Training Mini Devils

Several people that have happened across my blog have been contacting me about training ponies to drive. The questions don’t surprise me.  I’m as amazed as anyone that you can actually get the devil himself to pull a cart.  It’s practically sorcery!

Driving horses is a niche interest in the equine community, and I see fewer and fewer equestrians engaging in this activity.  I’m originally from the east coast, near several Amish communities that utilize equines for transportation and farming.  Many of the open shows I attended in my younger days often had harness classes and pleasure driving that included Saddlebreds, Hackney, and Welsh Ponies.  Driving ponies and miniature horses are a very small subset of an already small population in the equine industry and even more so in Central Texas (AQHA and rodeo rules!).  You just don’t come across many driving experts unless you are fortunate to find the rare CDE driving barn (obviously not in TX) or an Amish/Mennonite community. 

Theoretically, training a pony (exorcising the demons) should be no different than training a full size horse. In reality the little fiends have ginormous egos, and tend to be more stubborn (smarter?) than the average horse. My early ill-fated attempts to train my little monster were enlightening. Working with ponies is a little bit horsemanship, voodoo, and witchcraft.

People with driving expertise are a dying breed (or shrinking population) in our industry.  I’ve also found that many miniature horse enthusiasts have zero experience with full size horses and have fundamental gaps in their training knowledge.  They’ve never had to learn the basic skills that those of us with larger animals learn (primarily for safety) because smaller equine are easier to manage (until you attach the animal to a cart). 

So, like anyone living in 2019, I went to Google, YouTube, and Amazon for initial research.  Much of the information I found was incomplete and/or contradictory.  The most useful driving training information I came across was actually in a random blog post written by a twelve year old girl! It was not until I had made a lot of mistakes, had a few scary experiences, and fully trained my pony that I finally located some valuable resources. Better late than never!

So here is the process I use in it’s most basic form.  If you have never trained a horse or have only ever worked with already trained animals, stop reading now, and get in touch with a trainer.  This is not an undertaking for inexperienced equestrians. 

The Dangers:

The biggest misconception I harbored about driving horses prior to training my first pony was that driving horses was an activity for equestrians that were no longer fit to ride. Competitors in the carriage and harness classes at most of the shows I had attended were usually well into their 70’s and never rode their horses. I assumed driving horses was easy and safer than riding…No.

When you ride a horse you have seat aids, leg aids, and hand aids to influence your mount. In driving, you are working with a third of that. Your hands are your only true source of control. Just like a tractor and trailer requires more room to turn than a Prius, animals connected to carts/wagons/sleds will require more skillful maneuvering.

If you fall from your horse while riding, you may be injured, it may run from you, but usually there is little danger of the horse injuring itself. In driving you have connected a large rigid object to your animal. If you lose control or are thrown from the vehicle, the horse and the vehicle it is pulling now become projectiles traveling at high speeds. The horse does not understand the physics of the vehicle it is pulling and may jump, rear, buck, or turn sharply becoming entangled in traces and shafts or overturning the vehicle.

Typically people do not train horses to drive solely for arena work. Most people want driving animals for country roads, trails, and often parades. These activities combined with the added dangers of the vehicle you are pulling require more desensitization and an animal that is more obedient than the average riding horse.

Step 1:  Lunging

Like all horse training, driving begins with ground work.  Your animal needs to know fundamental commands and cues (Whoa! is important).  I prefer my ponies behave like riding horses first and cart animals second.  Some driving trainers train their horses to rush ahead of them to prepare for driving scenarios, but I want my ponies to take cues whether I’m leading in front, walking beside, or driving from behind.  In my humble opinion you never know when you’ll be in a situation that requires you to adjust your handling tactics on the fly. I start my ponies lunging.  They must walk, trot, change direction, and stop on a lunge line following voice and hand cues.  Once they understand that “Cluck Cluck” means go faster, “Easy” means slow TF down, “Whoa” means sliding stop, and when I point my hand they better be walking away from me in the direction I’m pointing all on a loose line it’s time to ground drive.

Step 2:  Harness

The importance of desensitization cannot be overemphasized.  I want my pony used to me throwing harness over their back and tightening the straps. Ponies should ignore the slapping, jingling, and bouncing of harness as they move.  The pony should be used to the feel of breeching around their rump.  This is also the time to experiment with fit.  I will actually introduce harness before the pony is fully trained at lunging.  They do their lunge work while wearing their harness.

Step 3:  Ground Driving

Ground driving for me begins with a nylon halter, long lines, and a training surcingle.  Some trainers are successful ground driving without a surcingle, but I’m not a coordinated person.  I frequently trip over lead ropes, my own feet, the chickens randomly wandering in the pasture, anything really.  The surcingle helps contain the lines and keeps me from wrapping them around myself and the pony. 

