Chronicles of a Stable Owner are real-life stories about caring for horses and their people
Written by Dr. Gwen Donohoe, Owner/Manager at Sagehill Stables
This story is about a pony named Dixie, one of our leased lesson horses that we take care of here at Sagehill Stables.
First I want to give some background on ponies before we start the story. Ponies in general often have a bad reputation in the equestrian world for being naughty, and there is some truth to it. There are a few different reasons this might be. First, they are smaller than most horses and often live together with horses that are much bigger than them. This must cause some issues in the social pecking order, as much of their pecking order is based on dominance and the ability to protect the herd. As a pony, they would constantly have to be challenged for their place in the pecking order and as a smaller horse likely have to try twice as hard to make it up the ladder against horses that are bigger and stronger than them. In our experience, when ponies are in pens together, they often buddy up and it can be seen that they are obviously friends, so size does matter.
Secondly, ponies are often handled by children, and ridden almost exclusively by children. This means that they learn to get away with things that adult riders or stronger riders might not allow. This lack of discipline or lack of reinforcement of positive behavior (and often reinforcement of negative behavior) can lead to bad habits and learned behavior that in fact discourages children from being with them.
Lastly, because of the first two issues mentioned, I believe that it is a lot more likely that ponies often have health issues and pain issues that become misdiagnosed as behavioral issues. Things that an experienced equestrian might pick up on when riding or handling the horse as pain reactions, might be accidently misdiagnosed as bad/poor behavior by younger riders.
Often ponies are homed with families with children, and when those children get older, ponies are re-homed. I'd say ponies are often re-homed more than a normal horse would be. This can make all three issues more challenging if a pony is frequently changed to a new environment with new riders and handlers, new vets, ect.
So, lets recognize the fact that ponies do have it rougher than big horses.
Now let's introduce Dixie. Dixie is a pony with a mixed reputation at Sagehill. Some days she's great, other days we get reports that she's caused tears and anxiety. Under saddle, Dixie is an amazing teacher for learning to canter and learning your first cross-rail. Generally Dixie's bad behavior is only on the ground, before the lesson even starts, during the grooming and tack-up phase. When Dixie is with the coaches, her behavior is often 100% normal and safe, so we know a lot of the time her behavior with kids is likely due to a learned behavior to get out of work, or out of fear that the children are going to cause pain.
Dixie's "bad" behavior was what we diagnosed with the vets as ulcers and symptoms of ulcers, like flinching and biting or kicking when getting her girth done up. After a few rounds of ulcer treatment, with not much change, we decided to look further into her health to see if something else (i.e., a pain issue) was causing her stress and ulcers. Luckily x-rays showed us right away that she had arthritis in both her hocks, which wasn't showing up as a lameness under saddle. Maybe it is something that an adult rider would have realized sooner, but it's hard to say. Since having her hocks injected with steroids and going on Previcox, those ulcers have gone away and stayed away. So has most of her "bad" behavior, but her reputation remains...
One day I found one of our post-intro students at Sagehill, who I knew quite well as she was an avid volunteer, crying and upset in the office area. I asked her what was wrong and she wouldn't say, but I checked the horse assignment list and saw that she had been assigned Dixie. She hadn't even been to the barn yet to see her and she had never ridden or worked with Dixie before, she was just anxious and nervous because of the "rumors" out there around Dixie. She was so anxious that she called her Dad to come back to see if he could talk the coach into switching her assigned horse. I decided to go to the barn with her and help her tack up Dixie. Dixie of course didn't bat an eye at us during tack-up. In the arena, I let coach Roberta handle the situation.
The student told Roberta she heard Dixie would buck her off and was a bad horse. Luckily Roberta was small enough that she decided to hop on Dixie to show the student that she would be safe. After she had the student up in the saddle, still with a lot of tears and anxiety, Roberta gave her a great piece of advice. Roberta told her: " These ponies are the best teachers. If you want to learn how to be a good rider and a good horse woman, you have to ride different horses. If you ride perfect horses all the time, you will never learn to be good rider and be able to deal with stuff when things go wrong. If you get on a horse thinking that bad things are going to happen, you are going to make the horse nervous and it's more likely that something bad will happen because the horse is wondering why you are nervous and upset. You have to set your heart and brain in the right frame of mind, in a positive way and think of all the great possibilities that you could achieve with this new horse together."
The talk worked, and she had a great lesson and Dixie didn't step a foot out of line (as usual!). I saw her exit the arena with a huge smile on her face. Next Saturday when the student was back for her lesson, she came to me and asked if she could switch her horse assignment to Dixie. I didn't help her tack-up, and Dixie didn't bat an eye at her when she came to put the saddle on.
I hope that for anyone that has a pony or works with ponies that you will keep these things in mind and this story in mind. All our horses are special and have something to teach, but we need to make sure we take the time to understand them too. Ponies might be telling us something is wrong through their "bad" behavior, you just have to listen to them.