The Making of a Child’s Pony

I’ve got an interesting project at the moment, helping a lady back her miniature Shetland. I’ve had quite a lot of experience with young horses and ponies, but to be honest, they’ve all been of a size that a teenager or adult can ride. Preparing a small pony for a ridden career is a whole new thing.

Firstly, safety is paramount. Ponies need to be adaptable and accepting of their riders making noise, flapping, and bouncing around. Particularly the smaller ones as they are more likely to have the younger children who can be more erratic in behaviour and less aware of the consequences of their behaviour or a pony’s natural instincts. With this in mind, this poor Shetland pony has been subjected to flapping bags, loud noises, gymkhana equipment and anything you can think of that might spook a horse. We want him to be as bombproof and confident as he can be, before hem meets children.

The pony has done lots of long reining and lunging to get him used to the tack and voice aids, as well as being led in hand, around the arena and along the lane. It’s important that he has good manners when being led and lunged, as he will be predominantly ridden by beginners so needs to be used to working on the lead rein.

We made a dummy rider, dressed in bright clothes, and attached it to the saddle and led the pony round so he got used to having this “thing” on his back, just on the peripheral of his vision. After a few goes with that, weight was introduced in the form of a bag of feed. As he took all of this in his stride, we then needed to source a jockey.

The rider I was looking for needed to be small and light enough for a miniature Shetland, yet old enough to be competent and confident off the lead rein, take instructions, and be calm and relaxed whilst on board. Oh, and to take things in their stride, such as the pony quickening when he doesn’t understand, or not obeying the aids immediately as he learns the ropes.

Amazingly, I found said child. She belonged to a friend of mine, and both were happy to give it a go. So we planned a bootcamp for the Shetland to get him started.

On day one, he was long reined and then lunged quickly to ensure he wasn’t feeling fresh, and then we started leaning over him. I took the time to explain to his rider exactly how and why we were doing each step, and what I wanted her to do. Backing a horse is a good learning curve for a child, but many won’t have seen the process before so they need clear explanations.

Firstly, I got her to lean over the little pony so he felt her weight and saw her jumping up and down next to him. Apart from taking a step to balance, he stood stationary, so after a couple of lean overs, we walked him a few steps with her leaning over. Again, totally unfazed, so we repeated once more before mounting her.

I decided against stirrups as they’d have been level with his knees and I felt it would be easier to drag his rider off if she didn’t have stirrups. After explaining how I wanted her to lean over and then swing her right leg over his back whilst keeping her upper body close to his neck until she was sat in the saddle and could slowly sit up, she got on.

We spent the rest of the session walking the Shetland round, with his rider just sitting and holding the grab strap, legs long, nice and relaxed, as he found his balance with a rider. The leader controlled him as he was used to those aids; just starting and stopping him, whilst one of us walked on each side of him, just in case we needed to grab our little rider.

The next day, we repeated the procedure except that we only leant over once before mounting, as he accepted it all happily. After a walk, I unknotted the reins and explained to his rider how she should hold a light rein contact so that he could get used to the feeling in his mouth, and then we began to add in the aids. He already responds to the voice, so we used these to help him understand the introduction of the leg and hand with some turns across the arena. I had his rider apply a light aid, and then if he didn’t react, apply it slightly more strongly, so that we didn’t scare him, but her aids were effective. It took a few tries for her to build the confidence to give a firm squeeze of her leg to get him responding to her, but I’d much rather start with less and build it up than her give a classic pony club kick and the Shetland leap forwards.

At the end of this session we did the shortest of trots, for both horse and rider to take away and reflect on. The pony was very willing, but wobbled in the way that all babies do.

The Shetland had the following day off, as we don’t want him to get used to being worked daily, or for him to get stale and tired. The fourth day of bootcamp, we mounted with just one lean over, but I don’t think this step is necessary from now on as he seems very quiet. And we had stirrups! After walking round, doing some stopping and starting, and turns around poles and changes of rein, we had a bash at the trot. We started with only a few steps, but built it up as the pony began to feel more confident with his balance. I’m conscious that the Shetland isn’t particularly strong in his back, so three trots was sufficient for them both. We finished the session by walking along the lane.

