Dear Ms. Goodnight,
I am the Director of an equestrian center Resort & Spa. We provide one hour scenic walking trail rides for our guests. We have an age limit of 8 years old, (although our insurance company only limits it to six years of age). We found however that parents lied about the child's age and expected 4 and 5 year olds to handle a horse/pony out on trail.) We also have implemented the height and weight restrictions that CHA recommends.
In spite of our guidelines, we have parents insist on their child riding even if they do not meet our requirements and there are children who do meet the requirements, but are unable to keep their mount out of the grass.
So, in an effort to accommodate the guests' requests and enable the family to ride, our trail guides have been ponying children who have a hard time controlling their horse/pony. Some of my staff however, feel that ponying is unsafe and do not like to do it. (Again, these are walking trails only.)
If we discontinue to pony we will lose significant revenue, as often the entire family will not ride if little "Johnny" cannot go. I have been with this facility for nine years and to date we have not had any serious accidents with ponying. In fact, to my knowledge we only recently had one incident total and fortunately no one was seriously hurt. (We do document all incidents and am glad to say that we have a good safety record, thanks in part to CHA.)
So my question is...what does CHA recommend and how do you feel about ponying children? Thank you for your feedback.
Thanks for your email. While I cannot give you any hard and fast answers, I can give you some issues to think about in regard to ponying horses for guests.
First of all, you have to consider that the guide ponying the guest is essentially incapacitated as a guide (being attached to the other horse) and so should not count in your ratio for guides to guests. In other words, if you pony a guest, you should have an additional guide on the ride to take the place of the one doing the ponying. If there were an incident or a situation that required the guide to take action, she would have to either take the ponied guest with her or get off, dismount the guest, secure the horse, remove the guest to a safe place and then leave the guest (child) unsupervised while she attended the other situation. As you can imagine, this would take far too much time. Also, throughout the ride, the attention of the guide will be on controlling the ponied horse not on watching the rest of the riders, so there is a supervision deficit from the guide doing the ponying.
Secondly, it is pretty easy to get in a wreck while ponying. It takes a fair amount of skill, experience and coordination on the part of the guide and the horses used must be properly trained for ponying. There are many things that can go wrong while ponying, including the rope getting under the tail of the lead horse (which generally causes the lead horse to panic and spin in circles); the pony horse getting aggravated at the horse being led and kicking or biting (which causes both horses to become reactive and it is possible that the guest might be the recipient of the blow); and the horse being led may jerk the lead rope out of the hands of the guide (now you have a loose horse with a rope dangling). It takes a lot of skill and coordination to ride two horses at once, which is essentially what the guide is doing when ponying. You've got to control your horse with one hand and control the horse being led with the other hand. Sometimes you are doing two opposite things (trying to make the pony horse slow down and the horse being led speed up). There are many other things that could go wrong, these are just the highlights. So unless your guides are very experienced at this sort of thing, I can understand their reluctance.
Another problem with ponying is that, technically speaking, the horse being led should walk beside the pony (lead) horse, so that the horse's nose is even with the guide's knee. This keeps the guide better balanced in the saddle (it is very easy to get pulled off balance or even right out of the saddle when you pony). Ponying the horse beside you works well if you are riding on wide open tracks such as a road; it does not work well at all if you are riding on single-track trail. If the horses on your trail rides are supposed to walk in single-file, you'll have a problem ponying the horse beside you. Either you will be "anti-training" the horse being led (that he really does not have to stay in single file) or you will require the horse being led to walk directly behind the pony horse, where he may get kicked and where the guide has to ride very twisted in the saddle.
Most trail ride providers regularly deal with this same dilemma. Many have come up with some creative solutions such as providing lessons or pony rides back at the barn for the youngest riders while the rest of the family enjoys a trail ride. Some operators provide a babysitting service with fun activities for the children that cannot go on the ride. Other operators offer a petting zoo for the youngest children so they can stay back at the barn and feed the small farm animals.
Perhaps requiring the youngest guests to take a lesson or demonstrate control of the horse before the ride would help both the guides and the parents see whether or not the child is capable of controlling the horse on the trail. Most parents that try to sneak young children onto a ride are just ignorant of the risk and it may help to educate the parents on what can go wrong and let them see for themselves that the child cannot control the horse.
Having said all of this, I will tell you that many trail operations do pony riders. I would suggest that ponying should be a last resort and should only occur when a problem results during a trail ride. I think your guides should know how to pony and should pony when absolutely necessary, but perhaps you want to rethink making it a standard operating procedure. It sounds like you operate a very safe program and whatever decision you make, I am sure it will be the best compromise between great guest service and keeping your riders safe. Only you can decide what is best for your operation. You'll have to consider all the options, the skill level of your guides, the training of your horses and decide what the best management practices are for your program. Good luck!