If you’ve adequately trained your pony to lunge it should follow your hand cues and automatically begin to travel on a circle with the lines attached.  Now you’ll use your lines to straighten the pony out.  All horses learn from pressure release.  You should only ever apply pressure when you want a response.  When you get a response (even the tiniest response), you immediately release all pressure (I usually follow this up with treats and praise). A little bribery goes a long way with ponies.  Later you can teach the animal to accept a light rein contact, but initially all correct responses should be met with full pressure release. 

So as an example, if I start the pony on a left hand circle, I migrate behind the girth area (this keeps them driving forward on the circle), and I will apply very light pressure on the right line.  I will increase that pull pressure until I get the pony to respond.  The response may be tipping its nose to the right, flexing the poll, turning its head to the right, or stepping to the right.  It really depends on the animal and their level of try.  All of these responses are the correct answer, and I’ll immediately release pressure when I get one.  Then we repeat gradually asking for a bigger response. 

The goal is to eventually have the horse/pony step to the right, then walk in a straight line.  I will alternate between walking beside the girth line and directly behind the pony during these exercises. Once the pony is responding to both sides and walking forward on a straight line with me following and guiding, then I introduce more complicated maneuvers.  I set up cones that we serpentine through, practice figure eights, circle cones, and walk a square.  I also teach the pony to back.

Step 4:  The Bridle

Once a pony ground drives in a halter, I introduce the bridle.  For two or three days, I will put the bridle on the pony with the halter.  I will not attach reins or lines to the bit.  The goal is to get the pony used to the bit in their mouth.  I will lunge them wearing the bridle (with the lunge attached to the halter) and lead them around obstacles.  Once they seem comfortable with the bit, I attach the reins/lines to the bit and begin ground driving using the bit for steering. 

All of the ground driving will take place in full harness once the pony is wearing the bridle.  Softness is my main focus during this step.  The pony should be responding to the lightest possible cues, literally a finger wiggle on a loose rein/drive line should generate a response.  Field trips off the property begin during this step.  When the pony is ground driving softly with the bit, we ground drive beside the road.  There is a housing subdivision on the backside of our property, and I take the pony through the neighborhood to get them used to kids running/yelling, cars passing/approaching, dogs, and just the general chaos of the suburbs.

Step 5:  Putting to Loads

Steps 1-4 usually take about 2 months.  Every pony is different, and some progress faster than others.  Generally, they are working nicely with bridle in harness in 60 days.  Once the 4 foundation steps are complete, the rest of the training goes quickly. At this point, I introduce the “load.” I personally will never hook a pony to a load without blinders on the bridle.  This comes from my experience around draft horses pulling heavy equipment.  I know several people that have experienced life altering injuries involving driving horses spooked by their loads.  I’ve recently been introduced to the “open” bridle concept by pony trainers I respect, but it contradicts everything I’ve ever been taught or know about flight animals. 

There are thousands of opinions on the “best” way to introduce a “load”.  I define “load” as anything you attach to the pony to drag.  Many people recommend the travois, a U shaped rig constructed of PVC pipe that attaches to the shaft loops and drags on the ground behind the pony.  Others recommend having the pony drag a tire, small log, or some other weighted object.  I like to use a combination.  The travois gives the pony the feel of shafts on its sides and PVC is pretty noisy as it drags along the ground (great for desensitization).  I usually only do this for a few days, and then have the pony drag a sled. 

The sled gets the pony used to pushing into the breast collar/collar.  For both the sled and travois, I lead the pony for the first few pulls attached to a load.  If the pony spooks or bolts, a lead attached to the halter under the bridle will allow me to settle the pony without any jerking on the bit until the pony tolerates the item they are pulling.  When the pony is comfortable leading while dragging the load, I will attach reins/lines to the bit and begin driving.  After a few uneventful sessions of dragging test loads, I put to the cart. 

Now many trainers will tell you not to attach to the cart until you are ready to ride in the cart.  This is most definitely true for full size horses, but due to their size, I prefer to have the pony pull the cart with me driving from the side for a few trips.  Basically I’m gradually desensitizing the pony to noise and weight before sitting in the cart.  Once the pony is pulling the cart with no issues, I mount a blue tooth speaker on the cart, and blast loud music while driving (more desensitizing). Only after the pony shows signs of total boredom and is completely comfortable with the process, do we progress to the final stage.  

Step 6:  The Carriage Driving Pony

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for!  If your pony is calm and responding softly to the bridle while pulling loads it’s time to hop in the cart.  Now depending on the type of cart you have, things such as line of draft, cart balance, and even your driving posture are important.  Do your research.  Find a trainer that can assist you with these details for the safety of your pony.  I’m not an expert and will not even begin to cover these details.  I will refer you to best resource I have found to date for all things pony and driving!

To everyone that has contacted me asking about my pony training process, I hope you found this informative.  Please understand this is a very basic description of my process and I purposefully did not cover the steps in great detail.  I’m assuming you have some horse training experience before you start down this path.  If you have never trained and/or only ever worked with already trained animals, do not attempt this process until you have found an experienced horse professional to assist you.

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