Does this pony make my butt look big?

People have asked me “how big is too big” to ride a pony? Well…it depends.

IMG_0591

The tres amigas: Carol on Teake, a 14.3 hd Haflinger; Edie on Ellie, a 14.1 hd Haflinger, and Amy on Puca, a 14.2 hd Haflinger. Puca has evented very successfully with a 160 lb adult (not the rider in the picture).

There are several questions to consider:

1) Is it safe for the pony? Is the pony strong enough to carry your weight without being stressed or damaged? 

2) How do you look and feel on the pony? 

1) Can the pony carry your weight?

IMGP1344_2

Winterlake Juliet, a Welsh Cob mare, about 14.1 hds. Note the strong, solid legs. You can’t see her feet, but they are excellent, and she has great breadth of loin for good weight bearing capacity. She occasionally carried my 185 lb husband on short trail rides, but would have been too small for an every day horse for someone of his size/weight.

Ponies come in all shapes and sizes, just like us. A pony with sturdy conformation, good solid bone (strong cannon bones and feet), a short strong back and good breadth of loin has good carrying capacity. It should, of course, be well muscled and conditioned for the task you ask it to do. Like any horse, you should monitor its fatigue and not over work it. That said, ponies are pretty strong relative to their size.

254185_10150192296101404_3442767_n

Phyllis and Champagne, a Welsh Cob/quarter cross pony. Phyllis is about 5’6″ and Champagne is about 14.1 hds.

Many have postulated  “20% of the horse’s weight” as a reasonable guideline for carrying capacity. That’s 20% of his HEALTHY (ideal, not obese) weight, a good thing to keep in mind especially since so many people allow ponies to be overweight (don’t! it’s bad for them). And the 20% includes the tack, which can weight up to 20 lbs if you have a heavy western saddle and pad. Estimate the weight of your tack, add your own weight, and using the excellent chart below, see what size pony you could ride:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 2.23.17 PM

As you can see, the size depends on your own expertise and the task at hand. If you want to just go on an easy trail ride, well, you can ride a small pony because you’re not asking much. If you want to jump, that pony needs to be comparatively larger because the stress is greater. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Ellie loves to jump!

Ellie loves to jump! And at 14.1 hds with a short strong back and excellent bone, she has easily carried my 5’6″ body over fences 3′ and higher (fence in picture is only 2’6″).

Overloading and/or overworking your pony will cause damage over time and your pony cannot remain sound if you do so. However, if you remain within reasonable guidelines, ponies tend to be very sound and healthy animals who can live long lives and give years of fun!

2) How do you look and feel on the pony?

Many people stay away from ponies because they expect them to have short, choppy gaits, or they think they are not competitive against big horses.

Keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Far Above Par keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Yet today’s sport ponies are bred to move like warmbloods and they win against warmbloods, often winning even at a national level (read https://horsesage.com/2014/12/11/three-famous-ponies-and-small-horses-you-should-know/). There are a number of ponies here in California who are winning Regionally and doing very well. My own pony, Far Above Par (“Finn”), very quickly qualified for the Regionals at Fourth Level this season.

Personally, I find riding ponies feels like driving a sports car. Easy handling, quick and responsive steering, starting, and stopping, and you don’t have all that weight to move around the ring! Some of the big horses feel like a tank or a super tanker, like you have to plan so far ahead how you’re going to make that turn…

Admittedly, it’s takes a little mental adjustment to get used to seeing yourself on a pony. I rode big horses for a long time and you have a mental picture of yourself on a big horse. Then you see yourself on a pony and you think, “my legs are too far down the side.” But give it time, you can get used to it, just like fashion. Remember, we used to think this looked really good:

Embed from Getty Images

or this:

Embed from Getty Images

In the end, wear what feels comfortable and fits and flatters you NOW. Just as we wouldn’t be caught dead in those fashions any more, we might not want to ride the same kind of horses we rode 20 or 30 years ago. We’ve changed and our needs, riding disciplines, interests, and bodies may have changed.

