The choosing of a pony is generally not left to the boy, but, as he will some day have to buy his own horses, it will be as well for him to gather knowledge on the subject before that time arrives.
Let us, however, first of all consider the needs of the boy who is learning to ride, and imagine we are addressing a parent who has not previously had much experience in horse-flesh.
In a boy's first pony, the one essential is perfect quietness, and to make sure of this one ought not to buy too young an animal. Never mind how old the pony is, if he is sure-footed and does not stumble. A "slug" is to be preferred to a fiery animal, as the boy gains confidence when he can kick his pony in the ribs, and controlling a too willing animal by the bridle is as yet to him an unknown art.
The absence of every vice is imperative, such as kicking, shying, rearing, or bucking.
Good shoulders are necessary, and are as important in a boy's first pony as a hunter. The reason for this is that a good-shouldered, well-behaved pony is easy and pleasant to ride, so that a beginner soon learns to enjoy the motion ; whereas a heavy-shouldered brute, that is uncomfortable even for an expert rider, would shake out any desire he had to become a proficient horseman. The smaller the pony the better, if it is strong enough to carry the weight required ; and it should never be too big for the boy to mount easily by himself. The beginner's first idea when he gets on to the back of horse or pony is that he must fall off, and, the nearer he is to the ground, the less terrible will this prospect appear.
The boy who thinks nothing of a fall on the ice, or being knocked over at football with half-a-dozen others on top of him, will tremble at the idea of tumbling a few feet from a saddle. Let him overcome this feeling as quickly as possible, and he will soon gain that confidence in himself without which there is no pleasure in riding.
A boy's pony should be narrow between the rider's legs, and a saddle with no stuffing in the flaps should be used. This is most important, as a little fellow with short legs, in trying to stretch across a wide-barrelled pony, has his seat spoilt, and perhaps the proper growth of his limbs seriously interfered with.
If a parent has not the requisite knowledge of horse-flesh, he had better employ a dealer to find the animal he wants ; but it very often happens that a friend has a pony to part with which his boy has outgrown. The advantage of going to a respectable dealer is that you can return the pony if it does not suit, and I think it is the most satisfactory plan. Make a very careful trial before you decide to keep, and it is as well not to make up your mind until you have had the pony two or three days in the stable.
I do not think that there is sufficient attention given to breaking in small ponies, and people do not appreciate the importance of having them properly trained for beginners. Fathers and mothers would be saved much painful anxiety if they could have perfect confidence in their youngsters' mounts. A pony of good disposition is very easily taught, and there would be no difficulty in training it not to kick, to stand still if the boy falls off, or to behave well under any circumstance that may arise. In these days no pony can be considered fit for a boy until it has become thoroughly accustomed to motor-cars and steam-rollers.
The day will come when the boy will have to choose a horse for himself, and it is as well he should train his eye to the general conformation of the animal. Any book on the horse will instruct him, with the help of a diagram, in the list of names by which different parts of the body are known, and a superficial study in anatomy will do him no harm. It is, however, only by a practical experience with the living animal that he can gain the requisite information which will be of use in gauging its capabilities.
There is one rule I would have you remember, which is—never buy a horse you do not like. This at the first glance appears to be a proceeding which no one is likely to be guilty of, but as a matter of fact it is what many of us are continually doing, and being sorry for afterwards. The persuasive tongue of the seller draws our attention to the good points, and the impression which we had formed gradually fades away, only to be remembered when the new purchase is in our stable. You may occasionally miss a very good horse by my rule, but I think in the long run you will find it a good rule to bear in mind.
If I had to choose a horse from one point only I would select his head, and the novice is quite as competent to form a judgment in this particular as the most expert horse-dealer. Do not allow rules which you may have heard as to the shape of a head, or any ideas of your own, to guide you, but rely solely on the intuition which the expression conveys to your mind. A horse's character is plainly written in the expression of his face, and, if you have the perception to read it rightly, you will never go far wrong.
People may laugh and tell you that it is not customary to ride on a horse's head, and make humorous remarks; but you can ask them to point out any animal which has borne a great character, either in the hunting field or on the race-course, that has had a bad expression.
Occasionally a horse of very great courage may have a leavening of obstinacy in his character which may lead him into bad habits if not properly treated. A horse is a servant, and must understand it is his duty to obey ; but no master with any sense would expect to get the best results from a servant by ill-usage. Your object should be not to break the spirit of a horse, but to tame and train it for your own advantage. This is, however, touching on a subject which we will refer to later on, and we will now consider some other points in making a purchase.
A good shoulder is, I think, the most important feature in a horse's conformation, both for the comfort of the rider and for the saving to the animal's limbs. No one would ever dream of buying a hack with bad shoulders, and the man who knowingly buys a hunter afflicted in that way is not far removed from a suicide. There are, however, many degrees between the perfect shoulder and the very bad, but unfortunately there is no method of ascertaining the point where they graduate from moderately good into absolutely unsafe.