Is the mini ridden combination the hardest nut to crack, and how do you produce one to succeed at top level? Tricia Johnson finds out
Britain’s plaited “mini” ponies – lead-rein and first ridden – have long been the envy of the world for their quality and manners, and have also launched stellar careers for riders across the disciplines.
These classes continue to attract huge entries, but priorities appear to have changed in recent years, and today’s picture is not always a pleasant or instructive one. The sight of highly strung mini ponies going in a fixed, overbent outline – unable to walk out correctly – is becoming increasingly common.
So why is this? Some believe the trend has swung too far in favour of more finely bred ponies – often described as mini thoroughbreds – who may require extensive “drilling” before being deemed safe enough to appear in the ring. Others blame ignorance and an increased demand for quick results, leading to hasty production and an over-reliance on gadgets, such as side-reins, to create what is believed to be the desired outline.
The resulting picture is not one that most judges want to see, however.
“It’s easy to spot ponies that may have been worked in tack or produced into a false outline,” says leading judge Jackie Beatham. “My first impression is always the walk – does the combination of pony and rider look happy and relaxed? Is the pony showing me a correct four-time beat with an overtrack, and is its head held slightly in front of the vertical?
“I am first and foremost looking for a pony with the suitability and manners to do the job, and sometimes this means having to forfeit a little quality to achieve the correct result.”
Fellow judge Joanne Griffin concurs. “Suitability is a word that seems to have been forgotten,” she says. “However, with time and patience, it should be possible to have both temperament and quality. Sadly, too many people now want instant success and take short cuts to try to achieve it.”
The balance between having a pony with sufficient quality at the top of its game, but reliable enough to be ridden by a child – perhaps as young as three – is a tricky one, so choosing the correct “raw material” should therefore be a high priority.
“For me, it is about pairing the correct pony with the ability and disposition of each child,” says pony producer Julie Templeton. “In an ideal world, everyone would strive to have the most beautiful pony with an amazing temperament; however, just like humans, ponies have differing personalities and not every animal – no matter how well-bred – is actually suitable.
“Then, some children are naturally talented and others are very brave; some like a forward-going animal but others prefer to kick; some may only ride once a week while others may compete in several disciplines.
“But, if your raw ingredients and patience are good enough, you shouldn’t need to use gadgets.”
Fellow producer and mini specialist Sharn Linney agrees. “I am a strong believer that there is a pony out there for everyone, but sometimes showing is not for every pony,” she stresses. “There are so many other disciplines ponies can do.
“Drilling them with work in order for them to perform in the ring is not the answer – they have to be enjoying themselves as it really does show. A pony going freely with its ears forward is much more appealing than one with a negative attitude, sitting behind the bridle.”
The elusive perfect picture
Producing mini ponies tests skills to the utmost, so how do you achieve that elusive perfect picture? Gayle Holder, who with her daughter Emma produces all types of ponies and horses at the family’s Surrey base, believes that management practices play an important role.
“I have not found that quality necessarily has anything to do with temperament,” she says. “A good basic temperament and correct production – including plenty of field time and hacking as well as schooling – are what matter most. If you restrict ponies too much, they become sour and sharp.”
Most producers agree that in order to find that key, ponies should be treated as the individuals they are. They also stress that allowing sufficient time is vital.
“Too many ponies are broken too quickly and go straight from the school to the ring with no insight about the outside world,” adds Gayle. “Ours are all long-reined round the village and beyond – especially the lead-reins and first riddens – before being sat on.
“After they can walk and trot around the school with a rider on board, we take them out hacking for the next few weeks; we are very lucky to have lots of beautiful sandy tracks around us. Once the fields are dry, we hardly ever work in the school – as well as this being better for the ponies, we also believe the jockeys will never cope with a big grass ring unless they can ride in the field.
“It’s just as important that the riders have enough time in the saddle and regular lessons on the ponies they are competing; it takes time to build a relationship with any animal.
“We also try not to get the mini ponies too fit and if they need more top or bottom, that comes down to me with good old-fashioned strapping,” she says.
Yorkshire-based Sara Parrott, who produces show animals of various types with partner Craig Elenor, manages most of them in a similar way.
“Our mini ponies are broken in, worked and produced exactly the same as we would the bigger horses or ponies,” she says. “We want them all to work from behind into a light contact, and in any case, children can’t learn ‘feel’ if they have nothing in their hand. Therefore we produce our ponies with this in mind.”
Safeguarding pony welfare
The suitability of riders has been highlighted in recent years, too, with many shows now policing rules governing the age, weight — or both — of people working-in small ponies anywhere on the showground. Although this is clearly intended to safeguard ponies’ welfare, it is not necessarily as clear-cut as some people imagine. A pony that is well behaved at home can be unpredictable in the buzzy atmosphere of a big show, and particularly if lungeing is not permitted on the showground, some minis can prove too much for a small child.
“Safety has to be key: after all, we can replace a pony, but not a child,” Julie points out. “Unlike most horses, some ponies are mickey-takers – rather like toddlers – so if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” adds Gayle. “Although I don’t agree with overweight riders on small ponies, an experienced, small, lightweight adult can often help keep a pony on the straight and narrow, which is beneficial for both the pony and its ultimate jockey. Plus, I believe that well-schooled ponies help to make good and usually sympathetic riders with good hands.”
Equally tricky is the step up from lead-rein to first ridden ranks, where suitability and correct production can be even more problematic as the children “fly solo” for the first time.
“If this step isn’t made correctly, we will lose all our future jockeys,” Joanne Griffin insists.
“The first ridden is probably the most important pony any parent can buy,” agrees Pat Pattinson, judge and chair of the British Show Pony Society. “It should be safe, sound in mind and body, and provide lots of fun. It should build a child’s confidence so they can enjoy it and go on, and hopefully it will be produced with this in mind.”
Dressage rider Jodie Phillips (née Lister) is one of many who started off in plaited pony ranks, in her case progressing from top-level showing to medal-winning junior and young rider teams, achieving international success at grand prix level. She has also judged the pony supreme at Hickstead.
She is another who believes current “fashions” may adversely affect riders in the future.
“If judges reward ponies that are over-produced, are they not taking away the opportunity for the next generation of young riders to learn the correct scales of training and experience a free-moving, correctly trained pony?” she ponders. “Instead, it appears these children will only develop a feel for ponies that are blocked through their body, and stay behind the leg.
“Surely this is not the right path for children who could potentially be the future generation of Olympic medal winners?”
Ref Horse & Hound; 26 March 2020