Cock Robin
Georgia Blevins
 
Georgia Blevins hadn’t done much with horses or ponies when her husband T.J., a dentist in Bowling Green, Kentucky, brought a Hackney Pony home to Bowling Green, Kentucky, from the Tattersalls auction house.
Photo Courtesy of Georgia Blevins
 
“I had never driven a pony, never even been in a buggy,” she said. “When he came back home, he said, ‘I bought a Hackney Pony.’ I said, ‘Good for you.’”
 
It turned out to be good for Georgia, too, although she didn’t know it at the time. The pony, named King’s Cock Robin and aged about 10 at the time, had been trained by Hackney legends Rex and Shirley Parkinson. But, for Blevins, King’s Cock Robin took some getting used to.
 
“We lived in town, and we had a little shed behind our house,” she explained. “It wasn’t a barn—it really was more of a shed—but it had a little space that could be a stall.
 
“He just seemed like kind of a toy, but we were kind of scared of him, we really were!” she said. “We had two small children at the time, and they were scared of him, too! I don’t remember anymore what made us so nervous, but I guess it was just that we’d never had a Hackney Pony before. My husband grew up with American Saddlebreds, but, of course, he was gone to work during the day, and we would have to go out and feed Cock Robin and clean out his stall and everything. It was all brand-new!”
 
But Cock Robin wasn’t just a toy; he was a seasoned show pony. The Blevinses put him in training, and one day T.J. decided Georgia ought to give showing a try.
 
“There was a little county fair horse show, and my husband said, ‘We’ll take him to the show,’” Blevins recalled. “He grew up with horses; I did not. He knew how to put a harness on and all that, but I did not. He said, ‘Just sit in there. You can do it!’ So I did.
 
“I was really scared,” she said of her 1972 show-ring debut. “I’d never been behind any horse in my life, and I didn’t know if he was going to kick or rear up or what he might do! But he didn’t do anything wrong. He was very nice. And he won! He knew exactly what to do, because he’d won lots and lots of shows before, championships and everything. I showed him a few more times, and I won every time we showed. And that was the beginning of me showing ponies. ”
 
Blevins hadn’t planned to become an equestrian, but her driving career took her to places she’d never imagined going, from competing in Hackney classes to showing speedy roadsters to driving much larger American Saddlebreds in fine harness classes. Georgia and T. J. Blevins developed a winning show stable, racking up World’s Championships and showing both Hackney Ponies and American Saddlebreds with much success. In 2006, they were inducted into the American Hackney Horse Society’s Hackney Hall of Fame. For Georgia, a lot of credit goes to that first Hackney Pony, who turned out to be such a perfect gentleman.
 
“I probably would never have done this if it hadn’t been for Cock Robin,” she said. “My time with him was such a fun time, and I did get to where I liked Hackneys! Cock Robin certainly gave me confidence. He was such a nice pony and knew exactly what to do, even if I didn’t.”
 
Photo Courtesy of Boyd Martin
Will He Do It
Boyd Martin
 
Olympic three-day eventer Boyd Martin got his start on a Welsh pony named Willy, short for Will He Do It, that his family saw advertised for sale on a bulletin at a three-day event. Willy would prove life-changing for the then 12-year-old boy growing up in Australia.
 
“My mum and sister rode a lot, and I didn’t ride much,” Martin recalled. “He was for sale for Aus$1,200, and that was a fair amount in Australia. I tried him. I hopped on him, went straight to canter, and did one big lap around a grass field. I came back and said to my mum and dad, ‘We’ll take him!’ And that’s how I ended up with Will He Do It. My mum and dad both chipped in to buy him.”
 
Willy took Martin everywhere, and along the way Martin developed not only his riding skills, but also his love of equestrian sport and horsemanship. It wasn’t so much about the competition, Martin explained. It was about the horses.
 
“He was a master of everything: Pony Club, eventing, show jumping,” Martin recalled. “Didn’t care much for the dressage. I wasn’t that competitive, but I had a really good time with the horses and really loved working with them. As soon as we got off the school bus every afternoon, I’d run down the hill, throw his saddle on, and go racing around the national parks. It took an hour and a half to get to Pony Club, and then I rode him all day, and I then rode for an hour-and-a-half home again, every Sunday.”
 
Martin might not have been competitive, but he was having fun—and at least part of Martin and Willy’s fun together is memorialized in a video that the young Martin and a pal made a couple of decades ago and which is now posted on
boydandsilvamartin.com.
 
“My first one-day event was at St. Ives showgrounds in Australia, just down the road from home,” Martin said. “We put Willy on the two-horse [trailer], towed him there in the four-wheel drive, and tied him up at the trailer next to a big hay bag. I did dressage, and then on cross-country I fell off twice. The first time, he spun around and I fell off him. I had to take off after him on foot, and I found him munching hay next to the trailer. I got on him again and galloped back onto the course.
 
“I got all the way to the water jump,” he continued. “I galloped really fast at it, and Willy put on the brakes. I flew over his head and ended up in the water. Again, Willy took off to the trailer, so I took off on foot again and found him there eating his hay. I hopped back on him and finished the course.
 
“But then I fell off in the show jumping at a combination. I got back on and finished that, too. So I fell off a total of three times in my first event, and I remember I clocked up a penalty score of something like 380. I got 60 penalties per fall, and obviously tons of time penalties!
 
“But I still had a good time and enjoyed every minute of it.”