Simply put, ponying means to lead a horse alongside the horse you’re riding. On the trail, ponying comes in handy when training a new horse. As the ponied horse’s herd instinct kicks in, he’ll likely follow his leader through terrain that might otherwise seem intimidating, such as crossing water. And he’ll experience spook-inducing, wide-open country without risking a rider’s fall.
You might also wish to pony a horse carrying supplies to a campsite, a horse a child is riding for greater control, an injured horse that needs exercise to heal, or a horse whose owner has experienced an accident or injury.
In each case, you’ll need to know how to pony a horse safely — how to keep you, your horse, and the ponied horse safe. It’s a complex task to carefully ride your own horse and pay attention to another, all while holding the reins in one hand and a lead rope in the other.
But horses don’t mind the proximity, because it’s natural for them to travel at speed while close to one another. Once you know how to handle the ropes, ponying can become a natural, easy way to travel.
Here, top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight will teach you how to pony a horse safely while avoiding common pitfalls.
(For Goodnight’s regular Q&A column, see “Ask Julie Goodnight,” The Trail Rider, January/February 2013)
Before you begin, make sure your pony horse — the saddle horse you’ll ride — is comfortable with other horses riding nearby. Your pony horse should also be easily controlled with one hand on the reins so you’ll have an extra hand to hold onto the ponied horse’s lead rope. He should be a safe, reliable mount that doesn’t spook.
Your pony horse should also calmly allow ropes to touch his legs and tail, and should drag logs without spooking.
Your ponied horse should be halter broke and lead well from the ground. To be safe, both horses must have good ground manners and know not to interact with other horses when a human is present.
What you’ll do: You’ll learn to how to handle the ponied horse’s rope, how to cue the ponied horse to move forward, how to teach the ponied horse to stay in position, and how to approach new obstacles while ponying.
What you’ll need: A saddle with a rigid tree (a flexible tree may apply pressure unevenly across your horse’s back if the ponied horse pulls) and a bridle for the horse you’ll ride; a rope halter and 12-foot lead rope for the horse you’ll pony. Wear gloves to protect your hands from rope burns if the ponied horse pulls.
Step #1. Learn the Ropes
Outfit the horses in the tack listed earlier. Position the ponied horse on the right side of your pony horse. Holding the lead rope and reins in your left hand, move to your pony horse’s left side, and mount up. As soon as you’re in the saddle, keep the reins in your left hand, but transfer the ponied horse’s lead rope to your right hand.
Note: Always hold the pony horse’s rope in a way that you can easily drop it if one horse slips or spooks — never tie or knot the two horses together.
Double the lead rope so you can easily lengthen and shorten it. When the lead rope is safely doubled, you’ll see a loop in front of your knee as your hand rests on your leg. Never wrap the lead rope around your hand; if the ponied horse pulls or bolts, you’ll likely become injured.
Note the doubled rope in Goodnight’s left hand. The rope nearest to her pinky finger is attached to the horse and lies next to the rope’s end. The rope extending from her thumb and forefinger is doubled. She’s in position, relaxed, and ready to cue her pony horse by neck reining.
Avoid holding the rope too far behind you. With this hold and without a doubled rope, too much slack allows your ponied horse to fall far behind your pony horse —precisely in kicking position. The loose rope can also tangle in your pony horse’s legs or slip under his tail, potentially causing a wreck.
Goodnight will hold this rope and rein position as long as she’s working with a young horse. By holding the rope — instead of fully dallying the rope around the saddle horn — she can cue her pony horse to move forward or back. She also ensures that the horses won’t be connected if the new pony horse spooks.
When Goodnight knows her pony horse is obeying and compliant, she’ll often half-loop the lead rope around the saddle horn. This allows her to relax her grip and hold only one piece of the rope. The rope isn’t knotted and can quickly be released from the horn.
Step #2. Go Forward
Ask your pony horse to walk on with your usual rein and leg aids. Include a voice command so that your ponied horse also hears the cue. As your pony horse moves forward, your ponied horse will feel the rope’s gentle pull. He should understand these go-forward voice and pressure cues, because he’s halter broke.
If your ponied horse doesn’t follow along, don’t try to pull him forward; you don’t have enough strength, and the attempt could wrench your back or pull you off your pony horse.
Instead, stop your pony horse, and take a half-wrap on the saddle horn, holding both ends of the rope in your right hand, down against your leg. Then cue your pony horse forward, and let his body weight pull your ponied horse forward. It’s pretty easy for the ponied horse to pull against you, but he won’t pull long against the pony horse’s weight.
Caveat: To successfully pony a horse, you’ll need to have the skill and concentration to deal with two horses at once, such as asking your pony horse to slow down while asking your ponied horse to come forward. Not all riders are ready for this kind of challenge. You might forget to stop your pony horse. Or, you might get pulled off your pony horse by a spooky ponied horse. If you plan to pony a young or unseasoned horse, first practice these initial steps with calm, easygoing horses.
Keep the ponied horse close in at your pony horse’s hip so the horses can’t step in different directions around a small tree or other obstacle.
Practice walking while maintaining these lead rope and rein holds. First, walk straight ahead, then gradually add turns to the right. Turn only to the right until you’re comfortable handling the rope and you can trust your ponied horse to follow. When you turn to the right, you turn toward your ponied horse, enabling the rope to stay in position easily.
Turns to the left are tricky if the ponied horse isn’t keeping up. Before you turn, make sure your ponied horse is in the correct position; if he falls behind, the lead rope can droop, touch your pony horse’s tail, and even slide up under it.
If the lead rope droops, turn your pony horse back to the right to prevent the rope from wrapping around you; drop the rope, if necessary.
Step #3. Correct Poor Positions
If your pony horse falls behind, simply gather your fingers along the doubled rope to shorten the line, and pull him forward with a bumping action. Your ponied horse should respect this correction, because he knows how to lead on the ground,
Don’t allow your ponied horse to move forward so much that he’s in front of your knee. You won’t have enough leverage to control him, and he can start to lead “the herd” instead of naturally following your pony horse.
If your ponied horse moves too fast and is too forward, pick up your rope-holding hand and jerk it back, pointing the rope in the direction you’d like your ponied horse to be. A quick bump from the rope halter’s knot will correct your ponied horse just as it does during ground-work sessions.
Step #4. Move Out
When your ponied horse learns to follow along in formation, moving with your pony horse without needing constant corrections, begin asking both horses for gait changes. Put your horses to work as they transition from walk to trot.
Each time you cue your pony horse, use your verbal cue or a bump of the rope to spur on your ponied horse. Soon, your ponied horse will keep pace, move in step, and easily stay in position.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Melocco (www.wholepicture.org) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.