Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.
Why Are You Shopping for a Pony?
There would be many reasons that someone would look for a pony to use for pony rides. This might be someone with a little property and young children or grandchildren. In my case, we look for pony-ride ponies to use in our business. Not only do we teach riding lessons and run a summer camp program, we also use agritourism as another revenue source and do pony rides at our farm and travel to other locations (e.g. backyard parties and large community events). We also have a farm animal petting zoo that often travels with the ponies.
Are You Planning to Travel With Your Ponies to Outside Events?
Where you plan on doing the rides is an important factor to consider. It takes a special type of animal to load onto a trailer and go somewhere and arrive quietly enough to put kids on.
It was a learning curve for me with all the things I would encounter when taking my ponies out and about—things like loud music to a rock wall that kids climbed and swung around on, to bullwhips, bagpipes, huge balloons, and people in weird costumes. Just when I think I have seen it all, another challenge arises!
We ran two strings of pony-ride ponies basically. The "A" team, as my dad calls them, are the ones that have proven that they can handle pretty much any commotion and keep their wits about them. They also are the most mannerly for the kids walking them and stand well for riders on and off.
The "A" team is the group that goes to new events we don't know much about as well as large community events and fairs. For backyard parties as well, some of the "B" team can do backyard parties (not all of them though). At no fault of their own, kids' parties are intense these days. I never cease to be surprised by the things our ponies have had to deal with.
Will You Just Be Using the Pony at Your Facility?
It still takes a special type to give pony rides, even at their home. It isn't as simple a job for a pony to do as it looks—they get accidentally kicked and pulled. Kids often move around in the saddle despite being told not to. Even things like guests bringing balloons and things that your ponies aren't used to—they seem to be more taken by surprise by little things at home. I think this is because they are so comfortable in their home environment with how things normally are that the littlest changes catch them off guard.
Pony Business or Occasional Rides?
You will have an easier time finding a pony for friends and neighbor kids to take rides on every so often. You will also find one that can work full time and put up with what goes along with being a "professional" pony-ride pony.
Selecting a Sweet Pony for Occasional Rides
Consider the age and size of the children who will be taking pony rides on the pony. That will help determine what size you should look for.
The first pony we bought specifically for our pony ride business was a small, shetland shaped pony. She was a fabulous pony ride pony, but at only around 10.2 hands, she was limited in the kids she could give rides to. If your potential pony riders are tiny little things, a small pony would probably be okay, as you can get enough years of use out of it before they outgrow it.
Also, if you aren't doing pony rides professionally, where you won't have to be lifting kids on and off of them constantly all day long like you would at an event, a bigger pony might be better. That way you can get more years of using it before the kids out to grow it.
Starting a Pony-Ride Business?
If you are starting a pony ride business, I would suggest you look at medium ponies in the 13-hand range; the stockier the build the better. That way they can carry the more solid riders more comfortably. If you are going to be a string of them, having one small for the little itty bitty kids would be fine. It will most benefit you if the majority of your ponies are medium sized. That way, if you have a line of kids waiting, it won't hold up progress waiting for the bigger pony to come back around.
A large pony, 14 hands or so, isn't necessarily a bad idea, but those few inches make a big difference to your staff members that are lifting the kids off and on the ponies. That is one thing that you don't think much about until you get started and realize how much work it is lifting kids on ponies all day.
We do allow parents to lift the kids if they prefer, but many just send their child in line, so at a large event, that is a lot of kids for your staff to lift. Making the 13-hand range generally a better size for you if you plan on doing events regularly. Like I said, if you want to have one small 10-12 hands for little ones, no problem, I just wouldn't have all of them be that size.
Will the Pony Load and Stand Quietly on the Trailer?
Another factor if your plan is starting a pony ride business is since you are going to be traveling with the ponies, do they load on and off the trailer easily? Also, will they stand quietly in the trailer and wait while they are on breaks. A lot of times at large events there will be too much commotion and not enough separation from the public for your ponies to take their breaks tied to the outside of the trailer like you normally would at a horse show or trail ride.
I have had some real disappointments looking for ponies when I found a nice, quiet prospect just to find out it has trailer-loading issues. Obviously, if you have the time and are willing to work through it, you can fix it. If you are just starting out trying to get a pony-ride business going, you are better off picking ponies that reliably load and stand on the trailer. It just makes life easier.
Does Age Matter?
Does age matter? It sure does! With age comes experience and exposure to more situations that will make them much more reliable for young riders. Most of my pony-ride ponies are well into their 20s. Giving pony rides is the perfect job for them to keep them moving and engaging with people, I think it helps them live longer.
Obviously, there are young quiet ponies out there. They are not impossible to find. I just generally search for late teens and early 20s since they have a better chance in my opinion of being mature enough for the job.
