Ponying a horse offers multiple benefits for both horses and riders. Marty Marten shares his guidelines for doing this effectively and safely.
By Fran Devereux Smith
Photography by Jennifer Denison
The expression “pony up” usually brings to mind some unavoidable expenditure of cold, hard cash. Likewise, when you pony up horseback, riding one horse and leading another, a few dues must be paid in time and effort for the experience to be a good one for you and your horses.
Few people have as much experience ponying livestock as Marty Marten of Berthoud, Colorado, a clinician and author of two Western Horseman books. Many times he has used ranch horses to pack salt to cattle on distant range permits, and he has led pack strings along rugged trails through the backcountry. Marten believes ponying is something every horse and rider should experience, as the benefits are well worth the effort.
Through ponying, you can exercise more than one horse at a time, condition a young horse not yet mature enough to ride, or give a senior horse a light workout. Maybe a pack trip using your own stock is in your future, or you simply think a broke horse should know about ponying.
In racetrack terminology, a pony horse is the horse that leads the racehorse. However, in this article the pony horse is the one being led by the rider. Marten advises that when ponying, use caution at all times, especially when another rider is involved—for example, when using ponying to introduce a child to the riding experience.
If ponying a child on another horse is a consideration, Marten recommends using fully broke, responsive horses, and spending a lot of time ponying in a round corral and then an arena before heading into open country. Riding can be risky; ponying a child even more so. Even a minor mishap can dim a youngster’s enthusiasm for riding.
“It’s just plain and simple,” Marten says. “The best prescription for having a good experience ponying horses is to plan how to be safe. Be sure and confident of yourself as a rider—that you can do this.First and foremost, prepare your riding horse and your pony horse. Start in an enclosure so everything is in a contained world. That’s putting safety first and giving your horses some sense of security, too.
“You can get bucked off in the tiniest pen, the same as you can in the most wide-open spaces. But try to make the odds in your favor until you and your horses get totally accustomed to ponying. Give your horses a chance to get used to the situation, and you can establish a lot of control. Taking up or letting out the pony horse’s halter rope, for example, can seem awkward at first, so do that in an enclosed area until it’s second-nature. When you’re ready to be in the open, have an experienced rider with you.”
Remember, too, that one successful ponying experience doesn’t mean your horses are seasoned and ready for the backcountry.
“Consistency is the thing,” Marten explains. “Build that consistent response. If you get into trouble, go back to the small pen and the arena to build the confidence you and your horses need.”
What Your Riding Horse Should Know
What makes the ideal riding horse to use when ponying another horse? “That is the horse you can move easily when you want his feet over there, instead of here,” Marten says. “You can move his hindquarters right and left, and you can move his forequarters either direction, too. He can walk slowly when you need that, or walk out fast. He’s calm, with a relaxed look in his eye and softness in his body language, just like with a person who’s relaxed.
“Can your riding horse handle seeing that halter rope out of the corner of his eye? Can you reach over and pet that other horse? Can your riding horse handle that pony horse coming up next to him?”
Prepare Your Riding Horse
As always, Marten points out, it’s important to warm up your riding horse and be sure he’s responsive before attempting to pony another horse. It’s equally important to prepare your riding horse for the feel of a halter rope alongside his hindquarters—even for the possibility that the rope might get around a leg or under his tail. A traditional colt-starting exercise, the clinician explains, provides a good way to accustom your riding horse to the feel of a rope.
“Every once in a while when you’re afoot around any horse, you ought to bring that halter rope around the horse’s hip, above his hocks, and ask him to bend his head and neck and come around to face you. Do that in both directions. Your horse needs to be responsive and not be afraid of that rope. That’s a really good exercise, and very honestly, you really should have done that already when that riding horse was started.”
Marten pointed to another effective exercise used by Rich Scott, who assists Marten during his trail-obstacle clinics. Scott often builds a loop in his lariat rope and lets it hang over the saddle seat and down behind the horse’s hindquarters while the horse is loose in a round pen, with ample time to become accustomed to the rope. However, both men caution, if a horse is extremely afraid of the rope, it’s best to reevaluate and possibly select another horse more accepting of the rope to use as your riding horse.
Before ponying another horse on the right, your riding horse also must become accustomed to a rider’s arm and rope movement in his right eye. Swing a rope around your riding horse, first when you’re afoot and then horseback, to prepare him. You don’t have to be a roper to do that, and a lariat rope isn’t necessary. Just swing a lead rope to accustom your horse to motion on his right side.
