A Tail of Two Ponies, A Case Study in Training…Days 9 through 12

This is the fourth installment of my pony training journal. For those of you just joining, you may want to go back to Day 1 for the full picture. Long story short, I’m training two different ponies with different experiences and levels of training to eventually pull a cart. We’re currently on the ground driving phase of the process. I’m keeping this journal as a way of comparing the progress between the two.

April 5, 2019…Day 9

Apple Jack #2 did very well today. I attempted to work him outside of the round pen, but other horses on the property were loose and determined to pester the $hit out of him. So we moved into the round pen and began to work. Apple Jack #2 is beginning to relax more with the process, and his attempts to spin and rear were greatly reduced over the previous two day sessions in full harness. I started working him in straight lines across the round pen rather than circles today, and that helped him understand that harness work isn’t always an extension of lunging. His next session will be cone work similar to the drills Moonshine did today.

It was suggested that I remove the blinders and work the ponies in open bridle for the first few sessions by a pony trainer/horsewoman I greatly respect. I’m not ready to change my technique just yet, as my first two ponies were in full bridles with blinders from day one of wearing the bit. I’m holding this suggestion in consideration should there be no improvement during our next three training sessions. I see the logic, but execution is problematic for two reasons. First, I don’t currently have an open bridle for either of these ponies to work in. Second, I’m a huge believer that the more ponies use their full equipment, the more comfortable they will become with said equipment. Both ponies showed great improvement since their first full harness/bridle driving session, and I anticipate that my “death by cones” drills will have everyone settled in the next few sessions.

I refer to “death by cones” because done enough this exercise could bore you and/or the pony to death. A bored horse is a comfortable horse, and after about three sessions of this training drill my ponies tend to be super comfortable with full harness and bridle. Generally ground driving progresses to pulling loads in about five to seven sessions after they nail “death by cones.” Essentially I set four cones up as a 12 X 12 to 14 X 14 foot square depending on the size of the pony. We start the drill by walking from cone to cone around the square, but I’m asking for square turns rather than moving on a circle and straight lines between the cones. Then we work a triangle shape by walking a diagonal across the square. These exercises are done in both directions.

Ponies learn that they will be asked to do something at the cone, so they stop rushing forward. I try to be spontaneous and not follow any pattern that they can easily anticipate. It also develops forward thinking. The ponies stop thinking about what is happening behind them, and the cone in front of them that will require an action.

Moonshine had been extremely flightly, spooky, and threatening to bolt on her third and fourth sessions in (she’s a little ahead of Apple Jack #2 in training) full harness despite an excellent first and second training session. Tonight was her fifth full harness training session, and she started out like a coke head that just did a line in the bathroom. Moonshine performed an exaggerated prance between the first and second cone, but by the time we hit the third cone you could tell she was working this strange game out. Passing the fourth cone she had settled in to a relaxed walk, and was anticipating another square turn when we returned to the first cone. At that point I asked for a diagonal to change direction.

All in all it was an excellent night for Moonshine. Her lines between the cones were not the straightest initially, but she was settled and relaxed by the end of the night. Much better than her previous two sessions. We will continue to work cones for a few more sessions, and then we’ll hit the big pasture again to see if the concepts from the cone session transfer to a wide open field.

April 10, 2019….Day 10 Moonshine

Moonshine had her second “death by cones” session tonight. It was completely uneventful, which is great! She continued working the cones tonight. Once I was satisfied with her cone work, we walked down the driveway and back. We played around a little with the Spanish walk and I turned her loose with her friends.

April 11, 2019…Day 10 Apple Jack

Apple Jack’s owners were preoccupied with the vet care of another horse today. This gave me an opportunity to focus all of my energy on Apple Jack. “I Heart Arabians,” Apple Jack’s owner usually watches or participates in all of my training sessions. This is great because it gives her an opportunity to see first hand all of the steps that go into training a cart pony from ground zero. It will be important to her later when I’m not around to assist. However, my focus can sometimes get split between what I’m doing during the training, and trying to articulate that to my audience. If you have worked with horses, you know that there are many things you do to influence the horse’s cooperation that are invisible from a few feet away. A truly great rider makes it look as if they are doing nothing, when just the opposite is true. When you can see a rider actively cuing a horse or pony, either the animal is green requiring exaggerated movements or the rider/handler is the inexperienced one.

I set up my cones for the “death by cones” exercise. Within about 5 minutes, Apple Jack and I were bored, and required stimulation. On my first day on the property I was told there were approximately 40 acres and if I went down the road by Apple Jack’s paddock, I would find lots of trails. I decided today was as good a day as any to go exploring. We entered a huge field covered in Texas wildflowers in full bloom. Apple Jack was on high alert, but not spooky. We maneuvered through the field, posed for some blue bonnet pictures, and I even felt comfortable enough with his behavior to drive with one hand while getting a quick video of the drive.

Moonshine worked well tonight. We went straight to the back pasture, and she settled into a relaxed walk. She is definitely more spooky at night. Shadows mess with her big time, but she has stopped spinning and bolting. Now Moonshines freezes when something startles her, and then begins to move on again. She is naturally a fast mover, even when working in halter maneuvers. I’m not allowing her to trot just yet, because I want a consistent walk before we up the pace, but her collected trot is beautiful to watch.

Day 12, 2019…Day 11 Apple Jack

Apple Jack and I went straight to the back pasture for more exploration. He seems to really enjoying seeing new sights, and I can tell he’s a much happier pony when we aren’t drilling the same maneuvers over and over. It’s like Apple Jack understands the point in everything we have been working on. Harness equals fun times with humans and a chance to see new places with better grass. No spins, rears, or bolts. It was a great way to end a training session before a long break. It may be a full week before I have an opportunity to work with him due to my upcoming business travel.

April 14, 2019…Day 12 for Moonshine

I gave Moonshine a break on Friday. My full size horse Comanche was in freight train mode, and I was too exhausted after working with him to think about ground driving. We were under a tornado watch on Saturday with high winds and thunderstorms so no work was done with any of the ponies. Sunday was all about getting a few last training sessions in before I left on a business trip. I worked both my full size horses, new BLM adoption donkey, and of course Moonshine. Today I decided it was time for Moonshine to try the neighborhood again. The last time we tried to ground drive through the neighborhood, Moonshine reared, spun, and bolted practically dragging me across the road. It was a miracle that she didn’t get us both hit by a car.

We went back to fundamentals after her shenanigans, like ground zero fundamentals. Now that she has had a refresher on manners, I harnessed her up, and went for gold. No warm-up, just straight down the driveway to hit the street. She paused momentarily contemplating whether a freak out would serve her purposes, decided against a freak out and moved out calmly. I can’t say she was relaxed on this walk, but she kept a slow steady rhythm, and behaved herself. We were stopped several times by people that wanted to talk and/or pet her. She stood perfectly still (even though her entire body was tense). After about two hours in the neighborhood we returned to the house without incident. I wish we could have repeated this drive again the next day, but at least she has a few days to relax and process that a trip through the neighborhood did not kill her.

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