The Thrill of Drill

The Chincoteague Pony Drill Team, trotting gracefully, two-by-two
Photo courtesy of Adrienne Zimmerman

By Kendy Allen

About four years ago we were at the Kentucky Horse Park with some of our Chincoteagues and I had the opportunity to watch a youth drill team perform. Watching the horses and kids do maneuvers to music was exciting to watch, and gave a dimension to horseback riding that you just could not match by simply riding on your own.

As the owners of about 20 Chincoteagues (the number varies from time to time), of various ages and sizes, it was as if a sudden light bulb went on in my head. We could do drill, I thought, with all the Chincoteagues, using family, neighborhood, and friends' kids. And that was the start of the Chincoteague Pony Drill Team.

Today, we have just returned from the Chincoteague Christmas Parade in early December where we rode. The ponies, all polished and cleaned up, all wore Santa hats and tiny Christmas lights in their manes. Christmas music blared out of the truck following the group, and the "pooper scoopers" followed faithfully behind, each kid wearing their own Santa hat. In front, two more kids carried our banner announcing who we were, and our captain of the drill team mounted, led the group, proudly carrying the American flag. It was a beautiful sight, but also a lot of work from our start 3 1/2 years ago.

How to get started
I have been a 4-H leader for 30 years, and a horseman as long as I can remember, but when it came to "doing drill", I was as green as grass. I have learned a lot by doing, and I still have an awful lot to learn, but this is what has worked for me.

The first thing you need to be a success is knowledge and I strongly suggest that you find someone that can give you good advice. Because I got the idea at the Kentucky Horse Park, I started with the Kentucky Extension Service. That state, unlike Pennsylvania, has 4-H drill teams who have a good base of talent. I called people, asked for a little of their time, bought video tapes of drill teams performing, and became involved with a drill team list serve called the FLAGRIDERS. You can reach their web page at

I think the first step in forming your own drill team is to figure out what you want your drill team to be. Some of the following factors will help determine exactly what your group will look like.

Age and Skill of Riders--I personally allow no one under the age of ten to ride drill team, for safety reasons, and I don't care how good the rider is. The youth on our team have to have three years experience riding on their own, and must demonstrate the ability to handle a horse or pony in different situations. While our team is basically made up of youth, we've had riders in their 30's participate and it has worked out well. Right now the youngest riders are 11, and the oldest 19. But that too changes throughout the year. I've seen very successful drill teams made up of adults who drill "just for fun", and I've also been thrilled to watch such groups as the Texas 5th Cavalry or the Canada Mounted Police perform their drills. But each group of drill needs to have its own identity.

Horses and Ponies Used--That's very simple for us. Everyone rides a Chincoteague Pony. It is what makes us unique in the world. Our drill team focus is on showing off the ponies and what they can do, and since the ponies come in a variety of colors and sizes, the drill team itself dresses in sage breeches and black T-shirts, long black boots, and black hard hats. Some outfits use all one-color horses in their drill teams; some even try to have the horses be basically the same size (which definitely makes life easier when designing drill). If you're using different breeds and sizes of horses and ponies, remember that you have to compensate for temperament and size. Ponies are going to have to move faster to keep up with horses. Horses of different breeds move at different speeds and have varying ways of going. It would really take away from the smooth look of a drill team to see a Saddlebred paired with a Quarter Horse.

The number of horses used is up to you. Drill teams usually involve at least six horses; I personally like to work with at least eight. Remember the more horses you add, the more involved and complicated even the simplest drill can become.

Whether you ride English or Western or combine both is up to you. I've seen drill teams perform sidesaddle, bareback, and even driving their ponies. Remember you just want to look like a group performing, not just a bunch of individuals that happen to be together.

Amount of Time and Effort to do Drill--One of the biggest factors I learned quickly was that while everyone was all enthused about doing drill, finding a time to practice that suited everyone was a different matter. And drill "just don't work" with missing people and horses. Finally I came to another important decision - as coach, I had to really be the boss, lay the law down, and say drill or else - "No come to drill, no be on team."

Which brought us to another point--while we had an information meeting, and went over all the rules, and the practice schedule, and the dates we were performing, and everything else we could think of, we discovered that a written contract signed by each member (and the parents on a youth team) was essential. People who seem really wonderful can turn rather quickly into your worst nightmare on a drill team. Have all the rules written out and, most importantly, stick by them.