“Your horse must accept that rope,” Marten says. “You also can have a helper on the ground, who can be that ‘pony horse’ at the end of the rope. Then, if things fall apart, your pony horse doesn’t fall apart, too. Set up ponying-type situations in a way your saddle horse can handle them.”
Marten adds that preparing your riding horse also includes being comfortable with what you must do when ponying another horse. Get used to riding your horse one-handed. Traditionally, a right-handed rider handles his reins with his left hand so his right hand is free to rope or pony a horse, or vice versa.
“You can practice and become good at that without ever leading a horse and putting yourself in a predicament,” Marten comments. “Spend time with your saddle horse. Have a picture in your mind of what you need to work on with him, then do those things before you pony another horse.”
What Your Pony Horse Should Know
“If you’ve spent some time working in the round corral, you probably have that pony horse, one that handles really well on the halter rope,” Marten says. “Don’t start out trying to pony something rank that might really pull back on you. It can be a long time before you’re ready to deal with that. To start, your pony horse and your riding horse probably should be the two most broke horses you have.
“Something I’m never ashamed to tell recreational riders is the same advice Buck Brannaman gave me. He said, ‘Marty, when you ride colts for the public, don’t ever be afraid to turn one down if you think this is more horse than you can personally handle.’ The same thing is true when you select a horse to pony.”
As with your riding horse, a solid pony horse prospect should know a few things before you get horseback and lead him. When you’re afoot and a horse is light and responsive, making the transition to ponying him isn’t such a big deal. The important thing is that your pony horse is absolutely solid when handled afoot before you try to lead him from another horse.
“When I’m walking on the ground with a horse, I might take off at a trot,” Marten says. “The horse I’m leading should come with me. If he pulls on me or goes back, what’s going to happen when I’m on a saddle horse? Know that your pony horse can trot up with you. “That pony horse also needs to be able to circle when you’re afoot. When you hold the halter rope and walk toward his right side, for example, he bends his head and neck around to the right and yields those hindquarters away—and it’s smooth.”
That horse can see you move and feel the slack come out of the halter rope, so he knows a change is coming. If you must drag him around when you’re afoot, he won’t pony well when you’re horseback. Marten also points out that the control you have over a responsive horse when you’re afoot doesn’t result from how close you are to the horse. When a horse can turn, stop or move forward with your hand on the rope not far from the halter, the horse has the skills to do those things at a distance from you, as he might be when you pony him. Check afoot that your prospect is comfortable working several feet from you before you get horseback.
Prepare Your Pony Horse
Preparing the horse you lead for ponying is as important as familiarizing your riding horse with what’s expected of him. Start by using appropriate equipment. Use any well-made rope halter. Marten prefers a design that ensures the halter stays clear of the horse’s eyes. He also prefersa 12-foot halter rope.
“At times, I choke up on it and use less rope, and maybe fold the tail in my hand. Rich’s rule of thumb is no more than one coil or one lap, and if you aren’t accustomed to handling a rope, you’re probably better off lapping the rope,” Marten explains. “I’m very seldom at the end of that rope when I pony a horse. However, if I pony more than one horse and want to tie one horse’s lead around another horse’s neck, I need that length.”
If your pony horse isn’t light on the halter rope, Marten recommends that you “firm up” as necessary until your horse responds easily to come with you. Work afoot until you have a consistent response before you ever get horseback.
“Too, I’ve seen a person lead his horse with a death-grip on the rope a half-foot from the halter,” Marten says. “That just teaches a horse to pull and to crowd you—and it doesn’t work when you pony one.”
If necessary, Marten recommends that you set up a situation afoot to prepare your horse to work a distance from you. Handle him until he’s comfortable on the halter rope several feet away. If he becomes unresponsive as the distance increases, simply shorten the rope until your horse again handles well, then gradually increase the distance again.
Even a nice horse that handles well when you’re afoot, Marten explains, sometimes can become bothered when you’re horseback at his eye level or above. So you must prepare him for that before you get horseback.
Simply sit on your corral fence, halter rope in hand, and work with your horse until he’s comfortable coming to you, even yielding his hindquarters or forehand. Even though you’re high on the fence, your horse figures out that the groundwork he understands really hasn’t changed, so he can still feel secure and confident in your direction.
“However,” Marten cautions, “a horse can pull you off the fence if you haven’t done good, solid halter work on the ground before you climb up high.”
The bottom line: When you’re afoot and your pony horse responds easily to the halter rope, it shouldn’t take much
pressure to get the response you want when you’re horseback.
