Ah, the memories of Golden Ponies…

Trail riding is one of my very favorite things to do – assuming, that is, that I have a good, trustworthy and fun horse to ride. We all know that riding a spooky or dangerous horse is not much fun at all.

Ellie and Edie

Snuggling with Ellie, the most amazing trail pony.

Fortunately, most every horse I’ve owned has been good on the trail and we try to get out there when we can. It renews the soul and keep us both from going crazy.

There’s nothing like being out in nature and relaxing with your horse. It’s such a bonding thing! You have to trust each other.

The horse trusts its rider to provide leadership. He asks, “should I pass that scary looking fallen log? Will that dog (horse sees it as possible WOLF) attack me? Do I need to worry about that rustling in the bushes?” The rider has to radiate relaxed unconcern. It’s all cool, we can do this, horsie. You are big and brave. I will take care of you.

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Sometimes I sing to my horse which seems to comfort her,  and singing distracts me, too. CAUTION: You need to pick a soothing song, nothing with screechy notes. You’ll feel pretty quickly whether your horse likes the song…or not.

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Eliana, the very best haflinger ever, ponies a young haflinger friend at Wunderlich County Park.

On a trail ride, I have to trust the horse. She will not bolt. She will not take me over the cliff. She will not jump off the bridge plunging me to certain death. She will not suddenly whirl causing me to fall off and be impaled on that stake over there…

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Yes, you see how my mind sometimes works, this is why it’s a good idea for me to sing. Or talk, if I have a friend with me. And so, we all relax and enjoy the ride and I stop thinking, “what if…”

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Not my horse, but a horse is the best way to see the country around Jackson Hole, WY.

Trail riding builds our relationship because we have an adventure together and trust each other more deeply. We come back from the trail feeling even better friends, refreshed, relaxed, and happy.

Below is a 30 second trail video from several years ago. At the time, I was lucky enough to own TWO gorgeous haflinger trail horses. My husband was riding behind on Ellie, taking a trail movie with his iPhone when he should have been minding the horse. I’m in the front on Amadeo.  At the time I was annoyed at him for fooling with his iPhone, but I’m glad now to have the memory of a ride on such gorgeous golden ponies. Look at that Haflinger tail in the video! We are in Carmel Valley, California, for this ride, at Jack’s Peak County Park.

Letting Go

MediumJPG_15CS9218_Dwan_TerriMiller-(ZF-3600-62173-2-003)My magic pony, Finn (Far Above Par), has a new owner now, and I am running the gamut of emotions, swooping madly like an out of control roller coaster, both delighted that’s he’s got a great home, and desolate that my special pony is no longer with me. Gone to a new owner! Not mine anymore.

All who have loved and had to sell a horse know that feeling of aching loss.

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Last moments with Finn before loading him in the trailer for his new home.

Why then did I sell him? Sometimes you have to. My chronic and worsening lower back and his bouncy trot were not doing well together; it became clear that if I was going to have a long riding career I needed a smoother horse. It took me many months to get there emotionally, but when it began to hurt every day to ride, I was certain it was the right thing to do. I began telling a few people I would put him on the market in the early Spring. Lo and behold,

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Finn says, “This vet check is getting boring. I’m tired of flexion tests. Let me taste this chain now…”

the grapevine (no advertising yet) very soon produced the perfect owner. I wasn’t quite ready for that – so soon??? –  but I couldn’t pass up this perfect match. They were right for each other and looked quite happy together.

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I learned so much from Finn, and I’m so grateful.

And so I let go. And continue to let go of the most wonderful pony. Oh, quirky, yes, he has his little quirks (lots of pony personality), but he made me laugh.

Robin Hood and Finn

Dressing up for Halloween: Robin Hood and Finn. “Give me your treasure or Finn will step on your feet.”

He taught me so much about dressage, and we had fun together, too! We went on the trail and over jumps, to clinics, dressed up for Halloween, and  learned a little piaffe and passage. What adventures we had! And through it all, always safe and sensible, and so beautiful. Truly an exceptional pony, a wonderful New Forest Pony.

A woman at my barn said, “Did you tell the buyer that magic sparkles fall from his hooves when he is ridden? Because they do…” Yes, they do, they really do. Always a place in my heart, Finn.Dwan_Far Above Par_15CS9297_TerriMiller-(ZF-3600-62173-2-001)

If you have a pony, you might as well dress it up

On Halloween, my instructor promised candy to everyone who came in costume.

Wouldn’t you know, nobody – and I mean NOBODY – else did. O.k., a couple of people wore orange shirts. But Finn and I went whole hog. Could it be my acting background? The fact that I have kept a bunch of old costumes at home “just in case”?

I love dressing up and pretending to be someone else. It’s always nice to take a break from being yourself.  And Finn is happy to go along for the ride. The cloak looked fabulous streaming out behind us, although the clinking bag of coins (treasure “taken from the rich”) quickly became annoying and had to be discarded. I also have to admit that the beard and mustache, dapper while they lasted, melted off my face by the end of my lesson. It was a hot day here in California.

Find an occasion, and have some fun with your horse!

Robin Hood and Finn: Give me your treasure or Finn will step on your feet.

Robin Hood and Finn: Give me your treasure or Finn will step on your feet.

