Archive » October 19, 2007
By Leanne Cooper-Elliott
Bunnie Sexton and Pony Club Build Character
The word ‘coach’ can mean different things to different people, but to the parents and young riders of the Santa Ynez Valley Pony Club the word is synonymous with the charismatic, energetic and tireless Bunnie Sexton.
Sexton inherited her love of horses from her mother, Norma Shepherd, an avid rider who showed Saddelbreds at Griffith Park as a teenager growing up in Pasadena. The Shepherd family made their way to the Valley over 44 years ago when Bunnie’s father purchased Shepherd Ranch, site of the Valley’s oldest wooden home, as a weekend getaway. But with Norma’s instant love for the Valley, the Ranch quickly turned into the family’s primary residence.
Bunnie was only 14 then, and the youngest of nine children. She remembers her mother’s friends, Betsey Raine, mother of international dressage rider Kathleen Wightman-Raine, and Heather Sorenson, who spearheaded the idea of starting the Santa Ynez Valley Pony Club. It wasn’t long before the club outgrew the Sorenson’s home and, unable to turn anyone away, Norma offered Shepherd Ranch, where the club has been headquartered for the last 30 years.
Under her mother’s direction, Sexton became deeply involved in Pony Club and went on to compete at the highest levels of the sport. In 1991, Bunnie moved back to Shepherd Ranch with her husband Ken and their four children to help care for her ailing mother. At that time, Sexton took over leadership of SYVPC under her mother’s watchful eye. Norma died in 2002. In her absence, it was only natural for Sexton to continue the tradition of excellence that she and her friends had started so many years before.
“It has been exciting watching the club grow and to watch the kids become exceptional adults and citizens,” Sexton said in the living room at Shepherd Ranch.
Over the years Sexton has watched the ranch’s facilities develop from a few homemade jumps in the pastures to two full-sized sand and jumping arenas, capacity for three dressage arenas, and a cross-country course with jumps from introductory to preliminary competition levels. The ranch hosts two major competitions a year and twice-monthly member training meetings.
“This is all possible because of the Pony Club’s families, their hard work and commitment. There’s real dedication from parents and children, and because of that we’ve created an outstanding training facility,” said Sexton.
Kathy Cleary is one such dedicated parent. Her daughter Moraya, 14, has been riding with the Pony Club for six years.
“The Pony Club is an exceptional program. It’s more than learning how to ride a horse, it teaches kids discipline, empathy, organizational skills, and focus,” Cleary said.
“They have to know how to handle a 1500 pound animal and track its shots, diet, vet visits and expenses. When they go to the Rally events there’s no parental involvement. They have to work as a team and take total responsibility. This kind of experience has really positively affected Moraya, especially academically,” said Cleary.
Dan Murphy enrolled his daughters Caitlin, 15, and Erin, 13, in the Pony Club six years ago, and has since joined the Board of Governors for the U.S. Pony Club.
“This program has given my kids just about everything they need to progress in life, and to become successful in whatever they do,” he said.
“Bunnie is a wonderful coach, and leader. She still competes, so when she coaches the kids she commands a lot of respect. She’s one of the most positive coaches I’ve ever known,” he said.
Sexton is equally admiring of her riders and their parents.
“I am proud of what the club has accomplished,” she said, “not only the numerous times our members have competed at Western State Championships and Nationals in Kentucky, but at the amazing character of the young people who have passed through our club over the years -- strong, confident and giving back enormously to our club, and all they encounter in life.”
Much of this mutual respect comes from the fact that Sexton is an accomplished rider in her own right. The parlor walls in her home are papered with a rainbow of award ribbons: so many that the surplus is now pinned up in the barn where there’s ample room for her growing collection. Among the awards is the 1997 U.S.
Combined Training Association’s California Leading Rider Award. As well, Sexton has contributed a chapter in the National Pony Club Policies manual about how to manage a club and club-owned horses.
The National Pony Club has grown to 600 clubs in 26 countries with over 12,000 members. It is recognized as one of the elite riding organizations, demanding the highest dedication from its riders. It sounds intimidating until you meet the members—glowing young people who can’t wait to get to the next meeting or competition. Young people between the ages of 6 and 25 who have earned a maturity far beyond their years.
The Santa Ynez Valley Pony Club has over 30 members and maintains a herd of 20 Pony Club horses that can be leased by children who do not own a horse. This is unique to the Santa Ynez Pony Club and just part of what makes Sexton, like her mother, an exceptional advocate for the character development of young people through the process of horse training and riding.
“We are always looking to grow, always open to new members. This doesn’t have to be a sport for the wealthy, or the privileged. We’re just looking for families that want to give their kids an advantage in life,” she said.
The Pony Club is currently accepting new members. For more information visit www.SYVPonyClub.com or call 805-688-1784.