Everyone knows that the most sensible way to buy a horse or pony is to go with your trainer, ride a few appropriate mounts and decide which you prefer within your budget.
If you are really brave you might pick a horse off a video from Europe – your trainer probably has contacts there and you are reassured that he “knows a good horse when he sees one”.
But for the few people with the talent to do so, transforming project horses can be a way of life. Project horse training is akin to flipping a house where a buyer sees a house that needs some work but has the potential to be a great home someday.
Most people see these project horses online and are sensible enough to stay away from them, but when pony trainer Kirsty Wright found an ad on Facebook for a cheap unbroken pony, she jumped at the prospect of having a new project to work with.
Kirsty had trained and broke many ponies in the past but the idea of a new project always excites her – getting to know a new pony and developing a connection is what she lives for. After a few messages back and forth she took the couple hour drive to meet the eight year old pony, “Noelle”.
Just like with flipping houses, it is important to look for red flags when buying a project horse. A buyer wouldn’t want to buy a house that had complete structural damage, for example; therefore, crumbling walls would be a red flag.
When Kirsty arrived Noelle was out in a pasture, the trainer explained that this was because the pony was aggressive in the stall (red flag). Kirsty headed out to the pasture to catch the pony and she pinned her ears at her (red flag).
The trainer dragged the unwilling pony into the round pen and asked her to trot. Her trot was what had attracted Wright to the pony in the first place – she didn’t have the typical “daisy cutter” trot but still glided across the ground elegantly.
The trainer explained that she simply didn’t have time for the pony, but she did try to sit on her once and she tried to rear a little but nothing too terrible (bright red shiny flag). She explained to Kirsty that she had no idea of the history on the pony since she was found wandering in the woods by the sheriffs, and was almost put down before she was sent to a rescue/lesson barn a couple of months prior.
Despite the numerous red flags Kirsty offered to buy her the same day, and the following day Noelle was delivered to her new home.
From the moment Noelle stepped off the trailer Wright knew she had a much larger project on her hands than she anticipated. The pony knew how to lead – and that was about it!
She had no idea how to cross-tie, be hosed off, or even get fly sprayed. Noelle had to live out in a pasture due to stall aggression, and it would take hours just to catch her from the pasture. There was not a cookie tasty enough to make this pony come to her, and speaking of cookies, Noelle didn’t even know how to take one when she first arrived.
Kirsty didn’t know anything about what the pony had been through in her past life, but she did know this wasn’t going to be a “put some paint on the outside of the house” type project – this was a complete pony overhaul.
During the first few weeks of owning the pony Kirsty spent hours with her trying to gain her trust – teaching her how to crosstie, get groomed and bathed, and simply stand still. Noelle had to adjust to noises and sounds that she’d never heard before – tractors, blowers, and giggling tweenagers.
Wright would stand the pony in the ring with her and let her watch the lessons going on quietly telling her that one day she’d be able to jump the big jumps. Patience was key. This house wasn’t going to rebuild itself in a few months, but over time it became clear that there was a really impressive home under all the rubble.
Kirsty taught Noelle to lunge in the first few months and by month four Kirsty was able to sit on her for the first time, within another few months she was jumping small courses and switching her leads, the foundation had been laid and Kirsty began to see the impressive show pony emerging from the dust.
After a few months going under saddle Noelle went to her first show to go visit, and of course she was nervous and unsure, but trusted Kirsty completely and dutifully let her ride her around the practice ring, never even peeking at a jump.
Eventually, visiting horse shows became the norm and Noelle realized that it didn’t matter where she was located as long as there was food in her stall!
The pony that once was classified as stall aggressive now took naps in her stall every day and quite happily let the barn kids play with her (as long as they had cookies to share). The once dilapidated house had a new foundation and was becoming the thing Kirsty had always imagined her being.
Today Noelle is twelve months under saddle and finishing up this year in the Children’s Pony before breaking her green status in December and hopefully qualifying for Pony Finals soon after; she has a piece of every flat class she’s ever competed in and has numerous tri-colors to her name.
Project horses are not for everyone: they are hard work and take a lot of skill and patience, but every once in a while a trainer will find a diamond in the rough that they pour their heart and soul into, and in doing so can turn a run-down beat up house into a mansion.