Will work for cookies

What will you do for a cookie, my pony?

Many cookies shall be yours, my good pony.

I am not one to give many treats by hand. Having owned a fair number of ponies along the way, I’m familiar with their swift and compelling obsession with the hand in the pocket: GIVE IT TO ME NOW, NOW, NOW!!! Or I take the hand, too.

And yet, I’ve noted that the use of an occasional treat really sweetens Finn’s demeanor and motivates him to work harder. It reinforces training.

Finn would probably make an excellent circus pony. Cute, highly trainable, very motivated by treats.

So I keep that in mind as we do our dressage training. The occasional carrot or cookie reinforcement is not a bad thing.

When Finn first came to me, he was perfect in almost every respect except that he expected a cookie to stand at the mounting block. This is common, many people train their horses this way. However, I believe a horse needs to just stand for mounting with no treat, because what if I don’t have one some day? I might be on the trail and have to get off and on for some reason, or be at a show and not have anything in my pocket. I don’t want to run around looking for a treat at that moment.

So we began mounting block training. The first four days, Finn threw a fit at the mounting block each day. WHAT? NO TREAT??? He fidgeted and wouldn’t stand still. I mounted rapidly (this is the dangerous moment), and then he would throw himself backwards and have a temper tantrum. “Where is my TREAT??? I want my mommy!!! You’re not a nice mommy, you’re not doing things the right way!” He even reared a little (naughty pony). The tantrum only lasted 20 seconds each day, but it was impressive and dramatic.

Then we would be on our way and everything was fine. I’ll say this for Finn: he can let it go and move on.

For four days, Finn threw bigger and bigger tantrums, trying to intimidate me into his way of thinking, but I am made of sterner stuff. I would win the battle of the mounting block! On the fifth day, he stood quietly (if a bit sullenly). He realized it was a new day, a new deal, and he wasn’t going to win this one. I praised him copiously but did NOT give him a treat.

Nowadays Finn often get treats from me for good work, and sometimes just for being cute, but never anywhere around the mounting block. If someone else rides him and gives him a mounting block treat, it resurrects that behavior (oh no!) although I’m able to pretty quickly re-establish the right behavior again. He knows what I expect at the block and he’s perfect now.

“I worked hard, mom. I need a cookie.”

Treats given judiciously and with the right timing are a useful training tool, and we enjoy giving them, so why not?

Extra effort, or some new training, should be rewarded with verbal praise, a soft pat, and sometimes a treat. Studies have shown that intermittent reinforcement is more effective than rewarding on a schedule, so it’s best not to give a treat EVERY time your horse does something well. Vary your rewards, but do reward your horse. She appreciates it! And sometimes it just feels good to give your horse a carrot, because it makes him SO happy. Of course, if your horse is insulin resistant, give low sugar treats or stick to pats and verbal praise.

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Does this pony make my butt look big?

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

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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?

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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.

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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:

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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:

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or this:

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!

Horses: heartbreakers, hearthealers

Ellie

Ellie

When I see my horse’s face over the stall door, it always makes me smile.

I know that “pretty is as pretty does,” and that temperament, soundness, and suitability are the highest priorities – but honestly, a face that you enjoy seeing over the stall door is awfully important. Cuteness counts, it just does.

On Valentine’s Day it seems apt to talk a little about our love for our horses. About how our hearts stir at that low greeting nicker, the one that says, “hey, where you been?”. It makes me feel so appreciated, even though I know they’re really looking for food.  I speak right back, with all sorts of nicknames. “Good morning, Ellie Jelly Belly! How are you, Finny-Finn-Finn?”

Beloved animals have many nicknames, I think. The more you know them, the more little pet names they get. Finn came to me with the nickname, “Little Stinkbutt,” which I found rather ominous. Apparently he earned it when he used to kick his trainer’s feet out of the stirrups when he was learning the flying changes. Fortunately, he is only very rarely a true Stinkbutt. Most of the time he is very, very good, and only once in awhile do his little pointy pony ears look like devil horns.

Finn: Little Stinkbutt? Nooooooo….

Finn: Little Stinkbutt? Nooooooo….

Ellie came to me at three years old, without having earned any nicknames. She picked some up at the Ranch pretty quickly: Baby, Jelly Belly (she’s an easy keeper), Blondie, etc. For some strange reason, I also call her Puppy sometimes. I don’t know why, but it feels right. She is a Golden Retriever in horse form, so maybe that’s why.

Ellie the beautiful

Ellie the beautiful

Whatever I call them, my horses mean the world to me. As my trainer wisely said, “They are worth our tears.” Anyone who has been around horses knows there will be tears and heartbreak along the way. How can an animal so strong also be so fragile?

A wise friend said recently, “they break our hearts…and they heal them.” Yep. Been there, done that.

My heart has been broken over horses more times than I want to recall, but yes, they ARE healing somehow and so I want them always in my life. As the saying goes, “there’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a (wo)man.”

Snuggling with Ellie

Snuggling with Ellie

On this Valentine’s Day and every day, I wish you Horse Hugs, Pony Kisses and Heart Wholeness. And horses in your life both now and forever!

Delicious!

Delicious!

“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.

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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.