Home Schooling your Pony – Getting Started

To enjoy your riding to the full, you want a pony that is well mannered, supple, forward going and obedient. Some schooling is necessary to achieve this aim and, even with few facilities, there is plenty you can do to improve your pony’s all-round performance.

How to begin

When you’re starting your schooling programme it’s helpful to take advice from a properly qualified riding instructor. A professional can assess your riding and your pony’s natural ability and level of training.  It might also be important to run through some common horse health questions and answers before you commence training. It’s a good idea to return for ‘top-up’ lessons every month or so, to help you as you progress to more advanced movements.

On the lunge

Lungeing is an excellent way of keeping your pony light and supple when your time and space are limited. Be aware, however, that it is hard work for a pony and he must already be in fairly fit condition before you start this type of schooling. Also bear in mind the strain on the pony’s legs if your lunge circle has become boggy or hard with frost.

Keep your lungeing sessions short not more than about 20 minutes – making sure that you work the same amount of time on both reins.

Aim to have the pony working actively from his quarters up into a contact with the side-reins if you are using these. Don’t use side-reins to force the pony into an outline they should never be so short that his face comes behind the vertical. Adjust them so that they are just long enough to encourage him to round his back and seek down for the contact. Keep the side-reins of equal length on each side.

Schooling hacks

All ponies are different and some need more work than others you must know your own pony. However, don’t forget that you can do useful work while out hacking. In the relaxed atmosphere outside the arena you may find the pony more receptive to your commands than when you are struggling in the school. One essential to remember while trotting is to change your diagonal regularly -riding the same number of strides on each diagonal. Most ponies prefer you to sit on a particular diagonal as they tend to be more supple on one side. It may seem strange at first to use the opposite one, but you must if your pony is to become straight and balanced. As you trot along the track, decide which rein you are on (depending on your diagonal) and think about riding your pony forward from your inside leg to your outside hand. Ride him straight, encouraging him to take the contact with the bit and your hand.

Along bridleways or across fields you could try some leg-yielding two or three steps out from the side, ride straight for two or three steps and then leg-yield back to the side again. Do this in walk as well as trot. As you progress, you can use the hedges or fences as the outside track and practise steps in shoulder-in, travers or renvers. This is probably easiest after coming around a corner which serves as your preparatory circle. (Never try to do dressage movements on roads) If you have to stop on your hacks to open and close gates, take the opportunity to practise a turn about the forehand. Make a change of direction by asking for a quarter or half pirouette to encourage the pony to engage his hooks fully this helps to keep him supple.

Such schooling sessions can be good fun and much more interesting for you both than confining yourselves to the dressage arena.

These exercises help the pony to become more supple and obedient as well as straightening him and improving his performance. Remember to let him relax, however, and don’t spend the entire hack asking him to work.

Transitions

As you walk and trot along, think about the quality of your transitions, remembering that they should all be ridden forward. When you canter, ask for a particular lead and don’t let the pony simply strike off on his favourite.

A few good canter paces followed by trot and walk and then more upward transitions make a stiff pony supple.

If frequent changes of pace excite him, you may need to work him a little more beforehand, or give the pony a good canter to settle him. The same goes in the school; if your pony is not in the frame of mind for work or is bursting out of his skin you can wake him up or settle him down by cantering in the forward seat until he’s beginning to blow a bit.

Knowing what your pony needs is important here, as is taking professional advice from someone who can see you both working together. All riders, at whatever level, need a pair of eyes on the ground.

Warming up The ideal schooling ground is an all weather arena of 20 X 40m (66 X 132ft), with dressage markers. Riding schools usually have these facilities, so see if your local school rents its arena for winter use when conditions can be difficult at home.

If you are aiming at competition work, schooling hacks won’t be enough and you need to do more formal work.

Always remember to warm up your pony thoroughly before starting concentrated work. He is just like an athlete or gymnast who has to limber up so that his muscles are working at maximum efficiency.

Take a gradual contact through a series of large turns and circles. Make sure that you ride through each corner as though it is part of a circle. Use the inside leg to make him take a contact on the outside rein. As he begins to settle, you can take up the contact and go through your work programme. Practising the movements from a preliminary or novice dressage test is fun and gives you a helpful structure to work around.