Fund Raising--A necessary part of drill team if you're ever going to perform anywhere or do anything. Even though the drill members basically buy their own outfits and haul their horses locally, you are going to need money for expenses that crop up. One of the big expenses is drill team insurance--and it is something you need to have. If you are starting from scratch, and you plan to carry anything from an American Flag to individual flags, Christmas lights to a banner, all need to be bought.

Which brings us to another aspect that I have learned about people. Some of those who love to do drill hate to raise money. Those who go out there and raise money tend to look down on those who think they don't need to. Again the logistics of what each member of the drill team is responsible for should be written out and adhered to. That makes everyone feel a little more like life is more "fair".

You need to come up with your own fund raising ideas that will work for you. We have tried everything from car washes to wrapping Christmas presents at the Mall. But by far the most successful idea that we have had has been getting a T-shirt made with all the drill members' pictures (with their ponies) on the front and a list of sponsors on the back. Each sponsor gets a free T-shirt and we sell the rest of them. That has been our major fund raiser.

Learning the Drill

The criss-cross maneuver timed perfectly
Photo courtesy of Adrienne Zimmerman

When it comes to learning the drill itself, I learned some real hard lessons very quickly.

Number one--Keep it simple. Slowly add the difficulty to the drill. Use what works, abandon what doesn't. For our first year of drill, I borrowed aspects from drills I saw on videotape, and to some degree we still use a lot of those patterns because they work. Each member of the drill team gets a hardcopy of the drill showing all the moves. They are expected to learn this before the drill practices ever start. If you learn one good drill, really learn it, you can perform anywhere. You don't have to learn five or six of them. One good one is far better than many so-so drills.

Number Two--And by far, this is probably the secret to our success more than anything else. The entire drill team learns the drill on foot before they ever mount a horse. Usually it takes two afternoons of drill to do this but the kids have that drill down pat before they ever try it on horseback.

The way our drill works is there are different leaders for different moves. Each kid is responsible for some part of the drill. Even though you may be the lead horse when you enter the ring, and it is your job to get the drill started, for some moves you may be in the middle of the pack, and someone else has the responsibility for making sure the move starts and ends where it is supposed to.

We perform in a variety of rings and arenas throughout the year. We have had to work around cars and trucks parked in the center of the arena, and once because of very soggy conditions, had to perform in a parking lot. If we can, we like to practice at least once before going in to perform. This has led to seeing the team perform in some rather dark rings late at night, but because from the beginning each member of the drill team knows their responsibilities in the drill, the system works very well.

We use no whistles, no hand signals, no verbal commands. The drill flows to music from beginning to end, with no visible signals. It is so important that everyone knows the drill. Practice makes perfect.

Number 3--Music can make or break a drill. You want music that captures a mood and will bring the crowd right along with it. I have found movie theme music to be among the best. We have our own theme song but have used other music too. Words or no words to a song are not near as important as to what the music is conveying. You don't want your audience to fall asleep but neither do you want them to be turned off because your music is offensive to some of them. Pick your music wisely.

Don't think that you're going to drill from the beginning of a song to the end. Because the size of the ring that you perform in varies, when you end the drill will vary too. Use music that you can turn down and fade out without anything looking or sounding awkward. Always, always, always, have back up music on your tape in case you run overtime. I'll never forget the sight of a drill team coach running around trying to re-gather his team, which was floundering in the ring. We were sitting in the announcer's stand as he ran by, and he told us we were now playing his back-up backup music. We knew he was in trouble.

And always have extra tapes along. We have had our music stolen at events, left behind at home, or it just "disappeared". We always carry several copies of back-up tapes or CDs.

And always carry your own equipment to play your music. Never assume that they will have the equipment you need to play it. Better to be safe than to be seen humming the tunes.

Working with youth adds a definite factor in the drill team because not only are you working with the individuals on the team, but also their families. Everyone gets involved, sometimes whether you want them to or not. Personalities have a tendency of becoming extreme when the crunch of drill is in full swing. Usually the youth themselves are no problem. Parents can be your best allies in getting the work done, or your worst nightmare. I have seen more than one parent ruin it for their son or daughter - by the parents' attitude towards drill.

I expect the youth to take care of their ponies and get everything ready for drill. I don't mind parents helping them but when I walk in as coach and see a kid or kids standing around while parents are doing work, that is a sign to me that that youth is not ready for drill. Drill team is a big responsibility--one that must be taken seriously like any other sport. The group must work like a team for the finished product to look good. A drill team is only as good as its weakest member.

