Simple Steps To Build Confidence With Your Pony
By Nikki Alvin-Smith
A passion for ponies and all things horses in general, is a super way to spend your time. Of course, animals don’t always behave the way we expect them to behave. But then I suppose if we’re being honest, neither do we!
Sometimes things go wrong and we fall off. Sometimes things go wrong and the pony steps on our foot or knocks us in the head. It’s not that your pony is a bad pony. Well O.K., maybe some days he is a bit naughty. There are many ways to build confidence with your pony and to make the times you enjoy together even more fun. Let’s take a look:
Do You Know What You’re Doing?
It’s very easy to blame the pony when things don’t go quite as planned, but the reality is, very often, it’s not his fault. It’s hard to do something if you don’t understand exactly what it is you are supposed to do or how to achieve it successfully.
Compare how your pony might feel to when you find yourself sitting in a math class and being presented with a lengthy equation on the screen or board, full of numbers and weird letters. Until the teacher explains what the equation does, how to use it and what result you are aiming for, you can stare at it all you like but it doesn’t make sense.
Ponies don’t plot to undermine your plans, though some of them do exhibit a very developed sense of humor. Try not to take bad days in the saddle personally. If your pony refuses to jump higher fences maybe it’s because he’s sore and it hurts to do it, or maybe he’s just scared to try. He might even be just not that talented. Some ponies do seem to have a built in tape measure and refuse to go over a certain height. What you can do personally, is take control of the situation by figuring out why your pony isn’t doing the task you’d like him to complete.
Firstly look at his health. Does he have the energy and ability to do what you are asking or is he older and stiff and sore, or younger and have so much energy he becomes distracted and forgets to listen to your aids? Have you taught your pony in small attainable steps how to do the task or are you expecting he’ll just figure it out?
Remember the math equation. Would that be fair and what would the likely result be of not training i.e. explaining to him correctly how to accomplish the job? And of course, are you even sure you know how to accomplish the goal?
No rider knows everything and keeping up a regular lesson with a good riding instructor is the best way to progress your pony and your riding skills.
You can also learn a lot from watching other riders, but make sure you only watch good riding because you do want to gather knowledge from the best. You can also improve your training knowledge by reading books and magazines (Yes, homework! But it’s always fun when its about horses).
Remember that the more you and your pony know about training and how to do something together, the better you’ll become at achieving your goal. Knowledge equals success and is an important first step in many areas of life, not just horses.
Smile. Learning Should Be Fun
It’s a fact that if either you or your pony are nervous you’ll find it difficult to learn. That’s because the right side of your brain will take over your focus, your heart will pound a little harder and your body will become tense and static. If your pony is nervous he may not pay attention properly either, and you will be anticipating what might go wrong instead of what can go right.
Sometimes you may genuinely not even hear what the riding teacher is saying, because your mind has switched off listening in order to focus on the worrying task ahead.
The first thing to do is smile. You ride your pony because it is supposed to be fun right? When you smile you release tension in your jaw and that relaxes your neck and back and your pony can feel that and so he relaxes a bit too.
Horses and ponies are very attuned to our breathing, much more than you might think. So if you are holding your breath because you are nervous then your pony will also hold his breath because based on his herd instincts he expects you are waiting for something bad to happen.
It’s good to test if you are holding your breath by counting out loud. This trick is used by riders at all levels the world over. For example, if you count out loud 1,2, to the rhythm of the trot, not only will you rise/post to the trot in better time, you know you are not holding tension in your core, the center of your body.
Find things to do together with your pony that are fun to do because this is a great way to build a bond with him. Agility classes, Gymkanas, pole trotting exercises and games offer more than a good time, they also distract you from worrying unnecessarily about what the pony may or may not do right.
Horses and ponies know when we are happy, and they know when we are happy with them even if we aren’t giving them a carrot or patting their neck.
Be The Leader
You can build a lot of trust with your pony when you make sure you are the leader in the relationship. Ponies work on a herd dynamic and if you ever watch horses in a wild herd, you will see that there is always a lead horse and a dominant one and then the rest of the equine group follow down the pecking order.
You want to be the leader in your relationship with your pony because you want him to look to you for answers when something challenges him, not make his own decision. For example, if your pony sees something worrisome like a big turkey in the field and tenses up as if he might spook, and you pat him on the neck and tell him, “ Good boy. It’s O.K.” What you’ve actually done is told him that he is right to be worried about the turkey and set himself ready for flight.
If you were acting as the herd leader, you would look at the turkey too and let your pony know you’ve seen it, then brush it off as unimportant and continue just as you were before, walking on or trotting forward or whatever. When your pony has walked on and taken your lead, then you can give him a pat to say, “Well done. Good listening.”
If your Mom says to you, “ Put that red blouse in the washer on a cold wash on it’s own,” and you did that and everyone was happy with the result, a clean red blouse. Then another day she said, “ Put that red blouse in the washer on a hot wash and put those white socks in too,” and you did that. And then everyone was unhappy. Your brother’s socks were now pink because the red shirt had bled it’s dark dye color due to the hot water and your Mom was upset because her favorite shirt had shrunk due to the temperature of the water being too warm for the fiber, then I’d expect you’d be a bit cross, frustrated and very confused.
That’s how your pony feels when you ask him to do something a certain way with specific aids or cues, and then another day ask him to do the same something with a completely different set of instructions.
Learn how to ask your pony correctly for the task you want him to complete and then break it down into tiny steps so you can reward him with a pat or word of praise when he accomplishes each one. Then make sure every time you ask your pony to do that specific task you ask him exactly the same way. Once he has established his understanding of that method of answering your request it will become almost automatic for him to comply happily. Later on if you need to add nuances, make small changes to the request, you will have a firm base of understanding on which to build based on trust.
Ponies bring much happiness to our lives. I fondly remember all the adventures my younger brother and I enjoyed with our Welsh and Highland ponies, riding down the winding lanes and wooded bridleways through the forests, competing in local shows and jumping small fences and spending time together having fun.
It’s smart to take safety and rules of horsemanship seriously around ponies but it’s also important to remember you are spending time with your pony to have fun. Just be sure that your pony is having fun too!
About the author: Nikki Alvin-Smith is a professional writer and PR/Marketing Specialist. Her works have been published in over 230 magazines worldwide. Nikki is a British international Grand Prix dressage trainer/clinician who has competed in Europe at the Grand Prix level earning scores of over 72%. Together with her husband Paul, who is also a Grand Prix rider, they operate Willowview Hill Farm, a private horse breeding/training farm in Stamford, NY. Please visit her website at https:/www.NikkiAlvinSmithStudio.com to learn more.