I wrote this article some years ago at the request of a Girl Scout leader who wanted to bring her girls out to my farm for them to earn their horse badges. She wanted me to outline and stress the responsibility, so this article may appear to be in a slightly negative vein, but it does point out some basics of what a beginner needs to know before purchasing a horse. Each paragraph is worth an entire book, which, by the way, I am currently working on. Horses and ponies are a joy beyond description if you know what you are doing. Enjoy the journey and the rides!
Be aware, there is a great deal of responsibility and obligation that comes with the privilege of owning a horse or pony.
Having a pony isn’t like a dog or cat, where you feed them once or twice a day, pat them on the head and that’s it.
Ponies are time consuming, and require much more care and knowledge. Their lives, and health, depend on you caring for them every day.
They should be checked daily, by being groomed all over. This keeps the oils from gathering at the base of the hair and causing skin problems. While grooming, you also get to know your friend – what looks and feels normal, what might be a leg starting to swell up, or a cut hidden by hair. Catching these things like this can keep a small problem from turning into a large, painful and expensive one. It also forms a bond between you and your four legged friend.
They need to have their hooves trimmed or shoes put on every 4 to 6 weeks. Not keeping up with this can allow the foot to grow out of balance and cause injury to the leg.
They also need to be wormed every month. I write it on the calendar and worm them when it’s time for the horseshoer to come to keep on schedule.
Horses and ponies also have very delicate digestive systems. Changing their feed abruptly can make them ill. Giving them too much can really cause problems, especially for ponies. They will eat until they explode. They are also incapable of throwing up if they get sick to their stomach, because the throat is too long, so they can get into trouble very fast.
About pasture – just because there’s green stuff out there, doesn’t necessarily mean it is good stuff for ponies to eat. There are many weeds that are highly poisonous to horses and ponies. Learn what they are and get them out of the pasture. Certain trees, such as wild cherry trees, are also highly toxic to them too. The must be removed. A wilted branch that gets the leaves nibbled on by your pony is life threatening.
In the springtime when the grass is green and lush – full of lots of moisture, ponies must be put up in a stall and gradually allowed to graze with increasing amounts of time daily. They cannot be left out to graze all the time in the spring. I cannot stress this enough. When a pony eats too much grass or grain, he will get very fat. Remember – given the chance, they will eat themselves to death. They will also develop founder if you do not put them up away from the grass. What is founder? A chemical imbalance occurs in the body from the richness and moisture of spring grass. This causes them to get a fever in the feet. The inside of the foot swells up, but the outside can’t due to the hard hoof wall. It feels just like hitting your thumb with a hammer, except when this happens to ponies, it causes major damage inside the foot, making the bone lose support. The bone inside the foot will drop down through the sole. This is totally crippling to the pony, and very, very painful. There is no cure once this happens. Once foundered, they must be monitored all the time and kept off rich grass and grains in a dry lot and fed hay and formulated grains made especially for this scenario. Remember the old horsemen’s saying – “No hoof, No horse!”
Now, I am just briefly touching on pasture management and care here. There is much more, but space doesn’t permit going into detail other than this brief introductory overview, written with children in mind in easy to understand terms.
Training, exercising and riding your pony become a part of your day too. You say you are in school all day? Well, there is before school and after school. Welcome to getting up earlier! Your pony is counting on you. Your pony will become your very best, loyal friend if you treat him that way.
Picking out the right pony for your needs require some thought. What will you use your pony for? Trail riding, showing, competitive or endurance riding, dressage, reining, barrel racing, pole bending . . . and on and on. As you can see, there are many uses for them. That is why there are so many different types of horses and ponies, called breeds. You want to pick a breed that is suited for what you want. A beginners pony is vastly different from a Gran Prix dressage horse.
Your pony must be mannerly and obedient, trained not to spook at things. Your safety and the pony’s is at stake here.
When purchasing a pony, I can’t beg you enough – Do Not go to a local stock sale. You will generally buy trouble there if you are a first time purchaser. That is rule number one.
Rule number two is – take someone who is knowledgeable with you when looking for a pony.
Rule number three – purchase from someone who is reputable. Get references. The right people will agree to a contract to try the pony out for an agreed upon time period – two weeks to a month is usual – with the option of returning the pony if it isn’t suitable.
Rule number four – Get a pre-purchase veterinary examination.
When you go to look at the pony, watch the pony being led and under saddle. It should be calm. Geldings are usually the best choice over mares and we won’t even consider a stallion for a child.
Ride the pony or watch him being ridden. He should be easily caught and should stand quietly when tied. He should be easy to groom pick up his feet, saddle and bridle.
Watch how he behaves. Is he calm around other horses – and away from his buddies? Watch his ears – they indicate his temperament. Pinned back – watch out! He is warning you he is going to do something. You do not want a bad tempered kicker, biter or one that bolts or runs away with you.
The pony should be the height that you can mount (get on) without help. This also requires some exercise for the rider! Too small a pony and you can hurt the pony. Your leg, when mounted, should not come below the pony’s body. On the other hand, your leg should not be so high up on the pony’s side that you can’t signal him properly. (You will learn a whole new language – I call it Horse language by “talking” to the pony with your whole body – how you sit, use your legs and hands, etc.)
See if the pony loads into a horse trailer easily. He will, at best, have to be brought home. As you find you want to do more with him, he will need to know how to travel calmly.
Again, if a professional gives you an opinion that a pony looks good, you’ve taken the time to try him and like him, then remember to get a vet in to examine him for soundness, health and drugs.
Also, obtain from the owner: a copy of the pony’s negative Coggins test – taken within the year, preferably six months; their schedule for worming and what type of wormers have been used; their horseshoer’s name and schedule of when last trimmed or shoed; and what type of feed – grain and hay they are now on so you can keep it the same.
So, as you can see, there is a lot to it. I usually recommend joining a Horse 4-H Club or Pony Club and/or taking lessons before purchasing a pony to learn all you can ahead of time. It also allows the entire family time to realize the time and financial commitment a pony requires. There is nothing more disheartening than someone calling me with a problem animal after the fact that it’s been purchased, or worse, an injured child or one who becomes disinterested in the care and well being because the reality of owning and caring for a pony is often vastly different from the dream of owning one. Lessons for a child who expresses interest in horses would be beneficial to see, first, if the interest is merely passing or a passion. Parents can save a bundle of money by finding this out before the expense of a purchase.
However, if you go in with your eyes wide open, it is a joy greater than you can ever imagine and the very best way for a child to learn responsibility and compassion for a trusted friend and fellow creature on this planet.