School of Life Lessons: Kids, Ponies & Turtles

Not just a pony trainer to the stars, Charlie Moorcroft instills confidence with his positive style—while also sharing his passion for wildlife.

Under the shade of tall Florida palms, two instructors hold longe lines clipped to ponies, each of whom is carrying a very small child. One by one, the ponies walk serenely toward and over a pole on the ground and the children earn a high five by standing up in the stirrups. From a ways off, it looks like any other riding lesson.

But the audience watching this particular lesson includes a famous five-star rider dressed in horse-show whites. Between international show-jumping classes, she has stopped by to watch her 3-year-old daughter’s lesson. Next to her is the wife of another top international rider, who is watching her own child take part in the lesson.

Moorcroft leads Cléa, age 3 in this photo, and Strawberry while assistant Hailey Faye leads Saoirse Cournane and Teddy.
Erin Gilmore

And this is where Charlie Moorcroft begins to stand out among others in his field. As the go-to riding instructor for the young children of famous riders in Wellington, Florida, he is trusted by a high-intensity demographic with their most valuable possessions—their children.

If pony instructor for the stars were all that Moorcroft was, you could probably stop reading this article now. It’s easy to lead a kid around on a pony and take a check. Fortunately, that description couldn’t be farther from the magic that Moorcroft, a full-time resident of Wellington and proprietor of Moorcroft, Inc., spins for his young students.

Moorcroft, with 2-year-old Saoirse, is known for giving students early confidence around ponies and good experiences in the competition arena.
Erin Gilmore

“There is a big sense of team here because I don’t use the words ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ I just go with experience,” Moorcroft says of the atmosphere at his stable. “You’re always either pulling someone up or you’re being inspired by someone.”

Capturing the ongoing attention of any 3-year-old is a feat in itself, but Moorcroft engages his young students effortlessly with a steady stream of no-pressure conversation and movement while they just happen to also be sitting on a pony.

The scenery at his Wellington facility works to his advantage, as his lessons are not limited to the sand circle inside the arena fence. During the beginning of winter season, the large Palm Beach Equine Sports Complex, where his business is based, is a buzzing hive of equine activity of all stripes. Dressage riders practice in the covered arena next to Moorcroft’s ring, famed equitation trainer Frank Madden teaches over a jump course set in another ring, and a massive exercise track encircles a glassy blue lake. It’s toward that lake and the track that Moorcroft heads with his young riders and assistant.

The lesson on two-point inside the arena was where it began to be apparent that Moorcroft has the special ability to engage—and keep—the fleeting attention of a pre-primary aged child, but it’s when the group set off toward the big track and open water that he really shines.

One of Moorcroft’s Egyptian turtles
Erin Gilmore

“What’s that? That’s a great blue heron,” he says as his small group passes by the large water bird. They may be in the middle of Wellington, but at once, the young riders are immersed in nature. Birds, frogs, fish and the environment are all around, and with Moorcroft as narrator, the riding lesson gains another dimension.

“What the kids don’t even realize is they’re learning how to go forward, how to sit in the saddle and balance, all while we’re on these walks,” he says. “Without me even having to put it into words, they’re learning it.”

They’re learning confidence in the open, also, and to stay relaxed when groups of riders on tall dressage horses trot animatedly past them. When they return to the entrance of the track where their parents are waiting, there is much to tell about their latest adventure.

Positive Starts

It’s easy to see why top riders seek out Moorcroft to give their children their start in horses—and why he is so highly in demand.

“I left you a message, and you didn’t call me back for two years,” jokes grand prix star Brianne Goutal-Marteau, whose young daughter, Cléa, is one of those lead-line kids. It’s true that his lesson schedule is full to overflowing—his barn averages 30-40 ponies that do everything from lead-line to pony equitation.

