Ponying for Exercise

Ponying is leading one horse from another. The pony horse is the one you are riding; the ponied horse is the one being led. Ponying is a good way to exercise a horse you don't have time to ride or one that can't be ridden. If you need to keep two horses fit, you can ride one and lead one, then switch horses during the ride to give them both the same amount of work. It's also an excellent training tool for a young horse, furthering his lessons before you start riding him.

Susan Dudasik (horsewoman, equine writer, and 4-H leader in Salmon, Idaho) has been training young horses and mules for many years using ponying as part of their training. In earlier years, when she lived in Florida, she ponied polo horses for exercise. She stresses safety factors above all when ponying young horses.

"The first thing I stress is wearing a helmet, gloves, and proper boots, and using a cotton lead rope," says Dudasik. "I've had young horses rear up and strike at the pony horse, and you don't want to be hit in the head with a hoof. Even if he just gets his leg up over your horse's neck, you've got to get it off--without being hit in the head."


Use a strong halter and a thick, soft cotton lead rope. A large-diameter cotton rope is less apt to burn your hand than a small hard twist or nylon rope if the youngster tries to pull away. Dudasik prefers a cotton rope about 10 feet long. It should be long enough to enable you to let out slack if needed, and you need enough rope to hang onto the young horse if he hangs back when crossing a ditch or log.

"If we come to a puddle and he decides he doesn't want to cross, I have enough rope to get out in the puddle with my horse and encourage him to come, too," she says.

If you hold the extra length of rope in your hand, loop it through your hand; never hold it in a coil. A coil can encircle a hand or wrist if the horse pulls back, dragging you off your horse. If you hold it in loops, you can always let go a loop or two and still have some loops left. You can give him slack all at once if you need to (if he spooks or needs more rope to go around a bush or some other obstacle in his path), yet still have hold of the rope. When that moment is past, you can quickly take it up again.

Dudasik gives the ponied horse only enough slack that she can merely flip her wrist and have a feel of the halter. "That way you can just pop the rope and get his attention," she says. "I like a heavy snap, like the old-fashioned bull snap, on the lead rope. This gives a more constant feel of their head, and if you have to give it a pop, there's a little more weight to get their attention.

"I use a regular nylon web halter or leather halter; I don't like the new rope halters with all the knots on them," she adds. "Those knots can put pressure on the horse's head in the wrong places and drive him crazy."

Even if the horse is wearing a bridle, use a halter underneath it for leading. Never try to lead a horse with bridle reins. The horse's legs could go through the reins and get stuck, or if the horse pulls back, his mouth could be severely injured from the bit getting pulled.

Wear thin (such as split-leather) gloves that are pliable and soft to give you a good feel of the rope, but adequate to protect your hands from rope burn. You want to be able to handle the lead rope without losing it, she says.

A Good Pony

For your pony mount, use a calm, quiet maneuverable horse that responds well to all your cues. You don't want your pony horse to spook or shy at the youngster's antics or it will be hard to hold onto the led horse, especially if the two start pulling in opposite directions. You want your ridden horse to be a good influence on the led horse, not balking at obstacles or bucking if the lead rope gets under his tail.

A few ground lessons for the pony horse can help. Before leading another horse off him, move the rope all over his body and across his rump to make sure he is not "goosey" about it.

"Make sure the pony horse is well trained to turn on the forehand and haunches, so you can maneuver around to get out of a bind," says Dudasik. "I had one young horse spook when a bird flew out of the tree in front of her; both horses jumped and the young one got tangled up, and I had to keep the young one still and maneuver the pony horse around her to get the rope free. She'd gotten the rope around herself and under my saddle and I had to let go of the rope. She didn't go anywhere, and I had to side pass and back up to get things straightened out."

The pony must neck rein (since you'll be riding with one hand) and be responsive to leg pressure. You must be able to place him anywhere; he might have to side pass, back up, or spin around quickly to enable you to keep constant control of the led horse. He should be well mannered, not trying to bite or kick the ponied horse, even if the youngster crowds or jostles him. Be sure your saddle, especially cinch or girth, is in good repair and fits the horse you ride so it won't be pulled sideways or have a problem if the ponied horse pulls you strongly to the side.

"Don't be afraid to let go if you have to," says Dudasik. "I've seen situations where the pony horse acts up and a person is trying to hang onto both horses and ends up in a mess. It's better to just let go and then catch the young one again. Don't panic if he gets loose. Usually if you start moving your horse away, the youngster will come back to you because he doesn't want to be left alone. If he's not running down the road into traffic, just wait a few minutes and he'll settle down and come back.

"Make sure you are safe first, then get off if you have to and untangle him," she advises.

Young Horse Manners

Teach the youngster the basics of leading before you try to lead him from another horse, then you won't have to try to drag him with the pony horse, and he won't try to drag you. "Sometimes for a reluctant one, I use a butt rope as well as the lead rope to refresh earlier leading lessons," says Dudasik. "I have the two ropes, and if he pulls back I can encourage him to move forward. Also, be sure the youngster is used to being next to the horse you are riding. If they are not already well acquainted, start out in a round pen so he can get used to your pony horse; if he does pull away from you or you do have to let go, he can't go anywhere.