Ride what feels comfortable and fits you and your lifestyle NOW. Have fun, and hug your horse (or pony).

Finn is trustworthy under saddle. What a good boy!

Ideally, Inspiration and motivation are what we feel

Picture this: a stunning horse and rider pair moving in harmony. Clearly, the horse cost more than a year’s salary, moves like a dream, and is trained impeccably. This horse makes you sit up and pay attention, yes, drool a bit, and think a bit wistfully,

“what would it be like to ride a horse like THAT?”

Embed from Getty Images

And off we go into fantasies of ourselves floating around the ring on this gorgeous horse, doing everything effortlessly. Of course, the rider on top has (usually) earned this horse. She’s in shape, she knows what she’s doing, and although she makes it look easy, guess what? It’s not. Sitting that big, expressive trot with ease and flair? Ha! Most of us would bounce right off. Going from extended canter to collected canter with invisible aids and then into a canter pirouette, all while remaining in beautiful balance, no tugging, no grimacing or grunting, no leaning forward/backwards/sidewards? Brava, rider! I’m impressed. I know how hard this stuff is, because I’m just beginning to learn it.

It’s tempting to think, “if I only had THAT horse, I could ride that elegantly, effortlessly, effectively!”

While it certainly is very true that some horses are much easier to ride than others (no kidding!), all horses require an educated rider to bring out their best.  In our second year together, I have finally caught up to Far Above Par (“Finn) and we showed Fourth Level earlier this season. In a few weeks, we’re going to take a step of faith and go for Prix St. Georges, something new for both of us! Plus a new and updated Freestyle. Yes, yes, two new things at a show (stress meter edging toward red now). I’m crazy, but as my husband tells me, I’m never happy unless I’m pushing myself.

DSC02134

Far Above Par and Edie in Medium Canter

Meanwhile, I appreciate deeply the opportunity I have to learn from my patient, humorous, educated schoolmaster pony. We’re growing together and having fun! 

If it’s not fun, why are we doing this? If you’re not having fun: change the equation.

Keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Finn makes me laugh. When I see that BIG FANCY HORSE floating across the diagonal in six strides (and it takes us 14 strides), and all of us gasp in amazement, I’ll just think to myself: I have the perfect pony for ME. And then I’ll go out and see if we can get just a little more elegance and reach into our trot extension, a little more jump in our canter, and a whole lot more sit in our canter pirouette. Working on it, working on it…

Attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Perfection is the Enemy of the Good

Dressage riders are particularly prone to over analysis, perfectionism, paralysis, self-loathing (brought on by the aforementioned activities), and DESPAIR.

DSC02077

Far Above Par (Finn) in the warm up arena, doing a working half-pirouette left.

I will NEVER achieve my goal! we cry in despair, whether that goal is to sit the trot without bouncing hideously, do tempi-changes or a decent pirouette, or simply ride a dressage test without going off course.

DSC02059

Far Above Par (Finn) warming up. Yes, a little on the forehand, maybe some tail tension (did I just tap him with the whip?), and I’m looking down. And those white breeches are not flattering. How’s the inner voice, eh?

Eventers seem to be so much more laid back – perhaps it’s all that galloping, it just blows the cobwebs away and gives a nice shot of endorphins. Maybe seeing your life flash before your eyes when you almost wipe out on the cross country course helps keep little worries like whether you look fat in your white breeches in perspective. Who the heck really cares?

People are all thinking about their OWN thighs, not yours. Seriously.

As for hunter/jumper people, well, they are two different types, aren’t they? Hunter riders are a bit like dressage riders: everything has to be perfect: turnout, horse, rhythm, form, etc. Jumpers just want to get over the course clean and fast. The really good ones do it with good form, of course, but some pretty wild stuff happens on the jump course. Looks like fun…if I had more guts.

