by Laura Crum
The comments on Linda’s blog post gave me the inspiration for this post. As you all know, I enjoy riding my sedate middle-aged trail horse very much. But yesterday, despite my resolve that I’m done with young horses, I was riding my boarder’s six-year-old gelding, Smoky. Smoky is a very gentle, well broke six-year-old—as nice as they come (or I wouldn’t be on him). My little boy and I were gathering the cattle, pushing them through the chutes, and hazing for two of our team roping friends. Smoky did great. And then…
And then what? Well, in the unpredictable way of the world at large, something happened that was quite outside the understanding of all horses present. The people on the neighboring property—visible across a several acre field beside the arena, were having a gathering. Maybe twenty people in all were involved in some kind of shamanistic ceremony (this is Santa Cruz County, California, after all). And at a certain point they all began beating on drums and dancing in a circle, singing and howling very loudly. Every horse in the place stared across the field, head up, eyes wide. My son’s twenty-two year old gelding, Henry, and the two rope horses (in their teens), looked startled but stayed calm. Smoky, on the other hand, became pretty agitated.
Because he’s a well broke horse with a gentle nature, Smoky did not run off or buck or do anything too stupid. Because I’ve been around a few years in the horse biz, I did not pull on his face or panic. I just sat there, gently correcting him every time he tried to move off. We walked a few circles (well, we pranced, actually), we stood next to the calmer horses, we dealt. Smoky stayed under control. But I could feel his agitation growing. He really didn’t like the loud drumming.
I walked him around a few more times, halted him, and made sure I had his attention, despite his worry. Then I got off and patted his neck and told him what a good horse he was. We tied him up and by the end of our little practice roping session, he had relaxed. No big problem.
But, let’s say my son had been on Smoky, who is gentle enough that many people would call him kid safe. And lets say when Smoky got agitated my kid had gotten scared and started to pull on Smoky’s face. At this point Smoky would certainly have started dancing and skittering around, and where it would have gone from there I can’t say. Its not somewhere I want to go.
Less than two years ago a child I knew of had her horse spook and then bolt, and the child was dumped, got her foot hung up in the stirrup, and was dragged to her death. Yes, it happens.
But my son was on twenty-two year old Henry, whose eyes got big but whose feet stayed on track. Thank goodness.
People, I don’t care what your breed of choice is. Chincoteague ponies may be as gentle as dogs for all I know. Plenty of kids have been bit by dogs. There are going to be a range of individual personality types within any breed. Ponies are, in general, more phlegmatic and less flighty than horses—they are also more inclined to test for dominance and “bully” those who aren’t up to dominating them. Any breed of horse or pony—it is usually better to put a little kid or any inexperienced rider on a well broke older animal. Period. Horses and ponies are prey animals by nature. The impulse to flee danger is always there. Horses and ponies are also herd animals and the impulse to sort out just who is the alpha is also sometimes there. You absolutely cannot expect a younger, less experienced animal to be as reliable at staying broke under pressure as an older, experienced, reliable, gentle mount. And its your kid’s life that is at stake. This is important stuff.
Yes, some young horses/ponies can be/are good kid’s horses. And some older horses are not good mounts for young children. But of all the good, reliable kid’s horses I’ve known, the vast majority were in their teens or twenties by the time they achieved this “bombproof” status. And when something unpredictable happens—like the wild shaman party next door—you want your little kid sitting on the most reliable critter you can provide him with. That’s my take on it, anyway. I’m happy to hear your opinion.