Not surprisingly, many of today’s top horsemen and women started riding when they were young and when their legs were quite short. Classic Shetland Ponies, known for their child-friendly size, were their perfect first mounts.
Top Rider Julie Goodnight trains horses and riders through her Goodnight Training Stables in Salida, CO. She is a well-known clinician and a master instructor and program director with the Certified Horsemanship Association, an organization helping to teach riding safety to horsemanship coaches.
When Julie was 4 years old, her Dad bought two ponies, which had personality traits that he thought would be suitable for his daughters, ‘Cracker’ and ‘Cricket.’
Julie and her sister rode the ponies on wild rides through the family’s orange groves and pastures. Although taking one pony out for a solo spin was always an adventure, just leaving the barnyard was filled with nasty little tricks, such as being rubbed off on tree trunks or under low branches. Julie learned how to get the upper hand over her tiny Shetland mount.
Terry Myers and his horses have earned national championships through the American Paint Horse Association and the Pinto Horse Association.
Terry’s parents offered him and his siblings a choice – Shetland Ponies or bicycles. The family lived on a 900-acre grain and cattle farm in Greenville, Ohio, but equines were a new venture. Terry, then four, and his brother voted to add ponies to the property.
Terry remembers the pony he chose. “‘Rusty’ happened to be the cheapest and the meanest. He was still a stud pony and had lots of energy. He really took the kids for a ride, but he did everything we asked. He pulled a bob-sled; we rode him in parades, took him to horse shows, raced him and chased cows when no one was looking.”
No one helped train the ponies, but they were ridden constantly. It was common for the boys to tie their mounts to stakes in the yard, where they stood all day with their saddles on, so the boys could ride a few laps whenever they passed by. The boys just moved the stakes around the yard to keep the grass mowed.
Terry credits Rusty for teaching him balance and perseverance. He gained confidence after many long rides, countless falls and a few broken bones. When he stepped up to riding a gaited Saddlebred at age 12, the taller horse was no problem, because he had fallen off the pony so much it didn’t matter.
Horsemanship instructors agree that pairing a child with a pony can help the youngster gain confidence and learn to cue properly – and in the correct place. Shetland Ponies often match young riders’ sizes. What’s more, young riders can learn handling with a pony that he’s more comfortable with.
It is really valuable to start with a small pony if you’re little. Your body is in proportion to the animal’s, allowing your leg to come two-thirds or more of the way down the pony’s barrel. That helps develop good legs from the beginning. Also, the pony’s width allows the small rider to sit normally, without her legs sticking out to the side.
Find a pony that’s safe and quiet – preferably one that’s been trained by a small adult rather than a child. If you’re looking for a Shetland Pony for your child, ask about its bloodlines. Make sure the sire and dam are known for their calm temperaments.
Children on ponies need adult supervision as they’d have with any horse. They need to be treated like a full-sized horse. There’s a tendency to pamper them and let them get away with things. You wouldn’t do that with a big horse. The pony’s mind has to be good. I like my horses to be laid back. With proper selection and continued guidance, you can find a pony that’s fun and willing.