My husband has recently given the name ‘Spoiled Pony’ to my Fell Pony mare Restar Mountain Shelley III. It isn’t entirely undeserved, if spoiling a pony involves letting them wander freely and have free access to a big hay bale. Indeed, most of my ponies would think that was pretty great! And most of my ponies don’t get the opportunity to be spoiled in this way because of the ‘wander freely’ part. Shelley has always stayed around when managed properly, so she does get spoiled.
For a variety of management reasons, Shelley is housed in a smaller paddock this winter than I would like. Because of our extreme winters, I like my ponies to be able to move about freely, at speed if they wish, as a way to keep warm. All of them use all the space they have at least occasionally. While I’m not worried about Shelley’s ability to survive extreme weather, as she is in vibrant good health, I do want her to be able to stretch her legs regularly. The best explanation for why comes from Susan E. Harris’s book Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement: “Horses move! It’s what they do best, and it is why we ride, drive, train or just watch horses… [It] is what makes [the horse] useful, able and beautiful.”(1)
To allow Shelley to move, twice a day I hand walk or ride her down the driveway a quarter of a mile, turn her towards the house, then turn her loose. In the morning, because this ride is before her first meal of the day, she takes off at a canter and often breaks into a gallop to get to the feed bucket that she knows I put out for her back at the house. In the evenings, I only put out hay, so Shelley will sometimes walk part of the road, investigating the sides for edible bits if there’s no snow, before breaking into a trot and usually a canter. When she arrives back at the house, she knows where the hay bale is, and she reliably buries her head in it until I finish my chores and put her away.
When it is time to put Shelley away, it is a source of joy because she makes it so easy. I just walk up to her, let her know that it’s time, then I put my hand under her jaw and gently lead her to her pen, where she walks in willingly. No halter, no lead rope, no catch-me game (usually), just an indication of what I want and enough guidance to keep her from being distracted. It’s such a pleasure.
While my husband would likely put the spoiling behavior entirely on me, the other day I caught him in the act. He was coming down the driveway in the skid steer while Shelley was running up, and I watched him pull off to the side to let Shelley pass. Harris’s inclusion of ‘watch’ in her list of things we do with horses is quite apropos, as I’m sure this is part of the motivation for my husband’s behavior. Shelley is definitely beautiful to watch when she’s on the move.
My husband usually isn’t home to see another pony get ‘spoiled.’ Mya the Wonder Pony also reliably stays around when there is a hay bale available, so before she and I move soiled bedding out of the duck house, I ‘tie’ her to the hay bale while I fill her cart. Quite handy! I leave her halter and lead rope on and just throw the rope over her back because she has shown me over the years that she moves so little that it will stay there until it’s time for harnessing.
Perhaps it is appropriate to call these ponies spoiled. On the other hand, I feel spoiled by what they give me in return. Their willingness to stick around is a gift I value highly. I see it as an indication that they want to be with me. What higher compliment could there be? And I enjoy watching the behavior of these ponies when they are free to make their own choices. Spoiled for spoiled: it seems like a fair trade to me!
1) Harris, Susan E. Horse Gaits, Balance and Movement: The natural mechanics of movement common to all breeds. New York: Howell Book House, 1993, p. 1-3
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012