Quick-thinking, intelligent or downright delinquent, ponies have all manner of tricks in their armoury. Andrea Oakes checks out seven common problems and how to solve them
“I love ponies – all manner of them,” enthuses Adam Forster of the Jinks Show Team. “They’re full of character, charm and charisma, and they really keep you on your toes.”
Parents who’ve seen the more “characterful” side emerge may read this last sentence with a wry smile. There’s little to rival a naughty pony in prompting tears of sheer frustration – and not just from the child.
Adam explains that ponies are typically blessed with a natural intelligence, which can work both ways.
“Ponies can be quicker thinking than horses and may more readily pick up on what you’re trying to teach them,” he says, adding that he and partner David Jinks have produced winners from “all sorts” at their Cheshire yard. “This means you have to stay one step ahead. You’re always trying to second guess ponies – and they’re always trying to outdo you.
“Bad behaviour can be due to a number of factors, including environmental stress from stabling arrangements, restricted access to grazing and boredom,” he adds. “Some bloodlines are renowned for being a bit quirky or sharp, while native breeds can have different characteristics. It’s all about knowing how to channel the undesirable and work with the pony’s attributes.”
Key to success, says Adam, is starting the pony correctly with a good, sound education from the outset. But bad habits can develop, especially if he learns to take advantage of a small or nervous rider. Is it possible to retrain a delinquent? Adams admits: “We have had ponies here who were not straightforward.
“We strip everything away and go back to basics by putting them on the long reins, slowly unravelling what’s going on and identifying any issues. By reiterating the groundwork, we can then rebuild the pony’s confidence and trust.
“Generally, if a pony understands what’s required when asked in a particular way, he will be willing to do his job,” he adds. “If you run into problems, don’t think, ‘He’s just a pony.’ Dig for the cause and start finding remedies.”
Nicer manners will ensure a safer, more enjoyable ride for the child – which usually means a happier parent and more harmony all round.
“Everyone wants to buy a good, well-behaved pony,” says Adam, pointing out that training is also an investment in the animal’s welfare. “The chances are that he’ll always find a nice home.”
Is there a tiny, four-legged tyrant in your life, with no end of tricks up his sleeve? Fear not, as Adam offers some practical advice to persuade the most wayward pony back on track.
A lunge for a sneaky mouthful can pull arms from their sockets or smaller jockeys clean out of the saddle. How can this help-yourself situation be stopped?
“This is irritating and distracting for both pony and rider,” agrees Adam, who explains that a cheekier character will even dive for a snack at a fast trot if he cottons on that his rider lacks the strength to stop him.
“My main advice would be never to take a pony out when he is hungry; ponies are designed to be grazing, so make sure he always has something in his tummy. If you have the option, hack on a bridlepath where he can’t get near the trees and grass – riding down the middle of a wide track, for example, to help break the mental habit. I’m not a huge fan of grass reins, as they can teach a pony to lean on the bit and go on his forehand, but they’re useful for a tiny tot who can easily tumble off,” he adds.
“An older, stronger jockey will learn to anticipate a dive for grass and send the pony forwards immediately. Encourage the rider to sit deep, take control and use plenty of seat and leg, so the pony travels forwards and his head lifts.”
This unexpected manoeuvre – sometimes followed by a swift buck and a spin – is enough to unseat even a pro. What’s the solution?
“Dropping a shoulder is really a form of napping,” explains Adam. “It can be almost instantaneous, in reaction to pain or lameness, as in: ‘Bang, I’ve had enough, shoulder down – you’re off.’
“Other ponies, if temperamentally inclined, see it as a way out of work.
“First, check for health and tack issues,” he stresses. “Some reschooling is then called for. If the child feels that a shoulder drop is imminent, that’s the time to keep the pony focused and busy. A session with a good instructor will teach them to bend him left and right, left and right, keeping his front end moving and mobilising his shoulders. Encourage the child to use transitions at walk, halt and trot, and plenty of changes of rein, rather than riding round and round, waiting for it to happen.
“Ponies are very agile and were bred to go up mountains,” Adam points out. “They’re athletes. The smallest can still be trained to keep moving and bending, going forwards and even sideways, with the tiniest of jockeys.”
Humdrum paces can be downright uncomfortable, testing the endurance of the most enthusiastic child. Can a pony’s way of going be improved?
“It’s true that some ponies are not the most extravagant movers, but polework at walk and trot will help,” says Adam. “We have some railway sleepers at the yard that the ponies have to step over; lifting their legs develops softness, improves their core and makes them bascule over the back.
“If the child can manage it, a line of trot poles with a little jump at the end will encourage the pony to sit and use his hocks.
“Ask the rider to try lots of simple transitions and to have a go at shortening the trot or canter for a few strides.
“Finding variation within the pony’s natural pace will make him more supple and rideable.”
Brakes and steering go out of the window once this chap gets the bit between his teeth. Is there hope for the pony who takes a hard hold?
“People say, ‘No foot, no horse,’ but I think ‘no mouth, no pony’ makes equal sense,” says Adam. “I’ve sat on ponies that don’t respond to rein aids and it’s an awful feeling. A good mouth is so important.
“Teeth and tack are obvious here, so have those checked to cover all angles,” he advises. “For a pony with a very hard mouth, I’ve used a trick I learned from a loriner. You pop three or four curb chains on a leather headpiece and cover them with honey or syrup before letting the pony stand in the stable and chew on them, which really softens the mouth.
“A good mouth is worth preserving, so be careful that very young or inexperienced riders don’t hang on by the reins. A little strap at the front of the saddle is handy in case the jockey loses balance.”
The artful dodger
He’s the pony that refuses to be caught, rarely coming within an arm’s length when there’s work to be done. Help!
“Take a carrot,” suggests Adam, pointing out that the way to a pony’s heart is through his stomach. “It’s also worth remembering that ponies are herd animals, so try catching and removing the friend he’s out with. If you can then corral your pony into a smaller area, you’ll stand a better chance.”
Every pony can have an off day, but what’s behind persistent bad temper?
“Aggression sometimes stems from insecurity,” says Adam, who advises trying to find out whether this reaction is based on fear or an underlying health issue. “Be patient with the frightened pony, so that he realises that people can be nice. The natural flight instinct can soon kick in, but, with careful management and confidence-building, most will come round.
“You do find the odd pony who is a bit cheeky and maybe nips or lifts a leg,” Adam continues. “Teach a child that a pony’s stable is like his bedroom – it’s his place to relax and switch off. If he’s eating, they should leave him to it.
“On the whole, however, biting or kicking is not the norm and should not be seen as acceptable. We treat our ponies the same as horses, expecting manners – they don’t get away with bad behaviour just because they’re small.”
You wanted something steady, but this character will rarely raise more than a shuffle. Can he be reinvigorated to respond to the leg?
“A child’s pony needs to responsive, but safe, and forwards without running away,” says Adam. “Some individuals are on the lazier side, but any pony can become sick of the same old routine. And with a constant ‘kick, kick, kick’ from his rider, he’ll soon switch off.”
While ponies like routine, they can become stale with a repetitive work routine. Adam recommends a break from the arena at least twice a week, for a hack, some jumping or even a trip to the gallops or beach.
“A pony may need reminding that ‘legs on’ means go,” he says. “Ideally, find a small but talented adult or teenage rider who can sharpen him up and re-educate him.”
And referring to the beneficial effects of time at grass, he adds: “And book an appointment with Dr Green. Ponies were bred to be out, on the moors and hills, so this should help sweeten him up.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 4 June 2020