A Tail of Two Ponies, A Case Study in Training…Days 1-4

For the first time in my life, I am training a horse (actually pony, to be more specific, minion of hell) for someone other than me. The pony is really a sweetheart, but all equestrians know looking cute and being sweet is how ponies reel you in before the horns sprout out from under those fluffy little manes. I’ve trained several horses and ponies in my life, but never for someone other than myself. Other people have eventually ridden the animals I’ve trained, but usually after I’ve spent years working with said equine. This time, I’m finishing a little devil for someone I will call “I Heart Arabians”. (Disclaimer: the names are always changed in my blog to protect the innocent from my poor story telling!) I would gauge “I Heart Arabians” to have intermediate level experience, and her youngest daughter, who I’m guessing is a complete beginner, will hopefully one day be able to drive Apple Jack #2 as well.

At the same time I’m training Apple Jack #2 for someone else, I’m also training my pony Moonshine. Both of these ponies began their driving training on the same day, March 21, 2019. I thought it would be interesting to have a side by side comparison for each pony as they progress. Each horse/pony/demon is an individual in personality as well as life experiences, and you must make allowances for that in training plans. Now on my previous ponies, I usually have them working well with a passenger in the cart by Day 60. Because Apple Jack #2 is being trained for someone else, it may take a little longer before I’m ready to declare him fully trained. Before I begin detailing the first four days of training, I’ll give you the background I have on each pony.

Dixieland Delight aka Moonshine

Moonshine is a five year old (approximately, she’s not papered, and teeth examinations only get you so far) Pony of the Americas (POA). I picked her up from Bowie Auctions in Ft. Worth back in October. Supposedly, Moonshine was a kids lead line/carousel pony, and some of the little tykes at the auction were riding her in the pen.

I’m skeptical about that background story. She was extremely head shy when I brought her home, and will bolt/rear for even the tiniest of sounds (think brushes rattling as I rummage through the grooming box). She also has a tendency to swing her butt around and cock a hind leg threatening to kick. I’m guessing the bolting, rearing, and quasi kicking behaviors were the reason she didn’t make it as a kids pony, ending up at auction.

I’ve been working on ground work, getting Moonshine to keep at least three feet on the ground when being sprayed with fly spray, and various pony tricks. Every time I think I have her desensitized to every sound she may experience on our farm, I come across something else that should not elicit a terror reaction but still does.

Apple Jack #2

Apple Jack #2 is a ten year old (once again approximately), Shetland/Miniature Horse. He is a chestnut appaloosa that was previously owned by an elderly lady until his care eventually became too much for her due to health reasons. He was re-homed initially where a previous owner described him as anxious before coming to his current home with “I Heart Arabians” one year ago. The property owner where “I Heart Arabians” keeps her horses felt that Apple Jack #2 would make an adorable cart pony, and after a few unsuccessful attempts at ground driving decided they needed some help with the training process.

Apple Jack #2 had some basic knowledge of lunging, but is lacking in several important areas of ground work. We will work on those items while progressing him through his ground driving training. He wasn’t missing anything that would be a deal breaker for beginning his driving training.

Natural Horseman, shoot me now for saying groundwork and driving could happen simultaneously! It is my opinion that driving training is really just advanced groundwork, and I have found that once I put a pony into “work” by wearing harness and driving that many of their other vices tend to sort themselves out. Once ponies have a job to focus on, they become much better citizens in all aspects.

March 21, 2019…Day 1 of Training

Apple Jack #2 did surprisingly well. Once it was determined he had the basics of lunging down, we went straight to ground driving. I did not dress him in full harness, I only used the harness saddle as a makeshift surcingle since the owners did not have a pony sized surcingle. I probably set the property owners, and “I Heart Arabians” up for future disappointment by magically getting this pony to ground drive with a halter, performing serpentines and figure eights within mere minutes of working him (at least it appeared like I was a professional pony trainer on my first night). Their previous unsuccessful attempts made this feat seem like sorcery. In reality, it was just my experience of having already tried this, failed, and trying again.

Failure’s a great teacher. Pretty sure I’ve made most of the mistakes you can at teaching a pony to ground drive, and on this day, I made sure to stay clear of those mistakes. Naturally after a lifetime of only being a pet, Apple Jack # 2 wanted to turn and face me every time we stopped, but he did very well for his first ground driving sessions with me. His owner was even able to work him a little.

Unfortunately, every day of training is not filled with huge “breakthroughs.” For those that have never trained a horse or sat through every single minute of the training process, it may seem like nothing happens for days, weeks even. Sometimes it seems like your horse is worse than the day before. Then one day everything falls into place. Someone once described horse training to me as a series of minuscule, invisible improvements, that over enough time add up to a huge noticeable change. Of course, some horses learn faster than others, and some trainers get those series of minuscule improvements faster than others. Most people will never see the thousands of hours behind the finished product, though.

Moonshine, being the difficult little joy she always is, did not pick up on ground driving quite as quickly as Apple Jack #2 on the first night. She wanted to spin, twirl, and back. Even though she is quite accomplished at lunging, the addition of another rope running down the outside was a bit much for her pony brain. Once I had her moving forward in front of me, she would veer suddenly in the opposite direction I cued her and try to spin again. However, after the first ten minutes or so of these shenanigans, it was like something clicked. You could literally see the light come on in that head, and she began driving like she had been doing it her entire life. Either she was simply testing my resolve to drive her for the first half of our session or she really did have an epiphany. We’ll never know.

