Ever since I first trained Beau Pony in 2017 to drive, I’ve had a vision of creating a team of three (or better four) pairs. Something like the Budweiser Clydesdales hitch in miniature where the ponies would most likely not look alike. I could make collecting animals similar in color part of the goal, but that would add considerably to the cost and time of creating something that will already be an expensive and time consuming frivolous endeavor. Realistically, I estimated it would take me ten years to build my team. Four years in, I think it may take me a little longer than ten, mainly because it isn’t my only equestrian goal, and I have to maintain my day job to support the GHLHF and it’s many inhabitants.
We purchased Apple Jack in 2016, and in 2018 she gave birth to Tater Tot. I had high hopes of Apple Jack and Tater Tot being a mother/daughter pair, but alas, Tater is a good hand (4 in, for you non-horse folks) shorter than her mother. I would have to wait until Tater turned four years old before putting any weight to her, so I bought Dixieland Delight aka Moonshine from an online auction in the fall of 2018. She turned out to be taller than expected when I actually saw her in person. Even though she was not a good candidate for my team that I had hoped to keep in the 8 to 9 hand (32-36 inch) height range, Moonshine made a wonderful single driver that has hauled Offspring and I through many a parade and adventure. She is also the perfect height for Offspring’s first riding pony. I trained both Moonshine and Apple Jack to drive as singles in early 2019.
Darling Husband rescued Summer Cloud from a slaughter buyer in 2019. Literally, he was the only other person to bid on her at the local auction. I finally had a pony to match with Apple Jack for the first pair in my team, but had to postpone her training due to her pregnancy. My pony purchases were also delayed due to Covid and the unexpected price spike in all manner of equine due to Covid. With an influx of government handouts hitting everyone’s bank account, adults home due to business closures, and kids homeschooling, parents needed something to keep the kids occupied. Pony prices skyrocketed above anything I was willing to pay for a pony. So, I watched the market, but decided buying more ponies for my team could wait.
Despite the disaster that is the Biden administration, it took two years for inflation and rising fuel costs to finally soften the horse market. I picked up Buckwheat, a 16 month old mini stud from our neighbor Tra Exotic. A livestock dealer, he came across a breeder downsizing her herd of mini’s and offered me first choice of the animals knowing I’m always in the market. Buckwheat won’t be ready for any serious training for another two years, but was the perfect size to pair with Tater Tot, until Darling Husband brought home Burrito. Burrito is an approximately 2 year old miniature donkey that just so happens to be the same size as Buckwheat. Watching them graze side-by-side one day, it hit me how perfect (and adorable) it would be to include a mini donkey in my team! That brought me to five animals for my team of six, and I’m in the market for the perfect teammate for Tater. Of the five animals, one (Apple Jack) is trained to drive as a single, and two (Tater Tot and Summer Cloud) are currently in training. Buckwheat and Burrito have two years before they will begin training. And that is the Cliffs Notes version of the GHLHF pony hitch to date…
With Tater Tot approaching her fourth birthday and Summer Cloud six months from weaning her foal, I decided it was finally time to begin training them both. I began playing around with ground work, until their custom harness arrived. Once they were responding well to basic cues and pressure, I began fitting their harness to them. I originally trained Beau Pony with a cheap leather harness I purchased from ebay. It was a decent quality harness for the price, and I logged several hundred miles with Beau Pony using it. I upgraded to a custom biothane/synthetic harness from Chimacum tack for Apple Jack and Moonshine, once I realized this was a hobby I planned on continuing hopefully into old age. For Tater Tot and Summer Cloud, I ended up purchasing matching biothane synthetic harnesses from El Sueño Español.
I’m usually a leather snob when it comes to tack, but after using leather and synthetic harness, I’m a synthetic convert. Synthetic is so much easier to clean/maintain, and will last longer than leather. I love, love, love the Chimacum harness. For one they offered the ability to customize with different color biothane. I opted (surprise!) for a purple and turquoise color combo. The fit and customer service was phenomenal. Covid caused a harness manufacturing back log as harness makers dealt with supply chain issues like every other business. This led me to order Tater’s and Summer’s harness from El Sueño Español. Their harness offered some features Chimacum did not, like bridle embellishments, plume holders, and custom color plumes. However, I can’t say I like one harness better than the other. They are both quality products at virtually the same price point.
