When you’re used to the feel of sitting on a pony, you’re ready to learn how to adjust the tack so both you and your pony are comfortable and safe.
The girth is the strap that runs under the pony’s middle and keeps the saddle fastened on. It must be secure Without being tight. If it is too loose, the saddle slips round as you mount or when the pony starts moving.
A girth that is too tight is safer but it’s uncomfortable for the pony. The girth straps can pinch him, particularly if his skin gets wrinkled and caught underneath. This may irritate the pony, and make him more likely to play up, ignoring your commands.
Checking and adjusting
The girth needs to be checked before you get on and after you have been riding for about ten minutes.
When you start riding, your instructor Will probably check the girth for you before you mount the pony. But you should know how to adjust it yourself. Loosely holding the reins, slide your hand flat under the girth. If your fingers fit snugly, the girth is correctly fastened; if not the buckles can be tightened or loosened accordingly.
You should also learn to check the girth When you’re in the saddle. After you’ve been riding for a short time, the girth needs to be checked again because the pony has warmed up and the saddle may have worked loose. If you think the girth does need tightening, shift your leg in front of the saddle. Keep your foot in the stirrup iron. Lift the saddle flap, pull the girth strap up and tighten the buckle a couple of notches.
Eventually, you’ll be able to manage it looking ahead and while the pony walks on. To start with, practise with someone holding the pony while you look down and see what you’re doing.
Some mischievous ponies enjoy blowing themselves out as you do the girth up. When you mount, or after a few minutes of riding, they breathe out so that the saddle slips round and you end up under the pony’s middle.
Take extra care to check the girth if you ride a pony like this so you don’t get caught out by tricks!
Checking the girth
Before you mount, check the girth by placing your fingers flat under it once the saddle is secured to the pony. Extra space or wrinkled flesh mean it is either too loose or too tight!
If it does need tightening, lift the saddle flap (the leather flap that your leg rests against when riding) and pull up the girth strap. Fasten the buckle a hole or two higher and run your fingers underneath the girth to make sure that no skin is caught.
After about ten minutes of riding, check the girth again. If it has worked loose, move your leg forward – with your foot still in the stirrup iron – so that it rests in front of the saddle. Lift the saddle flap and tighten the girth strap one or two holes.
Stirrup irons help you to stay on, since both feet have an ‘anchor’. They also make riding easier and more comfortable, particularly later on when you lift your seat out of the saddle for the rising trot or for jumping. The length of stirrup you adopt is partly down to What feels right for you, but there are general guidelines.
Testing the length
To test the stirrup length before you mount, stand facing the saddle on the right side of the pony. With your right hand make a fist and rest your knuckles on the stirrup bar (Where the stirrup leathers are attached to the saddle).
Lift the stirrup leather and hold it against the length of your right arm.
The iron should reach to your armpit, if it doesn’t, adjust the length of the leather, then repeat on the left side.
Near and off
The terms near and off are often used when talking about horses. Near refers the left of the pony and off to the right.
Most ponies are used to being handled on the nearside – this is the side you’ve learnt to mount from.
It might be confusing at first, but it’s well worth memorising these words as they’ll crop up again and again.
In the saddle
Since you may need to lengthen the stirrups to mount, you can also test the length once you’re in the saddle. Take your foot out of the stirrup iron and let it hang down naturally. Both leathers should be the same length, with the bottom of the iron level With your ankle. If they’re uneven, too short or too long undo the buckle, and move it up or down a notch or two.
Like adjusting the girth, you’ll have to look down at the stirrup leather to start with. But practise until you can change the stirrup length by touch, with your foot in the iron and looking ahead.
Depending on how much progress you have made, the instructor might ask you to take up a contact with the pony’s mouth. Strictly speaking this should not be until you can maintain a balanced correct position called an independent seat – without holding on.
Never use the pony’s mouth, via the reins, to help you keep your balance. If you need to cling on, grasp the front of the saddle or the mane. It is better to take longer and do it properly than to rush on before you’ve mastered the basics.
Holding the reins
To take up a contact you have to shorten the reins until you can feel a little weight on the end. Run the reins through each hand so that your middle three fingers close around them, with thumbs and little fingers outside.
Your hands should be about 10cm (4in) above the withers (the bony ridge in front of the saddle at the base of the mane). Hold the reins a few centimetres apart, one either side of the pony’s neck. Keep your elbows relaxed and close to your sides: there should be no daylight visible between them to someone standing behind you.
Your reins should feel like pieces of elastic. As the horse nods his head in rhythm with the walk, your hand should give and take; the ‘elastic’ stretches and returns but it never pulls and never goes slack. You should attempt to maintain a constant feel on the reins, even at a halt.
The contact you have with the horse’s mouth is there to contain the energy which you create in the horse’s ‘engine’ – the hindquarters. The energy comes forward through the horse and it is your hands via the reins and bit that control it. To understand fully the marvellous sensation of controlling a horse takes a lifetime. That’s what makes it all so fascinating!