Solving Pony Problems
Sadly, ponies get a lot of bad press. Their reputation as being lazy, stubborn and thus difficult to train plus their seemingly inherent unfortunate displays of poor behavior have less to do with their innate nature and more to do with a lack of training.
It is true that the ancestry of most pony breeds includes wee beasties known for their ability to endure harsh weather, be sure-footed on rough terrain and generally have the ability to take care of themselves, so a bit of attitude might be part of the equation. But a pony’s reluctance to adhere to our wishes willingly and consign themselves to our leadership is perhaps an intrinsic wish to enjoy the freedom that existing in lands wild and wooly provided their ancestors. However, their domestication whether it was for use as pit ponies in mines or as the tidied up show ponies we see in the ring today, documents the fact that a pony can and has been trained to be a valuable asset across the world.
Common problems encountered with ponies usually exist because unlike their horse counterpart, their diminutive size makes them less likely to receive an educated rider during their early training and more likely to receive training much later in their lives when they have become set in their ways.
Their ‘pet’ status almost ensures that the expectations for their level of compliance, exceeds their level of understanding of the task at hand. Consistent training is even harder to accomplish with the limited mental focus and physical abilities of their usual pint-sized equestrian partner of tender years. A lack of small enough riders on hand that are good enough to keep the pony consistently correctly schooled exacerbates the problem.
Herd hierarchy is a fundamental factor in how a pony behaves around others, whether horse or human. Given you are keen to enjoy a happy relationship with the pony, it is essential to establish yourself as the herd leader by always requiring the pony to acquiesce to your requests when in its company. You are teaching the pony something every time you interact with it, so even a stable visit means you must insist that the pony move where and when you wish it to do so. For example, whenever you enter the stable, insist the pony back up and give you space before petting it, throwing it hay or haltering it for turnout. And very importantly, be consistent and ensure that anyone else that works around the pony does the same thing.
Let’s address some key issues that pony owners are likely to need to navigate. Please remember
safety must come first when working with a pony. Do not allow young children to be left alone or work alone with any pony. No pony is totally trustworthy. And neither I’ll add, speaking as a parent of three children including twins, are children!
The Crocodile Pony
Biting is the most aggressive action any Equus can exhibit and is one that arises for a myriad of reasons. Very often the habit develops from playfulness or boredom that other pony herd members have not curtailed by earnest reciprocation. Unfortunately, smacking a pony on the nose is not going to remedy the issue but may cause it to become head shy.
A major cause of biting or nipping is hand feeding the pony treats, so if that is part of the daily ritual halt that habit immediately. It is especially important that children not be encouraged to randomly reward ponies seeking attention by feeding carrots or other treats. Instead encourage verbal rewards or soft pats on the neck but only when the pony has followed through showcasing obedience to a request on cue.
Address any areas of housekeeping that may encourage the biting behavior by inducing boredom. Plenty of turn out, with hopefully other ponies, donkeys or horses that are more dominant than the individual in question, plus plenty of work and productive daily activities can thwart boredom.
Ensure the pony is not in pain, being unduly bullied by other animals causing it to become defensive or being mishandled in any way. Its tack and equipment should fit it properly, so that work is not associated with pain or soreness.
If the pony does attempt to bite, a quick surprise spray of water on the nose from a plastic water pistol (by an adult not as a game), can alleviate the problem. An unpleasant pinch on the nose can also be administered. In the worst cases where the biting habit has become dangerous the pony can be muzzled.
As with any equine bad habit, retraining negative behavior to positive may require professional help if that behavior is significant and/or dangerous.
Kicking, like biting, is part of the horse’s survival mechanisms. Mares teach foals to gentle their aggressive behaviors such as biting the teat too hard or mounting them, by lifting their hind leg in a slow manner as a warning. If the warning isn’t heeded the mare may kick out toward the foal as a further indication that it needs to stop its unwanted behavior.
Young ponies will kick when turned out together in play, and as they grow up kicking will be used more aggressively in situations where herd pecking order challenges arise.
A reprimand for a pony deliberately kicking out should be swift, but short and sweet. A snap of a longe whip if working, a poke in the ribs with the dull end of a pitchfork etc. administered by an adult without anger, is usually enough to put a stop to the behavior. But it does have to be done ‘in the moment’. Do not engage in an argument with the pony. Once you have dished out a rebuke, turn away as if to dismiss the animal from your mind and leave the space, but keep an eye over your shoulder.
If the pony is a repeat offender, always tie the pony to work on it for safety’s sake. Start a training program with the pony utilizing a round pen and natural horsemanship techniques to make it move its hooves where you want them to go. There is an expression, “You control the feet, you control the horse.” Begin with directional work at walk, trot and canter standing central in a pen or small arena. If you don’t have access to a suitable space, utilize longe work to do the same thing. There are a myriad of online and in print/audio resources you can access to learn the proper way to employ these valuable techniques.
Run Around The Garden Like A Teddy Bear
The pony that enjoys lots of pasture time soon works out that life minding his own business filling his belly with grass and jaunting about the fence line is much easier than being caught and being expected to work for his keep.
If a pony won’t be caught and doesn’t come running when you call him from the gate, do not be tempted to go inside the paddock and start chasing it down. The merry game of running around the paddock after pony will teach your charge how entertaining humans can be and that will teach you that you should hit the gym more often, although it is highly amusing to view.
