How (not) to run a Win a Pony competition

Janet Rising, former editor of PONY, knows all about those Win a Pony competitions. From the other side.


Remember those Win a Pony competitions that got everyone so excited? When I was editor of PONY, we thought it would be a great idea to revive it…

Sometime just before the millennium, during a marketing meeting at PONY Magazine, the idea of featuring a stonking great competition reared its head. A competition to raise our profile, a competition guaranteed to increase sales. A competition against which all subsequent competitions would be judged.

What would be the ultimate prize?

What do horse-mad girls dream of winning?

What would make potential new readers buy the magazine?

‘Ooooh,’ somebody said, ‘remember those old Win a Pony competitions WH Smith used to run? I was mad for those.’

There were a lot of excited murmurings as everyone around the table wallowed in their own memories. The exquisite pain of daring to dream; the sweet possibility of owning a pony at last; of poring over the questions; the excitement of posting the entry form and the long, long wait for the congratulatory letter that never came.

For a magazine called PONY, it had to be the ultimate prize. Didn’t it?

It was a no-brainer. Wasn’t it?

‘Can’t do it now, of course,’ said someone.

‘Live animals as prizes, not done,’ agreed someone else.

There was a small silence. Pencils were tapped on the table, lips were chewed, sighs heard.

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‘Unless…’ murmured someone.

‘… we made sure it was all above board…’

‘…and got the parents involved…’

‘… and made certain the pony went to the perfect home!’ finished the marketing manager, in triumph. ‘After all,’ she continued, chin up, a tear in her eye, gazing into the distance, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to make someone’s dream come true?’

Yes, we all agreed, gripped with misty-eyed nostalgia, it certainly would.

We ran our Win a Pony competition over three issues – three comprehensive questionnaires to test our entrants’ knowledge and commitment and expectations of how much owning a pony would cost – not only financially, but emotionally and in terms of the time needed to devote to their prize. Assurances of potential perfect homes at approved centres where the pony would be kept needed to be given. Each component had to be signed off by the entrant’s parents – we were determined that the whole family would be fully on board with the idea.

‘We’ll need to hold an assessment day,’ said the marketing manager, ‘where we can put the finalists through their paces in a practical manner and meet the parents up close and personal.’

We had thought of everything.

‘Where?’ asked someone. We needed a neutral venue with quiet horses and ponies with which the finalists could demonstrate their practical skills. Someone remembered a certain Home of Rest – they had a yard full of suitable ponies. We couldn’t have a winner who squeaked every time a pony looked at them or found the challenge of putting on a head collar too much with which to cope. The premises had parking. It was tidy. It had an outdoor school. The proprietors, when approached, were more than up for it: Of course, no worries, be only too happy to help, open arms, totally at your disposal, be honoured, have the run of the place, whatever you need, you’ve only to ask…

Fabulous, we thought, rubbing our hands together. Now, how about if we asked the finalists to ride – just a walk and trot around to assess whether they could handle a quiet pony?

‘We don’t have any ponies they can ride,’ said the Home of Rest staff, shaking their heads.

‘No worries, we’ll bring our own!’ we cried. The MD had a large yet gentle cob, the marketing manager had her old pony. It wasn’t too far to take them in the advertising manager’s horsebox. All hands on board and all that.


After three months, after as much publicity as we could get, everywhere we could get it, the questionnaires came flooding in. It took ages to go through them, ages to mark them, ages to get a shortlist. The man hours were racking up.

We needed five finalists. Eventually, after a few arguments and disagreements, we had them: five PONY readers desperate to win a pony – four girls and a boy. The parents’ questionnaires were filled in to our satisfaction, the rest of the answers filled us with confidence.

‘We need impartial judges,’ someone said.

‘Of course we do,’ everyone else agreed.

We enlisted the help of a nutritionist to test our finalists’ knowledge of feeding, a renowned equestrian to quiz them about horse care, another to check their confidence handling and grooming. We arranged for each finalist and their parents to be interviewed. We devised very simple riding tests.

Photo by Sammy Leigh Scholl on Unsplash

It was all arranged. The excited finalists were briefed. We roped in husbands, boyfriends, other staff, all in corporate clothing, all issued with clipboards and instructed to manage expectations. The winner, we had explained, would not be announced on the day – we wanted no tears, no trauma. It would be tense enough without dealing with any fallout. Never mind the finalists, we couldn’t handle it.

The day of the assessment dawned fair and bright. The cob and the pony were loaded onto the horsebox and everyone else drove off to the venue in high excitement and with a feeling of fairy godmother about us. We were going to make someone’s dream come true!

