The Difference is in the Touching

Asking and listeningFor a variety of reasons, I am regularly contacted by people interested in buying a pony.  Often I don’t have the right pony for their situation myself, so I try to make recommendations about ponies I think might be appropriate that I know are on the market.  One of the things that goes into my recommendations is my knowledge of the horsemanship skills of the seller so that I can guide the buyer about how to ask questions to get good information.   Two research findings recently crossed my desk that support the importance of the people in the pony sales equation.

Take, for example, the situation where the buyer wants to buy a pony for something for which it hasn’t previously been trained.  The buyer, then, needs a pony that is interested in learning new things.  How can they best find this out before they invest in travel to meet the pony in person to evaluate it?  Equitation scientists in the Czech Republic conducted a study to find this out.  They compiled a list of criteria that might predict the ability of a test horse to complete a new task.  The criteria included age, sex, personality (as judged by the horse’s owner), dominance status, social dependency on other horses and on humans, and its estimated learning ability (again, as judged by the horse’s owner).  The study found that “[none] of these parameters seemed to have any kind of consistent connection with whether the horse succeeded in the test or not–except for the owner’s evaluation of the horse’s learning ability.”  (1)

In a sales situation, then, the ability of the selling owner to assess an equine’s learning ability and accurately communicate it to a potential buyer is important to a successful sales transaction.  It’s also important for a pony’s welfare.  As one of the researchers observed, “”Recognizing that a horse isn’t motivated to complete a task is important from a training point of view but also from a welfare point of view…  Welfare is often compromised … when (a horse is) exposed to a procedure it perceives as unpleasant or frightening.”  My goal is always to try to match ponies and people for the long-term and not set either of them up for welfare issues.

Of course many of the Fell Ponies on the market in the United States are quite young and are being sold by their breeders.  A study presented earlier this year confirmed the importance of the quality of an equine’s earliest interactions with humans.  Researcher Clémence Lesimple found, “From their very earliest ages, horses develop an ‘appreciation’ of humans… meaning that their perception of humans is associated with positive or negative emotions, but it is rarely neutral.” (2)  How humans interact with a foal from the moment of its birth, influences how that foal will likely perceive humans for the rest of its life.  In a sales situation involving a young pony, then, what I know about a breeder and their handling (or lack thereof) of their foals influences how I prepare a buyer.  Fortunately most breeders understand the importance of positive early handling, giving our ponies a great foundation for productive lives.

LeSimple concluded, “Anything we can do to improve a horse’s living conditions—providing hay if there is no grass, giving him access to open spaces and opportunities for social contact with other horses—are controllable parameters which could likely offer a simple solution to a certain number of behavior problems towards humans which currently occur far too often.” (2)  The bottom line of course is that how humans interact with equines does matter.  And in a sales transaction, what the pony’s experience has been with its humans is important information for a seller to obtain.  To the extent that I can, I help seller’s ask good questions to get what they need.

Around the same time that these research findings crossed my desk, the following quote from Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451 also appeared.

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”

After reading this, I couldn’t help but think about how people interact with equines, how we touch them.  When I die, I will be leaving behind not only the ponies that I have produced, but hopefully even more great people-pony partnerships that I have helped create.  It’s my goal that those touches last a lifetime.


Book Fell Pony ObservationsThe book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding includes several chapters about training, including training foals.  Click here for ordering information.



About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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