Have you ever ponied a horse? Ponying as in riding one horse while leading another?
I don’t have much experience in ponying. It’s something I’ve practiced a handful of times at clinics and a few times at home. But until last week, I had not tried ponying my horse, Bear, while riding my other horse, Shiloh.
I’m not keen on making Bear do a lot of forced exercise at this point in his existence. He is twenty-six with arthritis and a history of laminitis. Our trailer trips to nearby locations (so I can ride Shiloh) have so far seemed within his comfort level. But I suspect he’d get sore if I would, say, try to lead him on a trail ride. At home though, it is easy to keep any organized exercise within limits.
Last week, I asked my husband if he’d be willing to indulge me by helping me get started ponying. My husband no longer rides and wouldn’t consider himself a “horse person”, but he’s absorbed enough horsemanship over the years to be useful in these types of situations.
For our first try at ponying, I decided we’d stay in the horse’s main paddock instead of going to the roundpen or to an open pasture in order to minimize distractions.
So on the chosen day, while I got Shiloh ready to roll, my husband groomed Bear and did a touch of in-hand work with him. Just some walk-halt-turn-back to get Bear in a working frame of mind.
Shiloh’s reaction to Bear being led off was interesting. I was mounted on Shiloh at that point. Shiloh didn’t do anything terrible, but he was clearly distracted.
Shiloh went in the direction I asked him to go, but his ears were going around like radar. They constantly switched back and forth between flicking towards me and then towards the direction that Bear went.
I could also feel in his body that he’d go just a touch slower when we moved away from Bear and a touch faster when we moved towards him. It was subtle, but it didn’t feel very good to me, so we worked for a minute until I felt him relax into my suggestions more.
With everyone warmed up, I was ready for my husband to hand off Bear’s lead rope to me. Prior to this, I was wondering if the horses’ herd dynamics would cause issues. In my limited experience, I’ve found it helpful to ride the lead horse and pony a horse that is more the follower. Between Bear and Shiloh, though, Bear is the leader.
Not long after my husband first handed me the rope, Bear made a face and put his ears back at Shiloh. I felt the worry that created in Shiloh even though Shiloh didn’t move his feet. I growled as I said Bear’s name as a sharp reminder to put herd dynamics aside while I was ostensibly taking over as lord of the dance there. Fortunately, Bear’s facial expression quickly softened. He seemed to let go of the thought of pushing Shiloh around.
As we started off at a slow walk, Shiloh wasn’t quite sure of what to make of any of it. I have no idea if he’d ever ponied another horse. You can see his worried body posture in the above photo.
But soon enough, Shiloh relaxed. We practiced walk and halt repeatedly with lots of turning to the right. We tried a couple of turns to the left, but I struggled with keeping Bear’s nose up near my knee. I decided we’d leave that practice for another day so I wouldn’t end up with a mess on my hands during our first ponying attempt.
Mostly, I thought things went quite well. We did have a blooper moment where Bear unexpectedly stopped. This is awkward when the horse that you are riding keeps moving. Technically, that kind of force can pull you right off the horse, especially if the rider is yacking with her husband and not paying close attention to her own positioning and that of her horses. Fortunately, my situation wasn’t that dramatic. Bear seemed none the worse for the wear. But it was definitely a reminder to remain focused on the task at hand.
I also think it was good practice to have Shiloh pay attention to me as rider even though his formidable pasture- leader was right beside him. Bear might be eight years older than Shiloh and in worse shape physically, but Bear is still happy and able to direct Shiloh and move him right out of the way whenever Bear fancies.
With my leading the dance as rider with doing lots of wide turns to the right, I continually asked Bear to move out of Shiloh’s space. I wonder if Shiloh found that to be a refreshing change of pace?
All in all, ponying proved to be an interesting experiment. If my husband stays game, I may see if he’d be willing to spot us for another few ponying sessions before Winter. Ponying is not a bad skill for a rider to have. And with Bear’s recent Summer weight gain, some limited exercise might actually be helpful, as long as I don’t exacerbate his lameness issues.
Interested in giving it a try? For some professional input on how to pony horses safely, here are some suggested resources:
Articles by Julie Goodnight:
Video by the CHA (Certified Horsemanship Association):
Article by Marty Martin:
On a related note, I happened across this article by Jeff Derby called “Your Attention Please” that appeared in Eclectic Horseman magazine at https://eclectic-horseman.com/your-attention-please/. It wasn’t written to address ponying, but having everyone’s attention when you are ponying is really critical to the functioning and safety of the endeavor. I thought it contains some solid food for thought on the subject of drawing your horse’s attention so I am including it in this post.