The Home of Rest staff, so keen initially to be involved, falling over themselves to promise us anything and everything we wanted when we had arranged it all, suddenly went into reverse and were reluctant for their ponies to be used. We had explained quite clearly what was needed – just a few ponies to be led up and down the yard, to be groomed in their stables, to be tacked up. Suddenly, the ponies’ lives now depended on being in their fields, putting the rest in Home of Rest. With some smooth talking, and resisting the temptation to scream WTF? the marketing manager got them back on side. Sort of. Instead of turning out their ponies, the Home of Rest staff stood around looking mutinous. 

We wondered where the cob and the pony were – shouldn’t they have arrived by now? A phone call would reassure us, we thought. Probably more traffic than we had anticipated.

No. Not traffic. The clutch. With exquisite timing, the horsebox had decided that today was the day it would refuse to get out of second gear. The cob and the pony were approaching at… about 20 miles an hour. They would get there when they could. We resisted the temptation to suggest unloading them and riding them over. The advertising manager’s sister’s boyfriend was at the wheel, and his ex-Forces, can-do attitude had come to the fore in the manner of leaning on the horn and running any red lights, fearing that if he stopped, he probably wouldn’t be able to start again. An admirable plan of action in a war zone; with equines, maybe not so much…

Dear God! Thank goodness it was a quiet Sunday morning.

Whose bloody idea was this? We took the decision to park up accusations until we were back in the office.

It was too late to do anything – by this time the finalists were arriving. They were all lovely – and so were the parents. How awful to choose just one – it had seemed such a good idea to test them practically. Now we all had misgivings. One of the judges, upon meeting the only male finalist, and in a moment of madness, said how glad she was to meet the token boy, as though we had picked him not on merit, but on the basis of his sex. Nothing was farther from the truth. I found a secluded wall on which to bang my head.

We began the assessments, each finalist well away from the others, and encouraged with ever-so-bright smiles from PONY personnel. Eyes and teeth, eyes and teeth…

The cob and pony arrived, chewing hay, unscathed, unconcerned, unaware of any drama. The same could not be said for the horsebox. Or the advertising manager’s sister, who emerged from the cab white-faced and trembling, having spent the latter half of the journey cowering in the cab whimpering, her hands over her eyes. Someone was dispatched to bring replacement transport to take the cob and pony back home at the end of the day. We had no replacement for the advertising manager’s sister.

The Home of Rest staff, their unhelpful won’t-do attitude still intact, were starting to look a bit sulky. Someone broke it to them that the horsebox needed to remain where it was for a day or two. The sulks turned to lip-sucking and eye-narrowed glares.

Photo by Huilin Dai on Unsplash

The day progressed. We all had lunch. Everyone seemed so nice. All the PONY personnel maintained their smiles, all anxieties put on the back burner. The cob and the pony put up professional performances. At the end of the day, goody bags were distributed, bouquets awarded to judges and the Home of Rest staff, who had softened a bit now it was all over, and none of their ponies had done more than walk up and down the yard a bit, or had parts of themselves brushed – hardly a heavy shift at the pit.

The families left amid waves and smiles, and we all collapsed in a heap before taking the papers back to the office to be mulled over and discussed, a winner decided.

The four finalists who (narrowly) didn’t win were informed by telephone, a letter to follow. We thought it only fair to talk to people rather than just let a letter announce a disappointment. One parent, charm personified on the assessment day, suddenly went to the dark side, telling us blankly that we had chosen the wrong person to win. We’d be sorry, they said, that we hadn’t chosen their offspring, who was much more worthy. What a shame, we thought, for their child.

Our winner was more than worthy, and so were her parents.

Their first choice of pony failed the vet. First rule of pony ownership – you will have your heart broken. Disappointment all round – we had included vetting in the prize, we were determined not to just hand them the prize fund and let them get on with it without some hand holding.

The second choice pony was a diamond, with whom our winner instantly gelled. The prize included tack, rugs, feed, riding clothes – the works – generously donated by our advertisers and presented by a famous horsy celebrity.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The Win a Pony competition was hard work and tough on the nerves. It didn’t always run smoothly, but it did have a happy ending. Our winner rode off into the sunset on her new pony; her parents and her sister supported her fully. In fact, our competition changed the family’s life – they swapped their car for a 4X4, they got an old trailer, they spent their weekends at shows and Pony Club events, just as pony owners should.

Did it increase sales?

Did it ****! As a marketing strategy it failed on an epic scale.

But someone did win a pony.

We did make someone’s dream come true.


If you enjoyed this, then you’ll probably like Janet Rising’s memoir, My Horsy Life, due to be published later this summer. If you didn’t, well… you know.


One response to “How (not) to run a Win a Pony competition”

  1. Kate Lattey avatar
    Kate Lattey

    That is brilliant and heartbreaking at the same time!

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