Ponying-the art of leading one horse while riding another-is a great option. It provides a way to exercise two horses in the time you’d normally spend riding just one. It promotes confidence in a young horse that lacks training and worldly experience. It teaches the ponied horse to cooperate, work with another horse close beside him, and to get used to new and potentially scary things, like ropes and tack and someone being taller than he is.
Keep in mind, however, that ponying is an advanced skill. You’ll have two horses to control, and your hands will be full handling a lead rope or lariat, as well as your reins, while keeping both horses aligned and in motion. That’s a lot to keep track of!
Last month we looked at how to prepare your riding horse to be a confident, reliable leader. This month, we’ll concentrate on preparing the horse you’ll be ponying to be an obedient follower.
Tips for Your Tag-A-Long
- Begin teaching a horse to be ponied in a round pen or other safe enclosure.
- Do your ground work, with an emphasis on sacking out, going forward, stopping, turning and lungeing.
- Allow the ponied horse to drag the lariat or lead rope so he gets used to it around his legs and trailing behind.
- When you first mount up, be sure to keep adequate distance between the pony horse and the horse being ponied.
- Think push, not pull. Drive (never drag) the ponied horse forward and then gradually reposition him alongside the pony horse.
- Practice moving the ponied horse in every direction with the lead horse, in a sort of dance on horseback.
- Drop the rope before you get tangled or in a bind.
Think Safety First
But ponying isn’t just a matter of jumping on one horse and having the other horse come along quietly. First and foremost, the horse you ride must be reliable, maneuverable and unflappable. (See “A Confident, Reliable Leader,” Perfect Horse, August 2006, for ideas on how to train a solid, controlled pony horse.) In addition, you need to be an experienced rider. If something goes wrong-the ponied horse shies, rears, tries to kick the horse you’re riding, gets the lead rope under his tail, tangled up in brush, or wrapped around himself-you’ll need to be able to deal with the problems.
The third concern is making sure the horse you’re leading is ready to be ponied. Some people think ponying a horse is somehow a substitute for training, that it can take the place of all the baby steps and foundation work needed to help a horse develop the right responses.
Sure, your horse can learn a great deal by being ponied off an experienced horse by a skilled rider-but only if you’ve prepared him to understand what’s being asked of him. Taking a sink-or-swim approach to
ponying an untrained horse is a terrible idea. Even if you don’t wind up having a wreck, you’re likely to spend the entire ride dragging and coercing instead of asking and rewarding and building a good relationship.
Preparing a horse to be ponied involves some basic ground work. Then, once you have a good foundation of control on the ground, you’ll want to work with him from the back of your pony horse in a safe area. Let’s look at the specifics of each of these training phases.
Control on the Ground
Some of the training needed to prepare a horse to be ponied is work you’d be doing anyway-starting with sacking him out. Sacking out a horse teaches him to calmly accept objects and touches, both familiar and unfamiliar, anywhere on his body. The ponied horse will be exposed to various things touching him, sometimes in unexpected places, so it’s important for him to learn that it’s no big deal.
Teaching your horse to accept contact with different objects is a gradual process. You want to start small and be careful that he’s okay with each step before you move on. Eventually, he should be able to stand quietly as you touch him and pet him everywhere from head to tail, including face, shoulders, belly, barrel, back, tail dock and legs. Once he’s comfortable with your hand touching him, you can start the process again, this time using a coiled rope or lariat. For a detailed look at how to sack out a horse, see “Preempt that Spook” (April 2003).
Along with sacking out, you’ll need to teach your horse some other basics:
• Give to pressure. If you give your horse’s lead rope a quick tug, does his head go up or down? If it goes up, he needs more give-to-pressure practice so it becomes a conditioned response. Why is this important? Imagine that you put a little pressure on the rope when you’re ponying a horse and he follows his natural instinct and pulls back. A tug-of-war is not what you want. You’re certain to lose, and he could pull you right out of the saddle.
• Go forward. It’s essential that the ponied horse understands and responds to your go-forward cue. You never want to drag a horse you’re ponying, anymore than you do when you’re leading him from the ground. Instead, you should be able to drive him forward. Initially, you’ll tap on his hip to teach him to move forward when you ask. But before long, simply focusing on his hip will get the message across, so you’ll be able to have him move forward from the saddle of your pony horse.
• Lunge. Once your horse has mastered giving to pressure and the go-forward cue, you can move on to lungeing him. Being able to control your horse as you lunge him on the ground gives you the tools you need to control him from on board another horse. For a look at the basics of teaching your horse to lunge correctly, see “Lunge Line Training” (May 2004).
When your horse is lungeing well-relaxed in the neck and shoulder, traveling at the speed you ask, and not leaning against you-you can practice another lesson: dragging the rope. If you should need to let go of the rope when you’re ponying (often the safest option if things get hairy), or simply drop it at some point, you don’t want the horse to panic with the rope flapping along behind him. Your horse may not have a problem dragging a loose rope, but it’s good to find out now and to help him overcome any fear he may have about it.
• Stop. A ponied horse must know to stop when you ask him. You’re likely to encounter all sorts of situations where you need to stop the horse you’re riding, and of course you want the horse you’re leading to stop, too.
• Back. Being able to back up the horse you’re leading is absolutely essential. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of situations where this element of control will come in handy-especially if the ponied horse hasn’t figured out his role in the ponying process. He might stay too close to the horse you’re riding, either from insecurity or a need to exert some dominance. It could just seem to him like the right place to be, or a fun thing to try. Or he may have some aggression in mind, possibly getting into position to bite or strike the pony horse. In any case, if he will back up when you ask him, you’ll have a good tool for working on the problem. You can show him where you want him and establish boundaries to help ensure his cooperation and everyone’s safety.
