Simply put, ponying means to lead a horse alongside the horse you’re riding. On the trail, the task comes in handy when you’re training a new horse and helping him get used to obstacles and familiarizing him with the trail. When a horse follows another horse, his natural herd instincts kick in and he’s apt to follow his leader through terrain that might otherwise seem intimidating. While ponying, a horse that’s never crossed water may walk straight in or a horse that’s never left the arena can head out into the ever-changing scenery without nervousness. The best part is that the new horse can learn and experience spook-inducing, wide-open country before a rider accompanies him on the journey.
You might also pony a horse that’s carrying supplies to a campsite, a horse that a child is riding (as a means to have a little extra control in addition to the child’s reins), a horse who’s been injured and needs exercise to recover, or a horse who’s owner experienced an accident or injury during a ride. There are countless scenarios where ponying comes in handy. In each case, you’ll need to know how to pony a horse safely–how to keep you, your horse and the ponied horse safe. It’s a complex task to carefully ride your own horse and pay attention to another, and all while holding your reins in one have and an extra rope in the other. But because it’s natural for horses to travel at speed while close to one another (imagine mustangs speeding across the plains), horses don’t mind the proximity. Once you know how to handle the ropes, ponying can be a natural and easy way to travel.
Here, top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight will teach you how to pony a horse safely, avoiding the common pitfalls. You’ll know how to hold a rope and reins at the same time and what to do if the horse being led moves into an unsafe position. You’ll also gain tips to keep the ponied horse moving along at the requested speed.
Before you begin, make sure your pony horse—the saddle horse you’ll ride—is comfortable with other horses riding nearby. Ask yourself if your pony horse pins his ears or turns away from other horses when rides in a group. If he does, he might not be a candidate to lead another horse. Your pony horse should be easily controlled with one hand on the reins. If you have to reach down or two hand your pony horse when you ride alone, you won’t have an extra hand to hold onto the pony horse’s rope. Your pony horse should be a safe and reliable mount that doesn’t spook and is easily controlled, also he should allow ropes to touch his legs and tail without startling and should be good at dragging logs without spooking at the object that’s following him. These skills will ensure that your pony horse won’t be bothered by the proximity of another horse and the ponied horse’s rope.
The horse you’ll pony should be halter broke and lead well when you’re on the ground. If you need help with either horse’s manners, consult a professional horseman and find educational DVDs to assist. To be safe, both horses must have good ground manners and know not to interact with other horses when a human is present.
Natural-horsemanship lesson: Learn how to safely pony a horse beside you as you ride.
Why you need it on the trail: Ponying a young horse can help expose him to new scenes and experiences before he totes a rider. He’ll learn to brave new feats while following a trusted and reliable leader and follow along more willingly than if he were alone. It’s also good to make sure that your usual mount will accept another horse close to him and allow you to pony another horse in case you need to help out a child or injured friend during a long ride. If you plan long pack trips, you’ll find it helpful for an extra horse to carry needed gear or maybe you need to take along an extra horse. There are many reasons to pony, but it’s important to learn the safe techniques before you try.
What you’ll do: You’ll learn to how to handle the ponied horse’s rope, how to cue the ponied horse to move forward, how to teach the ponied horse to stay in position, and how to approach new obstacles while ponying.
What you’ll need: A saddle with a rigid tree (not a flexible tree that may apply pressure unevenly across your horse’s back if the ponied horse pulls) and a bridle for the horse you’ll ride, a rope halter and 12-foot rope lead for the horse you’ll pony. Make sure you wear a pair of gloves to keep your hands free from rope burns if the ponied horse pulls.
Step #1. Know How to Hold
Outfit your pony horse and the horse you are leading—the ponied horse–in the tack listed above. With the horse you are leading standing on the right side of your pony horse, mount up while holding the lead rope and your reins in your left hand. As soon as you’re in the saddle, you’ll take the reins with your left hand and hold the ponied horse’s rope in your right. Always hold the pony horse’s rope in a way that you can easily drop it if one horse slips or spooks—never tie or knot the two horses together.
Before you ask either horse to walk, make sure the ponied horse’s rope is doubled over—never wrapped around your hand—so that you can easily lengthen and shorten the rope. If the rope is safely doubled, you’ll see a loop in front of your knee as your hand rests on your leg. Notice the doubled rope in Goodnight’s left hand in photo 1A. The rope nearest to her pinky finger is attached to the horse and lies next to the rope’s end. The rope you see extending from her thumb and forefinger is doubled. You can also see that she’s relaxed and ready to cue her pony horse by neck reining.
