Meet Academy of Achievement Member Stephanie Church

I never expected to see my name on a list peppered with equestrian icons like David O’Connor, Lendon Gray, or Gina Miles, or that I’d ever be in company with respected equine veterinarians, equine journalists, and successful CEOs and cancer researchers. But that’s where I found myself in 2014, when I was selected to join the United States Pony Club’s Academy of Achievement.

The Academy of Achievement, founded in 1999, is designed to recognize Pony Club alumni for being outstanding in their chosen fields of expertise.

USPC Academy of Achievement member Stephanie Church is an accomplished equestrian journalist and editor who works with veterinarians to educate horse owners about equine health and care. Academy of Achievement members are selected for being outstanding in their chosen field of expertise. Photo credit: Anne Litz/Retired Racehorse Project

Indeed, there are some impressive names in this group—the likes of whom have appeared on the cover of the magazine my team and I produce—but Olympic-medalist or not, we all have something important in common even beyond our love for horses and riding. Though we probably didn’t realize it at the time, we were immersed as young riders in what is essentially a career-prep program—one that requires not only horsemanship but also leadership, organization, study skills, critical thinking, and an ability to work with and alongside peers with a common goal.

And, so, decades later we find ourselves applying these tools from our Pony Club beginnings and uniquely positioned to share advice with future generations of Pony Club graduates. That’s exactly what each of us on that growing list did the year we were inducted; we traveled to the Equine Symposium & Convention Hosted by USPC to speak to and work with the National Youth Congress.

USPC Academy of Achievement inductee Stephanie Church (front row, center) with the 2014 National Youth Congress.

Before looking back at my presentation from this event, what I remembered most about this experience was facilitating a group of NYC members working through a simulated challenge: reporting on an equine disease outbreak situation about which there were more questions than answers. None of the delegates were studying journalism, and none were veterinary students (well, not yet at least), but they put their heads together to come up with a plan for a story—or a series of stories—to best educate horse owners with the facts.

As they worked through the problem, and throughout the rest of the NYC program, I saw in these Pony Club members a mastery of both problem-solving and horse-care concepts, an ability to communicate with each other and Pony Club leaders articulately and professionally, a desire to engage with others around them. They were there to learn, not just take a fun trip and have an extra accolade for their college applications or resumes. I was impressed with their maturity, though I shouldn’t have been; Pony Club has always raised up these types of individuals.

Stephanie’s presentation to the National Youth Congress, “Navigating the Ups and Downs,” featured relatable experiences like this one from her Pony Club days. Photo credit: (c)TerriMiller.com

Just for fun, I looked back at my presentation that I gave to the NYC, which I hardly remember. It was titled “Navigating the Ups and Downs.” I described my riding and career path to that point, which had been punctuated with relatable experiences—spills and thrills, if you will—from failing my B Pony Club certification and almost coming off at the water at USPC National Championships to landing a job that I enjoy and eventually leading a team who is just as passionate about our mission (educating horse owners with veterinarian-approved information about horse care) as I am.

I gave some tips on topics like proofreading your emails to potential employers, especially if they’re editors. But I also shared some practical wisdom and life advice from my then-19 years of adulthood and traveling: things like being sure to learn how to drive a stick; trying the local fare at restaurants when you travel, even if it intimidates you; putting your phone down to be present; … and paying attention to what makes your heart race (and doing something about it).

It turns out I took my own advice later that year. After an 11-year break from horse ownership, I purchased my first horse as an adult. “It Happened Again,” aka “Happy,” once a successful racehorse, is now my intrepid dressage/eventing/hacking/hunter-pace- and obstacle-course-navigating partner. And he’s now a Pony Club mount, as well, because I rejoined USPC as an adult in 2020 (Serendipity Pony Club, MidSouth Region). We participated in Festival Education together this summer.

Being inducted into the Academy of Achievement was an incredible honor. All of us on that list of members have vastly different skills and accomplishments, but we all have experienced the indelible effects the USPC has on members’ lives and have excelled in the career-prep program that is the USPC. I’m grateful for that training and how it has helped shape my life, and I look forward to seeing how it continues to impact current youth members who are poised to take on the world.

To learn more about the USPC Academy of Achievement and National Youth Congress visit https://www.ponyclub.org/Members/Leadership/NatYouthCongress/Default.aspx

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