"If you are not experienced at ponying, it's safest to have someone hand you the youngster's lead rope after you are mounted," she adds.

Getting Started

If you don't have a helper, position the young horse to the right of your horse if you'll be leading with your right hand, parallel with your horse--with his head by your horse's shoulder. Put the lead rope across your horse's withers where you can hold it as you mount from the left side. If need be, mount your horse from the right. Make sure your horse has been trained to stand still for mounting from either side. Once mounted, you can adjust the rope as needed.

"Even if I'm riding with a Western saddle, I never dally the rope around the horn before I'm mounted," stresses Dudasik. "I leave it lying over the neck where I can grab it; then if I start to get on and the horse pulls back, I don't have to worry about him pulling me off or jerking the saddle off."

She makes sure she doesn't kick the young horse in the face as she mounts the pony horse. Take care to move smoothly, so as not to startle the young horse into pulling back. She leads the horse off the right side, and keeps the reins in her left hand.

"Make sure the rope doesn't get under your stirrup before you get settled into the saddle," she advises. "Have your horses stand there for a few moments before you walk off. Pet his face and head and get him used to your hand flapping around him.

"When I was at the polo barn, we used to pony off both sides, and it's good for both horses to get used to doing it from both sides," Dudasik says. "When we exercised the polo ponies, we'd have several at a time. One girl used to take six at a time, with three on each side all snapped to each other."

When you start moving off, the young horse might not realize he's supposed to move with the pony horse. You might need to start him at an angle and pull him toward you a little to get him moving, or use a butt rope if he's really stubborn. If you have a helper, the ground person can encourage from behind until he gets the idea to move. Keep the ponied horse's head even with your knee to give you the best control. Never let him get much ahead of your position or he might try to forge ahead or kick at your horse.

Out and About

When you start leading the green horse outside the round pen, go along an easy road or wide trail. Don't expect him to go over ditches, through water, or along a narrow trail at first. On a narrow trail, you'll need to have the young horse drop back behind you, and he'll have to learn how to do that.

"I like to keep the ponied horse's head by my knee so I can see what he's doing, but I also train him to back up and get behind my horse if I just shake the rope a little bit," says Dudasik. "The led horse learns to do both positions. I start this training on the ground, teaching them to back in hand. Then all I have to do is rattle the snap or shake the lead rope a little and they'll step back.

"We do the turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches, side pass, and back up from the ground before I try to lead them from another horse," says Dudasik of the young horse. "If the green horse moves up next to my horse too close and I want to move him over, I can have him side pass away. If I need to reach down and check my girth or stirrup and want the youngster out of the way, I can reach over with my toe and tap him, and he'll move away. I also want him to learn to back away from my horse when I stick out my hand. This goes back to ground work--how well he learned to lead before you started ponying."

Getting Ready to Ride

Ponying helps the young horse get used to you being above him, even though you're on another horse. You're at the level you will be later when you start riding him.

"You want him used to having your legs bumping him," she says. "If you have saddle bags or something tied on your saddle, he gets used to hearing the sound of that. He'll be more ready when you start riding him."

Then you can pony him with a saddle on, to get used to the feel and sound of it and the stirrups moving around. "If the young horse is carrying a saddle, be careful traveling through brush; make sure the stirrup or cinch on the far side (where you can't see) doesn't get hung up on a branch," notes Dudasik. "I get my young horses used to all kinds of things, taking them over ditches and through the hills, leading them around various obstacles. You have to remember, however, that even though your horse will walk through something, the ponied horse might not the first time. Stop and give him time to look at it. If he starts through and then stops for any reason and the rope pulls on him, he's going to throw his head up and back up, and pull you out of the saddle, so you must be aware of what both horses are doing."

Advanced Lessons

Once a horse learns the basics of ponying, you can tackle more challenges and do some trotting or galloping when terrain permits. "Just make sure the young one doesn't get too exuberant and get ahead of your horse," says Dudasik. She always teaches her young horses to stop and stand out on the trail. "Some people neglect this aspect of training and the young horse never learns to stand still. I spent weeks teaching one young mule to stand; she could go down the trail beautifully, but the person who trained her had never asked her to stand still.

"He needs to be able to stand quietly in case you have to get off for some reason or check and adjust your tack," she adds. "I'll ride my horse down in a gully and stop, get on and off from the bank, and the led horse must come down in the gully with me and stand. He must learn to be respectful of the pony horse and not chew or rub on him or my saddle, or crowd my horse.

"I also start doing trail obstacles, having the young horse step over logs and stop and back up," she says. "If the young horse doesn't understand, I reach over and tap him with my foot on his chest to help back him up. You can ride up next to various things to get the horse used to them. It's a good way to introduce the green horse to traffic along a road, or backpackers."

Take-Home Message

Ponying a young horse from an experienced older horse can be beneficial in many ways. It can give the young horse confidence and exercise, and allow him exposure to various obstacles he might have to contend with later in life. The rider must use caution and be sensible with early training, however, because handling two horses in the midst of a problem can turn into a double disaster.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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