It’s just as important to allow your pony to cool down after a schooling session. Let him take the rein and stretch down his head and neck while trotting and walking large circles. If he stretches readily then you know he’s worked hard!

Be critical of yourself and learn to ‘feel’ when the pony is going well or badly. If something doesn’t seem to be working, leave it for a while and return to a simple exercise which you and your pony do well be flexible in your approach. The time to finish a session is when schooling is going well you should never end on a bad note. Remember that you may be the reason for a bad day, not your pony!

Training A Pony to Jump

The first few weeks of training a pony to jump are the most important In his jumping career. If things go wrong now and he gets hurt, frightened or confused, he will find it very difficult to jump with confidence later on in life.

The trainer

For this reason, you should let somebody experienced take your pony through the basic stages, unless you are already competent.

It is vital that the rider remains in good balance, without interfering either with the pony’s mouth or his back, even if he gives a very awkward jump. The pony must feel that he will keep out of trouble, so long as he does his best although he may make mistakes despite being in capable hands.

Each pony is different and must be brought on at the speed which suits him best. Rush him and he may start refusing. A good pony could then be branded as a ‘stopper’, when all he needed was a little more time to learn. If possible, work with your trainer. You can help by moving poles and altering distances and heights. This way you learn how to position the jumps correctly when you take over the ride. You also get to know what your pony’s strengths and weaknesses are so you can get the best out of him yourself.

Starting off

Jumping lessons can start when the pony is four years old. Walk, trot and canter should be well established so that he is neither rushing or refusing to go forward freely.

The equipment you need at this stage is very basic: three poles (more if you can get them) and something to raise the poles off the ground by several centimetres. Plastic Bloks are ideal; milk crates, small oil drums or rubber tyres make good substitutes. You don’t need to paint everything in bright colours, although this is helpful when you are preparing for your first competition.

The first phase is often better done on the lunge. Without the interference of a weight on his back, the pony moves more freely. He only needs a lunge cavesson and rein and protective boots.

First lessons

Begin by walking the pony over a single pole on the ground until he is completely confident and relaxed. If he refuses, lead him over or let him follow another pony but do not have a battle or he will associate poles with fighting!

Go on to place two and then three poles in the lunge circle, so that he steps over them each time he goes round. The distance between the poles should give him room to take a few steps in between. Don’t worry about precise distance: just leave enough room for the pony to work out for himself how to adjust his stride as he meets the poles.

Give him every chance and don’t place two poles very close together. If you do, the pony will probably try to jump them in one go and this won’t help him to think about his stride pattern without guidance from his rider.

If the pony lowers his head to look at the poles this is good. He is already learning to round his back properly. But if he rushes and gets over-excited, move so the pole or poles are outside the lunge circle. Once he is walking calmly on the lunge again, move the circle to take him over the poles.

Trotting

You may need to do several lessons in the walk – lasting not more than 15 minutes three or four times a week. Once the pony understands that he must pick his feet up to clear the poles, the trot phase should create few problems. Lunge him in the same way, with one pole at first until he keeps to a steady trot rhythm. From one pole, go to three, carefully placed trotting poles. The distance between them varies from pony to pony but should match his natural stride. This makes trotting poles easy for him and builds his confidence. Get him used to approaching straight, calmly and with impulsion; working on the lunge encourages a round outline. Go from three to four or even five poles in a line and work from both reins. You may need to wedge the poles so they can’t roll and get under the pony’s feet.

The first jump

You can place the first jump on its own or at the end of a line of trotting poles. Using the poles first is ideal if you have enough equipment. Put the last two poles together to make a low cross-pole. The line should consist of three trotting poles, a ‘missing’ pole, followed by the cross-pole itself.

As the pony is already used to approaching a line of poles in a good trot, he will then learn to jump without rushing or losing impulsion. Don’t be surprised if he knocks the jump down the first time this is a new experience for him and he must learn to pick himself up.

If you are not using trotting poles in front of the jump, make sure the pony is going calmly when you put him at the cross-pole for the first time. Don’t move your lunge circle to include the jump until he is working correctly. Always remember to work on both reins during each session.