Instead, make a practice of bringing the pony in for non-work reasons that it will enjoy. This might be a good groom, a small feed in its stall from a bucket or feeder at a certain time of day, a hand graze for nibbles of some verdant grass outside the confines of the paddock etc. As you don’t want to hand feed the pony it can be useful to rattle a bucket of grain as you walk into the paddock to attract its attention but only give access to the feed reward when the pony has allowed you to place the halter on its head. No snatch and grab.
If the pony enjoys his work, he will be much more likely to be easy to catch.
Also be certain that you are trained yourself in the proper way to catch the pony. Viz:
When you walk towards the pony in the pasture with halter and preferably cotton rope in hand (cotton lead ropes are less likely to cause barns than nylon ones), with a small bucket of grain as a treat, stay relaxed in your body posture, breathe evenly, and walk straight toward the pony without making eye contact.
If the pony moves away, simply continue walking toward it in the same relaxed manner at the same pace you were before. If it steps back or away, then stop and do the same. Exhale deeply and then begin walking toward it again. Do not use your voice at all or make any eye contact but watch its reactions carefully.
Fair warning! This procedure may take a serious amount of time and patience, especially if the pony has adopted the ‘hard to catch’ habit. Eventually the pony should walk toward you or at least face you and stand still and allow you to walk up to it. Place the rope over and around the pony’s neck taking care not to wrap it around your hand, give the critter a pat reward, before placing the halter on its head.
The Bucking, Bolting and Rearing Riding Pony
Most issues with bucking and rearing behavior in ponies are caused by pain or soreness. Evaluation of the health and soundness of the pony by a licensed veterinarian is a great place to start when trying to ascertain the cause of this dangerous behavior. Dental issues, diseases such as Lyme, over excitement and nutritional issues like overfeeding, digestive issues like ulcers, limb and lung soreness and joint pain can all cause an animal to buck or rear.
If this veterinary examination does not yield a likely cause of reluctance to work, turn your attention to the fit of the tack. Bits need to fit properly, not be too thick or thin, bridles mustn’t pinch, saddles must be well-fitted, and the entire ensemble needs to correctly placed on the pony.
How many of us have seen ponies with the saddle placed halfway over their withers before the rider even mounts, bits hanging out of the side of their mouths and bridles set too tight in the throatlatch causing discomfort for the animal during times of exertion when it cannot properly breathe.
Once all the above are ruled out look at how the pony is being ridden. Is it being ‘pushed and pulled’ at the same time, causing it confusion and upset? Is the rider giving aids in the right place at the right time? Is the rider experienced enough for the pony? Does the pony know his job? Is the pony or nervous of the demands being asked and unsure of themselves?
If the conclusion is that the pony seems to be misbehaving out of naughtiness or is a bad character, then seek the help of a professional trainer. Work on the ground will help establish dominance over the pony, but the issues will also need to be addressed from the saddle.
It is unrealistic to expect a child to address dangerous issues like rearing, bucking and bolting that the pony is challenging the rider to endure, unless that child is an equestrian with an advanced skill set in the saddle with sincere help from a learned adult from the ground.
The Hard-Mouth Defense
Ponies that earn the reputation of being hard-mouthed are most likely to have been poorly ridden, with permanent pulling on the bit and kicking at their sides from ill-positioned legs of the rider. The pony will simply set its neck and avoid yielding to the bit as a defense to the pain that it knows will ensue if it ‘gives in.’ Bear in mind that if the pony is short-necked, as many are, a full yield at the poll may be impossible to achieve due to its conformation.
A pony needs to trust the hand of the rider to yield in its poll and relax its neck and soften in the mouth. Address the education and particularly, the lack of independent seat in the rider through working them on a suitable longe horse without stirrups with the help of a trained professional before retraining of the pony.
Remember, it takes two to pull and a pony can’t pull against nothing, though it can set its jaw in defense of its mouth. A hard-mouthed pony provides a very hard and stiff ride for the occupant of the saddle and over time this stiffness will also cause joint damage and muscle soreness to both pony and rider.
Start by working with the pony in hand using a halter and rope and teach the pony to step back and yield to pressure on the nose by flexing at the poll and relaxing its neck. Reward its efforts with a scratch or gentle pat. Then do the same with reins and the bit i.e., teach the pony to rein back. You can then progress to work from the saddle. Start at halt and take the pony’s head to the left, asking the pony to yield in that direction. Then repeat to the right side. Once the pony understands this, the same exercise can then be undertaken at the walk. Always require the pony to yield at the poll before allowing it to walk forward after mounting. Start as you mean to go on!
As a dressage clinician I often advise students to take the horse or pony’s head in counter flexion at the trot in order to address a stiff back or the equine’s resistance to yielding at the poll. The leg aids are reversed i.e. when trotting to the left, the pony’s head will be at 45 degrees toward the outside of the arena or to the right, with a soft, giving rein aid and the rider’s right leg will tapping lightly on the girth and the rider’s left leg will be placed behind the girth on the left side of the pony. Make several strides in counter flexion and then a few strides straight and repeat. Then reverse everything to work on the other rein. This is a very good method to teach green horses to work toward the bit and aptly addresses issued of hard mouths, blowing off the leg, bolting and other issues such as spooking that may arise in nervous horses.
Take Home Message
While ponies may look like little horses, in fact they are much more than that. The benefits of riding a pony that correctly fits the rider atop, helps children progress quickly in their education, given that the pony is consistently well-schooled and properly ridden under keen direction.
Apple-bobbing Gymkhanas, agility classes and many hours of road and trail riding all fueled a deep passion for everything Equus in my career and hopefully the right pony can do the same for your child. In fact, my equestrian training began with donkeys, then ponies, then horses. But that’s a story for another day!