Hey, Mom, Can I Have a Pony?
How often do you suppose parents hear the following plea: "Mom, can I please have a pony? I promise to take care of him!" Choose a pony that is the right size and has a suitable temperament for your child's age, weight and experience. Children around 5 to 7 years old typically are more successful riding smaller breeds, such as Shetland and Welsh ponies, whereas most 11- and 12-year-olds can handle the larger breeds, like Conamara and POA ponies.
Many children yearn for a pony and will ask, beg, bribe and plead with their parents to get them one. As a parent, you may be thinking of granting your child's wish. After all, a pony can make a wonderful companion for a child. Not only that, kids can learn many valuable life skills.
"Children who participate in riding develop many strong values such as discipline, responsibility, confidence, partnership, achievement, caring, and the list could go on and on," says Kay Hales, Vice President of Activities for the United States Pony Club (USPC).
"Children learn balance, trust and become stronger physically while riding," adds Pam Hunter, owner of Hunter's Pony Farm in Washington state. If children join an organization with their pony such as 4-H Club or the USPC, they also learn teamwork, she says.
Certainly a pony can have a positive influence in a child's life, but good relationships between kids and ponies don't "just happen." Parents need to lay the proper groundwork before buying a pony for their kids. Here are some steps you can take to foster a good friendship between your child and a pony.
Choose the Right Pony
"Generally, smaller ponies are less intimidating to young children than larger ponies or full-sized horses," says Marilyn Yike, Chairman of the Clinics Committee for the USPC. "They are easier to lead and groom. The rider's short legs will reach farther down around a pony, providing better balance and security. The smaller horse is easier to control while riding, and the rider is closer to the ground if he or she falls off."
Look for a horse with a good demeanor. "The younger the child, the more aged and experienced the pony should be," Hunter says. "If you want one that your 5- or 6-year-old can ride by himself without being led around, consider an older pony, one who has been used by children in 4-H, at a teaching stable or on a pony ring." She says most children do well with a pony about 5 to 10 years old.
Yike's guideline for selecting a pony is what she calls the "Rule of Twenty" - the age of the child and the age of the pony must add up to 20. This puts younger children on older, more experienced ponies," she says.
Start Them On Riding Lessons
Enroll your child in riding lessons early on - preferably before you purchase a pony - so they can learn how to handle the animal and build confidence. "Lessons will give you and your child an opportunity to experience some riding and pony care, and to be sure this is what you want to do before making a commitment," Yike says.
Properly Outfit Your Child
Before your child even approaches a pony you should purchase a properly fitted riding helmet with the ASTM-SEI seal of approval.
"Your child should never get on the pony without a helmet," Hunter says. "Many kids have been seriously injured and killed while just sitting on the pony in the yard. One fall is all it takes and a head or neck injury can destroy a life in seconds."
In addition to the helmet, you should buy riding shoes or boots for your child. Yike recommends lace-up, leather shoes that cover the ankle and have a heel. "This will help protect the rider's feet while on the ground and prevent the foot from getting caught in the stirrup if the rider should fall off," she says.
Educate Your Child About Pony Care
Educating your child about horse care is vital in developing a good relationship between your child and a pony. Bring home books and articles on this topic from the library or bookstore. Talk to your child about how often ponies need to be fed, groomed, bathed, exercised, etc. "The more your child knows about how to care for the pony, the better he or she will understand why the animal sometimes acts the way he does," Hunter says.
Help the Pony Like the Child
Allow your child to hand-feed pieces of carrot, apple or other horse treats (other than grain) to the pony. "The child should hold her or his hand flat so the pony can't accidentally bite the fingers or the palm," Hunter says. "This will be a way the child can bond with the pony and the pony will look at the child as a source of pleasure."
Get your child involved with grooming the pony. "This gives the child and pony a chance to be together while there are no demands made on the pony, only pleasure. The pony will again look at the child as a good thing, and look forward to those grooming sessions," Hunter says.
Let your child take the pony for walks on the lead rope, with an adult, to a green, grassy place to graze for an hour or less. This also helps the pony see the child as a friend, someone to trust and who brings pleasure.
Establish Pony Rules
Most young children need some help understanding how ponies do and don't want to be treated. It's a good idea to come up with a list of pony rules and jot them down on paper. Include such things as: Teasing, jerking, hitting, poking and tail pulling are not allowed. Never chase the pony. No rough-and-tumble play in the barn. Do not run up behind a pony without calling to him to let him know you are coming.
"The child should understand that the pony is a feeling entity," Hunter says. "Horses and ponies become very attached to their caretakers, so children should understand that if they do something to hurt the pony, like hitting it, they are damaging the trust between them."
A good relationship between your child and the family pony takes guidance, patience and understanding. "If it's done right, a happy child on a happy pony is one of the most positive influences on their life," Hales says.