Record low rainfall has significantly reduced available feed and left paddocks dry. (ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Jennifer Douglas)
This year, Pony Club celebrates its 80th year in Australia, but with the worst drought in 160 years and rising feed costs, horse ownership has become further out of reach than ever for its families.
Julie Harmer’s three daughters are the third generation in the family to be part of Pony Club.
But times are tough for the Harmers, who live in drought-stricken Merbein in north-west Victoria.
They have been hit by exorbitant feed prices after local hay supplies ran out and transportation costs doubled.
Ms Harmer’s daughter Brooke attended Pony Club for many years, but has now had to give away her best showjumping horse, Captain. (ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Jennifer Douglas)
“We were faced with the choice: do we keep paying increasing feed costs and ride out the drought or face the heartbreak of selling my children’s horses?” Ms Harmer said.
“Riding horses has taught my daughters how to overcome fear, deal with disappointment and that it takes hard work to care for such a large animal.
“I’d much rather see my girls out training and working in partnership with a 500-kilogram horse than stuck inside, eyes glued to their smart device.”
The family had to let go of their best showjumping horse and their second is up for sale.
Over the border at a remote sheep station in Menindee, New South Wales, 10-year-old twins Milly and Poppy Bell load up their ponies, preparing to travel over five hours one Sunday a month to attend their nearest Pony Club in Mildura, Victoria.
Millie and Poppy Bell load up their ponies and travel over five hours one Sunday a month to attend Pony Club. (ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Jennifer Douglas)
Despite the hours of travel, these outback kids still count the days until the next rally.
It’s an interstate rite of passage that their mother, Rebel Bell, remembers taking when she was a young girl.
“Even though it’s been dry at home, we’ve always made it a priority for our kids to keep up with their horses and Pony Club,” she said.
“We miss out on a lot of sporting opportunities out here.”
Many remote farming children can’t participate in sports like netball or basketball which are held every weekend, but the Bell family can commit to a monthly Pony Club rally.
“I really want my children to experience the same life experience I had, growing up with horses,” Ms Bell said.
An education for outback kids
Emma Scott and her family are the volunteers behind the annual Pony Club camp in Balranald, New South Wales.
Families travel from three states to camp out in sub-zero temperatures for three days of intense training and fun with their ponies.
“Pony Club is a brilliant example of people coming together from all walks of life, they come from all different backgrounds and it’s really great to have people come together in tough times like drought,” Ms Scott said.
“The opportunities for young people these days in the equestrian field are really strong, people can start out with a little pony and really grow to be very competitive on the world stage.”
Despite horse ownership becoming further out of reach, Pony Club still boasts a membership of over 40,000 riders and volunteers. (ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Jennifer Douglas)
That has been the case for Ms Scott, who grew up in the small town of Balranald and went on to represent Australia as an equestrian.
She believes riding horses is a great way for kids to build character and confidence.
“They have to look after their horse, to feed it every day, they really have to be responsible,” she said.
“They’ve got to have the ability and the tenacity to try and control an animal that wants to run away from the birds, wants to go and eat its food, it doesn’t always want to play the game, so these kids have got a real task ahead of them and sometimes dealing with a massive animal that has its own mind is a little bit scary and can be very confronting.”
Building on an 80-year legacy
Pony Club began in England in 1929 and is now represented in 29 countries with a worldwide membership of 110,000, making it the largest association of young riders in the world.
Dr Catherine Ainsworth said despite the drought, participation in Pony Club remains strong, especially in regional areas. (ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Jennifer Douglas)
Pony Club Australia chief executive Dr Catherine Ainsworth oversees the organisation’s 25,000 Australian members and 15,000 volunteers in 800 clubs across the country.
Dr Ainsworth said the drought places a heavy burden on members, but the organisation has overcome many challenges in its 80-year history.
“Even with the drought, participation in pony club, especially in regional areas, remains strong where other regional sporting associations like football clubs are amalgamating just to maintain numbers,” she said.
“With the celebration of Pony Club’s 80th year in Australia, I know [it] will continue through for many more years to come, but an end to this drought would be a very welcome sight.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline this Sunday at 12:30pm or on iView.