I have found that three-year-old Fell Ponies are more interested in doing things than two year olds. And while some people start lightly riding their three-year-olds, I think it’s best to wait until at least four years old to commence riding. I started riding my Norwegian Fjord Horse when he was three because that was the conventional wisdom at the time in that breed community. Knowing what I know now, I would have waited until he was four.
My interest in Fell Ponies and ponies generally is their versatility, and for me versatility means ride/drive/draft/pack. So my activities with three-year-olds are to prepare them for all these uses. Below are some of the things I’ve done; I’m sure I’ve forgotten things, and I’m sure there are things others have invented when they’ve worked with three-year-olds. Keeping our minds open lets us hear opportunities that present themselves.
An article recently crossed my desk that asserted that horses that are accustomed to ground work with their owners are more relaxed when ridden. There is an unending amount of ground work you can do with a three-year-old.
The following are in no particular order.
- Make sure your pony leads from both sides, goes through gates from both sides, etc.
- Back your pony through gates. This is a great test of leadership skills. Usually you’ll start with firm downward pressure on the leadrope under the chin to guide them. Get to a point where you can line them up and shake your finger and they back up without hesitation.
- Ponying: This is a great way to get a young pony out into the world and to begin to teach voice commands (assuming your mount/cart pony is used to voice commands.) Click here for a video about ponying.
- Driving from the withers: Standing at the withers or slightly behind (about where you’ll be when mounted) with the leadrope in your hand, ask for a walk forward. Flick the tail of the lead rope behind you if you need to encourage forward movement. Ask for a whoa. Be sure to get a clean one (no spinning the hind end or stopping only because they sense you stopping.) Be sure to do this from both sides. Depending on your stamina, you can also ask for the trot.
- Circling: This is not lunging. It’s about teaching maintenance of a gait until asked to change speed or stop. You can teach voice commands here. You can teach changes of gait. You can teach changes of direction. There are tons of nuances to this, including doing it at liberty. Click here to see me working my stallion Apollo on the circle.
- Voice commands: I like to teach the voice commands walk, trot, and whoa. These can be taught in the context of ponying, driving from the withers, or circling.
- Jumps: With a long lead rope, you can teach a pony to circle and jump a pole or to go back and forth over a pole. Click here to see a video about this.
- Figure 8s and Weaves: Set up orange cones and teach your pony to do these patterns. Click here for a video about figure-8s and click here to see weaves (among other ground work tasks).
- Desensitize with a bareback pad: I imagine this could also be done with a lightweight saddle. First get the pony used to the idea of something on their back. When that is okay, then get them used to tightening the cinch. When that is okay, then get them used to moving with the cinch tightened at the walk. When that is okay, move at the trot. Next add the stirrup leathers and tie them under the belly. Proceed up the scale as before. Then add the stirrups, letting them dangle. You want this to go really well obviously because this is in their future, so make sure to set your pony up for success.
- Ground driving: Use the bareback pad with stirrups tied under the belly as a surcingle. String lines from the halter back through the stirrup leathers to you and work on walk and whoa. I recommend not doing this until driving from the withers is going really well because your voice from behind is going to be confusing so having the general idea down first will help.
- Around the World: I learned this from the late Steve Bowers. Attach a plastic bag to the end of a stick. Get your pony to accept being touched by the plastic bag. Then work on them standing quietly while you ‘trace’ the outline of their body: start at the withers, go down the center of the back, down the tail (extra credit for up under the tail and then down the buttocks!), down to the feet, around the coronet band, up the inside of the hind leg, along the belly, down the back of the front leg, around the coronet band, up the front of the front leg, up the chest, up the underside of the neck, under the chin, around the tip of the nose, up the head, between the ears, down the neck, to the withers. Go both directions and do it from both sides.
- Water crossings: While you might be able to get your pony to cross water on their own, it will likely be better for your relationship and be a quicker lesson if you plan to get your feet wet, too!
- Bridges/cattleguards: I was told once that a pony I bought was great about going across bridges but she took issue with underpasses. How interesting! Frankly, I don’t know where I’d find an underpass to work with, but it’s a great point that it’s an opportunity for training. Regarding cattleguards, I’ve been known to have a driving pony transport a piece of plywood to a cattleguard so that I could put it down to create a way to drive across the cattleguard. A variation on this could be set up to do on foot with a young pony.
- Rope harness and tire: If you have ground driven your pony and they seem mentally ready to take it to the next step, then you can craft a lightweight harness out of ¾” cotton rope and work up to pulling a tire. This is best done with a mentor on hand who has experience.
- Highway Clean-up: A client once told me about something she’d done with a three-year-old. She put the bareback pad on and tied small plastic bags to it (the pony had been thoroughly desensitized to these things already of course). Then they went walking along the highway and picked up trash. There are lots of potential new things for a young pony in this task, so be sure to set them up for success.
- Can Yous: Click here to read about some things you can see if you can do with your pony.
- Move the Snap: Click here to read about a great test of how much sensitivity you’ve developed in your handling of your pony so far.
The great thing about three-year-olds that I’ve worked with is that the more you work with them, the more ideas they give you for things to do. They’ll also let you know when they’ve had enough. Keep sessions short enough that they don’t get bored or over-stimulated so that they’ll be even more ready to work with you at age four.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015
“Less is More Before Age Four” is one of the chapters in Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.