The Pony's-Eye View

Just because ponies are smaller than horses, it doesn?t mean we should think less of them. Good things can come in small packages. Ponies want people to remember that they?re different from standard-size horses, and in some ways, they don?t want to be tr
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Just because ponies are smaller than horses, it doesn?t mean we should think less of them. Good things can come in small packages. Ponies want people to remember that they?re different from standard-size horses, and in some ways, they don?t want to be tr

Just because ponies are smaller than horses, it doesn't mean we should think less of them. Good things can come in small packages. Oh, you can go ahead and make ?short? jokes. Ponies don't mind. But they do want people to remember that they?re different from standard-size horses, and in some ways, they don't want to be treated like their bigger brothers. Ponies want to be respected for what they are.

Shetland Pony. Photo by Alicia Slocumb

So what are they?

Technically, a pony is any horse under 14.2 hands (that's 58 inches measured at the withers). But there's more to being a pony than just being short. He?s not merely a horse who shrank in the wash. He probably had different ancestors.

Many experts now believe that the creatures we call horses originated thousands of years ago in Central and Western Asia. The climate was warm there, so early on, these animals developed thin skins and long legs. These features let them cool off quickly in hot weather. But in Northern Europe and Russia?s Siberia, it was (and still is) bitterly cold. The animals who lived there had to be tough and sturdy. The breeds of horses that grew up in these harsh, cold climates had to have thick coats and small, compact bodies to keep warm. Since grass was scarce and poor in quality, these beasts had digestive systems that let them get the most nutrition out of the little food they found to eat. In fact, the rate of all their body process (metabolism) was slowed down to protect them against the cold. These animals were ponies, and our ponies today are very much like them.

Their small size and slower, laid-back approach to life make them good mounts for children. Usually, they are calmer and steadier than their bigger, warmer-blooded cousins. They are not as skittish or as likely to shy as full-sized horses-but they can be a lot more stubborn. Sometimes is takes a lot of work to convince a pony to do what you want him to do. Once he is convinced, though, he is willing and very patient. This is great for beginning riders who aren?t always clear with their signals. But to convince a pony without spoiling him, it is important for him to be trained by someone who already knows how to ride and who understands ponies.

Whenever possible, a pony should be broken by a small adult before a child rides him. In fact, because ponies are so strong for their size, they actually make very good mounts for small adults. It's a shame that some adults consider ponies ?kids stuff? and don't pay much attention to their needs in training.

If you are worried about outgrowing your pony, maybe you should think again. Many European breeds of ponies have carried adults for hundreds of years. Even today, Connemaras, Welsh Mountain, Welsh Cob and Icelandic ponies are used to carry full-grown men, and sometimes the week?s groceries, too. In some places, ponies are the only horses in town.

Ponies have another big advantage over larger breeds. They can stay healthy on a lot less food. This isn?t to say you can turn your pony out and forget about him all winter. Without good pasture, he?d starve. But most of the time, ponies don't need any grain at all. As a rule, good-quality hay makes a fine winter diet for a pony. The exceptions to this rule are pregnant mares, growing foals and ponies doing hard work every day. But even they don't need much. On a cold winter night when a thoroughbred likes to be blanketed and inside a warm barn with a bucket of grain, a pony is just as happy with a pile of hay inside a sturdy lean-to shed in the pasture. As long as he gets food, water and salt and regular deworming treatments, he should be fine.

The time you have to watch what a pony eats is in the spring, when the first lush grass comes up. Ponies can easily founder from too much rich grass or grain. Their digestive systems can't process it. Founder starts out in the stomach, but it gradually spreads a poison through the entire body. It usually weakens the hooves, and a foundered pony can be crippled for life. You?re well advised to limit a pony?s grazing time in the new spring grass.

Yes, ponies are different, and happy that way. Whenever you deal with a pony, remember that he's not just a lot of horsepower crammed into a small package. He?s a rugged individual, and it's a family tradition. But once you take the time to understand your pony, he can give you years of good rides and companionship.

Now You Know

Thousands of years ago, mounted warriors changed the course of history all over the world. Armies who rode on horseback always beat armies on foot. Because the warriors were grown men, some people assume that the mounts were always horses. The truth is, many horse breeds back then were too slender-legged to carry much weight, although they could pull a wagon or chariot. Some of history?s fiercest warriors changed the map of empires from the backs of stocky-legged, round?bellied ponies.

Alexander the Great, for examples, was no sissy. But when his warriors showed up on their scrappy little Greek ponies, the Persians laughed down at them form the backs of their huge war horses. The Persians quit laughing when the ponies outmaneuvered the tall horses, and Alexander?s cavalry won the day.