Exmoor Ponies in Conservation Newsletter

Issue 2 Article 4

Handling Hints

'Give me the child to the age of seven and I will show you the man' corresponds well with the notion a friend highlighted recently, that a pony isn't 'broken in' at three years old, but at six weeks. In a nutshell an unhandled foal at this age can learn very easily the most important principles of How People Work! The knowledge that they are trustworthy, predictable, friendly but dominant, forms the basis for his education, and subsequent lessons are for him, fairly straightforward and easy. Learning 'How People Work' is much more difficult for a moorland pony who is older or who already may have already formed a negative opinion on the matter. Her view of the world may mean this important first lesson is much harder to grasp and may take days, weeks, months or even years to learn, if at all. Most domestic situations require a pony to be fully educated and subsequently schooled to ride or drive, but what level of education is best, practical or even desirable in a conservation grazing context and wht are the deciding criteria?

Welfare issues must come at the top of the list here. A system of handling which facilitates essential processes such as regular worming, foot trimming when and if necessary, dealing with injuries, illness, and possible foaling difficulties. Whatever the system, ponies on reserves and SSSIs should always be in the best of health and ways of dealing with them should be as stress free and safe for all concerned. The 'Rodeo' type of atmosphere, or darting ponies when they need attention will have members of the public on the phone to the R.S.P.C.A. in no time! Not only do the ponies need to be dealt with properly for their own benefit, but an accountable, efficient management system must be seen to be in place, from a P.R. point of view also.

Nice set of wheels! (photo by Jenna Mackintosh)

Ponies can come in a variety of states of mind, as completely 'wild things' with no experience of anything very much and even less inclination to find out, fully educated in most things to do with humans or anywhere along the learning curve between the two. The type of pony on site will, therefore determine the type of the management system used. There are several ways to crack this nut, and devising a flexible management method to suit the individual situation, with considerations such as budget, time, the pony interest and handling skills of wardens, etc. is well worth the initial effort and is essential for the smooth running and success of a grazing project.

The cheapest financially and most flexible is to have ponies fully handled, civilised and headcollarable. Although this takes considerably more time, patience and a little skill initially, once the ponies are educated, one or two people can deal with most eventualities easily and expensive holding pens although possibly useful, not essential. If the ponies are likely to be kept and used for many years the benefits are obvious. One or two ponies may even be further schooled to perform helpful tasks on the reserve, as one of our ponies did this year. However, although this has worked very well for us here in Silverdale it may not be possible or even best in other situations. As it is one with which we are most familiar, I will endeavour to highlight some of the pitfalls and advantages of using fully handled ponies as well as some methods I have found successful in achieving this.

Why handle?

It never ceases to amaze how us puny humans are able to control creatures many times our weight and strength so easily. The laws of nature seem topsy turvy here. It is, however, something of a privilege when a previously wild pony decides to place trust in you and wants to co-operate. Handled Exmoors in particular find humans a constant source of entertainment, are fascinated by our antics, and are always keen to be part of whatever is going on! Our Exmoors always come to greet us when we visit their grazing area and will stay quite a while for a 'chat' and really enjoy socialising even when food isn't on the agenda. Even if in a remote part of the site they will come to call, or the rattle of a bucket, which saves traipsing round trying to find them and check on them. When leaving, one pony usually acts as escort to the gate, a different one each time. I'm still not sure why!

Apart from the fact that a mannerly friendly Exmoor pony, who understands his place in the world, is a joy to own, pony grazing here involves rotating the animals used on site, so ponies must be easy to move. One of the many advantages of have reasonably civilised ponies is that they are can be loaded into a box, or are happy to be led to their next venue if the site is inaccessible by road. If at any time a pony suffers an injury, only the treatment of the injury itself is an issue, and not the practical problems of the isolation, capture and restraint of a semi wild animal! Handled ponies to us means flexibility, economy, both in time and money, and good P.R. with regard to wardens and users of the sites. It also facilitates good welfare and pony management practice. Also if by some misfortune the grazing policy changes, the ponies will be much easier to re-home, possibly into a domestic situation. The handling process itself, from a personal point of view it is very rewarding and fascinating. If you decide to have a go at handling the ponies yourself, whatever degree your equine knowledge or skills, each pony with its own particular set of idiosyncrasies, will be a challenge and learning experience!


Over familiarity with visitors to the reserve may be something to be considered and is one possible disadvantage. The only problem we have experienced was with a filly who being fed titbits by a visitor decided to follow all the walkers. She still however, didn't present a danger to them just walked hopefully behind, although they sometimes became anxious and speeded up! More prominent anti-feeding notices solved the problem eventually. The feeding problem is still less of a danger to the public in handled stock than in an unhandled pony who has plucked up courage enough to grab a sandwich but is on his toes ready to bite or kick.

