When a Fell Pony owner read my ideas for working with a three-year-old, they asked for the same sort of information for a five-year-old. The goal, of course, is the same: to prepare the pony for a long working life. You’ll notice, though, that the character of this list is quite different . With a three-year-old, you’re familiarizing them with as many relevant stimuli as possible. With a five year old, you’re attempting to establish a working mindset.
Towards that goal, the most important thing you can give a five-year-old is your time. It needs to be of sufficient quantity to engage them. I have found sessions of an hour and a quarter to two hours to be the minimum. You need them to understand that you want their complete attention and focus, that this isn’t just a short break from eating and sleeping. Remember that for the other 22 or so hours a day, they’re free to have their own agenda, so you need your sessions together to be sufficiently long that they understand that things are different.
A close second to giving time is to give that time consistently. At least in the beginning, I’ve found that the sessions need to be at the same time of day. Daily is best, too: the pony needs to feel a pattern to your working relationship. The reason this is important is that just as a pony can be made physically fit, they can also be made mentally fit. Those of us who work equines in harness well know that a working mindset is a joy to work with, easy to maintain, and time-consuming to regain once lost. By establishing a working routine at five years old, you develop in your pony a mindset that will serve them well for a lifetime. I have found that the ponies with whom I’ve established a working mindset very much enjoy the regular working routine and seem to prefer it to being pasture or paddock ornaments. The key is consistency.
It’s also important to have a goal but not a timeline. Many Fell Ponies truly want to be involved in our lives, but they can’t be expected to automatically know how that involvement should look. It’s up to us to prepare them. Break your goal down into small pieces and take the pieces one at a time. Work up to the ultimate goal. The reason you don’t want a timeline is that schedule pressure could make you ask for more than your pony is prepared to give. Unfortunately this will set you back. One Pat Parelli truism I like is, “Take the time it takes because it takes less time.”
Because consistent doses of substantial time is likely a huge commitment for the human half of the partnership, the actual ‘what’ of the time together had better be something interesting, important, and engaging to the person, too. Start with something comfortable so that you’re not stressing both of you out. For instance, if taking a walk is already part of your daily life, consider just adding your pony to it. There are plenty of opportunities on a walk to expand your relationship, not least of which is observing what they observe and how they react so that you can set them up for success when you are next together.
If the work you’re doing with your five-year-old pony lacks variety, then consider adding some variety to your routine. Even the Fell Ponies trained to elite levels of competition need something besides their competitive environment (at least if it’s a show ring) to keep them fresh. Trail rides for a show pony, for instance, or a packing trip for a ridden pony. Parelli Natural Horsemanship advocates unstructured time, such as grazing in hand, to develop a relationship. I have found that this sort of time together, while it contributes to the relationship, doesn’t necessarily contribute to developing a working mindset. Eating is already foremost in a pony’s mind; it’s work that needs to be emphasized!
One of my fondest memories of this process was with my first stallion Midnight Valley Timothy. The pictures here show me in turn ponying Midnight’s son after Monte’s castration surgery, riding across the Michigan River, working in the round pen, and riding in the woods. I don’t have pictures of what occupied us most, though, when day after day we rode into the forest adjacent to where we live getting to know a timber sale that our company subsequently purchased. Every day we went a different direction, seeing different terrain. Midnight became very responsive in his ridden work, a mindset that he carried to his subsequent owners.
Any pony five years old or older can benefit from this sort of approach. I know of a Fell Pony stallion who was thirteen years old before he was put to work. He’d previously only been used for breeding and shown in-hand, but he went on to a successful ridden and driving career, evidence that a working mindset can be developed in a fully mature pony, as well as a younger one.
There is of course a reason why people take their equines to a professional for this work. It takes incredible discipline and focus to execute the routine needed to develop a working mindset. I once took a pony to woman who had this process down to a science. In addition to working a physically challenging job, she had three equines in her yard at a time. Her ‘hobby’ was this process of instilling a working mindset. My pony’s new owner remains pleased with him many years later.
Developing a working mindset in a pony is both a gift to you and a gift to your pony. You will enjoy a pony who looks forward to your time together, and your pony will be happier having something to do besides gain weight. Most of my Fell Pony breeding stock would like to have a job besides parenthood to occupy their minds and time. And if your pony ever needs to go to another owner, the new owner will appreciate that your pony understands the difference between work and play.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015
If you enjoy these sorts of articles, you might also enjoy The Partnered Pony. For more information, click here.