Last weekend Finn and I competed in a dressage show held over three long, long, long days. Grueling is how I would best describe it: hot, windy, tiring. Finn was a trooper (he’s a professional); I was a whiner.DSC02134

Things started out poorly, with me going off course in my first test in spite of having a reader. Kind of amazing, isn’t that? The judge gave me a disappointingly low score for the test, and it was a discouraging way to start the long show weekend.

However, I got back on the horse (or pony in this case), and kept trying, looking at the show as a chance to learn and to practice my tests, worst case. Things got better and I’m glad I didn’t take my toys and go home, much as I wanted to after that first day!

DSC02063My husband gave me the following encouraging quote from Theodore Roosevelt. Perhaps it might help you if you are feeling discouraged right now…

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Meanwhile, for those of us take chances, whether it is donning white breeches and submitting ourselves to the written comments of a judge and the imagined observations of spectators, or going over a course of jumps, riding a green horse out on the trail, or just pushing ourselves to keep trying, I say, “well done, you. Keep growing, and remember: this is all about having fun!”

Don’t let perfectionism destroy the Good that is within your grasp. Take chances and enjoy what comes your way!

Who could resist Finn's cute face?

Keep it fun for me!

If I only had a brain (I could remember what I learned)

With a sense of the clock ticking for both me and Finn (“Far Above Par”) – Finn being in his prime work years, and me being, uh, not so prime but still able to work sort of hard – we’ve been signing up for clinics and applying ourselves hard to the study of dressage.

That is, I have been applying myself hard: reading articles, watching videos, attending the World Cup, taking lessons. Finn goes along for the ride and will work for treats, bless his pony heart.

I worked hard, I've had my bath. Now feed me. I can't believe how slow and ineffectual my mom is about getting her chores done and getting to the important part of the day: LUNCH! How a pony suffers for his art.

I worked hard, I’ve had my bath. Now feed me. I can’t believe how slow and ineffectual my mom is about finishing her chores and getting to the important part of the day: MY LUNCH!              How a pony suffers for his art.

Finn continues to be an excellent schoolmaster, performing beautifully when asked approximately correctly (ha!), very safe and sane. A little occasional sluggishness is excusable as the price I pay for such safety and general good nature about putting up with my learning curve.

Finn and me working with Miguel Tavora

Finn and me working with Miguel Tavora – this looks like medium trot on a circle, I think. We did a lot of shoulder-in to medium trot that day.

Having moved barns to get to better, more consistent footing for training, I now have access to some new clinicians, too. What I’m finding comforting is that everyone pretty much says the same thing, with variations. These are the current challenges, as we continue our dressage journey and debut at 4th level this year:

  • Consistent uphill balance
  • Better engagement from behind
  • Consistency! Every transition clear, planned for, balanced
  • Maintaining balance all the time – through the extensions, transitions, corners, etc.

If I could do everything in that list,  4th level test 3 would become simple and I could just move on to Prix St Georges, right? RIGHT?

But we’re not there yet, no, not by a long shot…So, how to get from here (inconsistent) to there (balanced and consistent)?

Here’s what all the clinicians (and my trainer) are saying:

1) Don’t nag! Give an aid, get a response, get your leg off of him.  He must become very light to the leg and responsive to the seat as you go up the levels. You can carry a horse through lower level tests. Not so as you get higher. Things come too fast and the demands are too great. The horse has to carry itself and be responsive to your seat and your light aids. Train it to be so. Finn is happy to be trained to be either dull or responsive: my choice. And while I’d MUCH rather ride a responsive horse, it’s amazing how quickly I slip back into nagging and I dull him. This is my constant battle but I’m improving. I worked on activating the horse in January with another clinician and am STILL working on it. If you also struggle with this problem, you might find this article useful: (https://wordpress.com/post/75277491/496/)

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 7.31.24 AM

Look at me nagging! See that leg curled up with the spur pressing in? Disengages my seat, tightens my leg, and dulls his side. Not to mention my reins are too long and my hands too low, my eyes looking downward rather than ahead. I think I am posting here and that’s why I don’t seem to quite be sitting in the saddle.

