by Ella Groner, USPC “A” graduate (highlights of this article originally published in the October 2019 Equiery)
Representing the USA as an equestrian in Hong Kong was an experience of a lifetime. As a long-standing member of the United States Pony Club, I had always heard about the international exchange opportunities USPC has to offer and hoped that one day I could participate. This past summer was the Inter-Pacific Exchange; one of many international exchange programs USPC offers. The Inter-Pacific Exchange occurs every other year and consist of a dressage competition and the Nations Cup Show Jumping Competition.

The IPE Nations Cup is a tradition that was started in 1969 and currently includes Pony Clubs from the United States, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The host rotates every year, and this year it was held in Hong Kong. The exchange was two weeks long, and each Pony Club country sent four team members, a coach, and a team manager.

When I learned about the 2019 Inter-Pacific Exchange opportunity in Hong Kong, I immediately wanted to apply. The timing was perfect, as I was finishing up college and wasn’t tied down to a job yet, and I had recently obtained my USPC “A” rating. I met all requirements — the rider must be aged 18-25, A or B rated, and an active Pony Club member. I completed my application which required videos of my riding and responses to short answer questions about myself and my Pony Club history/commitment. Then I waited…

About a month later, on Christmas Eve, I received a letter in the mail stating that I had been selected to be on the 2019 Inter-Pacific Exchange Team traveling to Hong Kong in July! I was so excited to have been selected and was even more excited when I found out that a good friend of mine, and fellow Marylander, Ema Klugman, had also been selected! Kaylee Van Winkle (Ohio) and Cooper Madden-Hennessey (Connecticut) were the other two riders on the team along with Janna Bankston Ritacco (South Carolina) as our team manager and Nicole Ligon (Pennsylvania) as our team coach. I knew we would all have a special experience, but there was work to be done first.

Before heading to Hong Kong, the team traveled to Coach Nicole’s Firefly Farm in Pennsylvania for training camp where they each had the opportunity to practice dressage tests and ride some show jump courses.

Prepping at Home
Throughout the spring of 2019, we had many team planning calls about fundraising, training, and logistics. We each had to raise a certain amount to support the trip. The fundraising process was long, but well worth it. We all taught many lessons, held pony clubber ratings, sold various items such as C-4 belts and t-shirts, and worked as hard as we could to do our part. We also were able to obtain some sponsors for our team which was helpful in covering the costs and reducing our fundraising burden.

During regularly scheduled conference calls, we spent time discussing travel plans and training plans. Finally, as the date drew near, everything seemed to be coming together. With fundraising goals met and plans finalized, packing lists were made and we started to pack our bags.

On June 26, Kaylee, Cooper, and Janna traveled to Coach Nicole’s Firefly Farm in Pennsylvania for training camp. Ema and I joined them on June 28. We all had an opportunity to practice our dressage tests and ride some show jump courses. We had some nice rides and felt ready to go.

The evening of the first full day in Hong Kong, Team USA (from left: Nicole Ligon, Kaylee Van Winkle, Ella Groner, Ema Klugman, Cooper Madden-Hennessey and Jana Bankston Ritacco) all dressed up in matching USA outfits of red, white and blue, and went off to the welcome dinner. Dinner was followed by a wonderful boat ride around the harbor to see a light show.

Into the Air
On the morning of Saturday, June 29, feeling excited and maybe a little nervous, we all loaded up and headed out to Newark Airport for our long flight to Hong Kong. Luckily, we had a direct flight, and after 16 hours on the airplane arrived in Hong Kong Sunday night. Yes, we skipped a whole day!  Exhausted, but anxious to see our new home away from home, we finally arrived to our lovely accommodations in Sha Tin. Our team of four had our own space, with three bathrooms and two bedrooms; the girls in one, and Cooper in another.

We weren’t even in our hotel room for five minutes before we heard a semi-aggressive banging on our door. Skeptical of who was there, all four of us walked over and slowly opened the door. Much to our surprise, there were 20 cheerful (and very awake) people from the other participating countries outside our door excitedly greeting us and welcoming us to Hong Kong! While we were super excited to be there and to start getting to know the other teams, we were also exhausted from all the travel. We all had a quick pizza dinner then it was off to bed for us.

Teams USA and Australia

Meeting the Teams
Monday was the first official day of the exchange and we were so excited! We had a nice bike ride around the city to get the day started before heading to the official orientation. We were given our schedules and learned a bit about what we would be doing before having a free afternoon. Our USPC team decided to head to the local mall to exchange some money, explore a bit, and do some shopping!

That evening, we all dressed up in our matching USA outfits of red, white and blue, and went off to the welcome dinner. We had Peking Duck, a typical meal in Hong Kong. Dinner was followed by a wonderful boat ride around the harbor to see the light show. It was so beautiful to be on the water and see the city lit up all around us. At this point, it was becoming obvious that during this exchange we were going to be treated very well and given some special experiences outside of the riding.