Bootcamp over, I was really pleased with how adaptable the pony was as he took everything in his stride. His rider did a fab job of doing nothing initially, and then slowly introducing each step. The plan for the next few weeks is for him to be ridden twice a week, and lunged or long reined between, building the riding up so that he feels stronger, straighter, and more balanced in trot, and his rider is controlling him rather than the leader. We’ll take them off the lead when they’re ready, even if it’s just a o get the pony used to walking without an adult by his head. Bearing in mind that he will be a children’s pony, we won’t be focusing on speed or the finer arts of riding, but continue to get him bombproof by his rider shifting her weight, leaning forwards, backwards, sidewards, and doing games such as bending, dropping beanbags; whatever silly things they can think of to do. Getting him used to Pony Club-esque activities will give him a good grounding in preparation for younger, more inexperienced riders. The trot and circles will come in time, as will riding him off the lead, but at the moment it needs to be fun for everyone.

Left Anchors

I’ve done a few lessons this last week, strangely enough, correcting various riders on their hand position. And particularly, their left hand.

I’m not sure why it seems that so many riders are fixing their left hands down; I can only suggest that society’s bias towards right handedness causes people to use their left hand to stabilise themselves whilst their right hand does the dexterity work.

Anyway, I’ve had several riders this week who ride with their left hand held further back than the right, and low to the wither, like an anchor. This positioning has more impact on a horse’s way of going than many people realise, which is why I’ve been drumming on about it so much.

Let’s take a closer look at the effect of anchoring your left hand down.

On the left rein, you usually find the horse bends more easily and you find it easier to ride round the turns. Having the left rein fixed onto the wither creates left bend in the horse’s neck, which is why it can seem like they are going better in this direction, but when you pay attention to the hindquarters they usually are not following left curves. Riders who fix their left hand usually use this rein to steer, and so their right leg is less effective at pushing the horse left.

This becomes a cycle in that the horse doesn’t respond to the right leg so the rider is more inclined to rescue the situation by pulling their left rein, which means the horse becomes less responsive or understanding of the outside aids.

The left rein needs to be improved by reducing the amount of left bend. I usually ask the rider to take up more contact with the right rein and to raise their left and carry it further forwards. So it feels like it’s much further forwards than the right rein (then they become level) and then to focus on the right leg turning the horse round each turn and the left rein merely indicating.

I quite often ride squares or diamonds with riders who fix their inside rein as it focuses them on their outside aids and encourages them to ride their horse with a straighter neck. I also experiment with counter flexion to increase their awareness of how their horse tends to give too much inside bend in the neck.

On the right rein, an anchored left hand gives a more stable outside rein which I find the horse tends to prefer and they definitely look more settled, but if there is too much anchorage in the left rein it will encourage the horse to look to the outside and to fall onto the inside shoulder and so fall in. They will find it harder to produce right bend, purely because they are restricted. When working on the right rein I encourage my riders to soften the left arm to allow the horse to look right. Then I get them to focus on using the right leg to keep their horse out round the track, on circles etc. Most riders in this scenario fall into the trap of pulling even more with the left rein to try and pull their horse back out to the track. So I do some leg yielding exercises to improve the horse’s response to the right leg and to change my rider’s thinking so they are riding from inside leg into outside rein, rather than using their hand first. This usually triggers an epiphany moment, when they feel the horse begin to give right bend because the right hind is coming under their body more and to feel more balanced.

Some horses try to rush off when the left anchor is released, which is understandable as effectively the handbrake is being taken off. I often suggest the rider half halts with the right rein, even though it is the inside one, because it stops them anchoring the left rein back down, and also encourages the right hand to be a stabilising rein which has huge benefits on the left rein.

After working each rein independently, I then incorporate serpentines and figures of eight to help the rider feel the improved straightness and symmetry in their horse, and for them to tune in to the actions of their hands, when they are the outside and the inside rein.

By now, most riders are beginning to understand the consequences of fixing their left rein down, and with a few gentle reminders here and there, they are beginning to carry their hands and are more even in the contact. Sometimes it’s a matter of practice to retrain their muscle memory.

Correcting the left hand position improves the horse’s way of going, and usually the effect is instantaneous, but as an instructor I then need to work out why the left hand feels the need to fix down so much. Is it related to their confidence? Their balance?

The majority of the time, riders who anchor their left rein sit to the left. Which of course means they’re encouraging their horse to give left bend and will find it harder to apply their right leg. Both of which are symptoms of the situation I described earlier.

Chicken or Egg?

This leads me nicely onto my next teaching subject: working without stirrups and focusing the rider on sitting evenly on their seat bones and the correct aids. Hopefully in a couple of lessons both rider and horse will be working straighter, more correctly, and more symmetrically, which means the rest of their ridden work will improve.