A team of five area equestrians brought home a gold medal from the recent U.S. Pony Club National Festival in Kentucky.
The team consisted of Lisa McWhirter of Woodbine and Michael Brinkley and Joshua Hough of Mount Airy. Team captain Charlie Conaway and his sister, Kelly, live in Taylorsville in Carroll County.
The five-member team was among those competing in the junior games competition, a series of dozens of races, relays and other team contests on horseback.
Pony clubs from all over the country competed in the 2 1/2 -day festival, held two weeks ago in Lexington, Ky. Clubs qualified for it through local and regional competitions in dressage, show jumping, combined training and games.
"We knew all the games, and had even practiced most of the ones they asked us to do," said 12-year-old McWhirter, a member of the Howard County Pony Club junior games team. "So the riding was the easiest part. It was the stable management part that was difficult."
Stable management, in Pony Club terms, means everything having to do with caring for the horse, his equipment and his surroundings, as well as the rider's own equipment. It means always having a well-groomed, well-cared-for horse with a clean stall and clean tack.
It also meant being at the barn in Lexington very early every morning.
"That was probably the hardest part of the entire competition -- getting the kids up and to the barn by 6 every morning," said Marilyn Brinkley of Mount Airy, mother of 13-year-old team member Michael.
"I think another difficult thing for the kids was working out among themselves some of the decisions that had to be made. But once the decisions were made they really stuck to them," she said.
Stable management turned out to be the most crucial part of the competition. At the end of the grueling games contest, Howard was tied with another Maryland team for the top spot.
"The final total scores for Elkridge-Harford and Howard were identical," said Joshua's mother, Lynn Hough.
"Fortunately, our team finished second of all the teams in stable management and Elkridge-Harford finished sixth, so the gold medal was Howard's."
The Festival's Lexington site meant a long haul for the kids, their families and their ponies.
"Our region had 28 ponies qualify for the festival," said Lisa's mother, Mary McWhirter. "We were lucky that everyone got together and had the horses professionally vanned to Kentucky. That took a lot of pressure off us."
The kids and their parents wouldn't have traded this experience for anything.
"The thing I liked best about the festival was everything," Michael said. "It was all wonderful. And we are all going to work very hard this year to go .back."