Tuesday morning, we went with the Australian Pony Club to ride at Clearwater Bay Stables. We were each assigned a horse to school on the flat. The stables were on the top of a mountain on the edge of the water. The views were spectacular!  It felt good to finally ride after all our traveling.

After arriving back from the barn, we had some free time before heading out for some team bonding and an “escape room” activity. Unfortunately, our team did not escape in time (we were super close!), but we all had fun!

Wednesday was the first day that we really had an opportunity to get to know the other exchange competitors. We had an all-day Junk Trip (boat ride). We left from Sai Kung and boated to a restaurant for lunch. After lunch, we did some exploring and found some WWII ruins and bunkers before heading back on the boat. The boat was anchored in a bit of a cove and we were able to go for a swim. We jumped off the top of the boat, slid down the inflatable slide, and played on the water trampoline. Some people swam to shore where there was a small beach, while others tried wakeboarding! Overall, our Junk Trip was a memorable day with new friends enjoying the beautiful waters and beaches of Hong Kong.

The exchange was absolutely proving to be so much more than just a riding experience. Tired from our day on the water, we arrived back to the dock for dinner at a nearby restaurant. While dining, we noticed three cows walking down the street! We all had to do a double take to make sure our tired eyes weren’t seeing things. Apparently, the cows are free to roam the streets. They don’t bother anyone, and nobody bothers them. When we got back to the hotel after dinner, we all fell into bed after our long, but fun day.

The next day started with a trip to the Hong Kong Jockey Club Equine Hospital with the Australian Pony Club, while the Canadians and New Zealand teams went for a dressage ride at Clearwater Bay. In Hong Kong, horse ownership and care are handled very differently than in the US. The Jockey Club owns all the horses. There is only one equine hospital and it is where all horses come for any veterinary needs. Not only did we get a tour of the hospital, we got to see the beginning part of a surgery where they were removing chips out of the knee of a racehorse.

The equine hospital is right next to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Sha Tin Racecourse, so we were also able to get a tour of the track and some of the stable area. It was definitely a cool experience to get a behind the scenes tour of the Sha Tin Racecourse and the Hong Kong Jockey Club Equine Hospital.

Ella’s international scramble team finished third in the dressage competition.

Dressage Competition
We had a bit of a relaxing afternoon before we hopped on a bus and headed out to Beas River Equestrian Center for the Dressage Competition trials. The Beas River Equestrian Center is a private stable, for members only… think private golf club membership but for horses… super fancy! The cross-country portion for the Beijing Olympics took place at these stables.

For this event, we were all randomly divided onto one of four mixed teams. There was a representative from each country on every team. Each team of five was given a pool of six horses to choose from and we had one hour to ride the horses and decide who would ride which horse for the dressage event. I ended up with a horse named Good View Delight, a bay off-the-track Thoroughbred.

Bright and early Friday morning we left the hotel for the dressage competition. The US riders were all happy with our rides and my scramble team did well, placing third overall. A special shout-out to Cooper, who had the best score of the competition, and to coach Nicole’s scramble team (including Cooper) who won first place in the dressage event.

Friday afternoon, after some rest time, our team decided to go to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. An interesting museum where we learned a bit more about the city and saw an exhibit on the world-famous martial arts master and actor/director Bruce Lee.

The teams also had a chance to spend the day at the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Sha Tin Racecourse and visit other cultural spots in Hong Kong.

Mounted Games & Racing Days
Now that the dressage competition was over, and it was the weekend, we had a shopping day to the Stanley Markets. We all shopped and explored the local mall, and even had a quick visit to a temple! In the afternoon we headed back to Clearwater Bay Stables for a fun gymkhana event!

The event was with our dressage scramble teams of five, plus one younger pony clubber from Clearwater Bay Equestrian Center. Each team of six was given three horses. We played many games, one of which was the sack race which was riding through bending poles to the end of the arena, getting off, handing the horse off to a volunteer, and then hopping back in a sack. The next team member then got in the sac, hopped down to the horse, and then rode back through the bending poles. We had so much fun, and all our competitive spirits came out! The evening finished with a group cookout and some rounds of trivia including horse-based questions, Hong Kong facts, and some of the classic music and movie trivia.

At this point, we were only halfway through the trip, and had already done so much. Sunday was a free day, so the USPC team decided to take it easy, sleep in a bit, and go on a long bike ride around Hong Kong. Biking was a great way to see the city and get some physical activity on our “day off.”

