Above photo: Bella Griffin leased Vermont Golden Graham for the Medium Green and Medium Pony Hunters in 2017. Photo by Intern Vyla Carter.
By Emily Elek, originally posted on The Plaid Horse
First of all, not just any pony… but the RIGHT PONY!
For generations, ponies have been purposefully bred as riding animals for smaller children. Good breeders select for not only beauty, conformation, movement, and athleticism, but also temperament.
Ponies are the right size for children learning to ride and jump. Little hands and legs are more likely to have influence over an appropriately sized mount than a too large horse. Kids WILL fall off when learning to ride. It can be scary for children and parents alike. When they do fall, I would rather have them falling from 12 hands than 16 hands! Pony sized feet are less likely to damage little toes that may get underfoot even in the best-managed situations.
Libbie Gordon and Child’s Play Hot Topic earned the Large Pony Hunter Championship at USEF Pony Finals 2017. Photo by Mackenzie Shuman.
Most arguments against ponies stem from the WRONG PONIES. A good pony shouldn’t feel quick or choppy (again, well bred riding ponies), as it should be sound, move evenly and straight, and cover a lot of ground with a long stride. The true starter ponies may have more of an up and down canter, like a rocking horse, that allows the child to feel the gait without being intimidated by extra speed.
Even the best ponies aren’t perfect, no horse is….But, when a child feels safe, they can learn important lessons even at an early age. The pony pulls the reins when you are walking? Following arms help (with a daisy rein/overcheck for the very little ones!) How about learning that a little kick in the belly is a better response than punishing the pony’s mouth? My 6 year old riders learn this… and the ponies learn not to pull! The pony went around the jump? How do you correct this? If he goes right, stop, turn left, and re-approach. Even my short stirrup kids learn this important correction to a “run-out”. We as riders are responsible for making sure our mount is straight and at the correct pace to jump.
It is important to have a plan in place to keep even the best ponies tuned and schooled by older kids/small adults. Every horse appreciates a good ride once in awhile, and it is simply good horsemanship to make sure the ponies receive this as well. Also, if a pony comes out and is truly fresh or wild, a short lunge, or a canter by abigger kid, can make everyone feel better…. I will encourage the older kids to ride through a fair amount of freshness, though. Ponies are allowed to have feelings, and the riders can learn that lesson at an early age. It also never hurts to learn to sit a little pony playfulness. I’m amazed at what my younger kids can ride through with a little encouragement to ride forward, sit up and heels down! It’s a lot harder to teach this to an adult, as they often have more fear, and stiffer bodies!
Quality ponies make good riders. If a child is sitting on properly sized, quality mounts from an early age, they will learn what a good ride feels like, develop an eye for pace and distance, and have an easier time moving up. Kids who compete in the Pony Hunter division tend to move more seamlessly into the Junior Hunters and Equitation. They have learned about pace and track, and how to ride a slick inside turn in the handy, often by the age of 10!
Lexi Miller started riding and teaching green ponies when she was 8-years-old and now spends her time training ponies of all sizes.
What about expense? Yes, the Pony Hunter divisions can be ridiculously expensive! The best small ponies are some of the priciest animals on the “A” circuit. In reality, they are mini Junior Hunters with the packing mentality of the best Adult Amateur horse in the barn. Add in that in the ring “training” at the horse show can only be done by other junior riders, and you start to see why they are so dear! First ponies don’t need to be fancy, but they should be kind, have quality gaits, and jump safely with enough extra scope to save a distance mistake without hurting themselves or their riders. Also remember that Devon and Indoors don’t need to be the goal of every situation!
People often buy green to get a more quality pony for a more affordable price. Can children ride greener ponies? I advocate yes. Should they start on a green pony? Not usually! Just like with any other horse/ rider combination, truly green and green makes black and blue. But, a young rider (typically 8 yrs and up) with a fairly independent hand and a seat with a strong leg position, who is confidently walk trot canter and jumping lines or courses on a made pony or lesson pony, can often finish off a greener animal- WITH HELP from older juniors and a smart professional. This is the crucial point where great ponies and real riders are made. The teacher/trainer, must instill in the child that they are helping the pony to learn a skill. The pony is not good or bad, it is just learning and reacting to what it’s rider is doing.
Ponies are the place to start young equestrians. Find a professional who will appropriately mount a young rider on the pony best suited to their abilities and goals. A successful riding experience is only as good as the team and the animal, so choose wisely!
The Plaid Horse is America’s Premiere Horse Show Magazine, founded in 2003 to serve the equestrian community.