Ponying Your Horse
When you pony a horse, you can hold the rope in your right hand with the tail in your rein hand, or you can dally the halter rope around your saddle horn. Whether you lap or coil the tail in your hand or dally to your horn, Marten cautions that you be aware and careful—and carry a knife to cut the halter rope, if necessary, to stay out of a wreck. “You can pony a horse without ever dallying the halter rope on your horn,” Marten says. “Unless you’re really comfortable dallying the rope—or until you are—I don’t recommend dallying at all; just hold the rope.
“When you dally your pony horse, it’s thumbs-up, just like it is when you rope. Practice dallying and popping your dallies off the horn. Get somebody on the ground to hold the other end of a halter rope while you’re on the horse. Your dallies go right to left in front of the horn, then left to right behind the horn, not around in a circle. Practice without looking down, so you can dally while you’re watching the horse on the end of your rope.
“When you do that initial ponying in the round corral and the arena, your horse ought to have enough feel on the halter rope that you don’t have to dally. However, if a horse starts to pull back, that’s when you might need to dally.”
Marten prefers to dally on a slick horn, rather than one wrapped with rubber. Then it’s easier for him to “slip” the rope, or give a little slack between the riding horse and pony horse, if necessary, to reposition them. Positioning is important, he says, when mounting up while holding a pony horse.
“When I get on my horse from the left, the pony horse is on my horse’s right side, preferably facing the opposite direction of my riding horse. I usually hold the halter rope in my right hand. After I swing a leg over my horse, I ride toward the pony horse’s hindquarters to shift them around and away from my riding horse, and the pony horse’s head and neck come around to follow me. That’s no different from what he’s learned when I’m on the ground. Riding toward his hindquarters frees up his feet to move forward because I’m pushing him from behind instead of pulling on his head.”
Even when the ponying experience goes smoothly today, Marten cautions that the desired response isn’t necessarily automatic tomorrow; consistency isn’t built on a few experiences, but many. If you don’t get a smooth start ponying a horse, Marten recommends that you set up the same situation and again ride to the pony horse’s hindquarters. Establishing a routine approach can help your horses figure out comfortable places to be in this new ponying situation. As always, whenever necessary go back to the groundwork to keep that pony horse light on the halter rope.
Once both horses are moving forward, Marten likes the pony horse within an arm’s length, just close enough that its head and neck can be touched. Then Marten can use his right hand to rub either horse to help them relax.
However, that distance between the two horses is subject to change, for example when you lead a horse through a gate or along a narrow trail. As you ride along, keep a watchful eye on the pony horse, and glance ahead to focus on where you’re going, too. Then you can plan for what is to come.
Should the pony horse stop or pull back, Marten recommends turning and again riding toward the pony horse’s hindquarters to untrack his hind feet. Be sure that the horse softens his head and neck to come with you, instead of forcing you to drag him around. If your pony horse wants to “lead up” and get ahead of your riding horse, it shouldn’t be a problem to back off the pony horse.
“You already have established how to handle that on the ground,” Marten explains. “That horse knows, when he gets close, how to back away from you and stay back. Successfully ponying a horse is all about the response and respect you develop on the ground.”
Likewise, Marten adds, the pony horse also should be able to rate his speed with your riding horse, traveling faster or slower to keep pace with him. That’s no different than the pony horse keeping pace with you when you’re afoot. Should a tree limb knock off your hat, for example, and startle your horses, do your best to maintain control, but don’t be afraid to drop the halter rope. Once everything is OK, you can catch the pony horse with your riding horse.
“If that pony horse is going to get fractious,” Marten says, “you’ll be darned glad you found that out in the round corral or arena before you went to the wide-open spaces. And remember: It never hurts to have an experienced rider with you, especially when you first ride in the open.
“As I’ve said, plan ahead how to be careful and safe. If your horse handles well and is responsive on the halter rope when you’re afoot, that training will come through when you pony him. Take the time to develop those skills.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Western Horseman.
About our Expert: Horseman and longtime clinician Marty Marten credits Tom Dorrance with teaching him that the best way to help horses is to help the people. “If I can help people improve a little bit,” Marten says, “those horses can improve a lot.” To that end, Marten has written two Western Horseman books, Problem-Solving and Problem- Solving, Volume 2. He and his wife, Jody, live near Berthoud, Colorado. Go to martymarten.com for Marten’s comments on ponying several horses at once and leading a pony horse over an obstacle.