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.
I want my pony to carry her head in a low position. . . .
My pony keeps her head up when I’m attempting to ride her in a collected frame. When I first got her she was so nervous about the bit in her mouth and what the rider might do. We outfitted her in a loose-ring snaffle, which has helped her put her head down somewhat. However, she still keeps her head up more then I’d like it to be. She has a wide back, but we worked hard to find a saddle that fits well. I’m pretty certain her head carriage isn’t due to saddle discomfort. I also ride her bareback and she carries her head high even then. What can I do to lower her head?
Dear High Headed,
Horses usually keep their heads up to avoid too much pressure from the bits on their tongues. When a horse puts her head up in the air, it allows the bit to slide to the back of her tongue as the pressure shifts to her lips and relieves the tongue.
You can feel how bad tongue pressure might feel to your horse by pressing your finger into your own tongue. Most horses that evade the bit are trying to find a release to this awkward tongue pressure.
Depending on the design of your pony’s bit, she might be feeling an unbearable amount of pressure. Look for a bit that offers some tongue relief—you’ll want a bit with a port (a convex-shaped bridge in the middle of the bit that allows the tongue relief). A ported bit might look like something that will cause your horse to feel more pressure, but in reality, the design allows the tongue to relax. I’ve used Myler Bits for years and have found that they’re designed to relieve tongue pressure and allow your horse to feel as relaxed as possible. Only when a horse is relaxed can she pay attention to your cues instead of her own discomfort.
Even when they are comfortable, horses must first be trained to respond properly to the bit; responding to the tool that you put into their mouths isn’t something they do naturally. You have to teach them how to find release from the bit’s pressure and how to “give” to the bit both laterally (to the side) and vertically (up and down). I have a new DVD that teaches you how to teach your horse to respond to lateral and vertical bit pressure so that you can use a bit as a kind communication tool (Bit Basics: Accepting and Responding to Bit Pressure). The DVD addresses how to train a young horse that’s never had a bit in her mouth and how to re-train the older confused horse.
I teach young and “rehab” horses to respond to pressure and find the proper release by applying light pressure to the bit through the reins (whatever amount of pressure it takes to make the horse notice and start looking for a way out of the pressure). I then watch the horse’s head closely. At the first instance her head drops—even a fraction of an inch— I release the rein pressure and rub the horse on the neck. Soon she will learn that when she drops her head, the pressure goes away. It’s best to use one rein when applying this constant pressure—ride with two hands, but only ask your horse to respond to the pressure on one side at a time. If you pull on two reins simultaneously you risk her locking her jaw or stiffening her neck. You’ll find an article, “Why one Rein is Better than Two” in my online Training Library (http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php)
Once your pony knows how to give to pressure on the bit, it’s your job to make sure she finds a small release every time she does the right thing and lowers her head. Most people make the mistake of continuing to put pressure on a horse’s mouth once she’s done the right thing. That’s when a horse continues to look for a release of pressure and ends up raising instead of lowering her head—to evade the bit and find a release in her own way. With soft hands and a bit with tongue relief, you can show your horse that there’s a release when she has her head in the proper position. She must have an incentive to drop her head and her incentive and reward is the release of pressure. Good luck with your pony!