The details matter. Where my leg hangs (closer to the girth vs too far back), how I use it and take it off. What kind of spurs I use. At my latest clinic, Miguel Tavora told me to get swan necked spurs instead of the Prince of Wales ones I currently use, because Finn is small and my leg is long. This will help me keep my leg long and off him rather than being tempted to have it curled up and pressed into him (as above).

Swan necked spurs. Useful for riding short horses if you have longer legs. These are the only spurs that you may wear pointing UP.

Swan necked spurs. Useful for riding short horses if you have longer legs. These are the only spurs that you may wear pointing UP

2) Keep your leg long and draped! Don’t grip. Open your hips. Sit soft and deep in the saddle. Do you know how difficult this is? Yes, I’ll bet you do. Especially on a pony. It actually IS harder on a pony. O.k., enough whining. I love my pony. I can and WILL do this. Let me recommend you start with a saddle that fits you (and your horse) well. This is impossible to do in an ill-fitting saddle. My saddle fits and I have no excuse.

3) Give forward with your hands – without losing the contact! This takes feel and timing. Keeping the horse on the bit, moving forward, and yet having a forward/giving feeling is a great feeing but I have to think about it. Otherwise I can tend to have a backwards hand which put the brakes on for the horse. Charlotte Dujardin is my role model here:Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 7.03.14 AM

Look at Charlotte – leg long and draped, hands forward and yet maintaining the contact. A teensy bit behind the vertical with her torso if we’re going to be nit-picky, but if anyone ever got such a nice picture of me, I’d blow it up into poster size and put it on my wall to say, “Look, I did it right for one brief shining moment!” She’s a lovely and effective rider.

When I practice with Finn these days, I have mantras running through my head: reins shorter and higher! Leg long! Don’t nag! Give him space, don’t hold with your hand (but don’t let him off the contact).

“Remember to reward often,” Finn says. We horses appreciate it.

All this and keep the horse and yourself in balance. Oh yeah, and memorize a couple of tests, too.

Dressage is for crazy people, don’t you agree? 

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 5.06.04 PM

The magic of counter canter

Finn practicing counter canter

Finn practicing counter canter. My position is less than ideal with my heel up and my hands a bit braced and flat, but note that because we are in counter canter (left lead), so my right leg is maintaining the bend by being behind the girth, and Finn has a slight bend to the outside of our 20 meter circle.

Who would have thought that counter canter would turn out to be my favorite exercise?

I thought I had left it behind and would only revisit occasionally, but lately I find I’m using it almost every day. Counter canter is the Swiss Army Knife of exercises! It balances and strengthens the horse in a way that seems so much easier for both of us. A quick definition: counter canter is cantering on the “outside” lead. So, if I am circling to the right, my horse would be on the left lead. This requires strength and balance and is a good test of obedience, too. (Note: Finn is in counter canter on a 20 meter circle in all these pictures, even though it may be hard for you to see which lead he is on. These are screen shots from a video and he was on the LEFT lead on a RIGHT circle.)

A month ago I was struggling with counter canter. Finn and I are beginning to show Fourth Level dressage this year, but…4th level test 3 has 10 meter counter canter half circles which were our undoing. The rest of the test – not too bad – the counter canter exercise: hopeless. Which is ridiculous.

Finn is small, well-balanced, athletic, strong, and trained. There was no reason we should be struggling so much with 10 m counter canter circles. Nonetheless, we just couldn’t get it.

Smart girl that I am, I asked for help. I had a clinic scheduled with eventer Matt Brown (http://www.eastwesttrainingstables.net), and in about one minute, Matt had identified the problem: ME. Oh big surprise. I was working way too hard (as usual) trying to hold Finn in position and on the counter lead, since Finn’s usual evasion is to do a flying change onto the other lead.

I felt I had to manhandle him onto that counter lead and carry him around the circle lest he change out of the lead. Wasn’t working well. We both were tense and stiff and it wasn’t pretty.

