We show you what it takes to turn a feral pony into a ridden champion

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We show you what it takes to turn a feral pony into a ridden champion


As Devon’s largest equine charity we have a new stable of horses and ponies available for rehoming – following weeks, months and sometimes years of gentle training.

But what exactly does it take to turn a mistreated, abandoned and neglected horse – or a feral moorland pony – into a confident, happy, healthy and well-mannered animal, welcome on any yard.

We have been training horses for more than 30 years and over the decades we have come up with tried and tested ways of persuading these naturally cautious – and often abused and damaged – creatures to trust again.


And, as groom Clare Wonnacott explained, the key is slowly…hand in hand with reservoirs of patience and a daily routine to afford these naturally skittish creatures few surprises.

She said: “When they arrive at the Sanctuary some are absolutely terrified. It can take a lot of gentle persuasion to even get them to the point where we can handle them.”

The early training consists of desensitising them to the world around them. For the feral horses and ponies the grooms simply stand near to them at first, before encouraging them to turn and face them, sometimes using a gloved hand on a stick to get them used to being touched.”


The horse or pony will dictate the speed of the training and each is unique, with its own set of fears and foibles.

Groom Gemma Bygrave said: “Once they are ready we introduce them to the vet and the farrier, take them for lead walks around the lanes to meet traffic and get them used to being stabled.

“We use agility in our arenas as a way to desensitise them to everyday things like reflective surfaces, balls, tarpaulin, cuddly toys, traffic cones…even umbrellas.”

Then a bit, numnah and a roller are introduced to familiarise them to the feel of a bridle and girth. Finally the saddle, before several walks around the lanes, getting them used to the smell, feel and noise of the tack.

They are then long-reigned with a groom walking behind to get them used to directional and stop commands.

Eventually it’s time for the groom to attempt to mount, starting slowly by leaning over the saddle and using arms to mimic the action of the legs.


The smallest and lightest grooms are used for backing because they exert less pressure on the horses’ sensitive backs.

Clare said: “This is an important moment in the training of any horse and it pays to go slowly.

“There is always someone with us throughout this process. It sometimes takes a few times of leaning over the saddle before building up to swinging our leg over and sitting upright.

“Once the ponies are relaxed we simply lead the pony around with the rider sitting still.

“We always use the same voice commands throughout our training process, so they learn to understand the commands for walk on and stand before we combine them with aids from our arms and legs.”

From then on the schooling continues as the grooms teach their charges everything from how to stand, through all the paces and even jumping – if they are suitable.

Clare added: “Every horse or pony is different and some take to being backed quicker than others. There are also horses and ponies here that, for one reason or another, are not suitable to be ridden.”

If there are any doubts about a horse or pony’s suitability to be loaned as a ridden horse an immediate decision is taken to change their status to companion only.

Sanctuary Senior Director of Equine Syra Bowden said: “Safety is the most important thing and some horses or ponies just cannot be ridden for health or psychological reasons. Often only the training process will reveal those issues.

“We are always honest about and thoroughly assess every one of our animals. Any horses or ponies with deep rooted and psychological fears often remain with us for the rest of their lives. But there are many that although unsuitable for ridden work do make fantastic companions.”

We currently have several horses and ponies ready to be rehomed, with some going on to be show success stories like Pringle. The Dartmoor Hill Pony was backed at the Sanctuary and has gone on to win a host of rosettes and trophies at regional shows.