On the Eve of All Hallows, most kids in Howard County were thinking about ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night.
Butfive young Howard Pony Club members were filled with concerns of their ponies and with flag races, sack races, sock tosses, litter pick-ups, sword races and pole relay races.
Starting Friday and continuing through today, Jason and Joshua Hough, Meggan Brown, Lisa McWhirter and Margie Smithhisler and their ponies are at the National Horse Show at The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., to represent the United States at the Prince Philip International Pony Club Games competition.
To get there, these youngsters and their ponies placed first over eight other teams at the regional games competition in July. Then it was on to the national competition where they were among the 10 teams competing to earn one of four berths at this prestigious event.
"They have worked very hard during the past year to get to this point," said games coach and Pony Club District Co-Commissioner Tamara Kiser. "Last year's team from Howard County placed second at the Prince Philip games. This year's team is younger, but has made impressive improvements over the past few months."
Jason Hough, 15, is the team's captain, a responsibility which the athletic rider takes very seriously.
"It makes me try much harder," Jason says. "There's no problem working with the others. There are no bad attitudes, and they all get along."
Jason is somewhat of a latecomer to riding. He started when he was 13 and began gamescompetition at 14. He had a very practical reason for getting involved: He wanted to meet girls.
His father told him he should "go where the girls are," and that led Jason directly to the Howard County Pony Club. "Since Jason started riding with us, we've been able to getmore boys interested in the program since they can see how athletic you have to be and how active and fun this is," says Kiser.
Jason's steed is the impressive pony, Pebbles -- at 14 hands, 2 inches the flea-bitten gray is as big as an equine can be and still be considered a pony rather than a horse.
"Pebbles is just perfect," says Jason, who is renowned for his vaulting skills. "He's very experienced."
Jason's favorite game is Stepping Stone, and his least favorite isthe Sack Race, a sentiment that is echoed by almost all the riders.
Meggan Brown has even taken to practicing shuffling around the house in a sack, according to her mother Anne. Meggan, who is 12, and her pony, Cricket, competed on the team last year. According to Meggan,"Cricket is a good games pony, because she is very obedient and moves away from my leg really well."
Games ponies have to be competitive, have to love going fast and have to be obedient. It also helps, says Margie Smithhisler, if they are easy to vault on to.
"That's what I like best about my pony, Blaze," 11-year-old Margie says of herchestnut, blaze-faced pony mare. Margie and Blaze are on loan from the Frederick Pony Club and hope to do well in Stepping Stones, which is their favorite game.
You have to be at least 10 to take part inPony Club Games competition, so this is 10-year-old Joshua Hough's first year on the team. Joshua and his diminutive pony, Shadow, started this adventure together and have learned a lot.
"Shadow is very consistent," Josh says. "She doesn't rear and go backward anymore at all. And she's getting to really love doing games -- just like me!"
Lisa McWhirter is also new to games this year. Lisa's pony is the gray Cloudy Day, who is very experienced and "very controllable even though she goes really fast," says the 11-year-old, whose favorite game is Two-Flag.
At a recent practice, the team of riders and ponieswhizzed through the poles, vaulted on and off ponies to pick up litter, picked up and dropped socks into a bucket, shuffled around in sacks while running with their ponies and picked up and passed flags to their teammates.
Parents watched from the sidelines and reminiscedabout a competition in Virginia when one father had to take off his socks on the spot and donate them to the sock race.
During the practice, Kiser offered advice, help and encouragement.
"I want you to watch that fallin' down thing," she laughed at one point before giving the order to dismount and cool off the ponies. That order somehowtranslated into a call for pony races, and the ponies zoomed around the arena as though they hadn't been working hard for the previous two hours.
Tiny steel-gray Shadow, a pony with a sweet face, fuzzy forelock and slender legs, zoomed with the best of them, giving no quarter.
"She used to be such a little lady," said Jason and Joshua'smother Lynn. "Now she's turning into a perfect games pony."
When the speedsters finally ran out of gas, Kiser reminded them that at the Prince Philip games they would have to compete in 10 to 12 different relay events and complete three races in each 15-minute slot. Theircompetition will be teams from Casanova, Va.; Cazenovia, N.Y., and Rose Tree, Pa.
"They looked really good tonight," Kiser said after practice. "Traditionally this team is very good at bending and vaulting. There isn't any super speed, but they are definitely not slow. One of their strengths is that they are a closely-knit team. They are good at pulling each other up, and their captain (Jason) is a great rally man.
"Even though they don't have a lot of experience yet, this year we may surprise ourselves. But they are still being careful and not very cocky."
Everyone but the minuscule Shadow, that is.