A Kidís Dream Come TrueBy Gretchen Roufs
Joe Abell, sales manager for Elkhorn Chemical and Packaging, a distributor in Elkhorn, Wis., is a pony driver. “Driving” ponies isn’t entirely accurate you actually drive a buggy, cart, wagon or sleigh, and the ponies pull it.
Joe has been working with horses since he was a kid. He did a lot of riding, and would even go hunting on horseback. About 15 years ago, Joe’s friend introduced him to pony driving, and Joe soon bought his own pair of ponies, a harness and a wagon.
He started with just the two ponies, and now his collection has grown to include 13 Welsh mountain ponies, two miniature horses, and one Shetland pony. He and his wife, Lucy, live with their ponies on a seven-acre “farmette” near the town of Walworth, Wis.
The ponies pull everything from single-pony carts to old-fashioned circus wagons. In the winter, Joe hitches up a bobsled to two ponies, and they drive through the snow in the woods and the fields.
For Joe, his commitment to the sport is not about the ponies. “It’s the kids,” Joe says. “I do it for them. If I had the ponies just for my own personal enjoyment, I’d only need two. I have 16 ponies so that local kids can learn skills and responsibilities and equine care.”
Joe and a friend are very involved as adult volunteers with the 4-H Club of Walworth County. They work with the 4-H kids to teach them to drive and care for ponies. 4-H is a national organization designed to teach leadership, citizenship and life skills to young people.
Between Joe and his friend, they have enough ponies, harnesses and carts for the 45 kids who participate in the 4-H program. They donate 100 percent of the costs of the program, including making the carts and buying the harnesses, along with covering the veterinary costs, food bills and horseshoes.
According to Joe: “We work with any child who wants to get into the Walworth County 4-H equine program. We teach them pony driving skills and responsibilities, and help with their equine education. If they live in town and don’t have access to ponies, we’ll give them a harness, pony and cart for the summer. We offer clinics twice a week, and we teach them to harness, hitch, drive and take care of the pony.”
“Safety is paramount,” said Joe. “The kids wear helmets, and they always have an adult who rides with them in their carts.”
One of the ways that Joe helps the kids become comfortable with pony driving is to take them out for ice cream. The kids drive the ponies from Joe’s place about a mile-and-a-half through town to the ice cream store. Imagine seeing a line of kids driving pony-drawn wagons and carts through the center of downtown Walworth. “It’s quite the sight,” said Joe. “It stops the traffic.”
Joe teaches the kids to build relationship with the ponies. And they both the kids and the ponies are groomed to participate in horse shows and races at the county and the state level. Sometimes they compete against Joe. Noting that he gives the kids his best ponies, Joe said, “My enjoyment is to watch the kids compete. Some of them even beat me.”
When asked if it bothers him to have the kids beat him in pony-driving competition, Joe simply says, “No. It means I’m doing something right.”
Gretchen Roufs, an 18-year janitorial supply industry veteran, owns Auxiliary Marketing Services of San Antonio. To suggest someone you think should be featured in “freetime,” contact her at Gretchen@auxiliarymarketing.com.