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.

All Fun and Games

A friend asked me for some ideas of games to do with her toddler. Her daughter has always been pony mad, wanting to do “be like Mummy” and is lucky enough to have her own Shetland whom she goes on walk hacks, does a bit of trotting on the lead rein, and “jumping” (poles on the floor). Until a couple of weeks ago she had that typical, innocent confidence as she bounced around the saddle. But then she took a tumble. Since then she has still been keen to ride but has clung on tight in walk and not been quite so keen to trot.

Obviously she doesn`t want to be seen as a pushy parent, but if her daughter wants to ride then she should still be encouraged, but it`s difficult to find things that you can do to build confidence without losing interest because she has a limited vocabulary and  physical strength or coordination.

My friend approached me, and I thought I`d already written a blog about entertaining children in the saddle, but it appears that I`ve only done exercises like “Round the World” – see here.

The first thing I feel you need to do with small kids is to take their mind off holding on. She is obviously capable of letting go in walk, but is feeling insecure at the moment so is holding on tight. If you take her mind off holding on, then she will let go and build her confidence again, but subtlety is the key.

One thing you can do is ask kids to “high five” you. Holding a hand up invites them to slap palms with you, so they have to take one hand off. The offer of a high five usually means a hand will come  off the pommel, and you can make the exercise harder or easier. Start in halt, with your hand close to theirs, then  gradually move it further away and progress to walk, and eventually trot. If they get used to high-fiving it can almost be a distraction when they`re worried or nerves kick in, and then also as a reward when they do something well.

Another game I like playing with young children is Simon Says. It can be in halt or walk, with one hand or two. If Simon Says to put their hand on their head they are more likely to do it. So you can build up to touching their shoulder, knee, hip, elbow, and then parts of the pony too. Again, this game can be built up to reach parts further away, and to speed it up, which should help improve their flexibility and balance. They could also stand up, sit down, lean forwards, lean back (right down onto the hindquarters if they`re brave enough) , do aeroplanes and windmills with their arms, and any thing else you can think of.

With a group of children I often get them to stand up and have a competition about who stands up the longest. Again, it can be in halt, walk,  one hand out, two hands out, or with their eyes closed.

Whilst talking to my friend, I had a stroke of genius. Stick pictures of animals up around the arena, or colours, or any other themes you can think of, and the rider has to find the animal you tell them to look for. Which hopefully involves them pointing, and then incorporating a bit of steering if they`re old enough, and when you reach the animal they have to halt, touch it and say the noise the animal makes.

This should be lots of fun, as well as being educational, and more importantly the focus in on the picture, not holding on. You could build in trotting between animals, or stop the pony a little bit further away from the picture to incorporate a bit of stretching. Hopefully, if you`re trotting between pictures, in their excitement, children will lift a hand off the pommel whilst still moving and before you know it they won`t be worried about holding on.

I guess the only limits you have when thinking up games for young children is your imagination. So long as it`s fun, they will give it a try, and you can easily push the boundaries by asking them to stretch further, hold for longer, or go faster. Then, with the focus on having fun they will forget about any fears they have!


First Rides

Over the weekend I took my (nearly) niece for her first riding lesson. Well, not so much of a lesson but an introduction to ponies as she’s only two and a half years old.

I asked a friend if I could borrow her Shetland, and with a bit of encouragement, my niece patted and helped brush the hairy pony. I think initially she was overawed, but she soon cheered up when she saw the funky “princess” hat that she got to wear. I think the fact it was pink leant itself to being a hat suitable for a princess. Which complimented my niece’s new Frozen wellies, which she refused to get wet by walking around the yard!

She chatted away to me while I tacked the Shetland up – I don’t think I will ever get used to handling something so low to the ground! And then we went into the school to get on and walk around. She was a bit scared of the movement at first, and held on tightly, but soon I managed to get her to just hold the reins loosely.

We also had a couple of short, very bouncy trots, to which she giggled mercilessly to. Then we went for a little walk around the village.

I thought it was a great sign that she didn’t want to get off at the end! But we persuaded her that she had other jobs to do, like brush her pony and feed him an apple. This time she was much more confident around the pony, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the attention.

This “experience” is to me what should happen to all young children when they go for riding lessons. So often parents expect instructors to teach their pre-schooler, who’s fingers are so tiny they can’t grasp the reins, and they have little understanding of  daily conversation, let alone adding in the weird and wonderful compendium of equine terminology. I think it’s best to get kids interacting with the pony, finding their balance in the saddle, and the just enjoying the rhythm and noise their pony makes.

Of course, some children are immersed in horses as soon as they come out of the womb and teaching them can be much easier – one friend I have has a two year old who can do an excellent, BHS worthy demonstration of the correct mounting procedure. But she watches Mummy daily, and rides most days. For these kids learning to ride is like learning to walk. For others, they need to learn at their own pace, and take in little nuggets of information, piece by piece. You can’t compare their progress, neither can you compare their academic progress as it is so heavily influenced by their development – cognitive, physical and social.

Which brings me on to the question; should riding schools offer riding lessons to under fives? Would they not be better off offering “pony experiences” for little ones to pat, cuddle and brush their pony before riding for fifteen minutes, and then having more pony cuddles? After all, I think my niece left the stables on Saturday confident and happy around ponies, with an interest in visiting again.