Ponying Multiple Horses
Photography by Jennifer Denison
Through the years, ponying horses has been routine work for Marty Marten, author of Western Horseman's two problem-solving books. As a ranch cowboy, Marty has packed salt to cattle in distant areas and also has handled large pack strings for mountain outfitters.
The key to ponying several head at once, he says, is the same as for successfully ponying one horse—preparation.
"Don't get ahead of yourself and try to pony two horses unless each horse leads well individually," Marty explains. "At first, go one at a time; that's just good horse sense. You must be careful, be safe."
Serviceable equipment is key to successfully ponying horses. Marty prefers using a Double Diamond rope halter, but most any rope halter will work. He also prefers a supple, 12- to 14-foot halter rope. As always, when working with horses, Marty recommends carrying a knife, too, in case you need to cut a rope.
Combining a solid riding horse and responsive pony horses in a string can be handled in several ways. One horse's halter rope can be tied with a bowline to lie snugly around the base of the next horse's neck.
A tail knot is highly recommended as the halter rope is off the ground and doesn't flop around either. First gather the horse's tail into a smooth bundle. Then lay the halter rope to the following horse across the tail about four to five inches below the end of the tailbone—not on it. Next, bring up the end of the horse's tail, laying it over the halter rope and make a half-hitch with the rope as shown in the photo. Then take the halter rope tail forward, tying it around the base of the horse's neck with a bowline.
If a packsaddle is used to fasten stock, Marty suggests making an 8-to-12-inch tie loop around the packsaddle tree and tying the pony horse's halter rope in that loop. Then, should a horse pull back, the tie loop might break first, instead of the packsaddle. In any case, be sure the tail of each halter rope is adequately fastened up and out of the way, not dragging where stock can step on it.
With the pony horses fastened together, Marty positions the near horse head-to-head with his riding horse and holds the halter rope just as he does when ponying one horse. Once mounted, Marty rides toward the end of the string to drive the pony horses forward, rather than trying to pull the string into motion. When pony horses are responsive on their halter ropes, the near horse turns to follow the riding horse, and each horse, in succession, follows that lead.
Although Marty looks ahead from time to time, he says, "I look back a lot, particularly if I'm leading more than one horse. I make sure that those horses are coming and that they're staying out of trouble. Don't ever assume that everything back there is okay. Check those horses."
Typically, when pony horses are good on their leads, the first horse in the string responds to the rider, and the second pony horse can "feel" his way off the first to follow, somewhat as any horse might do in any herd-type situation. Likewise, and with time, the other horses also learn to rate their speed to match that of the lead pony horse, which is controlled by the rider.
"When I worked on that California pack outfit," Marty says, "we led mule strings on switchbacks in the mountains. We prided ourselves in having horses that really walked out, but when we came to a switchback, we slowed down our horses a bit. That was rating to the other stock.
"We usually had the most experienced mule, the lead mule, up front. A lot of times, the least experienced stock was right behind the lead mule, but we did put stock in different places in the string. Nothing was hard and fast about that.
"Those mules were so broke that they seldom pulled back. Sometimes one of us made a loop in the halter rope of the lead mule and tied a bowline, then set that loop over the saddle horn, and it was easy to lift that loop. But if there was a problem, and a mule pulled back, there was no way to get that loop off the horn—that's why we all carried knives."
According to Marty, the best way to pony one horse or several is to plan ahead how to safely approach the situation. As Marty says, "When a horse handles well and is responsive on the halter rope when you're afoot, that training will come through when you pony him. Take the time to develop those skills. If you are going to lead a string of multiple horses, make sure that you can lead each one individually and that each horse is responsive on the halter rope. "
Marty Marten has written two Western Horseman books, Problem-SolvingandProblem-Solving, Volume 2. He and wife Jody Marken live near Berthoud, Colorado. (martymarten.com) (See "Pony Up" in the December 2011 issue of Western Horseman for more information on preparing the riding horse and a pony horse for the experience.)