Moorcroft demonstrates the two-point position to Cléa Marteau.
Erin Gilmore

“He always kept it fun and interesting,” remarks Shawn Casady, who rode with Moorcroft from the ages of 9 to 11. Casady’s successful career in the ponies led to his current one as a professional; the 26-year-old is a regular face on the grand prix circuit now.

As is 25-year-old Sydney Shulman, who competes internationally for Israel and rode with Moorcroft for seven years. “Charlie was instrumental in my riding career,” Shulman says. “I was lucky enough to start working with him at a very young age. He taught me many things but mostly how to make riding fun. His energy and expertise are contagious.”

Former junior star Oliva Woodson is now a junior at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and captain of its Equestrian Team, but Moorcroft is still a quick phone call away whenever she needs him. “Charlie taught me so much of what I know about the sport,” she says. “I was a working student for him, and I would go and ride ponies all day and watch him give lessons. He has such a way of wording things to the kids that makes sense, which I think is so hard. I always look up to how positive and optimistic he is. Charlie would always be there to tell me, it’s going to get better, you just having to keep working at it. That’s something I always try to remember and encompass in my daily life. He’s one of the most positive people I know.”

The Next Generation

Taylor Cawley, the 12-year-old daughter of grand prix rider Molly Ashe Cawley and Chris Cawley, made headlines when she was named Best Child Rider on a Pony at the 2019 Devon Horse Show. Multiple championships led up to that title, and Taylor became a consistent pony division star and has begun transitioning to horses. At the age of 5, McLain and Lauren Ward’s daughter Lilly isn’t quite up to that level—yet. And while the daughter of one the U.S.’s most accomplished Olympic riders already shares her father’s enthusiasm for horses, McLain credits Moorcroft for her early accomplishments in the saddle.

“We didn’t know Charlie well until a couple of years ago, but we wanted Lilly to be with other kids, we wanted the social part of riding to be part of her life,” Ward explains. “At Charlie’s, it’s just phenomenal. The kids are riding, they are learning a lot about horsemanship and also just a lot of life lessons.”

Moorcroft says of the atmosphere at his stable, “You’re either pulling someone up or you’re being inspired by someone.”
Erin Gilmore

It does beg the question of why these highly accomplished professionals, who are skilled riders and trainers in their own right, don’t just take the reins themselves, so to speak, and teach their own children how to ride.

“I am not a trainer, necessarily,” Ward answers. “I think that what I do and what I have had success in is more as a manager. My niche is something very far away from teaching riding. And then, when it’s your own child, that’s a whole other mix.

Moorcroft is known for giving young kids that ever so important early confidence around ponies, and he never gives in to parent pressure to move kids up faster than they’re ready. “He makes sure that every time a kid goes into the ring, he or she will have a good experience,” Woodson adds. “That’s hard to do with kids and ponies, but he’s just so good at matching them, that that gives them confidence.”

“Charlie has so many great ponies, not in the sense of being champions at this or that show, but in the sense of being great every single day,” says Moorcroft’s partner Geoff Teall. “He is smart enough to put them on the ones that are going to foster their interest and give them confidence and develop their love for the sport.”

Moorcroft has developed his program to be an effective first step into the show ring for his students, and he’s able to balance an easy life for his pony string. The show-ready students compete at the nearby Winter Equestrian Festival all season long, and the barn is close enough to the show for his ponies to be led to the ring and back home so that they always sleep in their own stalls. After many years on the road, Moorcroft enjoys being in Wellington full-time, with its nearly constant offering of horse shows, and the perks of traveling less that come with that.

It Started With Turtles

Again, if that were Moorcroft’s whole world, it would be enough of a contribution to the sport and more than enough to keep him busy, but with Moorcroft, there’s more—as an enthusiastic invitation to his home reveals.

“Oh yes,” says Teall. “You have to come meet the turtles.”