March 22, 2019…Day 2 of Training

Apple Jack #2 had a very bad day. It started out well enough. He remembered his session from the day before, and started out ground driving with no issue. When all seemed well, I let “I Heart Arabians” take him for a few rounds. Now I’m not sure if he drifted on her, or she meant to steer him close to the barn area, but he got stuck in an area he did not want to leave.

All attempts to drive AppleJack #2 from his little area by the barn were met with backing, spinning, and unfortunately rearing. This was a little confusing for AppleJack #2 and a learning experience for “I Heart Arabians.” First lesson: No matter how great training is going, it can go to $hit very quickly. Second lesson: AppleJack #2 needs immediate and frequent pressure release. It was an opportunity to teach “I Heart Arabians” what to do when things go seriously wrong. Third lesson (for me as an instructor): Step in sooner.

Driving Apple Jack #2 our of a spin.

Once we gave everyone a breather, I was able to work Apple Jack #2 in a circle around his “stuck area,” and then we moved far away and performed a series of serpentines until he was completely calm. He was showered with scratches and treats, and we ended the day on a positive note. Now I usually give my horses or ponies 2-3 days of training followed by a day off. Since Apple Jack #2 seems to be the sensitive type, he is on a 2 on, 1 off schedule.

Day 2 for Moonshine really isn’t worth talking about. Her first day was a struggle, but on the second day she acted like a fully trained pony. We worked on driving for about fifteen minutes and then practiced her Spanish Walk. Moonshine has the leg up and out part, now she just needs to get the back end moving with the front. More to come on that.

March 24, 2019…Day 3 of Training

Apple Jack #2 settled into training again. We moved to a different pasture, where there was no shortage of poop piles to use as obstacles to steer around. In, out, and circling around the poop piles, Apple Jack #2 was doing wonderfully. “I Heart Arabians” was a little concerned after the antics of Training Day 2, but Day 3 eased her mind that it was indeed possible for her pony to become a cart pony. “I Heart Arabians” was able to maneuver Apple Jack #2 around nature’s obstacles successfully, and without incident. Today gave me more of an opportunity to assess his spinning behavior and work on getting him to stop/stand without turning to face his driver immediately. Part of this behavior is a training issue, and part of it is a confidence issue. Apple Jack #2 is not an overly confident pony, but I feel that will change as he progresses through training.

Apple Jack #2 trying to spin on me.

As for Moonshine on Day 3, we didn’t really work on driving at all. The drive lines for Moonshine’s bridle and larger girth for the Marafun Harness Moonshine and my pony Apple Jack (not to be confused with Apple Jack #2) share finally arrived. Knowing Moonshine’s training from the previous six months, I never intended to ground drive with a halter for long.

Not a great picture, but Moonshine trying on harness. We have a lot of adjusting to do.

Tonight was spent seeing how she would react to a bridle with bit, and fitting the bridle to her. It’s possible she’s had a bit in her mouth before, because she didn’t react with the normal chewing/chomping of a pony that is trying a bit for the first time. I do think she needs a thinner bit than the one I have. It seems the fat half-cheek snaffle is too large for her, so I’ve ordered one with a thinner mouth piece.

March 25, 2019…Day 4 of Training

Today was an exciting day in Apple Jack #2’s training for me. When I arrived to work with him, “I Heart Arabians” had set up an obstacle course of a line of barrels and parallel ground poles in an S shape to drive him through. I guess she was tired of navigating the horse droppings! It was a pretty professional set-up, probably better than what my ponies at home get. Our routine now involves me working Apple Jack #2 for the first few minutes of the session, and then I turn the drive lines over to “I Heart Arabians” while I offer instruction, advice, and troubleshooting.

Apple Jack #2 started out well for me with a little sticky spot along the fence line. He simply did not want to turn right and walk with his left side to the fence. Once we circled a few times, and successfully navigated the fence, I turned him over to “I Heart Arabians.” She immediately started for the S-shaped obstacle. Apple Jack #2 was having none of it which started a backing, spinning turning moment. Once we got that out of the way, “I Heart Arabians” began again this time just walking up the fence line, and just as he did with me, Apple Jack # 2 refused to move down the fence line (cue spinning, backing, etc.).

Once again I took over. I’ll give it to Apple Jack #2, he was insistent that he did not want to travel down the fence line, but after circling by the fence line in both directions (or on both reins, however you want to say it) I convinced him my way was best. With that out of the way we navigated the obstacles, while I explained some horse training basics (release of pressure, training both sides of the horse etc.) to “I Heart Arabians,” basically explaining why I do what I do and why it works. At this point, I also stopped Apple Jack #2 to work on his turning/spinning when stopping issue while explaining my methods to “I Heart Arabians.”

I handed the lines over to “I Heart Arabians” again who had several successful passes around barrels and through the S-shaped obstacle. Now here is the exciting part (suspense builds, drum roll). Once again I took over Apple Jack #2 for a quick turn around the barrels and an attempt at stopping to see if my earlier work had made a difference. I asked for a stop, and he stayed facing forward for a whole…whopping…two…seconds (wheels turning in his devilish little brain) before wheeling around to face me.

Cue fireworks and confetti, that my friends is a huge moment in pony training! Now you can see why horse training is not for everybody. Four days of work went into that two second success, and we may or may not be able to repeat it for another few days. Apple Jack #2 received tons of scratches, treats, and was turned loose in the field to think about life.

I did not work Moonshine tonight. I had the best intentions of doing so after working Odessa, but Odessa was being a mare, and time got away from me. I may try to catch Moonshine up to Apple Jack #2’s training plan if I have time after Comanche, Odessa, and I get back from the Expo center tonight. Apple Jack #2 is scheduled for a break today.

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