“Bad ponies teach kids how to be good riders!”
Ignoring the whole ‘bad ponies’ label for a moment, I'm going to address the human part of this myth first.
This phrase is often uttered when adults observe a child rider addressing an unwanted behavior performed by a pony: refusing a jump, bucking, kicking, changing gait without being cued, biting, barging while being led, grazing while being ridden etc. As most children don't yet understand how horses learn, this involves the child simply doing what they’ve been told to do, or what they have observed adults do in similar situations: they whip, smack, kick, or yank on the reins. ‘Bad ponies’ don’t teach children how to be good riders; in many instances, ’bad ponies’ just teach children to use force or punishment in an effort to address unwanted behaviors.
Most parents would likely agree that it is unacceptable to teach a child to routinely use force or aggression to solve a problem they have with another person. Nevertheless, children are routinely taught to do this with horses. Of course children need to be taught how to respond when a pony occasionally does something that could potentially injure the child – like spooking or bolting. But children should not be expected - or encouraged - to act aggressively as a way to address problems with ponies.
Children are unable to control their emotions as adults can. Any resulting frustration, fear, or embarrassment they feel when a pony does something unwanted can make the level of punishment they apply disproportionate to the pony’s offence. Many will say that a child can’t possibly hurt a pony – they are too small, they are too weak. But children grow, and the learned response of using force or aggression to address unwanted behavior grows with the child, with no conscious adjusting of the intensity level.
Children frequently feel embarrassed or frightened when a horse does something they don’t understand, or know how to address. These feelings can be magnified if the child is being observed by adults or their peers, as happens at lessons or shows. If the punishment is applied by the child when they are feeling afraid, angry, confused, or embarrassed they may learn that those feelings or emotions can be resolved by punishing another.
And finally, to address all the ‘bad ponies’ out there, punishment can be effective in stopping or suppressing unwanted behavior - but it can't address why the behavior is happening in the first place. Punishment is not recommended by animal behavior professionals as a first-course of action when training an animal, for a number of reasons, such as:
it can damage the relationship between human and animal
it decreases an animal's ability to learn
it cannot tell the animal what they should do instead
it takes great skill to apply effectively, in a way that doesn't create lasting fear or physical damage
'All behavior serves a purpose for the animal performing it.'
If a pony is bucking because of an ill-fitting saddle, smacking him may stop the bucking, but the pony will still be in pain. If a pony is avoiding jumping because the child inadvertently jerks on the pony’s mouth upon landing, whipping the pony to keep them going forwards towards the jump may get them over the jump, but it won’t address the child’s use of their hands. If a pony is experiencing separation distress when asked to leave the barn, smacking or shanking them will only make them more anxious about leaving. Good training practices not only address the underlying reason an unwanted behavior is occurring, they also focus on reteaching the animal what it should do instead. The knowledge and skill required to do this is well beyond the reach of a child rider.
Horses and ponies are always learning, whether we are aware of it or not, and so are children. Pairing a child up with a ‘bad pony’ will teach both parties lessons, but not the ones either should be learning. For the sake of children and ponies, please help bust this myth once and for all.