Saturday, Jun. 8, 2024

A Little Yellow Pony Became The Brains Of The Outfit

He was a little yellow pony in a show barn full of big, fancy hunters.

Technically, he was neither yellow nor a pony; he was a palomino who stretched to make it to 15 hands. He stood out like a sore thumb among the tall brown and bay Thoroughbreds and warmbloods.

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He was a little yellow pony in a show barn full of big, fancy hunters.

Technically, he was neither yellow nor a pony; he was a palomino who stretched to make it to 15 hands. He stood out like a sore thumb among the tall brown and bay Thoroughbreds and warmbloods.

He came to the barn a scruffy, rank, backyard grade in shoddy western tack. His mama was a beginner who thought it would be glamorous to own a palomino parade horse and learn to ride, and he’d been advertised as broke. He’d developed the pleasant habit of unloading his mama with a little buck and twist and did it frequently. His mama was, quite understandably, afraid of him and had the good sense to find help.

After four or five lessons with our trainer, in which mama hit the ground at least once a lesson, the trainer suggested, politely, that it might be a good idea to turn the pony over to one of his other riders for a little “tuning.”

He would, in the meantime, put her on one of his lesson horses until she was more confident and safe riding hunt seat. She agreed, and Little Yellow Pony was turned over to…me. My show hunter was in foal, and since I had some experience with attitude adjustments, I agreed to take on the LYP as a project. My trainer wanted the pony turned into a beginner packer. He needed to get to the point where he could be trusted to jump small courses on autopilot.

Needless to say, the first few weeks were a time of testing—for both of us. I started to learn about the pony’s likes and dislikes, and, after catching me napping a couple of times, he discovered there was no real merit to the buck-and-twist, since it wasn’t getting him anywhere.

We spent time discussing things like “leg,” “bend” and “basic dressage,” for which the pony seemed to have developed selective amnesia. Eventually, though, we came to the conclusion that someone, at some point, had put some really solid basic training into him. Being ridden by beginners just made it easy and convenient to forget.

He had, at one time in his past, learned to work off the leg, and eventually I could drop the reins completely and ride him solely off my leg. My trainer sometimes used the pony as a teacher when his juniors started to go overboard with hand-riding. Once we passed the initial get-acquainted arguments, he turned out to be a cheerful, companionable pony.

He loved trail rides and was quite pleasant on strolls in the woods. We started him over small fences, introducing him to the kinds of things he’d meet in the show ring. He took to this like a duck to water. Since we were going to show him in the hunters, he had to learn flying changes. My trainer figured we’d need about two weeks to be sure he understood. Try five minutes. Again, somewhere, sometime, somebody had put some time into this little guy. Clean, pretty changes. Every time.

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Off To The Show

So, of course, he got included in the trailer-loads going to local shows. He remembered what we’d taught him about folding his knees tight and rounding his back over fences, and he’d skip merrily around the courses as though he’d been doing it all his life. He actually acted like he was having fun at the hunter shows.

We won a lot of local over fences classes but were often what we called “out-brown-Thoroughbred-ed” on the flat. Although he would turn in a lovely performance under saddle (he had a sparkling presence in the ring and moved classically), a lot of the judges preferred the picture of the big brown Thoroughbreds under saddle. Oh well!

He developed a professional attitude toward showing.

One winter weekend, we were at a show in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest. It had been blowing all weekend, which was normal for the prairie states at that time of year, and it started to hail just about the time I was warming up. The arena was solidly enclosed, but the roof was corrugated tin. The hail sounded like machine-gun fire at times. The indoor warm-up was crowded, but the pony capered about like a fool—bucking, shying, snorting and generally being silly, clearly having the time of his life. In fact, when we’d approach the practice fence, the mob on the other side would clear out, knowing he was going to land doing something exceptionally stupid. By the time my turn came, I figured I’d probably end up face down in the arena, but since the footing was ground-up sneakers, at least the landing would be soft.

The hail was going strong. I reached the entry gate at all only because my trainer led the fool pony that far (he was still doing his best to play circus pony). As they opened the gate for us, the beast stepped into the arena, froze with his head high up in the air, and gave a mighty “crack” with his nostrils. I knew those sneakers and I were going to become intimately acquainted at some point in the next two minutes.

To my complete astonishment, it felt to me like he suddenly buttoned up his suit, picked up his briefcase and became all business. He cantered politely over the whole course, turned around and did his second round, never missing a change and never missing a distance. He didn’t so much as cock an ear at the bedlam on the roof. I walked him out of the arena, reached down to pat him, and darned if that little rat didn’t dump me right there, just out of sight of the judge. He had a sense of humor and impeccable timing.

A Wicked Sense Of Humor

He showed this again when his mama started working with him. She’d had some lessons on reliable mounts and was starting to feel braver and more comfortable with the whole process. She’d been coming to the shows, and she loved to watch her baby doing so well.

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We could all see show fever starting to take hold. That was, after all, the reason we’d been working with her pony. She started taking lessons on him, and for a while things went reasonably well. We taught her to use her legs instead of relying on her hands, and how she could get a more responsive ride from the pony by using basic dressage. She’d thought dressage incredibly boring until she tried it herself and discovered it worked.

It was about the time that she progressed to solid obstacles that we learned what we were really dealing with.

The pony would do his warm-up fences with no problem, and most of the time he’d just lark around the courses. Every once in a while though, he’d get an expression on his face that meant trouble. He’d jump several fences like a good beginner’s mount, then he’d jump one like a hunter, snapping his knees to his chin and cracking his back as though posing for a textbook photograph.

His mama would promptly fly off. He’d stop, stock still, and give us a cherubic look that said, as clear as day, “It’s not my fault! I’m only doing what you told me to do—see me: here I am jumping with my knees up and my back round! I can’t help it if she can’t stay on!” When we recovered from our fits of giggles, we helped mama anticipate these occasional lapses from good packer-dom, and she eventually learned to stay with them.

The pony graduated as a beginner packer about the time my mare was ready to go back to work. I was going to show him one more time before his mama took over the reins. I’d been invited to a dinner dance a couple of hours away from home the evening before the show, an invitation that I turned down due to lack of time. We had to haul the horses to the showgrounds, set up and school, and I would’ve had to be finished by noon in order to make it to the party in time.

I’ve been around horses and shows long enough to realize it never pays to make tight timing commitments before or after horse shows. Something about the best-laid plans of mice and men… However, my trainer left the barn much earlier than he originally indicated to avoid the midsummer heat. We got to the grounds well before we’d planned, did our set-up and schooled. Both my rides went like angels, and they went back to the barn long before I’d anticipated.

I stayed long enough to finish my share of the setting-up chores, and then I called the friend who’d invited me to see if the invitation was still open. It was, so I went home, got cleaned up and went to the party completely forgetting that I’d have to be on a horse by six in the morning. Now, I used to do this sort of nonsense in college, but that was many years and many beers ago. We got home at 3 a.m. I turned up at the show as scheduled, barely alive. The hangover kicked in about seven. The pony stepped up to the plate and carried me around three very, very nice courses with almost no guidance. A true packer had been made.

He went on to carry three different beginner/intermediate riders to circuit awards, always doing his job honestly and cheerfully. For a rogue pony, he’s certainly come a long way.

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