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Lessons From Lesson Horses-Chapter 7

Updated on October 5, 2018
Ellison Hartley profile image

Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.

Dunkin's Story

A friend of mine was pony shopping for me. He too was in the pony ride business and knew what type I needed. He went to the auction and came back with, who at the time, was called Tiny 2.

Confusing, I know. This particular friend names all his boy ponies Tiny. He had just picked me up a pony a few weeks before. Also a gelding, his name was Tiny. So for a short time, before he got his new name. We had Tiny 1 and Tiny 2.

For some reason, we had used food names for our ponies for a while. We had Apple Strudel, Peanut, Brownie, Fluffernutter, Ginger, Candy, to name a few. It only made sense that we should give this pony a new name since Tiny 1 and Tiny 2 is too confusing. Also, not cute enough for a pony ride pony.

I don't know how it came to me, but I just decided he would be named Dunkin. As in Dunkin Donuts...I guess because of how round he was? Who knows?! I don't remember that part, all I know is that the name suits him well.

Dunkin was so happy the day this picture was taken, his friend Finn had just got home from the horse hospital.
Dunkin was so happy the day this picture was taken, his friend Finn had just got home from the horse hospital. | Source

His First Summer With Us

His first summer with us, we used him for pony rides on the farm, never had a moment's trouble with him. He was quiet on the crossties and allowed us to lead him around with kids on him with no issue at all.

He was young, probably only 4 or 5 at the time. As far as riding goes. We did use him for lessons, he was pretty green as far as steering and ringwork. Though he was a willing participant. He even went cross country schooling and did some jumping that summer. He was at the time, a great little pony ride pony, and was coming along well as far as his "real" riding skills.

It wasn't until late August when we took him to give pony rides off the farm for the first time that he started to really teach me a thing or two.

Dunkin and Finn even had to drink together for the first couple days when Finn got home. They were best buds when they were together.
Dunkin and Finn even had to drink together for the first couple days when Finn got home. They were best buds when they were together. | Source

Lesson #1

Our regular fall pony ride venue most people would consider a completely unsuitable environment for anything equine. It is very loud, crowded, people in unusual costumes, bullwhips cracking, loud music...that sort of thing.

Taking a pony here for the first time is always a chance. We think that we know how quiet they are from evaluating them at home. That is the one and an only good thing about living next to a high school, it can be loud and crazy there sometimes.

From everything I had seen on the farm, Dunkin gave me every indication that he would be okay at the venue he was bought to work at all fall season.

Turned out he was not. It was all too much for him. He was too young, hadn't seen enough of the world or experienced enough things yet to be able to keep his cool in those circumstances. People will say how they have young horses and ponies that are bombproof, not spooky and quiet. I'm sure to an extent this is true. Problem is, at a young age they just haven't seen much in the world, and probably haven't experienced all that is possible in the world. Let's face it, there are a million different scary scenarios that could scare a young inexperienced horse. Even at their own farm, let alone a crazy pony ride venue!

Lesson # 1 is he was just too young. I will intentionally seek out older ponies from now on. I wasn't out looking for a young pony, I just so happened to find Dunkin, and he seemed suitable. He was so good and quiet at home that I did not take into consideration his inexperience and how he might handle it. Therefore, I did not set him up for success at the job I had chosen him for. I beat myself up over this still, to this day. I put him in a situation, he couldn't handle. The safety of children taking the pony rides is always the number one priority. So Dunkin had a bad experience. Then, since we were in our"work" environment, I was not able to stop right there and work with him to help him get through his fear.

What was his particular fear you might ask? That leads me to lesson # 2

Lesson #2

Look closely at the kids you are about to lift onto your ponies before you put them on. Make sure that they are not wearing any weird clothing or carrying any weird accessories that might frighten the pony.

This year at our venue the trend for the kid's costumes was jingly, coin skirts. Like something you would see on a gypsy Halloween costume is the best way I can think to describe it.

As the kids were lifted on and off wearing those skirts when they sat down in the saddle, pretty much every move the pony made they jingled. The faster the pony walked, or the more sudden move he made the skirts jingled louder.

