I want to speak up in defence of ponies. I’ve been around them for nearly half my life (100 per cent of my kids’ lives), and I think that they get a bum rap. I’ve heard them called stubborn, head strong, cantankerous, ill-mannered – and far worse than that when loading them into trailers. Most common, is the notion that they all have some kind of Napoleonic “little man” complex. I’m here to say that the ponies are fine; it’s the people around them that are insane.
Think about who rides them. No adults. No responsible, reasonable, empathic, rational person who can try to imagine what is going on in the mind of the poor pony. They’re ridden, nearly exclusively, by children. Children lack most (in some cases all) of the basic human traits listed above, which is why we don’t let them drive cars, vote, buy cigarettes or rent apartments. Being a pony, especially in a lesson barn, is like being a Driver’s Ed car. Remember that car? Scratched, dented, smoking clutch, steering out of line from bouncing off curbs… One of my high school buddies totalled our school’s Driver’s Ed car, by hopping a curb and smashing it into a drug store. He thought that he had it in reverse, but he had selected “D” for “Damn, I thought I had it in reverse.”
In the same way that a Driver’s Ed car is constantly being mangled by people who can’t drive, ponies are constantly mangled by people who can’t ride. And like the Driver’s Ed car, there are often multiple incompetent operators, all in semi-control, within the same day.
I’ve watched hundreds of lessons, and it’s a wonder that they don’t ALL get bucked off. Limp reins in the 5:00 lesson, sawing reins at 7:00, jerking back on the reins, while urging forward with their feet at 8:00. And by urging forward, I mean kicking like they’re trying to free themselves from a bear trap.
To suggest that beginner riders send “mixed signals” to their ponies is like saying that the CAW is a “bit pro labour.” Yet we criticize the pony for “doing whatever it wants.” It’s not poorly behaved, it just hasn’t got a tenth of a clue what the rider is telling it to do. Heaven help that pony if somebody gives the kid a crop.
And it’s not just while riding, children are insane in the barn too. They (and some of their parents) seem utterly oblivious to the fact that a pony could kill them. They poke and prod. They walk (or run) around, in front, behind, and under. They pull hair. They’re loud. They throw things to (at) each other. I’m always amazed how well the ponies patiently stand in the cross-ties while WWIII is going on all around them. But, if one decides that it’s had enough of all the insanity – and gets fidgety, nippy, or kicky – well, that’s just an ill-mannered beast. I’ve met a lot more ill-mannered people than I have ill-mannered ponies.
Another point that’s lost on even experienced horse people is that many of the things we do in a lesson are a direct contradiction of the basic survival skills that these ponies use every day to stay safe in the paddock. Skills that they have developed over thousands of years, they are forced to ignore. For example, a pony will spend its entire day avoiding the most aggressive horse in the field, particularly the hind end of that horse, but how many times do you see that same pony in a lesson, being ridden close enough to a horse double its weight to give it a proctologic exam? Similarly, the poor pony will be forced to walk ahead of a horse that has bitten it 20 times that week. In either case, if the pony pulls back, or tries to jump ahead to get a safe distance away, we call that pony head strong. Tens of thousands of years of instinct telling them to avoid bigger, more aggressive horses, but yet we ride them close together in a circle. Instinct tells them to avoid being trapped against walls, or in corners, yet we put them into an arena with the paddock bully, and call them cantankerous when they keep one eye on Stampy O’Kicksalot, or refuse to go deep into the arena corner with Bitey McHeadbutt in the line behind them.
So I’m standing up for the little guys – the Doug Fluties and Pinball Clemonses of the equine world. Sure some of them are just squirrelly, but 99 per cent of ponies don’t deserve 99 per cent of the criticism that they take. It’s not them, it’s us.