All Because of A Connemara Named Derry : The Story of the West Coast Connemara Show

J & M setting jumps
Jordan and Michael set the fences.

There are poignant moments in life when you realize something has come full circle. The 1995 West Coast Connemara Show was that for me. My two teenage boys not only experienced the West Coast Connemara Show, held at Twin Rivers Ranch October 10-11, 2015, they also helped. Among the activities they put their hands to were show set-up, office work, running tests from the Dressage judge, assisting in the lunch runs, setting fences – where they learned the terms: standard, oxer and panel – plus made new friends (and fans!) of their own.

As I watched them assist others from the Dressage Scribe viewpoint on Saturday and the Ring Steward vantage on Sunday, memories washed over me as I reminisced over the more than thirty years of the West Coast Connemara Show. I was just a little older than my boys are now when I first experienced a West Coast Connemara Show. The ponies stole my heart and the people have become some of my best horse friends.

It All Began with a Connemara Named Derry

It all began with a Connemara named “Derry”. She encompassed everything that the breed stands for, and was the perfect fit for her owner. Derry had a kind eye, good bone, a sure and steady gait, a heart of gold and was Irish. She wasn’t the flashiest of ponies, but her stalwart demeanor secured Charlene O’Neil’s heart. Derry fueled a love for Connemara ponies within Charlene that still drives her enthusiasm for the breed today.

The Birth of the West Coast Connemara Show

Believing that there must be other like-minded people out West who were just as enthusiastic about the breed, Charlene contacted a small group of American Connemara Pony Society members residing in California, Oregon and Washington.

The West Coast Connemara show began with four ladies, with their supportive husbands  – Charlene O’Neil, Joan Ervin, Helen King and Dorothy Lyons – meeting in a hotel room near Foxfield in Westlake, CA; their dream…to put together a show just for Connemaras.

Foxfield showcased a drill team where young riders on grey ponies – several being Connemaras – rode “on the wire” over fences and through a drill pattern, all while bareback and bridleless. The talent and aptitude of the Connemara was well known, but simply not showcased in a “breed show” setting on the West Coast…four ladies were about to change all of that.

The first West Coast Connemara Show 1981
The first West Coast Connemara Show 1981

The First West Coast Connemara Show

The first West Coast Connemara Show was held in 1981 at Balius Farm in Glen Ellen, California. Sally Green, a breeder, was the host and her place was perfect with an arena for jumping, a grass arena for hunters, plus an outside jump course. Victor Hugo-Vidal was the first judge and we still reminisce at seeing him on the mower the first morning of the show, readying the grass arena for the day’s classes.

The Balius Farm Annual Pony Show actually paved the way for the West Coast Connemara Show. After holding the Pony Show in Ilinois for two years, Balius Farm then moved to Glen Ellen, California with 17 ponies. Sally resumed the Pony Show in 1974. Four years later, a Connemara division was added, and then a Connemara day. In 1981, the open pony show was abandoned and the three day long West Coast Connemara Show was born.

There were many young riders in those first shows, taking the ponies handily over the hunter and jumper courses, over the outside hunter course, gathering a team for hunt teams of three and showing in the flat classes. I was one of these young riders . . . first riding Charlene O’Neil’s pony “Rose”, then getting the Connemara Pony bug and riding my own young Connemara “Prince” as well as “Rose”. We encouraged and competed with our fellow Connemara owner/riders, while falling in love with these ponies, and forging relationships that have impacted our lives.

Three generations at the WCCS
Charlene, Leah and Sharon

As I traveled and showed the ponies with Mike and Charlene O’Neil we developed a special parent/child bond and I have long considered them my second parents. I consider Charlene “mom” and my children know her as Grandma.

Making Life-long Friends at the West Coast Connemara Shows

During those early days in Glen Ellen I met Larry and Joan Ervin and befriended their three daughters who rode. Sally Green’s daughter Pam rode their stallion side-by-side me and “Rose” in a pairs class. I competed with Leslie Howell who was successfully riding jumpers on the A circuit with her stallion. Our list of friends and ponies grew at Sally’s place in Glen Ellen with the addition of the Websters: Joanie and her daughters Lee and Julie. Kathy Lucas brought her new stallions and rider Karen Ball. Gathering activities like winery tours and seeing local sites were organized to help pull the participants together. These experiences helped set the glue that has kept us together for all these years.

Sharon Jantzen riding BBA’s Paddy’s Hoof Prince at a WCCS in Santa Barbara

Annual Tradition with Different Venues

Charlene and Joan
Joan Ervin and Charlene O’Neil two of the founders at Coto-de-Caza WCCS.

The West Coast Connemara Show was held every year for the first 20 years or so, and it was often the highlight of the summer. I even worked my H-A Pony Club testing date and place around the West Coast Connemara Show, flying to Seattle Washington for a weekend in order to be available for the West Coast Connemara show that year.

The venue has changed every few years. We have gathered together at the Santa Rosa, CA fairgrounds, we have enjoyed Ashland, Oregon, we bonded with each other at Coto-de-Caza in Orange County where we stayed in Condos right on the show grounds.

Our biggest shows were at the Griffith Park Equestrian Center where we spearheaded an Irish Fair. We joined up with the Welsh, and the Minis, and shared the Santa Barbara fairgrounds. We have had the beautiful Wild Horse facility in Napa all to ourselves, enjoyed the cool coast weather at the fairgrounds in Watsonville, roasted in Galt, and most recently have gathered together at Twin Rivers Ranch in San Miguel. As the shows grew in size and attendance more treasured friends were added to our list, Bonnie Kelley who first came with the Ervins, Diana Cooley and Pat Ashworth became part of the core group.

A Myriad of Events for this Versatile Pony

There is always jumping at the West Coast Connemara Show, and to demonstrate the versatility of the breed to some shows Western trail classes, Western Pleasure, games, and driving events were added. For the past two decades a rated Dressage day has become a staple on the premium. At various ages my boys have participated in the costume class. My daughter’s first horse show was a West Coast Connemara Show, where she rode in the 10 and Under division. She just did the equitation class, the pleasure class and the in-hand class. The next year, she did the entire division, which included a walk/trot Dressage test and a trail class; she came home a Champion!

L the champion

The 1995 show at Twin Rivers Ranch in San Miguel, CA provided the most reflection, because many of the “old crew” hadn’t met for a few years; we realized how we relished the bond these ponies have provided for our group of friends.

Kathy Lucas was there with a slew of new ponies and young riders along with Karen Ball to ride another new stallion. Lee Webster who was one of the original young riders with me was again the ever-gracious and effective Show Manager. Joanie Webster, Charlene O’Neil, Diana Cooley, Bonni Kelley and Pat Ashworth were all part of seeing this year’s show come to fruition. Some of our friends are missing and not having them there leaves a hole in our hearts.

Shared in Life’s Hurdles and Glories

We have shared in each others losses, both human and equine, in each others joys, with marriages, children and the beating of cancer. My role has certainly changed…I was once a young rider and continued to ride in and attend most of the West Coast Connemara Shows. Now I am lending my help and experience to a new generation. My teenage boys are now the young ones, working right along-side my Connemara friends with whom I have gone through much of life. The West Coast Connemara Show started as a love for a specific breed of horse, and has grown into a love for dear friends and pseudo-family…all because of a Connemara named Derry.

Cover photo credit Lee Webster Ramensky

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