A Tail of Two Ponies, A Case Study in Training…Days 16 through 20

This is the sixth 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 near the end of training. I’m keeping this journal as a way of comparing the progress between the two.

I’ll start this post by saying even though, I am working with two completely different ponies (Apple Jack and Moonshine) that are different ages (10 years old and 5 years old), from completely different circumstances (pasture pet vs kids carousel pony) both ponies are finishing up training in approximately the same amount of time. Initially it looked like there may be a huge gap between when each pony had their first passenger, but it appears the gap will be due more to equipment modification than the pony training progress.

May 13, 2019…Day 16 Apple Jack

Apple Jack finished up his last training session pulling a travois with I Heart Arabians (his owner) driving him. Then due to weather and my horse show, both ponies had an almost two week vacation from training. During the break, I Heart Arabians constructed a wonderful noise making apparatus with tin cans attached to a board by a thin wire. We attached this to to Apple Jack’s travois and had him pull it around the yard. The sound was loud and extremely annoying and Apple Jack didn’t seem to notice or care. That says a lot about his mental state (very solid pony), because I could barely stand to listen to the noise for more than 5 minutes. I Heart Arabians took over driving, and after a few minutes everyone had been tortured sufficiently. Apple Jack was behaving so well, we decided it was time for him to learn to push into the breast collar. I removed the travois/noise maker set-up, while I Heart Arabians found a tire and chain that we could use as a drag.

We attached Apple Jack’s traces to the tire drag, and started working around the yard. Initially he was confused about pushing against the weight, but caught on within a few minutes. Apple Jack was not thrilled about the traces around his legs, and I do not like pulling weight with a low line of draft with a breast collar for long. We really just wanted him to understand that he needed to push against weight. Once I was satisfied that he had the concept, we called it a day…a very successful day. Apple Jack’s next training session will be hooking to the cart!

May 13, 2019…Day 16 Moonshine

Moonshine has been extremely agitated during her drives, and just isn’t settling well. After making several adjustments to her equipment and trying various bits in my tack room, I decided to order her something different. I usually keep all of my animals in a french link snaffle of some sort (egg butt, half-cheek, D-ring etc). If they can’t go well in a mild bit, they need more training not a more severe bit. Moonshine would aggressively chew on the bit the moment I placed it in her mouth. I don’t believe all horses even require a bit, but because most people are more comfortable with a bitted horse, and god forbid I would ever need to part ways with them, I want to give my ponies every chance of ending up in a good situation. I’ve also seen people do severe damage to a horse’s nose using bitless bridles and hackamores, because they don’t understand that even the mildest equipment can become a torture device in uneducated hands. I contacted Mindy “PonyPrincess” at Chimacum tack. She is my go to person for all driving equipment questions. She recommended a Victory Arch Baucher Cheek bit. This bit is extremely mild, but unlike snaffles does not apply any tongue pressure.

Moonshine’s new bit, and checking the cart fit.

There was an immediate difference in Moonshine’s behavior using the new bit. She relaxed, pranced less, and even lowered her head carriage. We spent the night in the back pasture pulling the field drag. One of our neighbors stopped by while we were working, so Moonshine spent about an hour just standing around in full harness. At the end of our session, I pulled out the cart to see if it would fit Moonshine without adjustments to the shafts. My cart is well balanced, and it was a bit of a coin toss in my opinion whether I would need new shafts or not. Once again I contacted Mindy for her opinion. She convinced me that curved shafts would be better for my pony’s comfort, so now we wait until they arrive to put to the cart.

May 14, 2019…Day 17 Moonshine

Tonight wasn’t anything special. I had Moonshine pull the field drag some more wearing the new bit. She was relaxed in the bridle, but the longer we pulled the drag, the more agitated she became. Part of the problem was the dark, but like Apple Jack, the low line of draft combined with traces hitting around her legs is unsettling to her. I’m waiting on the new cart shafts to arrive, and will simply ground drive her without a load for the next few nights. She understands pushing into the breast collar, there is no need to agitate her with a low line of draft when we will never pull with one.

May 15, 2019…Day 17 Apple Jack

Today was Apple Jack’s first day pulling the cart. Apple Jack’s owner made the comment, that hooking to the cart would be exciting. To which I replied, “If I’ve done my job, there should be nothing exciting about the first cart pull.” I completely understand the anticipation of this long awaited moment, and the thrill of cart day finally being here. As exciting as these moments are for humans, you want them to be non-events for the animals involved. A properly prepared animal should think nothing of the introduction of the cart. Any excitement involving the first hook up is the result of a failure to adequately train the animal beforehand. Anyway, we started the day fine tuning Apple Jack’s harness fit. Since he has only been ground driving and pulling less than 20 lb loads, exact harness fit was not that important. Now that we would be fully hitching to the cart, I wanted the crupper snug, Once satisfied with his harness, I Heart Arabians held him for the first hook up.

