Naughty Ponies: Born or Raised?
Written by: Jessica Walters (2020 Pony Pro)
Why is the reputation of a typical pony a little tarnished? Why do you think ponies have such devilish tendencies? Why is it so hard to find a mild even-tempered pony? I come from a cow horse background, so the aspect of softness, suppleness, and correct body carriage and usage was instilled into my brain from a very early age. I contribute some of my “sourness” to a naughty pony to them simply not having my “feel.” I had been separating them on the playing field from their full-size counterparts. Yet, when I stepped back, I had seemingly dismissed the fact that I tote the same silent frustration to the owner of the barely manageable barrel horse. It’s made me reevaluate my outlook and place all equines on the field, on the same bench. That bench being; “I don't care what you are, we are going to get broke, respectful, soft, and flexible as conformationally possible.” Riding something anything other than that is not enjoyable to me. Having something pulling against you and constantly fading leaves you frustrated and wore down and leaves them sore from not using their bodies correctly. I enjoy teaching them the process. It became a passion and a true joy of life when I became old enough to realize that it's more about teaching them something other than just getting on and riding. I prefer the round pen and practice pen over the show pen these days. But when I come across a pony with a special spark, to town we go.
Why do something we are not forced to do that is not fun? Life is too short. It was not fair of me to view ponies and horses so differently. Here is my theory: They are ponies, small in stature but with the mind and smarts of a big horse… maybe even more smarts honestly. They are oh so cute and at times, even fluffy. Yet, we seem to forget they too have teeth and four hard feet attached to a self-governed mind. Because of those big eyes and sweet eyelashes, we choose not to demand the same respect guidelines for them because they are small. We do not reinforce the same personal space boundaries, same riding rules, and overall respect for us humans. We “train” these allowances in them from the day they are born. In reality, they have been training us humans because of our lack of self-discipline. Then “all of a sudden” when they become too big to be in our laps and old enough to pack a rider, we have a tiny bratty tyrant on our hands that we “just have no idea” why he/she acts this way. It could have never been our fault now could it? Now we have created this little twerp who bites, nips, kicks, bucks, runs off, rubs us on the fence, or even decides he needs to practice his random fire drill and stop, drop, and roll. He also has the worst possible ground manners you have ever seen. At this point we see them as a small nightmare or, if delusional, still think it's cute. If we “suddenly” think he is a nightmare deciding we do not want this little ankle biter anymore, we pass it on down the line again and again to become someone else’s problem. By doing so, we add trust issues into his suitcase at baggage claim with his own version of “sourness” to the human species in general. We have created a full-blown small to midsize dictator. We, the human race, are the real root of tarnished pony reputation.
(Disclaimer: I do not own this picture) I realize with full size horses, they are large enough to be broke by adults who hopefully have their timing and feel of pressure, release-reward, and the management capabilities of all the ever working body parts of the equine athlete. I know not all ponies can attribute the size to be broke by an adult, but as responsible owners and trainers can still fairly and encouragingly require perfect ground manners if we cannot offer anything else. Now, let's talk equipment. Look at all the bits, saddle pads, saddles, protective leg gear, wearable therapeutic options, and countless other items we use every day for full size horses. These bountiful tools are at our fingertip disposal any time needed. Compare the ever-booming horse market to what we have that will fit, not just be used, but fit a pony. It is like a slap in the forehead honestly. It is an epidemic I did not know existed until I became more uniquely focused on starting and training performance ponies.
The mouth pieces of a good competitive sized pony range from 4.0” - 4.5”. An average horse bit is 5.0” - 5.5” and come in so many different variances that even the most reputable trainer has to learn and ask questions about items. These bits hit our pony’s mouth in completely different places than intended. Their bars, tongue, even the roof of their mouth take abuse, and the bit slides from side to side causing sores that no bit guard will fix. (Not to mention most ponies have not received the dental care and wolf teeth extraction most horses have.) There is a huge disconnect of communication from the rider’s hands to a point of positive contact in a pony’s mouth. Most pony bits are simply a solid ported shank bit with a curb or a poorly proportioned O-ring snaffle. Most headstall equipment is fitted poorly, and I see some think they solve the issue by throwing on some type of ill-fitting hackamore and never gaining that timing and feel. The pony becomes frustrated because they don’t have a clear message to understand, the rider gets frustrated because the pony will not move like the grand prix dressage candidate or open Reiner. Yet, we want the same outcome for our kid to win the pony class as that of the finished 5-year-old derby horse that ran in the top 20 at the Diamonds and Dirt or BFA Slot Race. How can we get the same feel without the same equipment? We just cannot relay a clear uncomplicated message to our smaller counter parts. The word “shortage” does not even describe the lack of beneficial and positive equipment for ponies.
Thankfully, I stumbled across a business named Performance Pony Company whom I use products from every single day in my pony training. This company is revolutionary as far as I am concerned. There is not another company that provides the same horse quality items but small enough to fit a pony correctly. I also have had a company named No Hit Bits custom fabricate a few bits for my ponies with mouth pieces that worked well for my hands in my full-size horses. CSI saddle pads can now construct a pony pad with the same quality and protection as their full show size horse pads. And saddles, don’t even get me started! I hear the same thing over and over “he/she is even big enough to wear regular horse gear.” The truth is, it may be a large pony, but 9 out of 10 times that pony does not carry the same spring of rib, fullness throughout the top line and loins to fill that full quarter horse bar flare out. Nor do they have the muscular development behind the scapula and wither area to set and rest that gullet up on the top of the back and level the bars out over their ribs and loins. This creates huge monumental pressure areas that are accompanied by those pesky dry spots and ruffled hair we all micromanage with a magnifying glass in our full-size horses. The riggings on our regular saddles do not promote the same cinch position because of how deep the gullet sits down and compresses the shoulders. It’s either too far forward or too far back. Either way, they are soon to grow ill of being cinched up and will start showing the dreadfulness of the coming ride. If it were our horse, we would be selling the saddle, the pad, and getting a mold done of our horse. A $500 magnetic sheet would be ordered in less than 24 hours to help with the soreness. Our pony’s ribs and SI joints really take a bad beating. The only word to describe most pony pads is cheap, said in multiple secession; cheap, cheap, cheap. Then add the weight of a rider, the poorly fitted saddle, with a $25 bargain cinch bunched up in their elbows and you have a great recipe for a bad outcome. The soreness really begins to set in at a rapid rate. I mean bad sore. Yet, some ponies still manage to work the best they can for us. It may be with a sour attitude, but they still pack your kid or in my case, me, around anyway. They deserve some props for that as far as I am concerned. Some real props.