“The turtles” are actually 75 turtles of various breeds, sizes and ages. Egyptian tortoises, Spider tortoises, black breasted leaf turtles, Asian box turtles, Kwangtung river turtles and many others all live in specialized enclosures in Moorcroft’s and Teall’s backyard and house on a quiet street a few miles north of the Winter Equestrian Festival.

Always interested in the environment and conservation, Moorcroft started studying the turtle habitats about 10 years ago. He thought about buying five acres in nearby Loxahatchee and creating a conservation property. But when he looked around his own large backyard, what made the most sense was already right in front of him.

“We thought, well we have this place, we will have quiet animals, you can’t see our house from the road and we are so close to the show already that we don’t want to move farther away,” Moorcroft explains of their decision to stay. In addition to the turtles, Moorcroft’s and Teall’s backyard includes large habitats that are home to a trio of skunks, exotic mammals called Patagonian maras and wild felines called Geoffroy’s
cats that resemble small leopards.

Rose, a wild feline called a Geoffroy’s cat, climbs on Moorcroft. In the future, he plans to host groups of visitors to meet the animals.
Erin Gilmore

He steps carefully between logs, plants and small ponds in one of the large outdoor habitats to point out seven cherry headed tortoises that live in his largest enclosure. They eat flowers and blink at Moorcroft when he picks one up while rattling off their history. Inside his climate-controlled garage, 45 more small tortoises and carnivorous turtles live in their own small habitats. Moorcroft cares for them every morning before he goes to the barn.

“I have always really loved raising animals and I love educating children. And I thought this was an interesting way to merge the two, to work in conservation and create a foundation that raised money and awareness of larger facilities,” Moorcroft says. “I want to give back to bigger and better organizations and just be a conduit to figure out how to do that.”

He is also driven to make sure his young students, immersed in the all-horses-all-the-time world of equestrian sports, have the ability to look outside their privileged bubbles. As he puts it, Florida can’t just be all about the ponies. Before COVID-19 changed everyone’s lives, he had begun hosting small groups of visitors to meet the animals and give kids a chance to interact with them. He recently established the Moorcroft Conservation Foundation and plans to welcome groups back to visit and learn about the animals once it is safe to do so.

A (Different Kind of) Herd

Ever since Moorcroft tapped into the exotic animal pipeline, friends from other parts of the state and country turn to him when an animal needs a home. He rarely turns them down.

That’s how his herd of exotics grew to include a (de-scented) skunk named Odin, who is champagne color, rather than black, and was living at a large sanctuary in Orlando that proved too stressful. Now Odin has his own enclosure with hideaways where he sleeps peacefully all day. Coinciding with the temporary closures of animal parks due to the coronavirus, Moorcroft took in two more skunks that were out a job last spring, and now Odin has friends.

“The kids are interested in the turtles for a bit, but then they’re like ‘what else?’ and the skunks and maras are always a big hit,” Moorcroft says. Last spring, the maras had a baby, and the unusual looking but cute rodents are captivating with spindly legs and oversized, hamster-like faces. They amble over to Moorcroft and eat from his hand when he crouches down to their level inside their enclosure.

Moorcroft holds a Brazilian cherry headed tortoise in a specialized enclosure in his and Geoff Teall’s backyard, a few miles north of the Winter Equestrian Festival. Erin Gilmore

Moorcroft’s ease with animals that range from placid show ponies to exotics with wild instincts says more about his character than endorsements from famous riders ever could. The world that Moorcroft has created for himself is most admirable because he shares it with others. Whether it’s two-point practice, the environment around the lake at his stables or a tiny baby turtle he’s raising in his garage, Moorcroft’s passion in sharing it makes a monumental difference to the students in his life. For so many of them, that difference will last a lifetime.

“This relationship with her trainer Charlie is one that she will have for life,” Ward says about daughter Lilly. “As many of us have with the people who taught us along the way, there’s always a small piece of them that stays with you as you move forward in life. It’s something that I think and I hope my daughter will have as a part of her life forever.”  

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue.

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