One pole in front of the fence is always helpful in placing the pony for a correct take off, particularly as you start to vary the look of the fence. This is not a ground line but a placing pole and lies between 1.8-2.7m (6-9ft) in front of the fence. The pony should take off between the pole and the jump. The distance will need altering as the pony gains in confidence and strength.

Improving A Pony’s Jumping

If a pony jumps badly, the reason lies somewhere in his past. It may be that he was poorly trained in the beginning or has since been ridden by an unsympathetic rider. Whatever has happened and it may be impossible to find out the exact cause it is up to the trainer to correct the faults one by one. In this way, confidence can be restored, and good habits and obedience established.

Obedience and sympathy

A pony can only jump well if he goes correctly on the flat. He doesn’t need to be highly trained but there are two basics that often need sorting out.

First, obedience to the leg. This doesn’t mean simply going forward to a leg aid but also accepting the feel of the legs. A pony which shoots forward as soon as he feels the rider’s leg against his side can be a real nuisance and very difficult to place correctly at a jump. The same applies to the pony which insists on going sideways at the sight of a jump in spite of the rider’s efforts to straighten him out with the leg aids.

Second, the pony should have a good mouth. If he is frightened of the bit, a touch on the reins sends his head up and hollows his back. On the other hand, a pony with ‘no mouth’ pulls and leans on the rider’s hands. Make sure the pony is happy with his bit and obedient to it, and be prepared to change it.

The pony’s mouth should improve as he learns to accept the leg. The rider must try to work with a light, consistent contact on the mouth and avoid pulling back when the pony pulls. Most ponies do not settle unless there is a contact as, until then, they worry about where the contact is and when there is going to be a sudden pull on the mouth.

With these two ‘basics’ sorted out, the pony should be working actively forward, straight and attentive to his rider.

He approaches his jumps with confidence, but no rushing!

What can go wrong?

Sadly, most ponies jump less than perfectly. Refusing or running out are the most common problems. Every time this happens, ask yourself why and what can be done to correct the problem. It is worth making a mental list of all possible excuses before deciding that the pony is just plain naughty. Even if he is, he probably had a very good reason when he started the habit!

Running out is due to lack of straightness in the approach, usually combined with rushing. Sometimes this happens because the pony is frightened of the jump and would rather take an easy way round.

If the fear is not deep-rooted, tackling very low fences and concentrating on a direct, calm approach, sorts out the problem. But a very frightened pony either refuses or takes a huge leap even when he is kept straight.

Fear and bravery

Fear has many causes. It could be that the pony has been pulled in the mouth or has rapped his legs on a pole or perhaps even fallen in the past. It may be that he is over-faced and doesn’t know how to jump. If this is the case, it is better to put the jump right down, even to ground level, and to build up slowly. Going too high too soon can be off-putting, resulting in the pony not wanting to try at all.

Some ponies are brave and clever and jump even if asked to take off at the wrong place. Others need to have their striding exactly right. These ponies are usually less agile or powerful and need sympathetic riding to get the best from their limited abilities. Ponies usually know their own limitations and have no desire to hurt themselves. If they know they are ‘wrong’, they refuse.

Boredom and nerves

Boredom and over-jumping can cause refusals. If a pony has been jumping Well and, for no apparent reason, gives up, then he may just need a few weeks or even months free of jumping to restore his enthusiasm.

Over-jumping, especially on hard ground, can lead to foot and leg problems so that the pony starts refusing. Such a pony often takes off very close to his fences, using minimum effort so that he can land more softly on the ground. He refuses only the bigger, wider jumps at first and gets progressively worse if forced to continue.

Refusing may come about with a nervous pony if he is put to a type of fence he has never seen before. Careful training at home, using some imagination in fence-building, gradually overcomes this problem, as does intelligent and confident riding.

A rider who expects a refusal or feels over-faced can cause a stop. Doubt is easily put across to a pony so he cannot be blamed for not wanting to jump! This particular fault can be spotted if the pony seems to ‘fade’ on the approach rather than stop suddenly.

Confidence and care

Although it is important for a pony to be confident over poles, he must also show them respect. Over-confidence can be followed by carelessness and knocking poles down. This is a difficult fault to cure leading to some trainers using rather nasty methods to make the pony pick up his feet properly.

