Horses haven't been partners with man quite as long as dogs, but it didn't take long for them to show their value to us. Initially, speed, agility, and strength were the most sought after traits in horses -- and beauty was thrown in as a bonus.
As a bug out vehicle, horses have largely slipped out of our range of thought. But there are those among us who would do well to have one in reserve when the S hits the proverbial fan. If the economy were to collapse, gas prices soared beyond anyone's imagination -- or worse, became unavailable, where would we be? I can answer that. We'd all be at a horse auction, bidding on a rekindled mode of transport.
Young, untrained horses will be the most economical to purchase. Of course, if you need transportation in a hurry, that just won't do. And, with everyone in the same boat, fully trained horses will suddenly command a higher price than anyone ever thought possible. For those who already have a horse, you are a step ahead of the crowd.
But to be really ahead of the game, look for a pint-sized pony. If you think ponies are for children, think again. Sheeple will be getting rid of their kid's ponies just when they need them the most. When you think about it, it's a no-brainer.
Two ponies standing in the 12-hand or smaller range, such as Shetland, POA, Hackney or Welsh will consume less feed and hay than one average, 15-hand horse. They will occupy a space smaller than that needed for one horse, will graze longer on the same size pasture and will pull a wagon-load of kids or a family just as well. A tube of wormer will treat a pony three times instead of treating one horse once. The fence doesn't have to be as tall, as strong nor encompass as large an area as that for a single horse. Heck, in a pinch, you could house a pony in a dog's kennel run. But don't make the mistake of housing them in the same enclosure. Dogs and ponies need to have their own space or territory.
You can't bring yourself to ride a pony? Drive one. They work just as well under harness as their larger counterparts -- except that they are easier to stop, easier to tether and will go the same distance as a horse, only slightly slower. Ponies are less apt to spook and run madly out of control. If this were to ever occur, bringing them back under control is a far easier task.
There are two sides to every pony -- the right side and the left side. The left eye communicates with the left side of the brain and the right eye communicates with the right side of the brain. The left eye and left brain usually keep to themselves about what they see and understand - and ditto for the right side. As an example, a scrap of paper being pushed along the ground by a gentle breeze on the left side of the pony may be seen, acknowledged and understood as harmless by the left eye and left brain. But let that same scrap of paper blow right under the pony and come into view of the right eye, the pony may very well spook (be startled) at it. The left side neglected to communicate the presence of the scrap to the right side. For that reason, when training a pony, the training must be duplicated so that both sides see and understand each lesson.
The most effective tool in desensitizing (spook-proofing) is teaching the pony to trust you. The tools are simple, every day items. Start with a plastic grocery bag and a yard stick. No yard stick? Any stick will do. Tie a plastic grocery bag, or two, to the end of the stick and gently shake the stick so the bags will rattle as they fill with air and brush against each other. The sound is not like anything the average pony is accustomed to. Introduce the bags on the stick to the pony so he sees it, can feel it, smell it. Start at the face, bringing the bags to the pony's nose. Progress up one side of the face to the ear and then up the other side of the face to the ear. When the pony is content that this contraption is harmless, continue down the neck to the shoulder, brushing the bags against the pony every step of the way. This should be done so that the bags have touched every hair on the pony, all sides of each leg, the belly, inside the thighs, over the rump and under the tail. Each time you feed the pony, rattle the bags. Each time you brush the pony, rattle the bags. Offer a treat (in a bucket) while rattling the bags. Essentially, you are teaching the pony to trust you. The groundwork for all future training has been laid.
Horses and ponies "spook" because they are sensitive animals. They are at the bottom of the food chain and are very aware of this. Their only means of self-preservation is to outrun the perceived danger. Only when they feel trapped or cornered will they kick at what they perceive as danger. So the goal is to desensitize them. This is accomplished by introducing a variety of sounds and sights to them to show them there is no danger associated with sudden or unfamiliar noises or objects. In actuality, you are the one introducing new things to them and illustrating that they are all harmless. Ultimately, the pony will trust you rather than their own senses.
The methods used to train ponies can also be applied to horses. Spook-proofing your pony should start before they are introduced to a harness, but once harnessed, the training -- or desensitizing -- should be an ongoing process.
I'd be a wealthy woman if I had a nickel for every time I've seen a child chastised for yelling, screaming or roughhousing in the vicinity of a horse or pony, particularly when it spooks the animal. For heaven's sake, keep doing whatever spooks the animal! Let the children play, run, jump, play catch, bounce a ball, roll a tire across the yard, swing a bat, ride a bike with playing cards brushing the spokes, do wheelies on a dirt bike, blow bubbles, have water balloon fights and pop balloons in full view of the pony. How else will the pony learn that these things are not a threat to him?
Add the rattling of the bags. These are all excellent tools in desensitizing the pony's ears to a variety of sounds that may well present themselves down the road. Better to have an animal aware that these things occur in our world and that they pose no danger.
Note: For the desensitizing, the pony should be loose in a round pen. Never, ever tie a pony to a hitching rail, post or solid structure when introducing him to new sounds or goings on. To do so may cause great injury to the animal. A frightened pony (or horse) will struggle to break the tether so he can run away. If tethered securely, the result could very well be a broken neck and/or strained muscles. and damaged tendons. In a round pen, the pony can run - but get nowhere. There are no corners to get pinned in, no sharp objects, plenty of room for him to feel he has an option. In short order, he will realize the running isn't accomplishing anything. That's the ticket - the pony learns that running doesn't accomplish anything.
