It’s easy to see the potential benefits of riding one horse and leading another. Also called “ponying,” it may be the only way you can give your second horse the exercise he needs. Or perhaps he’s young or untrained, and ponying him helps you build his confidence and teach him to cooperate with other horses.
It doesn’t seem like ponying another horse should be too difficult. After all, you’re basically just leading him, right? Well, not exactly. It’s a lot more complicated.
Handling two horses simultaneously, even if they’re well trained and level-headed, can become dangerous and unmanageable in a heartbeat. Imagine that the horse you’re leading spooks, runs behind your horse, wraps the lead rope around you, and then starts bucking-pulling you out of the saddle as your horse decides to move forward. All the situations and surprises you have to be ready for when you’re riding are magnified when you’re trying to control a second horse along with the one you’re sitting on.
Does this mean you should abandon the idea of ponying another horse? Not at all. But it does mean that you should be an experienced rider, have a thorough understanding of how to pony safely, and be ready to deal with things that might go wrong. It also means that you need to do some basic training and ground work with the horse you’ll be leading .
Above all, you must be riding a reliable, maneuverable and nearly unflappable horse. If your horse doesn’t fit that description, don’t just assume he’ll grow into the job. That’s asking too much-and the consequences could be disastrous. But if you think he has pony horse potential, here are some things to keep in mind.
To understand the various things a pony horse must tolerate, let’s start by imagining some of the ways he could get rattled. For starters, there’s that other horse, who may or may not be providing a comfortable space between them. If the horse you’re leading is insecure or confused about how to position himself, he could be crowding or bumping your horse continually. He might even be disrespectful and pushy-or trying to bite, strike or kick your horse.
When people talk about ponying, you’ll sometimes hear the term “pony horse” used interchangeably to describe both the horse being ridden and the horse being led. To avoid confusion, we’ll use “pony horse” to refer to the horse you’re riding and “ponied horse” to refer to the horse you’re leading.
If you’ve ever seen someone ride up close on a horse whose body language immediately shouted, “Back off,” you know how important space is to horses. So your pony horse has to be able to tolerate what might be an uncomfortable proximity to, and possible aggression from, the horse you’re leading.
The ponied horse might also be excited and jumpy, especially if he’s young or green. Your horse needs to be steady enough to ignore the other horse’s nerves and not get wound up along with him.
If your horse gets distracted and antsy himself, you may not have the absolute control you need. Not only that, a chain-reaction spooking episode could easily lead to a bad wreck. In contrast, if your pony horse responds sensibly to things that set the other horse off, whether it’s a puddle, a pile of rocks, or passing cars, he’s going to be a reassuring influence and a good role model.
Then there’s the lead rope. Ideally, you’ll have a little slack in it, as the horse you’re leading travels with his head about even with your knee.
If you’ve worked with that horse on the ground and taught him to lunge, go forward, and give to pressure, that’s a likely scenario. But there may still be moments when the ponied horse might weave around, rush ahead, stop dead, or drop behind you. (In fact, you may ask him to fall back so that he learns to follow on narrow trails.)
• A pony horse must be self-confident and unaffected by the moods, whims or anxieties of the horse being led.
• A pony horse must be easy to guide in all directions-back, forward, left and right with just one hand on the reins.
• A pony horse must stop promptly and respond readily to speed-control cues.
• A pony horse shouldn’t be aggressive or timid around other horses, and should tolerate another horse sharing his “space.”
• A pony horse should be sensible, unflappable and spook-proof, no matter what he sees or hears, or who or what is bumping into or rubbing against him.
Your pony horse needs to be okay about having the rope pulled across him in various spots-including under his tail. Make sure he’s been thoroughly sacked out so that he can tolerate the rope (and anything else that might graze, tickle, or bump him, such as a flapping stirrup if the other horse is saddled).
If your horse is confident and easy-going, these issues shouldn’t be too difficult for him. Just be sure he’s sociable enough to put up with the constant, close presence of the ponied horse and that the two don’t have any big personality conflicts. It is possible that your horse will be fine ponying most horses, but may have problems with a particular horse here and there.