The theft risk is another possible disadvantage. However, this is only equal to all other grazing equines and brand marks or micro-chips, make the Exmoors less attractive to thieves. I was initially concerned about the sometimes heavy flow of walkers across the reserve and the safety issues of both people and humanised ponies. After keeping a careful eye on both, I feel now that well educated ponies are far less risk to general public on a small site than those with much stronger instinctive reactions. Although pony-people contact is probably not something to be encouraged, nevertheless I observed some quite rewarding scenes where ponies were behaving impeccably just politely socialising. On one occasion we saw a walker lying asleep in the sun, a book covering his face with a pony standing right next to him, also dosing. The ponies also began to form opinions as to which were the 'O.K'. people. On the busy sites they remained relaxed even with loud children with 'guns', toy tractors, push chairs etc. in the close vicinity. Mysteriously, they stayed calmly positive towards handicapped groups of visitors behaving in an unusual way. Noisy adults and loud adolescent boys (however harmless) they scuttled away from.

Some ideas on how to handle

Each pony is different in the manner and attitude it will have to the learning processes involved in it becoming humanised, and however experienced, the handler will inevitably learn something new from each one. Although not an expert in pony behaviour by any means, I have discovered a few basic principles over the years which I have found to be successful and fairly stress free, both with regard to breaking in and handling our own ponies.

The secret of good handling is to watch and learn from the ponies themselves and try to understand them. The ways in which life in the wild has moulded their behaviour patterns and the skills they needed to develop in order to survive, all have relevance to how they view and interact with the world. Ponies are very much individuals and if you have a group you will quickly be aware of who is where in the pecking order.

Observe their behaviour facial expressions, body language, how they show pleasure and affection, aggression and fear. Some pony signs are more difficult to 'read' and need practice. Particularly so are aggressive signals which in some situations can also be closely linked with fear, discomfort or agitation. It is easy to make a mistake, misread the pony's signals and react inappropriately. For example a fearful pony can be very aggressive in its attempts to keep away the source of its fear, (usually people) who often mistake the pony's motive and punish it, which can reinforce the pony's riginal assessment of the situation and result in a negative circle!

Moods are also predictably affected by heat, flies, wind, and cold driving rain, as well as hormones and food availability.

We should always remember that we are supposed to be the intelligent ones, gifted with a superior ability to think problems through and therefore should always behave accordingly. There is no doubt it is possible to make a contact with the ponies, which once established means they will on most occasions and if they understand what is required, try to co-operate with their handler. A modern term for this process is 'join up' although people have been using methods like this for years and not had a name for it! On so many occasions I have had the feeling that with the Exmoors in particular, have not just co-operated (on a good day) but wanted to please.

Whatever stage/age the pony you first need to get to know him and form a relationship based on trust. The younger the pony the easier this is. This will usually take patience but is not difficult. Young ponies are usually intensely curious and want to be friends. If he is nervous, but will watch and listen to you (perhaps from a distance) talk to the pony quietly and pleasantly, move slowly, perhaps quietly offering a titbit or a small feed in a bucket a distance away. If he just stands. with all senses focused on you, this is just what is wanted as he is carefully assessing the situation, taking in information and learning. Don't try to approach. Keep presenting yourself as a predictable, friendly creature and he will come nearer as confidence improves.

Only let him approach if he is looking at you with an attentive expression, not flattened ears and lowered head.

How long this will take depends on the temperament of pony and his past experiences and the frequency of the 'lessons'. The most important token of friendship at this stage is when the pony gingerly decides to smell or touch your hand with his lips. They learn a great deal about you from this hand/mouth contact and it can be the first point of touch. From here the pony can gradually be scratched under his chin, neck etc.. and then all over the body, with legs last. Keep repeating the process until the pony is calm being touched everywhere, including his head. The pony may follow you now, if so, tell him to 'walk on', if he stops when you do, tell him to 'stand'. This is good practice for leading, and will get the pony used to the idea of walking with you. Reward him with a scratch or titbit. If he is happy with this get him used to the idea of moving away from hand pressure, i.e. apply hand pressure intermittently on his chest and say 'back' firmly. Stop as soon as he responds with just one step and reward him , then encourage him to step forward again. He will soon get the idea and now realises that you are controlling and manoeuvring him. These exercises are usually enjoyable for the pony and can be done without headcollar or leadrope. They can be practiced for however long you have the pony's attention. All this can be done on site, the more frequent the 'doses' of contact, the more quickly the pony will come to hand. The presence of other handled ponies will also make the process easier, as ponies also gain confidence from their peers and learn to some extent by watching. During foot trimming sessions here, for example, the other ponies are very nosey and carefully watch the pony whose turn it is, smell the farrier, tools, the van, and will get as close as possible to see what is going on!

