Kids and ponies can make a wonderful mix with many of Australia's Olympic stars starting out their riding careers on a fat Shetland or welsh mountain pony. However, horse trading websites and magazines are packed with ponies which have been bought for a child and proved to be unsuitable. We hear lots of stories where people believe the horse they brought home was drugged, so differently does the horse behave when they get it off the float. Or ponies which have won many prizes with the previous owners now regularly dumping the new rider.
We also hear lots of stories of "naughty", "stubborn" and "mean" ponies who seem to love nothing better than bucking off their riders or biting and kicking them.
We generally take a different approach and gaining an understanding of how horses learn (including those stubborn) Shetlands and an understanding of the some of the specific issues common to child riders could save a great deal of heart ache and money for many families and mean that the newly bought pony can become a valued member of the team rather than being quickly sold on for a loss.
Before reading on we recommend reading "How horses learn" as it provides the background for this page.
A quick recap though, your uncooperative pony is not naughty, mean, nasty or bad, he is the sum of all the training and experiences he has had in the past and if he has been "rewarded" for doing the wrong thing then when he repeats doing the wrong thing he is simply doing what he has been trained to do. By rewarded we mean that the wrong or incorrect beahaviour has been reinforced or rewarded. How has this happened?
If we go back to the concept that almost all horse training relies on negative reinforcement, that is the removal of something to motivate a behaviour then if follows that whatever happened before the pressure went away is what the the horse thinks caused it to go away. In a nutshell, the pressure or cue motivates the horse to do something to remove the pressure (stopping, slowing, turning) and the release of the pressure after or as the response is being given is what shows the horse what it needs to do to remove that pressure.
So next time it feels that pressure its going to try doing the same thing as last time. So when we want the horse to stop and we apply pressure on the reins and the horse stops and the pressure goes away we are reinforcing or rewarding the stopping. If however, when we put pressure on the reins and the horse goes faster and we release the pressure we are reinforcing the going faster. Next time we pull on the reins the horse is going to try going faster again because it worked last time.
In the case of ponies they often get sick of having little riders using the reins for balance which puts pressure on their mouths that doesn't go away even after they have stopped, so they may try tossing their heads suddenly which usually causes the child to let go of the reins and so the pressure on their mouths also disappears. Next time they feel the mouth pressure they try a head toss and bingo! Very soon it becomes a habit because it keeps on working. Quite often the pony will then start to head toss as soon as any pressure is applied to its mouth, even if only very light because it has learned that it all it needs to do to be rid of the pressure is toss its head.
Horses have no hardwired or innate understanding of what to do when they feel a pressure on their side, poll or mouth. We have to teach them what they need to do to remove the pressure. So by not releasing at the right time (eg we keep on pulling or holding on after the pony has stopped, or if we release at the wrong time (eg when the pony isn't stopping or slowing) we can be actively training the pony to offer the wrong response rather than the one we want. Because children's musculo-skeletal coordination is not as highly developed as adults, they are often very much smaller than the horse they ride and they fatigue more easily they are much more likely to inadvertently release at the wrong time, not release at all or give the pony contradictory signals (pulling the reins and gripping with the heels) which confuse the pony (does it slow or go faster?) which leads to it learning incorrect responses or displaying what are called conflict behaviours (bucking, pigooting, rearing, shying, running back to the gate etc) because they can't escape from conflicting and confusing pressures. Its why so often, an adult gets on a previously misbehaving pony and can't get the pony to demonstrate the problems because the adult is not confusing the pony in the way that is often the case with the child. Almost every problem behaviour exhibited by ponies and horses is caused by one or a combination of these.
Can Horses do Two Things at Once?
Not really. Horses can only "listen" to one aid at a time and they will listen to the one that is strongest. If it is being told to go (kicks) and stop (reins) at the same time it will try to respond to one of the aids (it can't physically go and stop at the one time) and if the aids are continously applied together it will soon ignore the weaker one (usually the reins and then become hard or heavy in the mouth -see below).
We hijack this "one track mind" to train a horse to enter a float with whip taps. The float is giving an "aid"-that is a "get out of here that's a dark scary place where a lion could be hiding" aid, but our whip tap is giving a "go foward" aid. Generally the horse will find the whip tap more annoying, or more motivating than the fear of the float and when it learns that it can get rid of the whip tap by moving toward the float it can be quickly trained to lead into the float. Provided there is no lion in the float it quickly learns that the float is not a scary place.