Always start out in a round pen or other enclosed area to give the horses a chance to get acquainted and to determine that they’re compatible with each other. Also make sure you’ve done all your homework with the pony horse, covering spook-in-place training and sacking out.
Along with being calm and level-headed, your horse needs to be extremely well trained and responsive, moving in any direction you require the instant you ask. He should respond to your cues to speed up, slow down, stop, turn, back, and move his shoulders or hindquarters. You’ll typically be cueing him with the reins in one hand so that your other hand is free to handle the lead rope.
If the horse you’re leading should pull back suddenly, you’ll need to be able to stop your horse quickly, maybe even backing him up to avoid getting yanked out of the saddle. If the ponied horse rears or tries to bite or kick the horse you’re riding, you’ll need to be able to maneuver yourselves out of striking range. And if you find yourselves in a tangle-say, if the ponied horse shies and spins, pulling the rope under your saddle and getting himself wound up in it-you’ll need to be able to control your horse well enough to step carefully up or back or to the side (think of opening a gate) so that you can move into position to free the rope and untangle the ponied horse.
These are the types of maneuvers your pony horse must be able to perform consistently when you ask:
Speed up/slow down. Having good control of your horse’s speed means having him give you a noticeable increase when you ask for it, as well as slowing down on cue. In a ponying situation, imagine that the horse you’re leading has dropped back, with plans to bite your horse on the rump. A quick speed-up can move your horse to safety and give you time to reposition the ponied horse out of biting range. Or suppose you need to make a right turn, and the ponied horse is on that side. Since you’ll be on the outside as you turn (with farther to travel), you’ll need to speed up to stay slightly ahead of the ponied horse. Conversely, a left turn might require a slowdown so that you don’t get too far in front of the ponied horse.
Stop. Your pony horse must be able to stop quickly when you need to respond to the actions of the horse you’re leading. The ponied horse may balk, stumble or simply need a minute to get used to the idea of stepping over a log. Unless your horse stops, too, you’re likely to get pulled out of position, get jerked from the saddle, or be forced to drop the rope.
Turn. You don’t need your pony horse to have cutting horse agility, but he has to turn when asked. You might need to head off at an angle to avoid a collision when the ponied horse suddenly veers in front of you. Or you might be negotiating a series of trees, teaching the ponied horse to follow as you pick your way between them.
Back. There may be times when you need to put your horse in reverse just to maintain control of the ponied horse, such as when he stops abruptly or decides to back up. He might even have managed to turn around and start heading the other way. In any case, a tug-of-war is not the answer, but a few quick steps backward could give you a chance to reposition the ponied horse.
Turn on the forehand/turn on the haunches. You might need to swing your horse’s front or hind end closer to-or away from-the ponied horse for any number of reasons. Picture the ponied horse bringing his hindquarters around to set up for a kick. Asking your horse for a turn on the forehand (moving his hips away from the ponied horse) can pivot him out of kicking range. Or say the horse you’re leading strays into some vines alongside the trail. You don’t want to get your pony horse tangled up in the same mess, but moving his shoulders over a step or two might allow you to reach in and extricate the ponied horse while keeping your horse clear.
If you have the experience, the know-how, and the right horse, ponying can offer you all kinds of useful exercise and training opportunities. But to keep everyone safe, you have to know what you’re doing-and so does your pony horse. Make sure he’s emotionally solid and has excellent control before you ask him to take on the challenges of leading another horse.
Safety Tips for Ponying
Even if you’re riding the best-trained pony horse in the world, you need to follow some basic rules to keep everything as safe as possible. Of course, riding and leading well-prepared horses is the first step. But here are some additional factors to remember.
• 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 the ponied horse is 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.
• 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 to each other and their relative positions. A young horse might never have seen anyone sitting so high above him. It will also help you ensure that you have good control before heading out to a more exciting or less predictable environment.