Matt had me pick up the counter canter on a 20 meter circle, and just relax, relax, relax. Relax my seat, my leg, my hands. Finn changed leads. O.k., walk, pick up the counter lead again. Now relax. Six strides later, Finn changed leads. O.k., walk, pick up the outside lead again. Relax, and canter. Within about a minute, Finn realized that he was going to have to stay on that outside lead or keep picking it up from the walk (gee, that’s a lot of work!), but that counter canter wasn’t going to be hard, I wasn’t going to push him, we were just going to softly canter around together. Amazingly, he began to balance on his own (you mean, I didn’t have to carry him? Nope). Sometimes he switched leads, sometimes he broke to the trot. I just picked up the outside lead again, from the walk, very calmly and in a relaxed manner. I had to let him figure out the balance and make his own mistakes, rather than trying to fix it all for him and muscle him through it.  We began the counter canter all strung out and on the forehand. We ended nicely balanced and jumping off the hindquarters, able to canter a smaller circle with balance. Hallelujah!

See how the "jump" improves with the counter canter?

See how the “jump” improves with the counter canter?

We’re still working on it, but what a difference. The counter counter improves the regular canter, too! I find if I do counter canter early in our work session, the rest of the canter work is better balanced, less strung out, and has more jump. It’s as though the counter canter on a circle fixes everything for me without me having to do any pushing or pulling (which I shouldn’t be doing anyway). I just guide him onto the circle and sit in a relaxed, following seat, keeping the impulsion and roundness, but not doing a whole lot more. I aim for the feeling that Finn is doing pushups with his hindquarters. That’s the strength building exercise I want. Recognize that this does take strength and don’t overdo it at first. Give frequent walk breaks and build up to it slowly, as you would any new exercise.

Struggling a little with balance here, but look at how he is coming under himself! Doing pushups with those hindquarters.

Struggling a little with balance here, but look at how he is coming under himself. Doing pushups with those hindquarters.

This works with less advanced horses, too. I tried it on Ellie, who is currently schooling at 1st Level, and it worked beautifully. Ellie sometimes struggles to find balance on the left lead. I thought left counter canter would be very difficult for her, but to my amazement, she found it very easy! In fact, her left counter canter was much better than her regular left canter. Something about the counter canter circle straightened her and helped her to get her hind legs under her more effectively. So my latest exercise for her is to do a couple of large counter canter circles, then canter out of it into a regular circle – trying to maintain the rhythm and quality of the canter – then back to the counter canter circle, and so on. Counter canter is my new GO TO exercise, along with shoulder-in, which I do all day long…

Happy (counter) cantering!

“Pony Brain”: it ought to be a compliment

Finn the New Forest Pony is curious and intelligent.

Finn the New Forest Pony is curious and intelligent. In this motion shot, he’s offering to do anything I want if I will give him a treat. Ha! Nope, not going to happen.

Ponies are often accused of having “Pony Brain,” which seems to involve being

  • stubborn,
  • obnoxious,
  • obsessed with food,
  • opportunistic,
  • rather tricksy and uncooperative.

While I won’t deny that ponies tend to be intelligent, hardy, and survivors, I tend to think of these as positive and generally endearing characteristics. Not to mention that many of them do have a sense of humor which they don’t always use appropriately.

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 5.20.16 PM

We’ve all had horse owning friends who shrug, roll their eyes, and say dismissively, “Pony Brain!”  Ever notice that when their 16 and 17 hand horses do the same behaviors, no one accuses them of having a Pony Brain? Guess what: they’re all just horses. In my opinion, some are smarter than others, and they all have different personalities. Pick one with the personality, size, and type you like.

To loosely paraphrase Inigo Montoyo of The Princess Bride:  “I do not think Pony Brain means what you think it does.”