The team, abreast, circles around Chesapeake Bay.
Photo courtesy of Adrienne Zimmerman

The other problem with parents is that they want the best for their child. That's natural. But it can lead to real problems on a drill team, causing jealousy and pettiness that can really destroy the morale of the team. I have had to lose some good riders because of a parent's attitude in the past. I think that is a shame but it has had to be.

Which brings me to another aspect of drill team--how it is run. I am the coach, we appoint a treasurer who handles all the money. We have a drill team captain and a co-captain who interact with the other members and are in charge of the drill when out on the field. But basically when it comes to the drill, I am a dictator. What I say goes. I am open to all suggestions and comments from the members of the team, but they know in the end, if there is a difference of opinion, I have the top vote. It has to be this way for the team to work.

Other drill teams may elect officers and vote on everything they do, etc. This can work very well, especially with adult groups, again depending on what your focus is. But someone has to be in charge of the drill.

Right. Now back to the drill. You have all your rules made, papers signed, the drill team has learned the drill on foot, now you're ready to do it on horseback, correct?

Well, no not really.

Drill involves a lot of close maneuvering and before you can attempt to do that, your horses need to get used to each other. Before we put the drill and the horses together, we work the horses together, first as individuals, then as pairs, watching to see if the team is going to work. Finally we will end up with a complete group that is willing to work beside each other without feeling threatened.

Now you can start the drill.

Of course, we always start learning the drill at a walk, and then progress to a trot. While some drill teams do most of their drill at a canter or lope, we like to vary between a trot and a canter, with even a little bit of a walk thrown in. But part of the thrill of the drill is that there is no 'just riding around the ring'; the entire time the group is in the ring, they are doing something. And that keeps the audience's attention.

When we practice we usually plan on about a two-hour session--with the horses being warmed up prior to that. We start with doing some individual moves and working to improve them, then run through the entire drill at a trot twice, with breaks in between, and then one more time, with all the moves in at the proper speed. Then the horses are cooled down and drill ends with a discussion time on what is going right and what needs improvement. Incidentally, when we perform at a trot, to give a more uniform look to the drill, we do not post.

We have been drilling for three and a half years now, and have been very lucky. We have never had a horse injured in drill and have never lost a rider off a horse...yet. And I hope we never do. But we are prepared.

I always have a few parents equipped with whistles stand along the side of the ring. If ever a kid falls off a horse, they are prepared to blow that whistle. That is a signal to the drill team to come to a halt wherever they are and wait for the rider to get back on, or for further instruction. It's an emergency procedure I hope we never have to put into practice.

I have watched my drill team perform many times now, bringing home trophies at Equitana USA in Louisville, Kentucky and performing simple maneuvers in local parades. They have ridden to drill on the beaches of Assateague and have sat frozen on their ponies waiting for a Christmas parade to begin. (They do have heavy sweatshirts with the drill team logo to wear in colder weather).

One thing I have noticed: I have nearly bitten my lip in two watching them, seeing mistakes that they have made, and watching them recover. I have seen them receive standing ovations for performances where I was the only one who knew that they went off course, recovered and went on to look good.

So now, why, almost four years later, do I put myself through the aggravation of dealing with horses, kids, parents, weather, and everything else that sooner or later doesn't cooperate?

I think drilling adds an element of horsemanship that is unattainable in any other form of riding. It makes riding truly a team sport. You not only have to control and direct your horse on a set pattern, but you have to deal with everyone and every other horse on the team, constantly making adjustments to the drill. It teaches riders to think on their feet. I have seen riders perform way beyond their abilities again and again as they do drill. It instills confidence in both the rider and horse as they learn to become a responsible part of the team.

Drill team is a constant adjustment for everyone, and next year again things will be a little different as we work with some of the old members returning, some new members joining, new sets of parents, and new places to perform. But as long as the love of seeing a group of horses and ponies perform to music appeals to the public, drill teams are here to stay.

About the author:
Kendy Allen is a freelance writer and coach of the world's only Chincoteague Pony Drill Team. She is also a teacher, a 4-H leader and mother of 4 children. She, her husband and family own and take care of ~20 Chincoteague ponies at their farm in Manheim, PA. Kendy and the kids can be found at the Chincoteague Pony Centre in Chincoteague, VA during the summer.

To find out about the Chincoteague Pony Drill Team performances, call Kendy Allen at 717-665-7144. Contributions and T-shirt orders are being accepted by the Team in care of Mrs. Fay Varner, 339 Oak Tree Rd., Manheim, PA, 17545, or by calling Kendy.