Why does my pony try to turn and face when I'm ground driving?
Updated: May 23, 2022
Here is another one of my tries at choosing a good title for a blog post. LOL! Not sure if this is a good one, but it's definitely long!
I have someone ask me this question at least once a week. I always say you need to get closer to your pony. Then I often have them reply with, "I can't be any closer. I'm almost walking on my pony's heels." When I say get closer I do not mean walk closer to their rear end. I mean walk BESIDE them. When we are teaching them to walk in front of us we can't start with them in front of us. Most of the time when we are leading them from one place to another on a lead rope they are behind or beside us. But when we switch to training them for driving we expect them to understand that now we walk behind them. Of course this is not something they can intuit themselves so we need to give them a little help.
To start, I will walk at my pony's shoulder, holding my two long lines -one in each hand - encouraging them to move when I move. I never start this process with a bridle and a bit and certainly make sure they don't have blinders on at this stage. Instead, I start them with a halter and two long lead ropes. Keep it simple!! The concept is already quite challenging for the pony. Don't complicate things by adding a bit and blinders.
We will walk all around their track system, our pasture, our driveway, the road, mountain trails with me at the shoulder. I will stay at their shoulder until they have found a confidence to moving forward without much or any support from me. Then I'll stay there a little longer to be sure they have a good understanding of what it is I am asking. I will vary the distance I can walk from them while staying beside them and I make sure to do this on BOTH side of the pony.
Having the pony be in front is a little daunting for many of them. It takes a certain amount of confidence for them to move out and away from their companion, especially when you are somewhere new. So give them time to find that confidence in themselves and in you as a handler.
Something that I think gets lost in translation when I am sharing how I go about doing this training is exactly how long I stay in each "step." There isn't a timeline that I follow with each pony, ie. I don't do something for this number of days, weeks or months. I don't ground drive a pony for exactly 100 miles and then move the next step. Each step is attained at that pony's speed. And I stay in each step for a long long time. If your pony is ground driving very well, stay there longer!!! Don't move on to the next step simply because things are going well. I prefer to have something happen in each step so we can work through the issue and come out the other side having learned something from each other and the issue we encountered.
This is especially true when I am in the travois step. I like to stay in this step until something goes wrong. If nothing goes wrong in that step then I will stay there longer! Here is a blog where I talk about Zorro's third day in a row with the travois. You better believe that I stayed in the travois for many many drives after this to be sure all was well! I do NOT want something like this to happen when hitched to the cart.
I am so honored that many people feel comfortable enough to reach out to me when they are having issues with their driving horses and ponies. In most cases by the time people do reach out they have had some kind of accident. And in most of those cases the accident happens because they moved into the next step too soon.
There are certain signs that horses and ponies will show us when things aren't quite accepted. For example, your pony is in the travois and is showing some discomfort when you ask them to turn the travois, because they have to step into the shafts, pushing the shafts away from themselves. That is telling you they are not yet comfortable with the confinement of the shafts. If you are paying attention to what they are saying you will know you need to stay there longer! If you ignore this information it WILL come back and bite you later. Ponies are highly intelligent and most are extremely forgiving but they do have a limit to what they can ignore. Warwick Schiller calls this "Trigger Stacking." They can ignore one trigger for a while, then when you add another they can often ignore the two triggers together, but there will come a time when you add one more trigger and they just can't handle it anymore and things blow apart. Sometimes in a very dramatic and damaging way. It's important for us to be aware of what they are telling us:
whether they open their mouths when we engage the driving lines
whether they flinch when the traces or the travois touch their sides
flinching or moving away when you are putting the harness on
clamping their mouth shut when it's time to put the bit on
turning their head away when you go to halter them
These are all ways our horses and ponies communicate with us. How many times have we just pushed through their discomfort to do what we want to do to them? If you have been working with horses and ponies for very long it's likely you have pushed through these thresholds many times. But what is possible if we stop, let them settle, let them think, let them WIN? (The old way of thinking is if we allow them to "get away with _______" then the horse or pony has won. But as we learn more about how the equine thinks we are finding that this is not true. The horse or pony only wins when we listen to them. If we ignore them we cause them to have to explode, because there is no other way we will listen to them, they have absolutely NOT won in that situation. Neither has the human.)
I think we all need to slow down in our lives and our ponies are the perfect teachers of this. Let's slow down within each of the steps to training our pony to drive and really spend some time in each of them. Let's let go of our timeline and focus on our pony's timeline. Then we can BOTH be winners.