And what about care? Teeth, chiro, feet, supplements, nebulizers, thermal lights, vibration plates, Epsom saltwater resistance spas, swimming pools, oxygen chambers, treadmills, regular consistent handling, exercise, riding routines, and diet. We have all this micromanaged with a magnifying glass with our horses. If you’re like me, you even study their poop each day. Ha We know if our horse feels good inside and out, it’s better for us and them all the way around. They look better, act better, feel better, perform better, recover better, absorb stress better, and are overall more consistent. However, we may not trim those pony feet every 5-6 weeks to keep them balanced or much less, clean their feet out every day. And surely, we wouldn't spend money on shoes for them even though they may be in the same rocky parking lots or warm-up areas as our horses. Ponies still have the same hooves, don't they? So that means they are also susceptible to stone bruises and abscesses. We still want them to have the balance, rapid break over exchanges, and be willing to give us their feet like its nothing when we sporadically go to pick them up. Are ponies somehow super immune to getting sore like our full-size horses? They have the exact same structures in their feet and legs as our horses.
We may throw them a few flakes of hay here there and a handful of the cheap sweet feed with all the starch and molasses that rapidly molds in the summer causing spiking and dropping their glucose levels (which can make them feel like the poo you pick out of the stall), and we call it a day. Or we let them free for all binge like an unsupervised teenager on all access knee high grass or round bales that are out. Being the mini operators they are, they can steal feed from every horse each day, morning and night and get all amped up on mountain dew and by golly Ricky Bobby, he is ready to scissor kick you with all his tricks when you go to saddle them up. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, they founder and go through unimaginable pain. It is astonishing how long that whole can of worms goes on inside those pasture fences, sometimes until the coffin bone pushes completely through.
We don’t go through a seasoning process with them. We seemingly don’t think ponies spook or get rattled or can stress enough to have ulcers (by the way go palpate that frumpy lesson pony for ulcers and get back to me!) and if they do, we have not done the homework of groundwork or riding maneuvers to re-channel their focus back on us. We get them to the point a kid can get on their back and plow rein them in a general direction and call it good. Or the ones who can maintain a slight resemblance of any show pattern are somehow bestowed to be finished ponies with no basic fundamentals to have in their tool kit for when they need a tune up. No wonder that when we decide our kid needs a step-up horse, they do not possess the step-up riding skills to match. Just take a minute and think on just how many more truly competitive ponies could be more readily available if we started going about them in a new manner. It makes you appreciate the good ones. The ones who do their jobs like big horses, do everyday things we take for granted with horses such as load and unload, stand for farrier, clip, and baby sit, without leaving bite marks. It makes them like little golden nuggets. Because someone somewhere in their life story did it right and took the time. Ponies are super intelligent. Especially quarter type ponies, call it hybrid vigor maybe, but they retain what we teach them or allow of them, seemingly forever. I think that’s why good ponies don’t come cheap. Especially a larger pony that you or a kid can get more than 2-3 years out of. I mean look at me, I am an adult mother of two and ride 12-13 hand ponies regularly…. as in I no longer train full size horses for the public, just ponies. DISCLAIMER: I am in no way discrediting the pure gem of an old full-size horse babysitter, because they too, are worth their weight in gold! It is for these reasons, I seek out and try hard to find good pony prospects to keep in my barn. I do not just look at height. I look at all the same check list as if I were picking my next futurity prospect. I absolutely thrive creating and molding them into lifelong partners that have no holes and no idiosyncrasies that are hidden at the time of a handshake. In all seriousness, what 99% of ponies bought for? KIDS! So why take a risk of putting them on something that doesn’t have the handle and resume to understand the slightest cue from even the slightest of riders? I can no longer sleep at night knowing the epidemic of great broke and handled ponies out there is not getting better and I did not give these ponies the same chance and opportunity as the Future Fortunes and Pink Buckle prospects sitting out in the barn too. What happens to the ponies that are to green for a child on the ground and to be ridden? Honestly, most end up in a kill pen. Because most experienced kids who could handle antics and fear of a green pony are already riding step up horses that were given the chances and seasoning, and those ponies are just pushed aside. So, its time I step in and start bridging that gap, it is time I start channeling the abilities of these smaller athletes into well- oiled respectful running ponies. And it just so happens that I am a small enough adult to offer them years of experience, kind instruction, and a place to land to become a competitive partner. So, what if maybe they still cannot be called that false labeled phrase “bomb proof,” I can still give them a place to belong and to thrive! Maybe my heart is too big, but they deserve a chance to be something special as well. To be that “so good” of a pony that even after their career of their youth evades them, they retire right there in the same pasture, that they once toted your kids around bareback and swam them in that pond… or in my case… me! “So good” that when little John or Jane come home from college, they smile at that pony and thank him for the buckles, prize monies, and the memories.....the lifetime of cherished memories.