Full marks to the National Pony Society (NPS) for at last formally addressing the issue of inappropriately mounted riders – an issue which has been raised on so many occasions in this column.

Crucially, the society introduced the rule within the general rules of its 2022 rule book where it states that: ‘If a judge decides that a rider is not suitably mounted, they should take appropriate action and place down the line or mark down accordingly.’ (NPS emphasis not mine)

The rules committee has gone a stage further by directing judges within both the native and plaited working hunter pony sections to target any deductions within the 20 points specifically allocated to style (and manners) while jumping.

This is a break-through since previously judges have been left wondering where they can formally express their concerns surrounding rider suitability within classes where marks are allocated, such as those qualifying for the Horse of the Year Show (HOYS). The fact that this has been introduced within the working hunter pony sections surely paves the way for an extension of the rule within the flat classes. We can only hope.

Most likely for fear of alienating certain groups and attracting adverse criticism, the NPS has been careful not to define what constitutes ‘suitability of rider’, so judges will have to form their own criteria.

This isn’t altogether helpful to them or exhibitors and perhaps it would have been more clear if a comment of ‘suitability’ was recorded in the margin or a column dedicated to this criteria was added to the marking sheet. More controversial is the question as to whether or not riders should be allowed to jump if they are deemed too big for the pony.

Nevertheless, in my view and many others, this first step is in the right direction and long overdue. Safe to say the class that attracts most controversy is that where small breeds (up to 122cm) are concerned, mainly Shetland, Welsh Mountain, Dartmoor and Exmoor, breeds which most people would associate with children.

Time after time we have witnessed large jockeys, often adults but not always, squeeze every last effort out of their little mounts to get round a course of jumps. Other than for glory and/or money, it beggars belief what motivates such exhibitors when it is generally accepted that the presence of adults in the class intimidates young riders.

At a time when attracting new recruits to the show ring is critical, one has to wonder why the issue hasn’t been seriously tackled by all the societies concerned.

An answer to this specific problem has been addressed by Grandstand Media, organisers of HOYS, which has launched only this week a new competition for younger riders. For the first time, native ponies up to 122cm with riders up to 12 years of age will appear at HOYS 2022 in their own class within the show’s existing Mountain and Moorland working hunter pony section.

There will be 10 qualifiers across the country, including one at the Royal Highland – rules for the competition will appear in the HOYS Rule Book soon to be published.

It is the time of year for rule books to be updated and published. Many years ago an Australian barrister friend once told me that if exhibitors competed within the spirit of the rules, there would be no need for extensive rules books.

How right he was. Life would be so much easier and the show ring so much more attractive to the majority if this was the case.

However, being what it is, human nature doesn’t work like that and the problem of extensive rules is exacerbated by the fact that there is an inconsistency between and among the various showing societies producing them.

The NPS may be addressing the issue of unsuitably mounted ponies in their worker classes, however there’s no mention of them in the in the rules of the British Show Pony Society (BSPS) extensive range of classes other than in the newly-introduced Winter Worker Stakes for both plaited and native ponies.

This is an interesting initiative aimed at bringing not only more people into competition but allowing for all abilities/experience of both pony and rider to compete.

With five classes at maximum heights of 60cm, 70cm, 80cm, 90cm and 1m, mounts can be up to 158cm in height with riders any age but who ‘must be suitably mounted’. Unlike the NPS rules, there is no mention of how judges penalise them.

Nonetheless, no big riders on wee ponies in the Winter Worker Stakes but fine if they are trying to get to the society’s M and M WHP Final at Grantham. Where’s the logic?

Societies do have to be careful of how they respond to the many pressures put upon them and being all things to all men is the most difficult to achieve. The Royal International Horse Show (RIHS) appears to have an increasing influence on both the aforementioned societies as it is here that both stage prestigious championships.

Again, the WHP sections have hit the headlines following the announcement by the BSPS that riders competing at the RIHS in the plaited section will have to have proof of having competed on a minimal of two occasions at qualifying rounds.

This would appear to suggest a previous level of rider incompetence at the event possibly caused by accomplished riders qualifying ponies only to hand them over to less competent riders in the final.

Good or bad, the BSPS has come up with an answer to the request, although there are problems with the inequalities of opportunity to compete due to the geographical nature of qualifiers. The NPS faces a greater challenge caused by adults who compete – especially the professionals who earn their living from doing just that.

Just how can they set performance criteria for the wide diversity of riders who compete in these classes? Their rule book states that the NPS ‘may’ require ‘proof of competence’ in order to ride in the final at the Royal International. Good luck to them with that!

In a foolish move, in my view, to respond to requests by course builders of native WHP classes, the BSPS decided to increase the spreads at each height group – much to the dismay if not anger of their competitors.

Despite the fact that this would be limited to one jump per round it was universally felt that this may well suit some breeds with performance written into their DNA but not for the heavier types – in their case, height may not be a problem but the scope to make the spreads certainly is.

In all fairness to BSPS, it has listened to the arguments and done a u-turn before the season starts and 2021 rules will apply in this case – well done them.

This does raise an issue which is close to my heart – the side-lining of conformation and movement to that of performance. Bearing in mind the ‘worker’ classes come within the sphere of showing societies, I find it inconceivable that the jumping element should be allowed to dominate the result any more than it currently does.

Unlike show jumping, there should be no imperative to achieve a limited number of clear rounds and there should be no clear winner on that basis alone.

Leave the clear rounds and the clock to the eventers and show jumpers, and allow well made, good moving quality ponies with perfectly good performance ability win the WHP classes.