Training My Own Chincoteague Pony

By Sonora Hannah

In 2010, a non-profit organization called the Feather Fund made my life-long dream come true when they bought a four month old colt for me at the famous Pony Penning auction in Chincoteague Island, VA. That colt was my pony Mincaye (Min-KY-yee) who is literally my childhood dream come to life! And because of him, I am living yet another dream come true…training my own horse.

Hannah teaches Min how to shake hands.

The first step in Min’s training was for me to gain his trust. He was very nervous and frightened in the beginning and would turn tail to me every time I entered his stall. I desensitized him to touch by rubbing him all over with my hand, then with a lead rope; and then I built on that by tossing the lead over his back and around his legs. Once he realized that I was not going to hurt him, his fear began to melt away. I spent hours reading books aloud to him or just talking to him, getting him used to my voice and presence. I also introduced grooming tools to him and worked on the concepts of standing tied, leading, and picking up his feet. There is an entire world of things to teach a horse even when he is too young to ride!

When I first started working with Min, I had a tendency to become so frustrated with myself for not knowing how to deal with a situation that I would often wallow in a complete sense of hopelessness. I have since realized that I am much better off forgiving myself for my mistakes and persevering to acquire the knowledge I need to fix a problem. It is inevitable that I will make mistakes in training my first horse, but my biggest regret has been that I did not begin “formal” groundwork as soon as I had Min’s trust. I now feel it is very important to have a training program to follow in order to know what it is you are doing and what goals you are headed towards in your pony’s training. At first I simply took bits and pieces of advice from anywhere I could get it, but it wasn’t until I found world-renowned trainer Clinton Anderson and his program that I really began to make headway in Mincaye’s training. Unfortunately by the time I found Clinton, I had already allowed Min to develop some bad habits; thankfully, by following his method, I am beginning to see those bad habits unravel and disappear.

Mincaye has always been highly curious, full of energy, and just a tad bit devious. He is the smartest equine I have ever met, which in the one sense is in my favor, but it also means I need to study hard so that I will know what to do in any given situation when working with him. The pushy, disrespectful behavior I allowed him to develop in the beginning has proved to be one of my biggest challenges. However I am learning to become the kind of leader Mincaye can respect, and that is, I believe, the key to being a good horse trainer. Being consistently clear and concise with your cues, always rewarding the horse for giving the correct response, and taking the time to build on his successes (never expecting too much too soon) are all important things to remember in training horses. Body language, too, plays a monumental role in communicating with horses, because that is the language they use with each other. Horses are amazingly intelligent creatures, and they learn very quickly when we take the time to “speak” to them in their own language rather than enforcing our ideas on them without so much as asking.

The first thing I ever really taught Mincaye was how to shake hands. I can still remember the absolute thrill I felt when I saw that he had made the connection between my cue and the action of lifting his foreleg! I continue to feel an overwhelming sense of joy and accomplishment whenever I teach Mincaye something new. I work with him every day that I can, but with the snowy, soggy winter weather and no arena or round pen, I have to be careful of slippery footing. For this reason I am anticipating the coming of sunny weather more than ever! When things dry out again, I hope to work with Mincaye as many as six days a week as he will soon be two years old and I am eager to prepare him to start under saddle. The time I have spent and have yet to spend working with Min from the ground is an invaluable part of training him to become a good riding horse; but most of all it provides a wonderful opportunity to build  a friendship which will last a lifetime.

Training my own Chincoteague Pony is proving to be every bit as magical an adventure as I thought it would be! My ultimate goal in Mincaye’s training is to ride him bareback and bridleless, but in the meantime I choose to glory in our journey as we continue to learn and grow together. Mincaye is beyond the shadow of a doubt my dream horse, and with him, every day is a priceless treasure.

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