Webster`s Dictionary defines a pony as “a horse that is small when full-grown.” To a child lucky enough to own one or to be able to ride one, a pony is the best thing on the planet.
I was 11 when my non-horsey parents succumbed to my incessant pleadings and bought me a 14-hand, brown-and-white pinto, who, in a fit of originality, I named “Paint.” They might just as well have injected heroin straight into my veins. The addiction, which was instant, has lasted ever since.
Before Paint, my friend Billy Turner and I only had Holstein milk cows to ride. This was in the early `50s, shortly after World War II, and every GI coming back from Europe had brought home a German helmet. Billy and I had each acquired one of these, and for reasons not clear to me now, we felt it was desirable to wear them as we crept on our bellies through the long grass toward where the cows lay peacefully chewing their cud. When we got close enough, we`d jump up, race toward the startled animals, and leap onto their backs. The cows, naturally, would spring to their feet and dump us, ka-wang, on our German helmets.
Getting a pony to ride, as you can imagine, was infinitely more satisfactory.
Almost from the first day I got Paint, I felt as though I knew how to ride. He came complete with a little Western saddle and a fake silver-mounted bridle, but I soon dispensed with these as time-consuming inconveniences.
I made a rope with a snap on each end, for each side of his halter, and as soon as I got home from school each afternoon, I would catch him in his pasture, snap on the rope, and go play around bareback until it got dark.
Two of my next-door neighbors, Paul Barrett and Jack Baker, also bought ponies, Scout and Chief, at about the same time. So the three of us lived on horseback, exploring every back road and trail between Greenfield and Bernardston (in Massachusetts), before Interstate 91 was built and destroyed all the trails. I also went to every gymkhana in western Massachusetts that I could persuade anyone to drive me to, from Greenfield to Rowe to Charlemont.
Paint traveled in a wooden, homemade, single-horse trailer, with no roof.
And I still have the first blue ribbon I ever won, in the first class I ever entered, probably something like pole bending or sit a buck. It`s inscribed “Stoneleigh Gymkhana, April 24, 1954.”
I`m convinced that ponies are just the right size for kids. They aren`t huge and intimidating, but they can do everything a horse can do, only on a smaller and friendlier scale.
I wasn`t involved in jumping with my pony, but in the years since, I`ve always marveled at how easily little ponies can jump quite big fences. If horses could jump in the same proportion to their size as ponies, they could clear 6 feet with ease.
I`m sure there are tough, mean ponies, but most of the ones I`ve spent any time around have had great personalities. Paint would let me crawl under his belly, sit on him backward, ride double, or do anything I wanted.
You know those warnings you read, “Kids, don`t try this at home?” Well, here are some of those warnings that we ignored.
We`d take a flying saucer, like you use for winter sledding, and tie rope handles on each side. I`d put my Western saddle on Paint and hitch one end of a rope to the saddle horn and the other end to the handle on the saucer. Then I`d put some grain bags in the saucer as protection against the friction and heat. One of my friends would sit in the saucer, and I`d gallop Paint in zigzags as fast as he could go across the hayfield until my friend got flung out. Then we`d switch, and it would be my turn in the saucer.
Down in Whately, Mass., there was a broad, shallow river that we could gallop into. Pretending to be outlaws being shot at by the sheriff, we`d pretend to get hit, fling our arms into the air, and fall off backwards into the river.
One stunt I never mastered was scooping up a chicken from the ground at a dead run. I`d read that this was a test of riding skill for some Indian tribe, so, of course, I had to try it. We didn`t have any live chickens to chase, so I filled a paper bag with hay and twisted the top to approximate a chicken`s neck. I`d hang onto the saddle horn with my left hand and reach down with my right hand as far as I could.
But after gravity took over and I rolled under Paint`s hooves a couple of times, that trick lost its appeal.
Instead of having a lemonade stand to make money, I had a pony ride stand at the end of our driveway on Bernardston Road. I painted a sign that read, “Pony Rides, 10 cents. Three for 25 cents.”
I had a folding card table and a little metal cash box.
My friend David O`Brien saw a picture of this setup a few years ago and said to me, “Denny, 45 years later, and nothing has changed except the size of your operation.”
Yes, ponies can hook you for life. Essentially, they can change and direct your life, if you get sufficiently enthralled.
There`s only one bad thing about ponies, but it isn`t their fault. They`re little, and most people outgrow them. One of the saddest days of a pony owner`s life is when the pony has to be sold to make way for that first horse.
The silver lining to this, though, is that a good pony will always find a loving home. There`s always another little kid yearning to ride and cherish him.