My kids love their ponies. I love my kids. So, I need to be able to trust the ponies to keep my children safe. But as good as the ponies are, and even after all the time we’ve spent on educating them to be calm, quiet, confident and tolerant, they are still living creatures with thoughts and ideas of their own.
Yesterday I was lucky enough to be taking part in a day of horsemanship demonstrations in South-East Qld, and one of the demos I did involved little people (3 of which were mine) and their small ponies. Our subject was ‘Safe Ponies, Happy Kids’. The point of this demo was to highlight to parents and guardians, the importance of a proper education of small ponies, many of whom really get no such thing and as such, suffer a less than favorable reputation. How many people have rolled their eyes and said ‘typical pony’ after said pony has done something they perceived as ‘naughty’.
In truth of course, the pony is no such thing. It is simply giving the owner /handler a bit of feedback. Unfortunately, because they are so small, much of the feed back they give is missed, dismissed, shrugged off or worse, laughed off! So the behavior which in a large horse may be taken more seriously, goes unheeded and eventually gets worse. The result being that our precious little person gets run off with, bucked off and knocked over.
Little ponies need as much education as big horses. In fact they need more, because the small person who is riding them, often doesn’t have the skill, balance, timing or experience of a more grown up person. So they trust the pony and us to do the right thing by them and prepare the pony properly.
I made a few points during my demo, two of which seemed to really resonate strongly with may people. One was, that we need to help our little people become and stay confident with their ponies. Confidence, as most grown up riders know, is very easy to lose and in many cases, extremely hard to get back again. Over-facing small children with a pony that is too big, that has little education, has too much spirit and not enough tolerance, can destroy a horse-loving child’s confidence, sometimes forever. And as a horse lover, we all know how sad that is! To love something with such passion and yet be terrified of it at the same time. So providing a pony with a truly solid education that is suitable for the level of the child rider is paramount.
The other point I made that seemed to really strike home for people, was to teach small children to get off their pony, quickly, if the pony is moving off or doing something they don’t want or like. How often have we seen a small child on a runaway pony? Even the thought is terrifying. And yet, for some bizarre reason, if a horse plays up, we’re taught in many circumstances, to stay on! It seems to be expected. The thought doesn’t seem to cross our minds to just get off.
Not only is it okay to step down, it’s the smart thing to do. Live to ride another day. Don’t try to stay up there and ride it out….especially in the case of small children.
Humans of any age, will go into the fetal position when they get scared. Which on a horse translates to sitting forward and gripping on. So if a pony starts to move off, or gets a bit scared or just wants some different grass, and the child follows their instincts and grips a bit tighter, this is enough to propel the pony forward even faster which of course triggers more grip and the cycle continues until you end up with a child on a runaway pony. We need to learn to overcome our human instinct.
The simplest way to do this is to teach little children from a very early age, how to slide off. If they’re sitting on their pony and the pony moves off, just get off. Long before a child develops a great seat, or has the timing or coordination to stop or turn a horse, they can very easily learn to just slide down. Then, run back to where they were to begin with and hop back on. Ponies learn really quickly that moving off will get them no where. And the child loses any fear of being run off with and actually gains a lot of confidence from knowing what to do and they can actually do something about it if it happens.
And yes, these are little children. Children from two or three up to six or seven years old. Supervised of course. Big enough to be on a pony but not so big as to be able to pull on or manhandle a horse into doing what they want! Thank goodness. And hopefully they’ll never learn this method of riding horses.
They’ll never learn to be cruel and pull on the ponies mouth or use force or coercion to get a pony or horse to do their bidding. But they will learn how to be safe, how to communicate clearly and fairly with their equine and if all else fails, how to get off and take a fresh start. And doing just that, is okay!