Any of us who started riding as a young kid likely encountered a pony that saw it as his mission to knock us down a peg – or four. My first was Wally – a Welsh cross who starred in the lesson program my parents signed me up for as the cute little black bundle most likely to whip into the center of the ring and screech on the brakes during canter sessions. He was crafty – so long as I was paying attention and on the ready, he’d be an angel. The moment I relaxed and started enjoying the rhythm and ride, he’d grab the opportunity to introduce me to the arena footing.

Of course, the irony of the whole situation is I never would have been paired with Wally if the instructors and barn management were allowed to exercise their wisdom on selecting an appropriate mount. I was in heaven atop a 16.2hh grey mare named Gretchen, a seasoned, kind, careful and responsive mount. Sadly, other parents watching their kids in this group lesson expressed outrage over such a tiny kid (I was five or six at the time) on this tall horse. So the pros succumbed to pressure from couch quarterbacks and reassigned me to this devilish steed.

Challenges create better riders

Before I met Wally, the only time I had come off a horse without intent was with Popsey. She bucked me off in my third lesson as a beginner five-year-old. She taught me horses kick. I donned a hoofmark on my right cheek for weeks after I charged after her angry and ready to show her who was boss. This was a good lesson to learn.

Wally taught me how to handle falling off as a regular part of riding – and he gave me the courage to handle spills without concern. I grew very fond of Wally, as much as I resented being assigned to him initially. Still, I never did come to truly enjoy the rides on his back. Getting dumped was embarrassing at that age. It happened with such frequency, he kept me humiliated for much of the time we spent together. Sure, I learned to pay attention more, but I always reached for that moment of relaxation, rapport and connection – and every time I thought we were there, he’d get me.

Ed the naughty pony

I laughed out loud at the antics of ‘Ed the naughty pony’ in the video below. Today, most parents would be horrified to see a kid suffering such potential danger, but if you were a kid on a pony that taught you to be brave (and humble) once, you understand what a powerful learning experience this can be. There’s something about the bond that occurs between a child and a difficult horse that most adults can’t comprehend. As you watch Ed very carefully step over Ross as he’s thrown over his head, it’s clear Ed’s not looking to injure Ross, but is pretty determined about underscoring who’s boss. This relationship is one of conflict, but also a lot of caring.

 

Just to be fair, here’s a video (it’s longer) of Ed being (pretty) good.

 

Ponies and kids belong together

There’s something about kids and ponies that provide unparalleled learning experiences – or at least great fodder for future stories. Personally, I think the fears many adults instill in kids about the dangers of riding and the horror in falling may make it more dangerous for the child (and horse). We all know how stiffness and tension works against our connection with the horse, adds to the horse’s angst and makes staying with a horse – or having a safe landing – much harder. Plus, the lessons you learn as an unabashed youngster working through problems together with a difficult pony is a state you never quite capture as an adult focused on consequences (and mortality). If kids aren’t allowed to be exposed to situations with horses that surprise or unseat them with their antics, we may be hurting the quality of future equestrians that come up through the ranks to be solid competitors or teachers. Kids fall. They usually bounce and rarely break. The only way a rider gets good is by facing their fears and surviving to tell about it. It’s amazing how much more confident you become as a young rider after you brush yourself off and remount to achieve success. Those who have never taken a spill seem to ride with the fear that they will get hurt if they go off. Plus, a naughty pony can help kids learn about balance and connection a lot quicker than an old master who moves on cue to the ground person’s voice commands. Is it scary to let kids learn the hard way? You bet – particularly with the litigation lottery mentality that is ever-present today. Still, you can’t beat the education and talent a bratty pony can give a kid determined to truly understand artful horsemanship. It’s a quandary.

If you’re looking for tips, stories, lessons learned, insight from a variety of professional perspectives and a fun read, check out Turning Challenging Horses Into Willing Partners for a signed by author copy or you can find it on Amazon as a print book and Kindle edition.