I started out ground driving both ponies in a halter with lead ropes through a lunging surcingle for the first few drives. In my experience, ground driving in a halter, doesn’t really teach much beyond walking in front that translate to driving with a bit. Once both understood I wanted them walking in front of me and responding to pressure to direct their path of travel, I moved onto the full bridle. Learning to carry a bit quietly is half the battle. (I don’t mean battle, literally) Could my ponies go entirely bitless? Yes, it is completely possible. I have friends that drive bitless with no blinders, but until my ponies gain experience, I prefer to stick with traditional driving tack. You can always take pieces away, as they gain experience and confidence.
Both Summer and Tater have had around five ground driving sessions in full bridles. Although, I can hitch a pony as fast as I can tack up a full size horse, initially fitting harness and then later, properly balancing the cart takes a while. There are so many individual harness pieces/parts that can be adjusted, finding the perfect fit is a process. The El Sueño Español harness came with both an over-check and cavesson option. I’m not a fan of over-checks, but since the bridle was already set up with it and it looked nice, I decided to give it a try before discarding. Tater didn’t seem to have an issue with the over-check. Tater is a bucker when she is excited, and the over-check does tend to discourage that behavior. I did feel it was interfering with communication while working with Summer though, and removed it after the second driving session.
I used half-cheek snaffle driving bits for both Summer and Tater on the first two, full bridle sessions. Snaffles are usually my go-to bit for every horse regardless of what activity we are doing. I have learned that mini mouths aren’t exactly a proportional miniature version of a horse mouth, and more often than not a mullen mouth like the Bowman Victory Arch bit works best on them. The victory arch comes at a price point about ten times higher than your average half-cheek snaffle, and I had hoped maybe Tater and Summer could be happy with it. Alas, I ended up substituting Apple Jack’s and Moonshine’s victory arches until the new ones I ordered could arrive.
I had concrete pole bases set up in my pasture from my foray into Working Equitation with Johnny Cash. They were perfectly placed in a square with one base in the center of the square, giving me four corners with a three base diagonal across the center. For the next few sessions we will practice maintaining a circle around each of the single bases, driving a square (straight lines between bases with tight turns around them onto the next straight line), and weaving through the diagonal. Once each pony is successfully navigating those activities in a soft, relaxed, rhythmic manner, we’ll begin venturing out around the pasture before using Travois poles and drags. I did try driving Tater over a set of four ground poles, which she rushed and then bucked after the last one. She was excited, and I totally expected that reaction after being the receiver of a double barrel kick that knocked out my legs one day when playing around jumping cavellettis. Tater will need lots of work to learn bucking is not acceptable. Genetically, she gets the trait honest, because Beau Pony, her father is known to throw some bucks around as well. I guess they are the Hancock equivalent in the mini world.
Unlike Moonshine and Apple Jack, the sweet, willing little darlings that they are, I’ve known Tater and Summer would be more challenging. Both are fiesty and full of attitude at all times with both horses and humans. Unfortunately we’ve treated Tater more like a dog than a pony since her birth, and I take full responsibility for doing everything I advise people against doing when working with a horse/pony. I’m not sure what Summer’s excuse for bad behavior is other than she’s a boss mare and acts like it.
I’ve neglected the pony training while working the bigs over the past two show seasons. Johnny Cash has required a lot of physical and emotional energy due to his quirks, and often I just didn’t have it in me to work my little guys and gals after working with him. I’ve missed it though, and now that I have two more ponies physically ready to pull, I’ll start focusing on getting two more ponies trained and my first team working together this fall. Providing lumber won’t cost me a kidney and my first born by then, I’ll try to convince Darling Husband to build me my miniature beer wagon for Apple Jack and Summer!