Last time when I talked about ponies and the custom of mounting small children on them as a progression toward riding a full-sized horse, I mentioned, briefly, the phenomenon called Pony Brain. Commenter princessroxana then asked, So just how wicked is that pony brain? On a scale of Despicable Me to Maleficent?
My response was immediate and reflexive: Thanos.
I may have been exaggerating. But not by much.
On the one hand, the equestrian classes particularly in the English-speaking world have habitually started their children on ponies. On the other, ponies are notoriously clever, wicked, headstrong, and challenging to handle.
A child’s pony is, by definition, small enough for a child to ride. Short legs can reach down past the saddle flaps to control the speed and direction of the pony, and small persons can mount from the ground or with minimal help. Smaller also means less weight to struggle against and less height to contend with when grooming and saddling.
A full-sized horse, even a smallish horse, is gigantic for a young child. She may not even come up to the bottom of his barrel if he’s more or less standard height for a Thoroughbred. Mounting him literally requires a ladder, and once she’s up there, the saddle that fits him will probably be so long in the flaps that her legs touch his sides minimally if at all. He may not even notice her light weight, and if he makes a sudden move, she’s all too likely to come flying off. Even if she stays on, she might not be able to control him.
Hence, the pony: more in proportion to the child, and presumably more controllable. Certainly less far to fall.
It’s a lovely concept. It often works, too; many a child has learned to fall safely off a pony big enough to carry her but small enough to allow a relatively easy landing. In between adventures in solo flight, she learns to balance, rate speed, and steer on the flat and over obstacles.
As she grows, it’s assumed that she’ll outgrow her first pony or two or three, until she’s tall enough and accomplished enough for a full-sized horse. That won’t necessarily stop her from riding old Rusty as much as she can, even if she has to hold her feet up to keep them from dragging. We do get attached, and pony life spans being what they are, Rusty may be teaching our children to ride just as he taught us.
The other side of the coin however is that infamous brain. Horseman’s wisdom says that horses in the main are calmer, more cooperative, and less clever than ponies. A horse may argue but he’ll generally give in, and your basic all-around working horse is wired to cooperate. His problem with very small riders is that the all-purpose equine vehicle survives in part by tuning out what I call human white noise: the clumsiness and imprecision, from the horse’s perspective, of the monkey bouncing around on his back. A large monkey at least will manage to get his attention by sheer force of weight and inertia. If that monkey is child-sized, he may ignore it altogether.
Ponies, by simple physics, may have a harder time blowing off the small monkey. But that doesn’t mean they can’t do it anyway. They’re smart and they know it. They’ll find endless ways to get out of doing what they’re told. And they can size up a rider in a nanosecond, and calculate exactly how much they can get away with.
None of this is absolute. There are plenty of gentle, kind ponies, and a corresponding number of evil-genius horses. Self-fulfilling prophecy plays a role. If you expect your equine to act and think a certain way, all too often you get what you set him up for—especially if it’s bad behavior.
The fact that ponies are mostly ridden by inexperienced children plays into it as well. The pony (or horse) does what he’s allowed to do. If the rider or handler isn’t able to correct him when he pushes his limits, he’ll keep pushing.
If the pony is big enough to carry an adult or an older child with solid training chops, he generally learns to be more cooperative. He’s been set boundaries and he knows there are consequences if he transgresses them. He will still test his limits with a less adept rider, as any equine of any size will, but hopefully not to the same extent as a pony who hasn’t had that level of education.
Even a very small pony, down to miniature size, may benefit from in-hand and driven training. It’s all about setting limits and making sure he respects them, and maintaining them as much as possible no matter who is handling or riding him.
Still. Pony smarts are definitely a thing. It may seem rather horrifying in light of modern child-rearing philosophy to entrust the small human to an animal who not only has a mind of his own, he’s not all that inclined to be nice to the human. Isn’t it dangerous? Won’t the child get hurt?
Equestrian sports are in fact quite dangerous. Large, strong flight animal meets small, weak predator. Even a small pony outweighs the average adult human by a fair fraction, and is remarkably strong and agile into the bargain.
That doesn’t stop a horsekid—of any age. The strength of the connection between horse and human, and the exhilaration of riding or driving or simply being close to so much power and athleticism that has, to whatever degree, decided to share it with you, far outweighs the fear.
Ponies may be evil and they may be too clever for anyone’s good, but they’re amazing teachers. A kid who can persuade a headstrong pony to cooperate with her, and who can stay on that very round back in the process, is well set up to handle the greater size and strength of a horse. She may even be grateful for the gentler temperament of the steady-Eddie horse, who won’t devote his life to squirting out from under her, scraping her off under tree branches, hauling her from one patch of grass to the next, taking off over a log without warning, chasing her out of the pasture when she comes with halter in hand…
Or she may find she enjoys a horse who talks back, and seeks him out in the larger sizes. If there’s one thing that’s sure about horses and ponies, it’s that there’s one for every taste, and Pony Brain isn’t necessarily restricted to the under-14.2-hand set. Even the Thanos of ponies has his match in the human world, someone who welcomes the challenge.
Personally I’m more inclined toward Maleficent—it’s the War Mares for me. But I’m pretty fond of my haughty little pony-sized pooka with the giant-horse movement, too. The one who, alone of all the equines I’ve ridden since my teens, has been able to launch me off his back (three times! we’re counting!), and mocked me when he took off bucking and swearing. He’s still my soul pony. I may cuss him out, but I’ll get right back on, having learned a few things in the process.
Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe and Canelo Press. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.