Although they ride in three different disciplines in three different provinces, Tonya Cummins Amato, Jillian Scharfstein, and Celine Roy have something in common. They believe in the power of ponies.

The women are among the adult riders in Canada who are eschewing large horses for more petite mounts. But these aren’t your kids’ ponies. They look like smaller versions of horses, with similar movement and athleticism.

Small athletes, big talent

For years, nurse Tonya Cummins Amato, 49, rode large horses, but is having a blast motoring around Ontario horse trials on her seven-year-old 14.1 hand palomino stallion, Windy Isles Get Smart (‘Smartie’). The Connemara’s name was inspired not by the old TV show, “but because I finally got smart!” She is just over 5’1” and five years ago, fell off a ladder and broke nine bones. “Ever since that, I don’t particularly like big horses,” says Cummins Amato, who owns Jump 4 Joy Training Centre near Belleville, ON. “As I got older, I wanted to be closer to the ground. Smartie’s the right fit. He’s an incredible pony with a heart of gold. He’s pretty amazing.”

Cummins Amato stood the pinto Dutch warmblood stallion Fuhler at her farm, and when he died, she went on a search for a replacement stud to downsize her 17.2 and 17.3 hand warmblood broodmares and add more heart. “I knew about the popularity of Connemaras and I’d bred two mares to [Connemara stallion] Hideaway’s Sebastian,” she says. “They have an amazing attitude and work ethic, they are good with kids, and they like to jump.”

Cummins Amato bought Smartie (Wildwych Eclipse x Fairyhill Queen) as a yearling after making a 17-hour drive to Illinois to see him. He does double-duty as a breeding stallion and her competition horse. As well as eventing, Smartie shows in the 1.15 metre jumpers and third level dressage. His offspring tend to inherit his colour, but their dam’s size.

Jillian Scharfstein, 36, of Regina, SK, rides the pony stallion Bonofacio FLF (aka Boone), a seven-year-old bay 14-hand German Riding Pony (GRP), who finished 2016 as First Level Dressage Senior champion in Saskatchewan and provincial Senior 2’3” Hunter champion. Although relatively new to North America, German Riding Ponies have been bred in Germany for more than 50 years. They resemble small warmbloods and are ridden by children and adults alike in Europe.

As a young woman, Scharfstein worked at the racetrack, galloping horses and as a jockey. When she got a working student job at a hunter-jumper barn in Ontario, Scharfstein, at 5’3” and with a slim build, was assigned to riding ponies and that’s when she developed a passion for them.

“They are so much fun and they make a ginormous effort,” she says. “They really challenged my riding skills, as you have to keep balanced in the stirrups because they can’t compensate for you over fences like a big horse can.”

Celine Roy, 22, runs CR Horsemanship in Edmonton, AB, and has a tiny powerhouse in Willowbrand Jasper, a 13.2 hand, three-quarter Welsh/one-quarter Tennessee Walker gelding. Roy and the sooty buckskin have competed at Spruce Meadows in 2’6” and 3’ jumpers, winning one class and earning ribbons in all.

“Jasper doesn’t feel like a pony. He has so much power,” says Roy, who is 5’6” tall. “He doesn’t feel like you’re on something small until you’re looking through his ears at a jump that’s almost as tall as he is.”

Meeting the demand

Some Canadian performance pony breeders are catering specifically to adults, including Janet Rowe of Muskoka Lake Connemaras and Christine Baker of Branley Ash Sportponies. A decade ago, Rowe switched to ponies after breeding Irish Draughts at her farm in Bracebridge, ON. “I’m short,” she says. “I wanted to downsize and I looked at Welsh ponies, but there were so many Welsh breeders. There were very few Connemaras in Ontario then and they do everything, from eventing to jumpers to being happy hackers.”

The four to five foals she produces a year sell either in utero or within days of hitting the ground. “Ninety-five per cent of my buyers are adult amateurs,” says Rowe. “It’s mainly American buyers, with about 75 per cent of my foals going to the States, but I’ve been getting more Canadian interest.” She says initiatives such as the Pony Dressage Cup that now offers classes at Canadian shows in which adults can ride are helping to drive even more interest.

Rowe’s stallion Fiontar Mac Tire is an imported 2011 Connemara perlino (Maumturk Oliver x Rossaveal Lady) approved by multiple registries. He has competed in pony jumpers (including at the 2017 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair) with a 16-year-old rider and has shown in dressage and eventing with Andrea Volasko. Rowe recently started riding him herself. She says along with athletic ability in a smaller package, sport ponies tend to be easier keepers, are hardy, and have good feet.

Baker operates Branley Ash Sportponies out of Ashland Farm in Ottawa, ON, and has some of the top German Riding Pony bloodlines including Dornik B and FS Don’t Worry represented in her herd. She stands two young GRP stallions, Milky Way (FS Mr. Right x Danny Gold) and Topper Harley (Trendsetter x Mariano) that she owns in partnership with Ashland Farm’s Paul Morgan.

“I got into ponies literally because I’m short. I’m 5’2” and handling big horses isn’t my cup of tea, especially when they are unruly!” Baker says. She wanted to breed performance ponies that looked similar to horses and felt like them under saddle. German Riding Ponies fit her criteria.

“I am selling my ponies mostly to the adult market and the most inquiries are from adult amateur women looking for a pony that feels like the horse they rode, but isn’t quite as far from the ground,” Baker says. “I have also sold a couple to young professional riders who are petite.”

The pony movement for adults in Saskatchewan started with Connemaras, says Scharfstein, but she wanted even more refinement and like Baker, concluded that a German Riding Pony was the right fit. She bought Bonofacio FLF sight unseen from Florida as a weanling based on his pedigree (Burberry x Courtash Kotton Kandy). So far, Boone has just one foal on the ground – a colt out of a warmblood mare Scharfstein owns – because she’s been concentrating on his show career, but will offer him for breeding. He is licensed by the Canadian Sport Pony Registry and approved by Weser-Ems, an association affiliated with the Oldenburg Horse Breeders’ Society in Germany.

Baker believes more adult riders are considering ponies or little horses because the quality of small mounts has improved dramatically. “I was pleasantly surprised at the number of horse mares Milky Way has bred, in hopes of producing a smaller, fancier, yet equally-talented mount.”

Cummins Amato’s, Roy’s and Scharfstein’s mounts are among those proving that ponies can be competitive against large horses. After consistently placing in the ribbons at training level at horse trials in 2017, including a win at Will O’ Wind, Cummins Amato’s Get Smart moved up to preliminary and placed sixth at Stevens Creek and Lane’s End horse trials. He was also the Canadian Connemara High Point award winner for 2017.

“The first four riders didn’t get around [at Stevens Creek] and I’m sitting there on a 14.1 hand pony,” Cummins Amato recalls. “He’s just so handy and with him, I think ‘I can do that.’ I haven’t ridden another horse like him. He has incredible heart, he’s very brave and has a lot of spring in his hind end.”

Roy will return to the ring at Spruce Meadows with Jasper this fall and plans to compete Jasper in California this winter. She will also be riding an Exmoor/Welsh cross pony at Spruce Meadows.

In 2019, Scharfstein plans to show Boone in the 2’9” hunters with the goal to move up to the 3’ division, with guidance from coach Connie Dorsch, who believes he has the makings of a top hunter regardless of his size. “He can make the horse strides and if I’m not careful, he will leave strides out,” says Scharfstein. “He’s changed the stigma that ponies don’t have the movement or can’t make the strides.”