Now Apple Jack’s cart is a bit different from my easy entry. The single tree attaches to the cart differently, and there are bars at the sides across the foot board, that my husband jokingly referred to as suicide bars. Basically you must step over them in order to sit in the cart. Once you are in the cart, you are committed, no quick exits. This would not be an issue today, because I planned to ground drive beside the cart, but it is a consideration for the future, when the pony pulls his first passenger. Apple Jack stood still for the first hook up which was good, because the single tree/trace combo took some time to get adjusted. Then the moment of truth, did we adequately prepare Apple Jack for this next step? I threaded his lines through the rein turrets and asked him to “walk on.” The little guy stepped forward, lifted his head then dropped it, and trudged on. We walked circles in the open area in front of the barn, changed rein, and repeated in the opposite direction. I asked him to pull over the rough patch of concrete, that would jiggle the cart and create a rattling sound. We walked over to the side pasture, where there is a rough patch of ground with an incline that would give Apple Jack the sensation of weight pushing into the breeching and cause the cart to bounce around a bit. Nothing phased Apple Jack. I offered the reins to I Heart Arabians, but she declined today in order to better film the very first cart pull.

It was a thrilling day. Apple Jack is comfortable and relaxed with this step. We will work him a few more days without passengers, and work on a few more de-sensitizing activities, before I take one for the team and set out on our maiden voyage, but I’m very optimistic about this little guy.

May 16, 2019…Day 18 Apple Jack

Today we hooked Apple Jack to the cart. I say “we”, but really I Heart Arabians attached Apple Jack to the cart while I stood around talking to the property owner. I offered a few pieces of advice when she was hung up on any piece of equipment. Apple Jack seemed perfectly comfortable with the cart, and I suggested we hit the back pasture because the road to that pasture was washed out from the rain. It would be another opportunity for Apple Jack to experience different sensations in the cart, and less than ideal driving surfaces. Off we went through the back pasture, and unlike the previous cart drive, Apple Jack was excited to see pasture mates in the field. He wanted to drift toward them, and when they started to play in the field he bounced around a little. He wasn’t fully with us mentally, but we continued to redirect his focus. I offered the drive lines to I Heart Arabians, and the pair took off through the pasture. Both were comfortable with the cart, and we are now just a session or two away from the “maiden voyage” of Apple Jack.

May 17, 2019…Day 18 Moonshine

My cart shafts still have not arrived, but I took the opportunity to drive Moonshine throughout the neighborhood behind us for more desensitization. Oddly, Moonshine was much more settled going through the neighborhood, than she was through the back pasture. She was relaxed, drove on a loose rein, and despite the multiple times a deer jumped out of no where while crossing through neighborhood yards, Moonshine did not get spooky. She did jump when deer surprised her, but she froze, watched them pass, and then continued calmly along her way. It was her best night by far, and I’m convinced Moonshine is ready for the next step.

May 19, 2019…Day 19 AppleJack

I’m recording today’s events as secondhand knowledge. The majority of my day was tied up with a graduation party. I Heart Arabians loaded Apple Jack and one of his pasture mates, Luna, up and took them to a parade desensitization clinic. They worked with obstacles, noises, and situations that would occur during a parade. Fire trucks and patrol cars flashed their lights and sounded sirens. The horses were “sacked out” with scary items like tarps and pool noodles. They also crossed rails and bridges. Apple Jack and Luna did great from what I understand. Both were handled by I Heart Arabians’ daughters, and there were no major freak outs. This was great exposure whether the animals actually make it to a parade or not. It is a confidence booster for both horses and handlers.

May 19, 2019…Day 19 Moonshine

My cart shafts arrived earlier than expected, so today was Moonshine’s first day fully hooked to the cart. Darling Husband assisted me with changing out the cart shafts and holding Moonshine for the initial hook-up. I usually train my animals to stand still without being tied while I put to the cart, but I wanted the added security for the initial hook-up while I made adjustments. I couldn’t decide which slot in the traces would be best. The middle slot felt like she may be too close the cart, and the end slot seemed like there was too much excess. I erred on the side of caution giving Moonshine more room for the initial pull rather than attaching her too close which could trigger a spook response.

Once she was attached and I was satisfied with the initial fit, I asked Moonshine to “walk on” while I ground drove her. She stepped forward calmly, and I had her make a few circles in the yard. My cart can be noisy on uneven surfaces when there is no weight in the cart, and she was a little hesitant when the cart bounced over a tree root. After a few passes in the yard I took Moonshine down the driveway. My original thought was to turn her around and immediately come back up the drive way, but Moonshine was doing so well, I had her walk down the fence line by the road. We walked down into the ditch, back up onto the asphalt road, and down the road back into the driveway. Moonshine and I played around beside and on the road in front of our house for about fifteen minutes. Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. She was being so calm, and taking everything in stride. I had to take the first ride. I stopped Moonshine at the opening of our driveway, pointed towards the barn, and eased myself into the cart. She didn’t move a muscle and stood frozen on the spot until I asked her to “walk on.” She took two steps, felt the added weight and stopped. I urged her forward, and off we went up the driveway in a calm, controlled walk.