Make sure not to hold the rope too far behind you as in photo 1B. With this hold and without a doubled-over rope, too much slack allows the pony horse to fall far behind the pony horse—precisely in kicking position. The loose rope can also tangle in the pony horse’s legs or slip under his tail, potentially causing a big wreck. Simply keeping your hand on your leg and maintaining the correct hold on the rope will help you start safely before you take a step.
Goodnight will hold this rope and rein position as long as she’s working with a young horse. By holding—instead of fully dallying the rope around the saddle horn—she can cue the pony horse to move forward or back. She also ensures that the horses won’t be connected if the new pony horse spooks. Once she knows that the pony horse is obeying and compliant, Goodnight says she often loops her rope lead one-half time around the saddle horn. This allows her to relax her grip and hold only one piece of the rope. The rope isn’t knotted and can quickly be released from the horn.
Step #2. Moving In Position
Ask your pony horse to walk on with your usual rein and leg aids. Make sure to include a voice command so that the ponied horse also hears the cue. With your right hand holding the rope and a place on your leg, allow the ponied horse to feel the rope’s gentle pull as you begin to walk. Because your pony horse is halter broke, he should understand the same go-forward cue.
If the horse being led doesn’t come, don’t try to pull him forward with your arm—you don’t have enough strength and it could wrench your back or pull you off your horse. Get in the habit of stopping your pony horse anytime the horse being led balks. To teach him to move forward with you, take a half-wrap on the saddle horn, holding both ends of the rope in your right hand, down against your leg. Cue the pony horse forward and let his body weight pull the ponied horse forward. It’s pretty easy for the horse being led to pull against you but he won’t pull long against the weight of the pony horse. Caveat: at times like this, you are essentially riding two horses, so you need to have the skill and concentration to being dealing with two horses at once—asking one to slow down or turn while you’re asking the other horse tom come forward. Not all riders are ready for this kind of challenge. Goodnight says that the mistake she hears about most often is forgetting to stop the pony horse and getting pulled of your horse by a spooky horse. If you lead a young or unseasoned horse out, make sure you’ve first practiced the position an your rope and rein holds with a calmer, more easy going mount.
Goodnight recommends keeping the ponied horse at your pony horse’s hip—close in without room for the horses to step in different directions around a young tree or other obstacle.
Practice walking while maintaining your rope and rein hold. Begin by walking straight ahead, then gradually add turns to the right. Turn to the right before the left until you’re comfortable handling the rope and trust the ponied horse to follow. When you turn to the right, you’ll turn toward your pony horse, allowing the rope to stay in position easily. Turns to the left are tricky if the ponied horse isn’t keeping up to speed. Make sure the ponied horse is in the correct position before you turn left; if he falls behind, his rope can droop (as we saw in photo 1B), touch your pony horse’s tail and even slide up under it, causing your pony horse undue stress and a possibly creating a spook. If this were to happen, always turn your pony horse back to the right, to prevent the rope from wrapping around you; drop the lead rope if necessary.
Step #3. Correcting Poor Position
If your pony horse falls behind (as we first showed in 1B when talking about a poor rope holding position) simply gather your fingers along your doubled rope to shorten the line and pull him forward with a bumping action. Because the ponied horse knows how to lead on the ground, he should respect the same correction while you’re riding.
Make sure you don’t allow the ponied horse to move forward so much that he’s in front of your knee (as seen in photo 3A). You don’t have leverage to control him when he’s in the lead and he can start to lead the herd instead of naturally following your pony horse. If the horse you are leading moves too fast and too forward, pick up your rope-holding hand and jerk back, pointing the rope toward where you’d like your pony horse to be. A quick bump from your rope halter’s knot will correct your horse just like during groundwork sessions.
Goodnight says the best pony horses are often good teachers. Her horse, Dually, knows right where the ponied horse should be and will turn his neck and threaten the ponied horse with his teeth if he moves up too far.
Step #4. Changing Pace and Scenes
Once the ponied horse is following along in formation, moving with your pony horse and doesn’t need constant corrections, begin asking both horses for gait changes. Put your horses to work as they transition from walk (photo 4A) to trot (4B). Each time you give a cue to your pony horse, make sure to use your verbal cue or a bump of the rope to spur on the horse you’re leading. Soon, your ponied horse will keep pace and easily stay in position as he moves in step.
Are you dragged, stepped on and rammed each time you lead your horse? Is your horse anxious and eager to get wherever you’re going? Does he circle you, causing you to constantly pull back to “put him in his place?” Have you resorted to a stud chain strung across your horse’s nose in order to gain control and to guarantee you’ll have “brakes?”