A quick word about hard mouths.
We hear a lot about horses with hard mouths and often its as though the hard mouth is the fault of the horse. Except in rare cases, hard mouths in horses are a psychological state, not a physical one, although it is possible to cause severe physical pain and injury to a horse's mouth by using a bit (ANY bit) harshly.
We often retrain ponies with hard mouths and with a little knowledge and some patience it is one of the easiest issues to fix.
Horses develop hard mouths when their riders pull, hang onto the reins, or keep tension in the reins after the horse has given the desired response (stopped, slowed) or if heavy rein aids are used to force a horse into a frame or "onto the bit". By not releasing the rein pressure after the horse has slowed, the horse is not getting rewarded for the slow and it is the release of the pressure that trains the horse, not the pressure on its own. The slowing of the horse's legs becomes decoupled from the pressure on its mouth through the bit and soon the horse ignores that rein pressure because it comes to mean nothing to it, or it can't remove the rein pressure so it habituates to it. Over time, heavier and sharper rein aids are needed to get the slow or stop response, or the horse learns to lean on the bit and is said to pull. Heavier and sharper bits are then fitted, often with an escalation in other behaviour problems such as rearing, jogging, rushing and shying. Many people simply put up with a heavy mouthed horse, believing that it is normal. We don't because heavy mouthed horses usually have other behavioural issues which indicate that it is confused and often in pain.
Horses which bolt despite often severe bit pressure (which is an oppositional response to the aid-that is the horse is going faster instead of slower despite the bit pressure) are often in a panic and concerned only with putting as much distance between themselves and whatever is frightening them.
A quick word about forward ponies
By in large, forward ponies are created and not born. Horses and ponies will vary enormously in their sensitivity to pressure with some needing very little pressure to motivate them to stop and go (usually go) and in general, many horses labeled forward will be on the more sensitive side of the ledger than horses labelled lazy. However, "forward' behavour is usually learned and it is usually the result of several causes. Forward horses will usually go around with their heads in the the air, open their mouths each time the bit is used, swish their tails and move at faster speeds than required, all signs of tension and in effect are attempting to "run away".
At that point, they are not under the "stimulus control" or the aids of their rider. In effect they are fearful. Generally they will continually speed up within a gait, will leap into the next gait without being asked, will often have "hard mouths", instead of going straight they will often curl their necks and move with their bodies crooked instead of slowing, they will often fidget and swing their hindquarters when asked to halt or slow.
These responses can be caused by riders gripping with their legs so giving continual go signals, riders hanging on to their mouths which the pony causes pain which the pony tries to resolve by running away, by nervous riders who won't actually use their legs to give go aids which means the pony loses its habituation to the passive leg pressure of the rider so gives a very big or fast response to a go aid, or the pony has the kind of temperament which is very sensitive to the environment and is easily distracted by wind, other horses, dogs etc.
Forward ponies can develop into bolters, paricularly when ridden by children who don't have the strength to physically slow them down, so it is imperative that any unwanted go responses are immediately deleted with a downward transition. By not letting the pony practice the tense or forward behaviour you are removing it from his repetoire. Don't move on to a faster speed until the pony is calm, relaxed and responds to the aids without fear or anxiety and never be ashamed to go down a pace if the pony is getting agitated or tense in a faster one.
Issues with kids
Kids pose special problems for horses because they often don't have the physical coordination and most (though no fault of them) don't have the knowledge to get the best out of their pony. In a nutshell, they give confusing and often contraidictory signals to their pony which many can't cope with and conseuqently try unwanted responses (such as rearing or bucking) to remove a pressure that has become intolerable to them.
Children fatigue more quickly than adults and have shorter concentration spans which means that they often forget things they have been taught in lessons. And they are often frightened when riding and tend to grab onto the reins and with their legs giving their pony a stop and a go signal simultaneously which often results in a bolting, rearing or bucking pony trying to remove what are to it, intolerable pressures. Removing a rider with a buck or a rear is the ultimate removal of pressure and therefore highly rewarding, which is why it is often tried a second time, and if it is repeatedly successful, can become a habit. Put simply, the action of the buck precedes the removal of the pressure of the rider and so the horse learns that bucking will give it the relief it is seeking, just as by slowing when a rein aid is applied will remove the pressure of the rein aid.
