Working Pony

Despite having two ponies on the farm while I was growing up, my dad insisted that experienced/knowledgeable horse people did not keep ponies. He wasn’t a big fan of the two we had. Beauty had three hooves in the grave by the time I came along. She was just a hay burner. Tobe a left over from my sister and uncle’s childhood, was evil. He had a biting problem, was completely wild under saddle, and tended to get into mischief that required fencing repairs. Even if my dad had come across a well trained pony, that would not change the fact that kids outgrow ponies.

Fast forward twenty plus years, and I’m the proud owner of four ponies. I really hadn’t planned on ever owning a pony, but the first one showed up, and they’re kind of like potato chips. You can’t have just one. For the first year our ponies were simply glorified lawn mowers with pretty manes. By the second year, we had a fully trained cart pony that takes me on little jaunts around the neighborhood behind our farm. My little cart pony, Beau, even managed to impress my dad. He was more intrigued by Beau and Beau’s offspring than any other horses on the property.

One constant of farm life is broken down equipment. Show me a farm, no matter how extravagant, and I will show you a host of tractors, trailers, and minor pieces of equipment that are in need of repairs. It’s the nature of the lifestyle, and I’ve yet to meet the farmer that isn’t an expert mechanic. MacGyver has nothing on a farmer with some baler twine and duct tape. Our farm is no different. In the past week alone Darling Husband has been working on his truck, ATV, the neighbor’s trailer, and assisting another farmer with repairs to their tractor and truck. Meanwhile my fields are desperately needing to be dragged.

I was feeding the horses and ponies when I had an epiphany. We have a farm full of antique farm equipment (aka horses and ponies). I’m already training Apple Jack to harness. She’s almost ready to step up to travois training, but why drag around some useless PVC pipe, when she could actually do some real work, Amish style? Granted dragging the field with pony power would be a hell of a lot slower than the four wheeler, but we’re already ground driving around the field anyway. Maybe we would do something more productive than accumulate steps and harness time. It was also a chance to get her in shape for the cart.

After the first fiasco that was Beau Pony’s driving training (to say I rushed him would be an understatement), I had decided that everything would be different for Apple Jack. Also, she had zero training when we bought her, so I’ve had to take her training much slower than Beau’s and teach her basics he already knew. For every “horse trainer” that tells you to spend months to a year ground driving before hooking to real loads, there is an old farmer saying just do it. The moral of the story is everyone has an opinion.

Our farrier trained mules for Fort Hood’s cavalry unit, and while I was training Beau, he told me he would spend about a day getting them used to harness and making sure they could steer. The next day he would just hook them to the training cart. He wasn’t endorsing this method, but it worked for him. After my conversation with him I promptly, hooked Beau up to the cart for the first time. That conversation led to Beau pulling the cart with me in it at least two months faster than we would have if we had stuck to my training calendar.

So I decided that after a month of ground driving and softening to the bridle, it was time for Apple Jack to get down to work, real farm work. It would be super cool if my pony actually helped clean up after herself and the big horses. Plus ponies have to have fewer mechanical failures than the equipment on this farm. I have spare ponies when one doesn’t feel like working. I don’t have an extra four wheeler right now.

Now Apple Jack has been on a two week vacation from training due to rain and the daycare crud Offspring shared with the entire family. We’re one month into weaning Tater Tot from Apple Jack, and Apple Jack’s been a little squirrelly to work during the weaning process, but I would not let two minor details stop me. Waiting for the perfect moment to do anything is the most self-defeating form of procrastination in my opinion. If things go badly you’ll learn a lesson, but if they go right you save yourself a lot of time not chasing perfect.

I retrieved AppleJack from the backyard where she’s been taking care of lawn work. Our field drag is too heavy for me to pull, and that’s the measure I use on pony loads. If I can’t pull something with ease, then I’m not asking them to. The ponies probably weigh a little over two times my weight. That’s a total guess. They may actually have more on me than that, but I figure we’re all safe if I use my ability to pull something as the yard stick for pony ability. Darling Husband attaches a small chain link gate to the end of our field drag, to further churn up debris, and I figured this gate would be the perfect test drag for Apple Jack. I can easily drag it with one hand. It’s awkward, but not too much for a pony.

AppleJack and her new rig.

Dragging the gate with one hand, leading Apple Jack with the other, I judged how crazy she may get when the thing was following her. If she can stand the racket of this gate, we’re totally going to be ready for the cart. Like most of my horse training, this happened in the dark. Offspring needs supper, a bath, and a bedtime story before mommy gets to play with her ponies.

Apple Jack didn’t totally freak out, so…Go time! For a pony with a little over thirty days worth of bridle and harness training that was coming off a two week vacation, she was being amazingly calm about the whole process. I knew the line of draft was going to be a bit low, but seriously at this weight I didn’t think it was going to cause much of a problem. If the experiment works, we’ll get a better pony drag set-up, or I’ll invest in a collar with hames. The real trouble was getting Apple Jack to stand while I hooked up the traces. The last thing I needed was for the pony to bolt when only one trace was attached.

After walking her over and around the drag a few times, I fed her a couple of treats and raced to clip the traces to the bolts. Once she was put to, I asked her for a couple steps forward while still leading her. She stepped forward swiveled her ears, but no bolt. At this point I thought “What the hell?” Let’s just run the lines through the rein terrets and go for gold.

So unlike my Beau stories that usually end with me surviving a near death experience, Apple Jack’s tale is refreshingly uneventful. She pulled the drag all over our pasture like a trooper. Pooper trooper, since this adventure was all about breaking up manure clumps in the field. She pulled it like it was her job (because now it is). There were a few times when we stopped that she stepped over the traces, but she stayed calm, and let me guide her hind foot back inside the traces. Apple Jack’s not a fan of walking directly through the manure clumps which is kind of required since we’re trying to hit them dead on with the drag, but her turning radius is so much better than the four wheeler.

Part of the experiment was a total success. Apple Jack handled the clanging of the metal gate and weight wonderfully. She didn’t offer to bolt, spook, or have a total melt down. Her responses to voice cues are much better than Beau. I need to redesign the pony field drag though. It wasn’t nearly as effective at breaking up poop clumps when hooked to the pony. Speed (or lack of) is probably reason. We’ll go back to the drawing board on that one, but I could not be happier with that little pony.

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