I suggest that we consider Pony Brain a compliment from this day forward. While I couldn’t uncover any scientific research that ponies are more intelligent than horses, many people seem to think they are. They’ve had to survive on their own in tough and rugged conditions for hundreds (thousands) of years, not to mention surviving the not so tender ministrations of charming little children. That takes a certain intelligence and toughness, not to mention the ability to take care of yourself.

Pony Brain in my experience equals:

  • humor
  • willingness
  • trainability
  • an ability to figure things out
  • plus ponies are usually smart enough not to take you over a cliff or through a fence.
  • They’ll take care of themselves (and you, in the process).

As long as you are smarter than your pony, Pony Brain is terrific!

Ellie and Edie, good friends.

Ellie the haflinger has a good brain and she uses it, almost always for good.

Riding is a conversation

DSC01800I must regretfully confess that for years I’ve been nagging my horses.

I give an aid and then I keep giving it, thinking that if I stop telling them to trot, half pass, or canter, the horse will stop moving. So I train my horses to expect continual reactivation again and again, and guess what?

Riding is tiring. Because I work HARD. Much harder than the horse, much of the time. But it doesn’t have to be that way…

My trainers over the years have tried to help me with this, reminding me not to nag the horse, to give an aid and expect a response, to keep my aids light, etc., and I’ve gotten much better, but I still have a tendency to cling with my lower leg – I put the leg on and I forget to take the aid off. See this picture below?

Clinging with the calf, pressing, pressing…and bracing with the back. Poor Finn.

Clinging with the calf, pressing, pressing…and bracing with the back. Poor Finn.

At the recent Corine Dorrepaal clinic, from the first moment we worked on this problem for THREE days, and for the first time, I really felt the difference in my horse and in myself when I gave an aid quickly and then let go. Wow! My horse had a chance to respond and then be free! He was so much less braced in his body, because he didn’t have me clinging to him with my legs. Instead, my legs were draping along his sides lightly. I could sit more deeply with a long, relaxed leg.

Corine considers riding a conversation with your horse. When the rider uses the leg all the time, she is doing all the talking and can’t hear what the horse is saying. If she relaxes the leg, then she can receive information back from the horse through her softly draped leg and through her seat.

Information such as Is the horse bending softly? Is there tension is his body? How is his back feeling? Is he responding quickly and softly to my aids? all becomes so much more clear when the legs are not getting in the way by gripping.

Finn and me at Corine Dorrepaal clinic

Finn and me at Corine Dorrepaal clinic

For my next stage of horse education, there is nothing more important I can work on than to learn to converse with my horse through riding with a more relaxed seat and leg.

I wish I would have understood this decades ago when other trainers tried to teach me (and they did try), but I guess when the student is ready, the master appears. Now is the time! Fortunately, my trainer is ready, willing, and able to move forward and will be so happy that I finally have a glimmer of understanding in this area.

My time with Corinne illustrates the benefit of going to a clinic, however. Sometimes going outside your comfort zone and hearing the same truths spoken differently by someone else with different illustrations finally gets it through your thick head.

I found it wonderful and fascinating that this week, as I am thinking about this, I saw several quotes on the same theme, and I thought I’d share them with you here:

As the blind person touches the object before him very softly and lightly with his fingertips in order not to interfere with the work of the sensitive nerve ends by too much pressure, so it is the rider’s first obligation to keep soft and natural those parts of his body with which he feels his horse. If his seat meets this requirement, he will soon feel the movement of the horse’s legs and will be able to distinguish each individual one; he will thus have the means at his disposal with which to control them as if they were his own.”  G.Steinbrecht (1884)

“The overriding theme the first day of the 2015 Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference was just that—that most of the eight participants overrode their horses.”

“Transitions, transitions, transitions are the name of the game,” Clarke said, explaining he wanted the horse to give an electric reaction to Morris’ aids in the walk/trot transitions.

“The horse’s job is to react,” he said. “The rider’s job is to sit and relax.” (It’s All About the Pace, by Sue Weekly, Published in The Chronicle of the Horse)

Finn collecting the canter

Finn collecting the canter