Ciara and I looked at one another worriedly as Suzy cantered out of sight with Maude, our six year old daughter, on her back.
Uh oh, I thought, that wasn’t really the plan…
Things had been going well so far. Maude looked perfectly in control as she walked and trotted Suzy up and down the road. Their relationship had been developing slowly but steadily over the past year, and while Maude was still a bit apprehensive and generally refused to ride Suzy outside the arena, she always appeared in control of her mount. And that afternoon, she had seemed perfectly confident, and had asked herself to be let out on the road with Theo, her older brother, who was riding his own pony, Ginger.
We had originally got Suzy for Theo, after Ariel, a 4 years old 14.2 Connemara gelding that we had bred and trained ourselves, and Daisy, and old Connemara broodmare, had both proved unsuitable.
Theo had been riding since he was about three. It all started when, as I was passing by the house, bareback on Misty who I was just moving from one field to another, he asked to come along. I leaned over, grabbed him by the arms and placed him in front of me on the mare withers. He loved it, and so did I. We went for a long ride together that evening, the first of many. Misty was the perfect horse for this. A stocky 15.2 Irish draft mare, she was well up to carrying the combined weight of an adult and a child. She was very dependable, if sometimes a bit opinionated, and never spooked. Misty was also very comfortable to ride bareback, with the softest, gentlest trot of all our horses. Both Theo and Maude, as well as quite a few other island kids, had their first ride on her back, and things always went smoothly. Less than a year ago, Maude had cantered for the first time on Misty’s back, with myself at the reins.
A strong, dependable horse like Misty is an invaluable asset to teach young kids riding. Riding double with the child in front of you is by far the safest way to get them on horseback: as long as you stay on, they will too. We have found that it’s much better bareback, and that a bareback pad can be useful.
Once Theo got a bit older, we tried to get him on his own horse. At first, I was leading him from another horse. Any horse that leads properly and is not spooky is suitable as a lead rein mount for a child. Misty was great at that, but we used most of our other horses, even the young ones, without any problem.
Once he started riding on his own, however, things didn’t work out well with Ariel. “Green on green” isn’t a good idea. Unlike Misty, Ariel, although very kind and willing, was a bit spooky and inexperienced, and Theo had fallen off his back a couple of times. And besides, 14.2 is a bit tall for a 6 year old. We tried to get him riding Daisy, a twenty year old, bombproof Connemara broodmare, but she was more interested in grazing than in being ridden, and this proved very frustrating for him as she would put her head down and refuse to move while the other horses went ahead.
So I had started to look for an experienced, reliable child’s pony, “older than the child”. This proved to be an eye-opening experience in itself. Some of the ponies I was offered as “very quiet, you can put any child on them” were in my opinion half-trained lunatics that would have taken months, if not years of rehabilitation before I would trust them with any child. The way some of them were kept was also shocking to me. But when I found Suzy, a sweet little piebald about 11 hands, in a local riding school, I knew I had found the right horse for my little man.
Once a child starts riding on their own, getting the right horse for them is most important to avoid discouragement and possibly injuries. Ciara’s parents, who had absolutely no experience with horses, had got her a 3 year old unbroken Connemara gelding as a first pony. They had sent him to be broken (brutally) at a local stable and then let their seven year old daughter on him. They were lucky that she did not break any bones in all the numerous falls she had. When looking for a first pony for a child, it is essential to find a kind, experienced animal that will not spook, buck or take off, but also won’t be inclined to take advantage of its rider’s lack of physical strength to put its head down and graze, as we had found out with Daisy, who was absolutely safe, but totally frustrating for Theo to ride. And indeed, Suzy proved to be a very good buy, and if anything, she has become even better since her arrival on the farm. For the first few months, she had a hard time integrating with the existing herd, didn’t trust me, and wouldn’t let me catch her. But right from day one, she was always very kind and well-mannered with children. Theo or Maude could always walk up to her and lead her back with a rope around her neck, or even, sometimes, without anything, she just would follow them. And she never bucked, bit or kicked. However, she is also quite forward going and not a typical riding school pony. So when Ginger and Theo tried to overtake her, she got into a canter ahead of them.
We hurried round the bend to catch up with the kids and their ponies. Both had dismounted at the gate. Maude had a large grin on her face. “I cantered” she said, beaming, as she was leading Suzy back into the field.
Apparently, the experience had been more exhilarating than traumatic. It looked like Maude was soon going to join Theo and myself for a few bareback canters across the moors, I thought, as I watched her slip the bridle off Suzy’s head and wave her off, back to her grazing…
Written by Christophe Mouze,
First published in Horse and pony Ireland