by Linda Chamberlain
Take a close look at this photo – can you see something amazing? The children are having a little nap. The ponies are also dozing peacefully. There are no saddles; no bridles, only the occasional halter. The ponies are free to leave if they want to because they are not restrained.
There’s enough grass in the field to tempt any pony in the land but they are staying with the resting children…because they want to. I might not have believed such a scene was possible unless I had seen it for myself. Well, I can promise you the ponies are not frightened or coerced into this behaviour, neither are their feet tied to the ground.
Let’s go back a couple of hours at this highly unusual Five Star Pony Camp just before the photo was taken so that you can truly understand. I watch, like a fly on the wall, as the children have a chance to choose a pony they want to play with that afternoon.
They head for the fields with halters and long lead ropes to fetch them to an area where they have already built an obstacle course with poles on the ground, a blue tarpaulin to walk over and jump wings to navigate between. Then they master the art of leading a pony from the ground without pulling. A light tap behind the saddle area, either with a hand or a long natural horsemanship stick, is enough of an ‘ask’ to get most of the ponies following.
The children use their voices, their body language to communicate and I’m already in a state of surprise. They didn’t teach riding skills like this when I was their age. I’m impressed; they are managing really well. If any of the children pull on their lead ropes, Monica Andreewitch, who runs these week-long camps in school holidays, shows them a better way – one that is nicer for the pony. Stand at his shoulder, don’t look back at him, use your arm and show him where you want to go. Some of the children have done this before, others are getting the hang of it; all are smiling happily.
I’ve been around horses since I was seven, about the age of these children, and I’m smiling to myself. I’m expecting mayhem. Little round ponies with lots of fluff might look sweet but plenty of them have pulled my younger self through a patch of nettles to reach what their tummy desires.
I remember my friend, Deborah, battling with a tiny pony called Twinkle who had his own agenda and the strength of a tank. I hope the children at the camp won’t be upset when their pony friends run off to freedom, a good roll and a bite of grass. But it doesn’t happen that way. The lack of halters makes very little difference. The body language from their handlers needs some fine tuning, some guiding from Monica, but they stay. What’s more they continue walking over the jumps, the plastic and through the obstacles, going where the children take them. One pony breaks into trot because he’s asked, not with a desire to escape. Wow!
Then a boy comes to Monica. He’s thirsty and near to tears.
‘Are you tired?’ she asks him. It’s been a long day of poo picking, riding and drawing pictures in the classroom. ‘Would you like a bit of a sleep on the pony?’
She takes his hand and gets him on board, shows him how to get comfy. Facing the tail is the best way, taking full advantage of the soft, pillowy rump to lay your head on. He nods off and the halterless pony relaxes and does his own version of a nap, standing up.
All the children do the same. Monica and her assistants are nearby to help them get on and to settle. It’s a quiet time at the camp. The photo is taken. It’s a wonderful moment. Rare and special. Because it shows what can be achieved when children and ponies are allowed to play together. They connect…and that’s why those ponies stay with the sleeping children on board. They don’t need ropes and halters to bind them.
When the time is right, Monica gets the children to sit up slowly. The ponies come awake, too. The children dismount, the ponies are thanked…it’s time to go home. As for me, I’m a little speechless and I’m left with a desire to be young again – to unlearn a few of my riding lessons.
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Monica Andreewitch runs the Five Star Pony Camp at her riding school, The Pony Academy, in Ockham, Surrey, during school holidays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 0208 224 3499