Success Stories – Shetland Pony Club

IH Members Rosemary Miller and Liz Earl founders of the Shetland Pony Club

“Shetland ponies … can be very opinionated or “cheeky”, and can be impatient, snappy, and sometimes become uncooperative.” Wikipedia

Shetland ponies don’t always have the best reputation as the perfect child’s pony, so we asked how IH members and sisters, Rosemary Miller and Liz Earl, founders of the Shetland Pony Club, how they use Intelligent Horsemanship every day with their 20 Shetland ponies.

How to succeed at first riding experiences

The sisters have always loved Shetland ponies and Rosemary had a much-loved family Shetland pony, Billy Boon for her children. Inspired by an old photograph of her grandfather riding to school in India on a donkey, her daughter Mills, decided to ride to school on her Shetland pony to avoid the traffic jams. Billy the Shetland was for many years a common sight, as he trotted through the woods, always laden with satchels and books on his way to school. Rosemary wrote a bedtime story book, The School Trot, all about their school run antics, illustrated in Thelwellian style.

Rosemary’s friends asked her to teach their children to ride too, sparking the idea to recreate the childhood magic that the sisters experienced themselves. Over a decade later, Shetland Pony Club is thriving, having made 10,000 children’s pony dreams come true.

Shetland Pony Club specialises in first riding experiences for children aged from 2½ to 10 years old. Based on their family farm in Cobham, Surrey, they help children start pony riding offering pony rides, birthday parties and summer camps.  Booking is by appointment only and they have a busy office, where they create Shetland Pony Club TV, their weekly YouTube channel video, and build their worldwide following on Facebook and Instagram.

So how do they introduce so many children to riding safely and kindly and pass on the pony magic to inspire the next generation of riders?  IH Magazine caught up with Rosemary and Liz to find out their best tips and wisdom:

With Shetland ponies many conventional philosophies don’t apply.  Shetlands grow slowly, so they are not fully mature for riding until they are about 6 years old.  So, they need to be brought on slowly, then they typically live until over 30 years old.

We think about how we can make our ponies most comfortable and the children as safe as possible, whilst having fun.  So, all our riding is on the lead rein and we have one to one staffing.  The ponies are led in bridles with Newmarket couplings or dually halters, and children hold onto a saddle strap, rather than holding the reins.

Traditional saddles with trees, slip on the barrel shaped, low withered ponies; so we use bareback saddle pads from the USA that are comfy for the ponies and allow children to naturally sit correctly with their legs relaxed and long.  We don’t use stirrups initially as these are a safety hazard and the children learn to feel the pony underneath them as he moves, just like the principles of a balance bike.

Riding in soft saddles in the wildflower meadows

We keep it simple, safe and calm. We encourage children to brush and help get their ponies ready for riding, and to care for them afterwards.  This teaches responsibility and gives each child a chance to become accustomed to being around the pony before they get on.  By calmly brushing, tacking up and leading their pony, the child gets used to being around him and learns to care about him.  Popping on via the mounting block is the natural next step. 

Liz, a BHS qualified instructor and former teacher knows that children love familiarity and routine, and so our weekly videos all about the ponies help them to know what to expect before they even arrive at Shetland Pony Club.  They can meet the ponies online and learn about what they will be doing before they arrive.

We are a member’s club, with many children coming to ride every week with us. Our members soon progress to leather saddle pads and get rewarded with stickers and rosettes for progressing to stirrups, reins, trotting and cantering. 

So, what about pony management?

The Shetlands are kept out all year in a herd and we only have geldings to avoid dealing with pony love as well as children! We don’t have a riding arena. This means that we are able to vary where we ride, around different parts of the estate, enjoying the countryside and the changing seasons.  We show the children the wildlife around them, plant wildflower meadows and make paths amongst them to keep it interesting for the children and ponies.  Young children love to relax and sing nursery rhymes and chat away and we allow the ponies to graze when they are waiting, to keep them relaxed too. The ponies understand voice commands and usually walk happily together in groups.

Honeybee in summer
in the cornfields

Children love our ponies before they even meet them in person through our online presence.  We often tack up a spare pony and this allows us the flexibility to swap ponies easily if one is not comfortable for whatever reason. Any pony that is not 100% can be taken off duty without pressure, until he is fully fit again.

We only use positive reinforcement with our ponies.  We try never to buy a problem pony, and introduce new ponies very gradually to the herd and begin riding with them once they are fully settled.  We work in hand with the ponies, handle them and lead them out, get them familiar with our tack and use weights on their backs before they are ridden by experienced children on the lead rein at the walk.

We have found that by treating Shetlands with respect and gentleness they can become the most loyal, engaged and willing partners for children. The reputation of Shetland ponies being “naughty” is generally due to people having unrealistic expectations, and by not balancing the feed, exercise and rest routines for their ponies.

It’s useful to stick to a routine for all concerned.  The ponies are brought in from the field then fed breakfast from buckets, then every ride starts with hats on, a child friendly safety talk, grooming and tacking up.

It’s important to make our routine successful for the ponies we have now, as we hope our ponies will be with us for many years to come.  If a pony is biting or kicking we use IH principles and look at whether there is any physical issue, then work on how we can make the pony most comfortable.  If a pony has a sensitive skin and bites when brushed, only our staff brush him using soft brushes or silk scarves and tack him up away from the children to avoid any discomfort.

If a pony won’t stand still to mount, we check his saddle pad, girth and his back and girth area for any signs of pain. We then work with him to desensitise him, often a change of mounting sides or location can make a difference.

Robin Hood is a great success story, who we rescued and helped to be happy with us using Intelligent Horsemanship methods.  He had a cut mouth so use a dually headcollar instead, which makes him more comfortable. Once healthy, Robin Hood was bored not working, but he was nervous when being mounted.  We took him on the Intelligent Horsemanship 5-day Foundation Course and did Join-Up with him, building trust with Tom, our trainer.  He is now able to be ridden and is a great asset to the team.

Robin Hood in the bluebells at Shetland Pony Club

We never stop learning.  We have a 5-star animal welfare licence, are approved by the Association of British Riding Schools and are always updating our skills with Intelligent Horsemanship and in all areas of our business. New ideas are being produced all the time and we work to improve our skills and care of the ponies and children as well as our customer facilities.  We are passionate about children, ponies and the countryside. Through our work and love, we want to give a better life to more Shetland ponies.

We have seen the benefits that riding, caring for ponies and the connection with nature has brought to over 10,000 children and parents who have visited Shetland Pony Club.

Riding ponies can improve lives and fulfil dreams. Knowing where to start can be a barrier.  We’re the beginners’ experts and we support parents and their children all over the world get started with ponies, so that they too can fulfil their dreams.

Shetland Pony Club offers riding for children aged 2½ -10 in Surrey. You can also enjoy the magic of Shetland ponies at home with their online videos, courses and adopt a pony scheme. www.shetlandponyclub.co.uk

River swimming on Shetland Pony Club camp

Autumn Riding at Shetland Pony Club

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