The younger ponies, even if they aren't spooky, can tend to be too sensitive for the on and off and on and off associated with being a pony ride pony. They are just too sensitive to tolerate it. Like I said, never say never! I just try and save myself time on my searches by looking at older ponies.
What About Soundness Problems?
There are many ponies that have soundness issues that make them no longer suited to regular riding in a ring or trail, but that doesn't affect their ability to carry kids for pony rides.
So, do not rule out a pony at the mention of some arthritis or soundness problem that kept them from doing another job. There is a good possibility that it won't affect a pony-ride pony, or that it could be easily managed with but every so often or putting shoes on their feet. Those are additional expenses, but if it is a safe, reliable pony, I think you will find it worth the investment.
Just make sure if there is mention of a soundness problem, that if it isn't something you are familiar with, that you get the facts before you decide to buy the horse. Rehoming older unsound ponies is hard.
The good thing is that for some ponies that would be considered unsound for their current job, will find a way to lead a useful life for the remainder of their years.
The Biggest Surprise About Pony-Ride Ponies
In my experience, my very best pony-ride ponies are not ponies that were ever highly trained as riding or show ponies. They were more like backyard pet type ponies that just got played with a lot and kids were led around on, but they were never truly trained to ride. They wear tack, have great ground manners, lead great, and have put up with kids all over them for most of their lives so they are super quiet.
I have found them from private sellers online and even at auction. I have had good success with ponies from the Amish that were used for working the fields. They tend to be quiet and solidly built to hold heavier riders. You will be surprised at the size of young kids these days. Or the fact that older kids, pre-teens and such, want to take pony rides, which leads to another thing I will at least mention.
Size Limits and Weight Limits
Though it is sometimes a hard subject to broach with customers. It is only reasonable for the sake of your animals and your staff who have to lift the kids up on the ponies.
You should decide what your height and weight restrictions will be, and how you will enforce them.
We try and explain it as we have to put limits on size for both the safety of our staff and ponies. Not to mention, pony ride ponies wear appropriately sized smaller saddles that can't safely accommodate larger riders.
Things You Probably Wouldn't Think About
So, you are probably thinking we wouldn't have to limit our riders weight for the sake of the lifters if we let the kids mount the ponies from the ground or a mounting block.
Unfortunately, that isn't really feasible because the ponies learn what the mounting block means and then start trying to move away from it or not stop next to it when it's time to put a kid off and on. Then it is a hassle to have to retrain them out of that bad habit. We all know that it seems all things equine learn bad behavior faster than they learn good behavior. So, I have found it better to use the lifting method.
As long as you make the weight limits clear in your contract, highlight it if you have to, it shouldn't be an issue.
Also, at large events, the ponies might have many, many rides a day. The back pain and irritation of having inexperienced people trying to yank themselves up there over and over again would be pretty harsh and unfair in my opinion.
As odd as it may seem to us horsey folks, there are some people that think pony rides are cruel so we don't want to do anything to fuel that fire!
There Are Many Factors to Consider
Like any other horse purchase, there is a lot to consider. The main things I look for in a pony ride pony are sold medium size, good ground manners, and good to tack up and lead a kid around on. I emphasize to just lead a kid around on because it almost seems the more refined trained ponies are, the less suited to pony rides because they are too sensitive. I only have one lesson pony that also does pony rides, and she is on the "B" team, meaning she doesn't go anywhere new or where we know there is a good possibility of huge crowds because she just won't tolerate it.
Looking for a pony-ride pony is a whole different cup of tea than looking for a lesson pony or a pony for a child to show on. Pony-ride ponies have to be quiet, tolerant, and have the work ethic to handle walking in circles for hours on end. Not that we don't give them breaks, I don't work any of mine for more than an hour and a half without giving them a break. Mentally, it can just be on one hand so over stimulating in some of these situations, that they can't handle the commotion and then the flip side of the boredom of the job for them that make it not suited to every pony.
Beware of a company that does pony-rides selling on their ponies. I'm sure some of the time this isn't the case, but it seems that when you get good ones you hold onto them. So, if a pony-ride business has a pony for sale, it probably wasn't a member of their "A" team. It's always worth a look but just keep that in the back of your mind.
Also, remember when you go and look at ponies for sale, ask if there will be a kid there so you can see how the pony does. Now, if they do have a kid to take a pony ride on the pony, keep in mind if you are looking for a pony to use your business it will have to do a lot more than one ride a day! Just keep this in mind as you are watching! There is a big difference in rides all day and one ride for 10 minutes!
I'm lucky enough that I have learned what qualities to look for now. I'd say my main advice is don't rush into anything. Look at as many as you can and compare and contrast. Ground manners can be improved on and so can some small vices, but if they don't have the right personality for it, they won't be able to handle it. It's all in the personality.
Look for old ponies with a kind expression in their eye. Old, sweet, and slow are the types of pony that every child should have their first experience with, and it is our job to make sure we have the right ones!