Though he was wide-eyed and afraid, Dunkin did briefly put up with the jingly skirts. He was getting tense but still behaving. I let him keep working. Then the worst happened, there was a bullwhip cracked on the stage next to us, just as a kid was being lifted onto his back. He, of course, was terrified of the whip crack. Then it was compounded with the kid in the jingly skirt coming being lifted up on him.

He was done, he tried to hold it together, but he lept out from under the kid. Luckily, my lifter was still holding onto her, so she didn't fall off. Dunkin jumped before the lifter had set the kid on the saddle, so he just lifted her back down. The kid was unphased, Dunkin, a whole different story. He was terrified. It was all I could do to lead him around the pony ride circle so I could put him back in his stall.

Obviously, we don't know if it would have made a difference, but maybe if the kid hadn't been wearing the jingly skirt, maybe he wouldn't have gotten so nervous. I could tell his nerves were building, the whip crack was what sent him over the edge. Just maybe though, he wouldn't have been so uptight, to begin with, if he had been riding around kids in outfits he was afraid of. I should have paid closer attention and had the kids take off the coin skirts. It was not like actual clothing, it was just an accessory they put on over their clothes. It could have easily been taken off. We now have a sign up at our entry booth asking the riders to please take off anything, or leave behind anything that might scare the ponies.

Dunkin on the left, Tiny one the right. So formerly known as Tiny 1 and Tiny 2. This looks vicious, but they were just playing!
Dunkin on the left, Tiny one the right. So formerly known as Tiny 1 and Tiny 2. This looks vicious, but they were just playing! | Source

Lesson #3

The other ponies didn't mind the jingly skirts, obviously, Dunkin did mind. Initially, even though I could tell he was scared, he was still behaving. I pushed him too hard to work in that scary environment. He was too young, trying to tell me that he was about to blow, and I didn't listen.

I was paying attention to all the ponies that day. I was totally aware of how afraid Dunkin was. All I saw though was how proud I was of him that he was holding it together when he was afraid. What I should have seen was that he was on overload and doing his best to keep it together.

He was talking to me and I wasn't listening. Lesson #3 is you have to listen to the horses and ponies when they are trying to tell you something. He tried to tell me, probably for about 15 minutes, maybe even longer... but I wasn't seeing the situation correctly. I wasn't listening to him.

He wasn't there to be trained to accept a chaotic environment. He was there to do a job that I thought he was ready for. As soon as I realized that he wasn't ready to be there, instead of trying to push him through, I should have put him away. Instead, I pushed him past his breaking point. We were there to work that day. To give pony rides, not train pony ride ponies...because of that I wasn't able to immediately work with him to get over his fear. I had to put him back in the stall, get another pony and get back to work. Which left Dunkin on a bad note. One that stuck with him, unfortunately, long after that day.

He tried to tell me. I didn't listen. Be aware of what your horses are trying to tell you, make sure you are setting them up for success. I did not set Dunkin up for success. First, by putting him in that situation at such a young age, then to have to put him back after a bad experience, and not being able to work on his fear right then and there at the moment when it really counted.

Once on his back, he was great! He just had the mounting monster issue.
Once on his back, he was great! He just had the mounting monster issue. | Source

Lesson #4

Mounting issues are one of the hardest, and most dangerous bad habits to try and fix in a horse.

Dunkin learned to associate mounting with scary things happening, due to the experience had at the job. Prior to that day, he did not have any problems with people getting on and off. Whether they were lifted, used a mounting block, or mounted from the ground.

After that day, it was a whole different story. Anytime that someone tried to mount him he would bolt out from underneath of them. Talk about dangerous! Bolting when a rider is only halfway on is scary stuff. You could tell he was obviously afraid. Sometimes he would actually shake, his eyes would bug out of his head, as soon as anyone was in a position to get on his back he was in panic mode.

Once on him, he was perfectly fine. It was the actual mounting process that he was afraid of. Someone coming at him and up over his back to sit. It terrified him.

Basically, I had to start Dunkin over from scratch, as if he had never been broke to ride. He was nervous at the sight of the saddle even at the beginning. I had to acclimate him to everything all over again. Then we practiced using a mounting block next to him. It wasn't safe to mount him from the ground. One foot in the stirrup is too precarious of a place to be when a pony might bolt out from under you.