Headcollaring and leading

This stage is best in an enclosure or more restricted space. To get a pony used to a headcollar, first simply put one in a bucket with a few nuts. The pony will become quite unafraid and positively disposed to the appearance of the headcollar and used to moving it about to get the nuts. It is then usually a small step to slide it over his nose and later fasten it. Titbits are useful here and the reward system means he will always come to be caught later. Reinforce well the process of putting on and taking off the headcollar, keeping the pony calm and relaxed, until it can be done smoothly each time. Never snatch at his head, if he suddenly gets a fright and jumps back let him go and then start again. It is important to get this stage right as a head-shy, or difficult to catch pony is a liability.

The first time a pony feels he is restrained physically can be an alarming one and can cause problems for the handler especially if he is older and bigger. Getting the pony used to the feeling gradually can help. Once the headcollar can be put on smoothly, practice moving it about on the pony's head and gently pull his head toward you with a light intermittent pressure from one side then the other. Reward him with your voice as he submits to the pressure. If he pulls away, keep asking until he turns his head towards you.

The lead rope can be then attached after the pony has had a good look at it. Tell him to 'walk on', briskly. Any direction will do and one or two steps is success at this stage! It will probably easier to get him to come round towards you in a small circle at first. A helper behind the pony (not close) will also encourage him to go forward on command. It is not unusual for a pony to suddenly decide to try you out at this stage and try to gallop off. Usually he can be restrained by staying calm and applying a sharp, but intermittent pressure on the lead rope. Reward him with your voice as soon as he is standing still again and carry on with the lesson. If he gets away, leave him to calm down and then encourage him back to you and reinforce an old lesson. It probably will only happen once (or may not happen at all) and practice will make perfect. Leading behind a handled friend may also be helpful.

To sum up:-

Keep 'lessons' short and behave in the same sort of way each time. Small steps practiced frequently are best.

At first keep hands below eye level and move slowly but purposefully. Use your voice in a light, reassuring way. (A bit like talking to a baby) Ponies really respond to the human voice.

Only introduce something new when the pony is entirely at ease with the previous step.

Don't impose yourself on a pony who is confidence building, let him make the decisions at first.

Ignore aggressive behaviour in a fearful pony, move away until the pony is comfortable, continue being calm, but have a strong positive attitude.

When training don't give in when things go wrong, repeat an old lesson, and try again another day.

Don't overdo titbits as a reward system. Remove them altogether if the pony shows signs of being 'pushy'

Never be in a rush or try something new when feeling under the weather.

Remember 'discipline' can only come into the frame and be effective when the pony is secure in its relationship with you and will accept your assertive behaviour. Only occasionally will it be necessary anyway.

Your voice is your most effective training aid. Ponies are very sensitive to tone and usually understand when you are pleased and when you are telling him off. (Growling is good!)

A young pony is an instinctive creature with lightening reactions. Keep alert to the pony at all times during handling sessions and make sure you keep safe.

Give the pony the benefit of the doubt and don't be too quick to blame him if you are not successful in what you are trying to do straight away.

Sometimes if faced with a problem you have given him to solve, with a little time to think things out ponies will often come up with the 'right' answer. Less hassle from you is on occasion 'more' in terms of results.

You must always be the one in charge, e.g. if initially you can only get to pony to walk on towards his friends, make him think it was your idea and that he is doing as he is told! If he runs off into the distance with lead rope trailing, tell him to 'trot on' and make sure no one is watching!

It may be important also to decide what your handling needs are and what stages of progression would be achievable. For most purposes in a conservation grazing context, a pony who is reasonably sociable, can be headcollared, lead, touched all over, have all four feet picked up and understand basic commands like 'walk on', stand, 'back' and 'move' over and loads into a trailer, is an asset. Alternatively having ponies part handled, so that they will come to a bucket, and who are educated into the routine of the holding pen without undue panic suits the situation and works very well in dealing with the ponies on reserves.

Finally always remember to keep a sense of humour. This is not too difficult with Exmoors as they have the knack of introducing something interesting to almost any situation!

Remember that training ponies is great fun and immensely satisfying and learning how to handle a moorland pony is horse-personship in the best possible sense.

Useful sources of handling info:-

Understanding Your Pony, Lucy Rees Pub. Stanley Paul

Humane Horse Handling, Mark Hudson available from Redwings Horse Sanctuary, Hill Top farm, Norwich, Norfolk. NR12 7RW.

Equus Cabalus, Jan May, pub. J A Allen

The Art of Long Reining, Sylvia Stanier, pub. J A Allen

Breaking a Horse to Harness, Sally Walrond, pub. J A Allen

by Margaret Mackintosh

(see the appendices for plans of a handling pen and a knot-it-yourself halter)