This is the point where I can definitely tell a difference in the bit. Moonshine’s new bit is effectively a type of mullen mouth. The bit doesn’t put any pressure on the tongue. While it is mild, and she is very calm in the bit, it doesn’t encourage lateral flexion. It may actually encourage the horse to raise the poll, and that is one of the reasons it isn’t my go-to bit. We’ll continue to use it, but may begin searching for something that provides a little more lateral flexion while keeping her comfortable. I don’t like my horses/ponies nosing out when they move. I want them more rounded, not hollow backed.

Anyway, Moonshine and I made it down the driveway and past Darling Husband who was sitting outside scrolling on his phone. I called out for him to look up and witness Moonshine’s first cart pull and passenger rolled into one training session. Now, I had fully intended to call it a day, and that would have been the most responsible, patient course of action. A tendency to push my luck and take the risk is something I’m definitely guilty of for better or worse. So instead of stopping to unhitch, I circled Moonshine around and headed back down the driveway. We went down the fence line in both directions, hit the road, and went down into the ditch. Moonshine handled everything well. She may have been a little tense (apprehensive), but she is not a confident pony, unlike the rest of my herd. The confidence will come in time and with work. After about fifteen minutes as a passenger, I was ecstatic and ready to end the day on a high note. Moonshine was great throughout the entire training session today. All of the major training milestones have now been met for this cart pony. From now on we will be focused on confidence and refinement.

May 20, 2019…Day 20 for Moonshine

Since work travel will cause me to lose the rest of my training days this week, I decided to reinforce the lessons learned the night before with Moonshine. However, instead of working her in the yard and down the driveway, we went into the back pasture. I also wanted to play around with the cart/harness adjustments. I decided to see if the middle slot on the traces was just right for her. Tonight was a bag of mixed results. On one hand Moonshine stood completely still in the pasture, while I put her to the cart despite the “help” we received from every other horse/pony in the pasture. I spent more time swatting them away with flicks of the driving whip than I did actually hooking her up. Tater Tot was determined to stand on the foot board/basket of the cart. Koda was chewing on everything from harness to drive lines to the spring flowers on the back of the cart. Eventually I was able to dissuade everyone from making a nuisance of themselves and leave us alone. Moonshine stood through the whole process. This was a major win.

Our back pasture does make for a bumpy ride, and the bouncy cart was a little unsettling to Moonshine. Even though she did not bolt or act up, she was extremely tense while I ground drove her. I also decided that the middle slot on the traces does indeed put the cart too close the pony, so now I know exactly how she should be put to. After some ground driving, bumping, and the general rattling noises that come from the empty cart, I thought Moonshine may calm down more if I was actually in the cart weighing it down. I was also satisfied after our warm up ground drive that I wouldn’t be taking a huge risk as a passenger or be in danger of a freak out. Once I was seated in the cart, Moonshine did seem to settle, and it was easier to keep her in a rhythmic forward motion. She did almost throw me from the cart the first time she came to a very abrupt halt. After that I knew to anticipate these stops, brace against the floor board, and also work on a steady controlled stop versus a perfect dressage four hoof halt.

Koda and Tater Tot continued to make nuisances of themselves. They were extremely curious about the cart, and would follow from behind only to come running around the sides and then attempt to cut Moonshine off. As we were only moving at a slow walk, no harm was done, and I can’t think of a better way for a pony to become desensitized to the things happening behind them. Moonshine took all of it very well, but as usual was agitated in the back pasture. She did seem to loosen up as I allowed her to begin a slow trot, but would tense and prance when asked to walk. I think Moonshine is probably a pony that prefers a faster pace, which is not a bad thing, but I want to know we’ve mastered the slow gaits before I open her up to her preferred speeds. Moonshine needs to learn relaxation and control before we begin the exciting stuff, or I will be taking my life into my own hands.

We ended the night on a good note with no major freak outs or bad behaviors. Moonshine just needs mileage to build her confidence. She’ll have at least a three day break before her next drive, and some time to process the lessons of the past two nights.

Conclusion

I couldn’t be happier with the progress of both ponies. Apple Jack is almost ready for a passenger, and if he lived on my property, he probably would have already had a passenger. As it is, I have to work his training around weather and my work schedule. I just don’t have the flexibility of walking out my back door and throwing a harness on him. However, by the end of next week I anticipate Apple Jack will have had his first passenger rides providing that the seat is installed on the cart. Currently he has been pulling a seatless cart, while his cart seat is re-upholstered.

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