The single most essential tool in training (desensitizing) a pony or horse is the round pen. The size of the round pen is a matter of opinion by the trainer. John Lyons (a world renowned horse trainer) suggests 60' is best. But then, he sells 60' round pens bearing his name. When I attended one of his three-day seminars, he used a 40' round pen. Hmmm. Generally, the round pen should be large enough that the animal can lope easily and comfortably around it's interior. IMO, 40' is good for a horse and 30' is sufficient for a pony.
The activities mentioned two paragraphs above - the kids playing, riding dirt bikes, popping balloons, etc. should all occur while they are on the outside of the round pen and the pony is in the pen with you. You will become the icon of safety for the pony. He will learn that there is no danger and that you will be there for reassurance when needed. In a round pen, it doesn't take long for a pony to realize that there is no point in running - because it doesn't get him anywhere. And all the while, you are there, rattling your bags, stroking him and talking to him with a steady and gentle voice. It's called trust.
How long does the desensitizing or training take? Much depends on the background of the animal. A pony that was in the wrong hands, abusive handlers who taught with a whip, cattle prod or pinching and ill-fitting bit will take longer than one raised with gentle handlers.
So once the pony is desensitized and accepts everything you introduce to his body - including the harness, there's the matter of putting the bit in his mouth. Nothing could be simpler. Introduce the bit to the pony as if you have no intention of putting it in his mouth. Pour a bit of molasses across the bit (the part that actually goes in his mouth) and hold it by the side rings or bars to the pony's lips and let him see it, smell it and lick the sweet substance from it. Let him take it in his mouth if he wants to. Let him pull away when the sweetness has diminished. Then put it away. Later, repeat the process. The first time you attach the bit to the bridle to fully harness the pony, the bit should have a dab of molasses on it - just like the previous times. Let the idea of taking it in his mouth be his idea. The only difference is that the bit will remain in his mouth this time. Do not attach the reins at this time. Let him get used to the idea. The bit is now desensitizing his mouth.
Let him walk around the round pen while he gets used to the bit. It's OK to let him drink water with the bit in his mouth, but don't let him eat with it. Until he is fully accustomed to having the bit in his mouth, his attempts to eat will initially be hindered with the bar in his mouth. Hay and grass will get lodged on the bit and he won't know how to manage eating. It's never a good idea to let a pony eat with a bit in his mouth.
Rewards. Job well done. Petting a pony's neck is a reward. Scratching between his ears or under the mane is a reward. Some like to have their foreheads scratched - where the hairs split directions. Under their heads is another good spot. These are areas they have trouble scratching on their own. But what about food treats? We all know about apples, sugar cubes and carrots, but have you tried sliced bread? They love bread. I once had a pony that would just about climb a tree for a slice of bread. Given a choice between an apple, carrot or slice of bread, that pony would take the bread first, every time. But be careful how you offer a reward. Under no circumstances should a pony (or horse) be given a treat from your hand. This is especially true if you are big on giving treats. If every time you see your pony, the first thing you do is hand him a treat, guess what he is going to associate the hand with... treats! Better to put the treat in a bucket. He knows you put it there. And he knows you gave it to him. Teach him right from the start. The bucket is what he should associate food with - not the human hand. And you are the one who puts the food in the bucket. He knows that, too.
So now that you have your pony trained to accept the harness, the bit, is not afraid of exterior sounds, knows where to find food and treats, what about actually pulling the buggy? Believe it or not, that's the easy part. In the process of desensitizing, you've shown the pony that you're his protector. As a result, you now have a pony eager to please and willing to learn new things.
Attach the reins to the bit. Standing at the pony's shoulder, hold the reins loosely in your hands and make a clucking noise just to get him to walk forward. Pull just enough on one rein to turn his head. There should be no pressure on the opposite rein. Make the clucking noise and the pony will know to keep walking while turning. Then do the same with the other rein. All the while, you are walking beside him. In short order, he will know to turn and keep moving. Pull back evenly on both reins until he stops - then release the pressure. If he starts to move forward again, pull lightly on the reins only to stop him, then release the pressure. Once he has this down, it's time to add weight.
Still in the round pen, use a board or fence post attached to the harness. Continue with the rein movement and clucking to get him started walking. Normally, the board or other object won't make much difference to him. As he pulls the board, move further to his rear until you are walking beside the board - then behind it. Doing this puts you behind him, where you will be in the buggy. When this exercise is going smoothly, attach the buggy shanks and hitch him to the cart. Stand behind the cart and continue with the lesson, helping the pony understand the reins and the feel of the shanks on either side of him. The shanks will limit his mobility and turning will not be as fluid. He'll have to learn how to turn to compensate for them. Give him time to adjust with several practice turns and ultimately driving him in a figure 8 pattern until he gets the drift.
Praise him for a job well done.
Your pony is now harness trained. The only thing left to do is get in the buggy and go for a drive.
*From start to finish, how much time are we talking about? A lot depends on the condition and prior handling of the pony. But the assuming the pony was raised around caring people and isn't terrified of people, there are trainers that can do it in a few hours. I'm not that good - it took me three days.
The plus side of harness training is that this method of transport puts relatively little weight on his back compared to riding. That being the case, you can start the training earlier and have a harness pony on the road long before his bones are set enough to handle a rider. It's not at all uncommon to have a pony - or a horse, for that matter - fully harness trained as a yearling or shorlty thereafter.
Of course, you can skip the training by buying a pony already trained. That will add upwards of $500 to his price.
Disclaimer: There are many ways to train a pony. I am presenting only one method I know works and have personally done.
Facta Non Verba
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