If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying behavior then give you steps to take to make your horse a willing walking partner. You’re in the lead; you’re in charge.
Simply put, some horses have never been taught manners. Worse, some humans have never learned an effective method to manage horses from the ground. If you use the push-pull-and drag method of horse leading, it’s time for change. Your horse’s behavior shows that he’s not respectful. If you keep up your ultra-allowing ways, you may risk physical harm—your horse must know his place in the herd and not think he can challenge you, his natural leader.
No child ever learned table manners on his own. Children need direction and a chance to learn. In the same way, your horse needs you to set boundaries, enforce rules and to act like the herd leader. A horse desperately wants to be accepted into the herd—he needs the herd for his survival. In a natural herd environment, the dominant horse will “teach” the other horses the manners of the group. The leader will be consistent and strong when he corrects the other horses. Once you can demonstrate to the horse that you’ll be a fair and effective leader, he’ll gladly follow you anywhere in a direction and speed dictated by you. But first, he has to learn to follow the rules you establish.
You must know “proper manners” before you teach them to your horse. Horses are excellent at following rules when they are clearly defined and consistently enforced. When it comes to handling horses, from the ground or the saddle, I have a few crucial rules.
- Rule #1, don’t move your feet unless I tell you too.
- Rule #2, keep your nose in front of your chest at all times
- Rule #3, when I ask you to, move your feet in the exact direction I say and the exact speed I dictate.
- Rule #4, keep doing whatever it’s I asked you to do until I tell you to stop.
If a horse breaks a rule—whether on purpose or accidentally—he’ll meet with an immediate and judicious correction. For instance, when I lead a horse, I expect him to walk in a very specific place; slightly beside me and slightly behind me, following the rules above. When he’s in that place, I make sure he’s comfortable; at any time he’s not in that place, I put pressure on him that makes him uncomfortable. The horse finds the safe and comfortable place and will pay close attention to you so that he always knows where he should be.
If I speed up, he speeds up; if I slow down to a snail’s pace, he matches me step for step, always remaining in his designated space to my side and behind my lead hand. To make it easy for my horse, I keep my lead hand up and out in front of me; pointing in the direction we are headed. My hand stays in a consistent place, giving hand signals to my horse as we move from point to point; it’s an easy landmark for the horse to follow.
If my horse doesn’t stay right with me, I’ll make sure to correct him with quick timing and the appropriate pressure. With immediate and consistent corrections, a horse will learn within a few minutes that he’s not allowed to get in front of me. I pretend that on the end of the fingers on my lead hand, is a solid brick wall. At any time that my horse’s nose comes in contact with the “brick wall,” I immediately turn around aggressively, shank him hard, stomp my feet and hiss and spit at him. The horse pedals backwards quickly. If you’re consistent in your corrections, only getting after him when he crosses a very specific line, he’ll quickly learn to stay within his boundaries.
Timing and pressure are everything when it comes to training horses. Whether you’re rewarding a horse (by a release of pressure or by praise) or correcting a horse, it must happen within three seconds of the behavior you wish to influence. This quick timing is crucial if your horse is to make an association between his behavior and your actions. The sooner the reward or correction occurs, the more likely the horse is to make the right association. Think three seconds is quick? The optimal time frame is actually one half of one second.
In addition to your quick timing, you must also know how much pressure to use during your correction. When I make a correction because the horse touched the “brick wall” with his nose, I need to make the horse uncomfortable and bothered so he thinks, “what do I have to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” Depending on the horse, the amount of pressure will vary. The pressure could be just a growl and cross-eyed look or turning around, stomping your feet, swinging the rope and generally having a “hissy fit.” You’ll quickly learn how much you need to do to get the desired uncomfortable reaction from your horse. You’ll know he’s uncomfortable when he tosses his head, runs backwards and looks noticeably uncomfortable. Whatever pressure is required to get that reaction from your horse, use just that amount—no more or no less pressure. You’re simply stating your rules, not causing undue stress.
Remember, a horse seeks comfort and security above all else. By being an effective leader to your horse, having solid rules that are consistently and fairly enforced, he’ll quickly learn that when he’s following the rules he’s comfortable; when he breaks a rule, he’ll be uncomfortable, thus making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. He’ll have control over his comfort–by simply being Mr. Manners he’ll feel comfortable. When he knows his manners and follows the rules regularly, he’ll be secure in your leadership, wanting only to please you and be a part of your herd.
To learn how to teach your horse other important ground From the Ground Up, especially Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership. These and other training tools are available on DVD or streaming at Shop.JulieGoodnight.com.