We had to teach him to stand next to the mounting block. Then to not swing away from it when someone walked up on the top step. We practiced just standing on the top step and leaning over and rubbing his other side. Literally baby steps, then when he was so bored of all that the girl who was working with me just stepped over the saddle and sat down. He did great! She rode off and he was perfect. I held him when she went to get off and he was fine with that too.

I worked with the two of them for a long time before I let her ride him without me there. I should really say mount him without me because as I said once you were on his back he was totally fine!

The problem was, just when we thought he was over it, and she would go to mount him as we had been doing, he would bolt unexpectedly. It was like if everything wasn't exactly perfect he would get scared and lose it again. Once he started bolting while mounting again, we had to start over again with him.

In the time we had him. I had to restart him at least 3 or 4 times. It was so discouraging. He would be going really well, the last time he had even started picking up the one canter lead that had been so hard for him. We had started popping him over small jumps. Then the mounting monster would come back to haunt us, and that was it. We had to start all over again.

Throughout this process, we had some very close calls. I had never realized or thought about how scary a mounting issue could be. It is scary and very dangerous. If you are an inexperienced horse person, steer clear of a horse with mounting issues, it is not a quick or easy fix. At least it wasn't with Dunkin.

Dunkin looking cute as usual.
Dunkin looking cute as usual. | Source

Lesson #5

Not all horses and ponies are cut out to be pony ride ponies or lesson ponies. You probably are thinking that this is common sense. I don't mean it that way. Obviously, some horses will just never get calm and trustworthy enough for inexperienced riders. What I mean is that some horses and ponies really don't do well with having multiple people ride or work with them.

Maybe it was because this awful mounting monster showed up when we were doing pony rides. Maybe it is just a coincidence. I'm not sure honestly.

Dunkin needed one consistent rider working with him and spending time with him. The mounting monster had given him trust issues, so he needed to know the person well that was going to ride him. They needed to have a routine and in order to be safe mounting him, Dunkin needed to know exactly what to expect from his rider.

He bonded with the girl who worked with him the most, really she was the only one who did besides me. He excelled when he had one person he could trust. He is a one person pony.

Would he have been like this had he not had that bad experience? We will never know I guess.

Lesson #6

Admitting to myself that the situation that my business called for was never going to be ideal for Dunkin. I worked and worked, to try and get him to the point of being able to fit into my program. It just wasn't going to happen.

Not because he was mean, or bad, but because of the bad experience he had, he needed to be a one-person pony. Unfortunately, a one-person pony can't earn his keep in a lesson barn though.

I felt so guilty that I had put him in that bad situation and done the wrong thing. I felt I should have known better. I felt so responsible, that I kept pushing to make him into something that he was trying to tell me that he couldn't be.

I understood that he wasn't earning his keep and that I needed to find a way to move him on to someone else. I was just so afraid that he would be misunderstood or mistreated because of his trust issues. Valid concerns, but sometimes you have to admit that a situation besides your own might be better for your horse or pony.

Lesson #7

Luckily, we had a friend who had mentioned needing a companion horse for her older gelding. She is an experienced rider, responsible horse owner and even better lives less than 10 minutes away.

I was still very apprehensive and wanted to make sure that his new owner understood his problem. I wanted her to know that he is really a great pony at heart while understanding his issues. Hopefully, that way I set him up for success in his new home, the way I should have done myself when I first got him.

For a long time, I felt like I had failed Dunkin, I guess in some ways I did. Luckily though, Dunkin found a loving home despite the fact that to most, he would be a pony with "issues" that they wouldn't want to bother with.

When I gave Dunkin to Michelle, I felt like I did right by him for the first time in a long time.

Looking all fancy in this picture.
Looking all fancy in this picture. | Source

Lesson #8

Dunkin's story has a great ending. He still lives nearby, I can see him if I want to. Michelle's horse isn't lonely anymore. It all worked out in the end. Lesson #7 is that I believe that there is a right home for every horse. Dunkin found him at Michelle's, not with me as I'd hoped, but he found one none the less.

Dunkin Lives Happily Ever After

Dunkin found the perfect home. I learned that I'm proud of myself for taking responsibility for my mistakes and learning from them. Lastly, I'm proud that I came to realize that not every horse is going to have their happily ever after with me, and let Dunkin move on.

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