Susan Greenall

Ponying was without a doubt created by the Mother of Invention. Someone, somewhere had two or more horses that needed exercise and half the time to do it in. It is a common practice on the track and in polo which is most likely the origin of the name. The benefits of ponying expand beyond the track and can be of great benefit to the professional trainer down to the pleasure rider.

The main object of ponying was to exercise more than one horse at a time. It is not uncommon to see a string of 5 or 6 polo ponies strung together for an hour of exercise. It is advisable, however, to start with just one extra horse. Distance riders like using this method of exercise to condition their horses. “Many of us find ourselves with one old campaigner and a new horse that we are getting ready,” explains Dr. Heather Hoyns, a veterinarian from Windsor, Vt. “I have limited time to ride, so ponying was the logical solution. It keeps the older horse fit and develops the younger horse at the same time. I was able to bring the new horse along a lot faster as he did not have to carry my weight before developing some muscle. It also allowed him to adjust to our hilly terrain. By the time I was riding him and ponying my seasoned horse, he was in very good shape.”

Traveling down the trail alongside a seasoned horse is a very good mental exercise for a young horse. They get to see all the “boogies in the bushes” under the calm guidance of a trained horse. It is much easier, on both man and beast, to get over all that at the end of a rope rather than under saddle. “We purchased some young stock from Canada that were just about feral,” tells Liisa Mayo in NY. They were draft crosses and as two year olds were never going to get any smaller or easier to handle! A common practice among draft horse trainers is to tie a youngster to the outside of a hitch and simply take him along until he got the hang of it. We didn’t have a quiet pair of drafts, but we did have a dead quiet gelding that would put up with just about anything. We started the young stock by ponying them off of that gelding. Because they related to him and he was not bothered by us, the youngsters accepted us far better than if we were on foot. We were amazed how quickly they adjusted to being touched and led. “

The young horse perhaps benefits the most from this exercise. First, they do not have to carry a rider’s weight. Second, they have another horse to rely on for confidence. And thirdly, they learn to travel in a group and obey commands. “I start ponying my babies at about two months of age,” tells Linda Curcio, a small breeder in NJ. I ride the mare and simply take the foal around the pasture or ring a few times at a walk. By they time they are weaned, they can trot along easily. As yearlings I take them along on the trail, by the time they are two they have been over creeks, climbed some hills and cantered along quietly. At three I can pony their younger siblings while I ride them!”

Before you run out and grab two horses, there are a few important tips to share to make ponying the positive experience it should be. The horse you are riding is very important. It does not have to be dead quiet, but it does have to be well trained. Consider that you will have to split your attention between the two horses and that the one your are riding need not demand all of your attention to control him. “I was very surprised to find my rather challenging to ride Morgan an excellent horse to pony off of”, commented Lucy Snook. “He actually liked the idea of controlling another horse and would pin his ears if the other tried to put his nose out front. “

The horse you are riding needs to be tolerant to being bumped by the ponied horse. If the horse you are riding is forever attempting to get away from the horse you are holding, you are not in for a good experience. “I had a sensitive Arab mare who ponied beautifully,” adds Lucy. “However, the reason she was so nice to lead along is that she always kept her distance from the horse I was riding. When I attempted to pony off of her, she was terribly upset every time the other horse bumped her. It simply was not a good combination.”

There are several ways to manage two horses. A long cotton rope and a sturdy, snug fitting halter are necessities. Should you anticipate that the ponied horse might be difficult to control, you can place the cotton rope over his nose or use a chain. Be sure that you have led the horse with a chain before attempting to use one while riding. Many people simply hold the rope in one hand and the reins with the other. Riding a horse that neck reins or understands indirect rein comes in very handy. The danger in this method is that the rider can be pulled from the horse being ridden. Dallying the rope around a Western horn is workable, but has the potential for disaster should the ponied horse pull the saddle to the side.
Employing the use of a stirrup leather around the horse’s neck through which you can run the cotton lead will allow leverage in handling the ponied horse. It will also allow you to use two hands on the reins.. The stirrup leather is very safe in that it will not interfere with the rider should the ponied horse balk or pull. In fact, it allows the ridden horse to act as an “anchor” for control. The leather should be placed loosely around the ridden horse’s neck and can be secured to the saddle with a small strap. This will prevent the leather from running up the neck should the ponied horse pull to the front. The cotton lead is run through the strap and twisted several times before going into the hand. The rider will be holding two pieces of rope.

The rider needs to practice adjusting the rope from the hand before heading out alone. By simply relaxing the hand, the ponied horse can pull out more rope. In order to shorten the rope, the rider will need to pull in the loose end with the other hand. It takes some practice, but works very well .

Starting out in an enclosed area is a very good idea if available. Practice starting, stopping and turning. The ponied horse should never be allowed behind the horse you are riding, he should always be along side. When changing direction, take care that you do not turn your horse too quickly as you can “trap” the ponied horse behind you. A rope under a tail is no fun, indeed. Once you, and the horses, are comfortable, move up to a trot. Use a verbal command so that the horse you are leading understands what is expected of him. The same for a halt, be clear with your signal to both horses. Most horses take to this exercise very quickly and enjoy it. Employ turns and serpentines, anything you can think of to keep the horses thinking that this is training exercise not a game. Cantering two horses takes some coordination, but is really quite easy to do. Just concentrate on keeping the horses together and be clear to them what you want.

Taking two horses out on the trails is really quite a bit of fun. If you are worried about your first adventure, ask someone to ride along with you. Have them stay in front and set pace, as this will allow you to better concentrate on your two. If you have a balky horse, you can have a rider behind him to encourage him forward.

“I had a gelding who was just the best pony horse I ever had,” recalls Curcio. “I could take a young horse out with him and canter through wooded trails and he would help balance that youngster and correct them if they tried to get ahead or pull. Every horse I started off of him was super on the trails and never minded riding in a group or got excited about galloping in the hunt field. I still get a thrill thinking about some of those training rides.”
Happy riding!