We ended the day at Hong Kong Jockey Club Sha Tin Racecourse. Races are twice a week, on Sundays and on Wednesdays. We were lucky that our free day happened to match up with the racing schedule and we were able to visit the racetrack! It was exciting to be able to stand close to all the action and make bets with each other on what horse would win. Horse racing is a huge part of the culture in Hong Kong and we were very happy to have been able to experience the races first-hand!

On a rest day during the IPE, riders from each team headed out on a trail ride starting from the Lo Wu Saddle Club in Hong Kong and crossing into China! The city pictured here is Shenzhen, China.

To China by Horseback
All the teams woke up bright and early on Monday morning and headed out to Lo Wu Saddle Club Stables. Here, we were split into smaller groups and went out for a long hack. It was interesting to learn that this is the only stable in Hong Kong that has “turn out” for their horses, which is really more like just putting them out in the arena for a bit of running. This is also the only stable that has an option to go out for a hack.

Our hack was all on roads. We passed through wooded areas as well as some small towns until we got to the top of a mountain. When we turned around, we were right on the border of Hong Kong and China and were overlooking the city of Shenzhen, China! Never in a million years, when I applied for the exchange, did I think I would find myself walking from Hong Kong to China on a horse!  The view was wonderful, and the hack an incredibly memorable activity! We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the Hong Kong History Museum where we learned some local history.

The next day we took a bus out to Sai Kung National Park and went for a 45-minute hike through the mountains. We were all SO hot and getting uncomfortable. Suddenly, the trees opened and there was an absolutely beautiful empty beach! We were so happy to have made it to our destination, and even more excited to get into the water! From that moment on, it was a day of nothing but relaxation and fun. We played in the water, went for a short hike to freshwater rock pools with waterfalls, and jumped off rocks. Exhausted, we were spared the hike back when speed boats arrived to take us back to town. This day was by far one of the most fun adventures of the exchange!

During the IPE Nations Cup, everyone on Team USA stayed focused and all had successful final rounds with the team finishing on a score of zero and in first place! Since 1969 when the competition began, the USPC has won the Inter-Pacific Exchange only twice before, in 1973 and 2003.

Jumping to Gold
Luckily, Wednesday was a day when we were able to spend the morning resting and recovering from our day at the beach. We needed the time to start to mentally and physically prepare for our most important event, the show jump competition. Around 3:00 p.m. we headed to Beas River Equestrian Center for our jumping trial rides! We each had a short jump school, some of us switching around horses, to try and get to know our team’s mounts a bit. We were limited to 12 jumps and had a time restriction. In the end, we were pleased with the horses that our team was assigned and felt confident heading into the final competition.

The next morning was an early departure from the hotel and we were all a little anxious heading to the jumping trials. The bus ride to the stables was completely silent (unlike all the others on the trip). This was the big competition that brought us all to Hong Kong and we were eager to bring home a win for the US!

The day, however, did not start out as planned. One of our team members, Kaylee, wasn’t feeling well, so we created a plan for one of our riders to go twice. Luckily, as time went on, Kaylee was feeling better and at the last minute decided she was feeling well enough to ride. We regrouped yet again and Kaylee headed off. Not only did she ride, she rode a clear jump round landing the USPC team with zero points and tied for first place with team New Zealand at the end of round one.

The pressure was on for round two. The jumps got bigger, the weather got hotter, the stress was more intense, and the horses weren’t as fresh. With the help from our amazing coach Nicole and manager Janna, we all remained confident and hydrated, horses included! We were ready to tackle the second and final round! Everyone stayed focus and we all had successful final rounds which confirmed that our team finished on a score of zero and in first place!

Since 1969 when the competition began, the USPC has won the Inter-Pacific Exchange only twice before; in 1973 and 2003. We can now add 2019 to that list!

What a great ending to our amazing experience. We finished up with a final celebration dinner. All the teams participated and enjoyed the delicious food, dancing, and skits. Eventually final goodbyes along with promises to keep in touch were made and we headed back to finish preparing to leave in the morning.

The opportunity to travel and represent USPC on an international stage was an unforgettable experience. It truly was the trip of a lifetime and our whole team feels very fortunate. In the true Pony Club spirit, we hope to be able to pass it on by sharing our experience at home and keeping in touch with our new friends in an attempt to strengthen the international community. We also hope to be able to support future members of Pony Club exchanges as so many supported us. On that note, I want to extend a huge thank you to everyone who donated to our fundraising efforts and those who sponsored our team including The United States Pony Club, Breese Pin Bands, C4 Belts, Arias Whips, IRH Helmets, and Hound & Hare, and encourage others to support USPC international exchanges in the future. I know first-hand that they are life changing experiences that promote the sport of riding, enhance international exchange, and create lifelong friendships and memories.

Riders and coaches from all teams of the 2019 IPE program in Hong Kong