If a pony has been hurt in this way, he may decide that enough is enough and won’t jump at all. He may look angry not frightened with ears back and tail swishing. Sometimes jumping across country rather than in the ring gets him going again.

Knock-downs are more often caused by a bad approach and/or poor style over the fence. Jumping with a hollow back or a restricted head and neck means the pony has to jump higher to clear the fence. The answer is to re-learn technique: improve his flatwork, get his confidence over low fences and use gridwork.

How To Lunge A Pony

Lungeing has been used in training horses and ponies for hundreds of years. It has many benefits for the pony and you don’t have to be a brilliant rider to be good at lungeing.

What does lungeing do?

The great advantage lungeing has over riding is that the pony can learn to go well without the hindrance of carrying someone. The rider’s weight can upset his balance or put extra strain on muscles doing new and unaccustomed work. Lungeing also makes the pony more supple and, with side-reins, gets him working in a correct outline. An overexcited, cold or stiff pony often gives a much easier ride if he is lunged for ten minutes first.

From your point of view, you can still work and exercise the pony even if he can’t be ridden – perhaps because his saddle needs mending or the pony has a sore back. It is also helpful to watch your own pony working and to teach him obedience to voice commands.

Even If you know you couldn’t possibly train your pony to high-school dressage level, it is still worth learning how to lunge. Any calm, sensible and practical person can learn quite quickly, although a certain amount of know-how and horse sense helps. Always learn with a trained pony, watch experienced people lungeing and get a sound knowledge of the basics before you start on a novice horse.

Keep the sessions short up to 30 minutes in total with a very fit pony.

Lungeing can be done every day but once or twice a week is adequate.

What you need

Find somewhere safe to lunge before buying a lot of expensive equipment, For a pony, a square 15m (50ft) wide is enough. This could be a flat area in the corner of a field or one end of a schooling area. Remember that the centre, where you stand, must be as flat as the edge of the lungeing circle. It is easier to judge the size and shape of the circle if you mark out a square with poles or cones. Poles should be wedged so they can’t roll about.

The only other equipment you need at first is a lungeing rein and a whip. The less expensive whips are usually light and easy to handle. A lungeing cavesson is best for attaching the lunge-rein but, if you don’t have one, use a headcollar. Wearing gloves stops you getting rope burns if the pony pulls away.

The rein and whip

Your aim now is to have your pony working round you with even rein contact and in a perfect circle which touches the four sides of your marked square. You should be able to stand in the middle giving quiet commands to walk, trot, canter or halt without the pony cutting in on the circle. He should be active, attentive and obedient. But the first problem is how to handle the length of the lunge-rein and whip!

To work on the left rein, hold the whip in your right hand. The lunge-rein goes from your left hand to the cavesson (or headcollar if this is all you have at the moment). Coil the lunge-rein carefully so that it doesn’t tangle as you let it out. It may help at first to hold the spare end in your right hand and let the rein run through your left hand. This stops you dropping too much rein and tangling it in the pony’s legs.

Starting and walking

Start in the middle of the circle, standing next to the pony’s girth. With the rein in your left hand, ask him to walk forward (take a few steps yourself if necessary) and quietly bring the whip toward his hindlegs. As the pony goes forward, stay put and let him move away from you, gradually letting out the lunge-rein. Keep repeating the command ‘Walk on!’ until the pony is walking round the circle and you can take your place in the centre.

Position yourself opposite the girth so that you are the point of a triangle. The three sides are the pony, the lunge-rein and the lunge Whip. Keep turning to face the pony and stand up straight with your elbows bent and close to your sides. Try to relax. Move the whip quietly to keep the pony active and encourage him forward with your left hand on the rein.

Walk to trot

To go from walk to trot, call the pony to attention by saying his name followed by ‘Ter-rot!’ and a slight raising of the lunge whip. If necessary give the lash a flick (not to hit him or he may charge off at a gallop!). If he is idle, crack the whip but practise this without the pony first. After a few circuits in trot ask him for walk: ‘Waaa-alk’. At the same time, lower the whip but keep it pointing toward the pony. Ask him to halt in the same way, staying out on the circle. Now you are ready to change rein and repeat the exercise on the right rein.