Children often give ponies inconsistent signals-for example they have a tight contact while asking for go. Which signal should the pony listen to- the stop/slow aid on the reins or the go aid coming from the legs.? Horses can only "hear" one thing at once and whichever signal is strongest is the one they will try to respond to.
Children often hang on with the reins-leading to the issues with a hard mouth.
Children (and many adults) are too late with their pressure removal-so will keep pulling on the pony's mouth even after it has stopped or slowed or will keep kicking even after the pony has gone faster. Over time, the pony learns to ignore all but the hardest kicks because when it has responded to the little kicks in the past, they haven't stopped despite it doing what's asked.
Children also give inadvertent aids due to being unbalanced or uncoordinated, especially while learning to ride. These aids can confuse the pony because the release that should accompany the pony responding correctly doesn't come, or two aids are given at the same time.
All of these issues are quite normal and to be expected when learning a new and very physically and mentally demanding task-the same is true of many adults too!
To reduce the likelihood of these problems causing problems for your pony remember a few very simple rules every time your child rides their pony:
1. ALWAYS release the aid pressure as soon as the pony starts to do what is required. Remember-the pressure motivates, the release TRAINS. Release too late and the pony won't know what behaviour is being rewarded-in general there is a window of about 3 seconds after which it is too late.
2. Always START with a light aid and if the desired response isn't forthcoming, THEN increase the pressure until you do get the response and then immediately release the pressure. This teaches the horse to respond to a light aid because it knows (through classical conditioning) that a more severe aid is coming. This will keep your horse light and responsive and you won't need to buy expensive curb bits and gags. If you start with a harsh aid you never give the pony the chance to respond to a light one. In addition, by resorting to harsh pressures first up you will be automatically increasing the tension in the horse as it starts or gets a fright from a big kick or yank in the mouth. A tense horse is much less likely to be able to respond to cues calmly.
3. Work on building muscle strength and balance in young riders with balance games and work on the lunge so they don't need to rely on the reins or legs to stay on-aim to develop that famed independent seat before progressing to more advanced riding tasks.
4. Don't rush nervous kids into going faster than they are ready for. Scared riders will hang on, and give their horse contradictory signals with the end result that the pony is more likely to bolt. Spend the time doing lots at the walk and then practicing transitions so that the child feels confident in their ability to stop or slow the horse with light aids. This is especially true for more nervous ponies. Don't practice nervous or fearful responses-it will scare the child and the pony. We never get kids cantering until they can get the pony to speed up and slow down at the trot and to a light aid. We find this builds confidence and balance, creates a relaxed and attentive pony and reduces the gripping with knees and heels that often occurs with the first few canter attempts (often accompanied by the pony going too fast for the child's confidence).
5. Do buy a pony which needs a higher level of pressure to motivate it, particularly to go for beginner riders. Horses differ markedly in the amount of pressure they can withstand before attempting to remove it. "Forward" ponies are often more sensitive types which can't tolerate the kind of stronger pressures that beginners apply. For beginners, a pony which will tolerate the little inadvertent and inconsistent aids without reacting is ideal to give the child confidence to concentrate on the riding tasks and learn to apply the aids deliberately and with the correct timing.
6. Do have regular lessons with a qualified instructor on a one to one basis as much as possible.
7. Do remember that horses have NO INSIGHT into their behaviour and as such, what you see is what you get. They don't have the mental capacity to understand why they do things or why you are asking them to do what to them must seem pointless, such as going in endless 20 metre circles, something you never see a horse in a paddock doing.
If they are misbehaving, ask yourself what is motivating the behaviour (pain, anxiety, fear, frustration, inability to remove a pressure, flighty temperament) and then what is rewarding the behaviour (eg by shying the scary object is father away so less likely to hurt the horse, the rider is on the ground so the rider pressure is removed) and then what can you change- don't blame the pony.
Lastly, don't hang onto an unstuitable pony that is scaring your child or denting their confidence. Although it can take time and patience to find the right pony, it costs the same to feed and house one that is getting ridden as one that isn't. Get help if you can't solve the pony/rider issues yourself, your local pony club, riding school or riding instructor should be able to assist. Remember some people and some ponies just don't click, and your child will always improve more quickly on a pony they feel confident they can contol.