• Turn on the forehand/turn on the haunches. You’ll also benefit from having control over the ponied horse’s shoulders and hips. Since you need to control his position to pony him successfully (and odds are you’ll have to make frequent adjustments, at least for awhile), it’s important to be able to maneuver specific parts of his body to get the distance and alignment you need. For example, if he should wind up perpendicular to you, one way to correct his position would be to have him move his shoulders away a step or two until he’s facing forward again.
Prep Work from the Saddle
Once your horse is virtually spook-proof, giving to pressure, responding consistently to your cues to go forward and to move specific parts of his body in the directions you ask, and lunging well, you can begin the next phase of training. Again, this doesn’t mean hopping in the saddle and pulling him around until he gets the hang of it. You’re still laying the groundwork for the ponying process to be as controlled, stress-free and successful as possible.
Working in a safe, enclosed area, start by lunging your horse from the ground. Make sure he will readily move forward in both directions with a nice give rather than braced or tugging on the lunge line/lariat.
The next step is to get on your pony horse-but do so at a fair distance from the one you’re about to pony. This is going to be a strange, new situation for him, and you don’t want him to feel any additional stress or pressure from the horse you’re riding. Even if they’re pasture buddies, you want to take your time getting to the point where they’re side by side. Right now, all you want to do is let him get used to the situation and show him he can respond to your cues even though you’re sitting on another horse.
This is a good time to remind yourself of the most important safety principle: If things get dangerous, let go of the rope. In an enclosed environment, you don’t have to worry about him taking off. But even if you were out on the trail, the same rule would apply. Never try to hang onto a ponied horse if things turn dicey.
Now let’s set the stage. You’re sitting on your steady, experienced pony horse at a safe distance from the trainee. Put the reins in your left hand and the lunge line or lariat in your right. (Here’s safety principle number two: Never tie the line or lariat to any part of your saddle or yourself or coil it up around your hand. Hold any slack in loops, not coils.)
Begin walking in a big circle, about 20 feet ahead of the ponied horse and offset about 45 degrees from him. If you were the middle of a clock face, the ponied horse would be roughly at 4 o’clock and you’d start moving clockwise. As you walk forward, you’ll basically be riding toward the ponied horse’s tail. Just as when you lunge him, this positioning lets you keep focused on his hip to encourage him to move forward.
When he’s moving well at the walk, stop your horse and pull the lariat, taking the slack out of it. The ponied horse should stop and then turn to face you. As soon as he does, release the pressure from the lariat and start walking again, driving the ponied horse forward by focusing on his hip. Go ahead and repeat these steps a number of times. This will help develop his responsiveness to you and eventually he’ll begin to keep a little bend in his neck as he watches you. That bend will make it harder for him to resist you and will promote softness.
At some point, you’ll begin to sense that the horse is following you instead of being pushed forward. Once he understands that he’s the follower in this situation, you can begin to shorten the distance between him and the horse you’re riding. Just keep riding in a circle and bringing him closer until he’s traveling beside you.
If the horse decides to stop at some point (and he almost certainly will-possibly many times), don’t try to pull on him and drag him along. Just ride toward his tail and drive him from behind to get him moving again. As you continue with this exercise, keep adjusting his position beside you so he develops a feel for where he’s supposed to be. As a general rule, a good spot is to have his nose just in front of your knee-close enough that you could reach over and touch his ears easily.
Safety Tips for Ponying
Even if you’re riding the best-trained pony horse in the world and you’ve done all the necessary prep work to get your ponied horse ready for the experience, you need to follow some basic rules to keep everything as safe as possible:
- Begin your ponying work in a safe area, such as a round pen or other enclosure. This will give everyone a chance to get used to each other and their relative positions (a young horse might never have seen anyone sitting so high above him) and will help you ensure that you have good control before heading out to a more exciting or less predictable environment.
- Always hold the lead rope in your hand. Never wrap it around the saddle horn or fasten it in any way to you or your horse. You could easily get yanked out of the saddle; the saddle itself could get jerked sideways; or your horse could get pulled off balance.
- If you gather up any slack in the rope, hold it in loops, not coils. Just like when you lead a horse on the ground, coils can quickly wrap themselves around your wrist or hand if the horse pulls back or takes off.
- If you ever feel in danger, let go of the rope. Maybe he’s bolting, bucking, balking, or even jumping into your horse, but hanging on could put you and your horse at risk. Letting him go could mean a wreck, but that’s a chance worth taking. And in many cases, he’ll decide to follow you anyway because he doesn’t want to be left behind.
A Few What-ifs
To pony a horse successfully, especially one who’s young or new to ponying, you have to be extremely alert to everything that’s going on. It takes only a second or two for a bad situation to develop, and you need to watch for potential trouble (signs of the ponied horse becoming unnerved or showing hostile body language, scary distractions, etc.) as well as know the best ways to respond. Although it’s tough to generalize, here are a few simple strategies to keep in mind if you find yourself having to react to a problem-in-the-making:
• If the horse you’re leading is crowding you (similar to running over you when you lead him on the ground), continually bumping into you, or trying to put his head in your lap as you ride along, one good response is to make a sharp right turn (assuming he’s positioned on your right side). This essentially forces him to move back out of your space to avoid having you move into his space. If his head is in your lap, you may need to speed up so you get your knee in front of his shoulder before you turn.
• If the horse you’re leading drops back and winds up on your tail, don’t turn left. If you do, you’ll just wrap the rope around yourself and the horse you’re riding. Instead, think about moving him off to the right again. If you move your pony horse’s haunches to the left, you’ll be in a better position to move the ponied horse’s head off to the right so you can bring him back up beside you. (Think of it as a dance!)
• If it looks like the horse you’re leading is planning to rear or strike at your pony horse, keep enough distance between you so if he does lunge toward you, his front feet will land on the ground.