Three-year-old Danielle Jabbour is so tiny that her mother must lift her onto the saddle, but once atop Billy Bob, there's no doubt who's in charge as she guides the pony around the ring.
For five months, Danielle, who lives in Thousand Oaks, has taken riding lessons at Pony Pals in Moorpark, possibly the only spot in Ventura County where kids as young as 3 can learn how to handle the reins.
That's not all they learn. In weekly 90-minute lessons they help saddle the ponies, brush them down, and even pick their hooves clean. Not surprisingly, they get kind of attached to the gentle ponies.
"They have a real love affair going," said Laurie Jabbour, Danielle's mother as she watched her daughter. "She kisses him."
Pony Pals isn't just a riding school. Located on a 2.5-acre patch at Tierra Rejada Ranch, it has a collection of farm animals to rival Old MacDonald's.
Pigs, goats, sheep, cows, mules, donkeys, geese, rabbits and chickens abound. A white miniature stallion, "Barbee Tough Guy," only 36 inches tall, also resides there.
On a recent Saturday, a rabbit had just given birth to a litter of bunnies. A man from the Los Angeles area dropped off some hens he said his children had tired of caring for.
No problem. The more the merrier, according to Karthia Eppstein, mother of three young children and co-owner of Pony Pals. She grew up in the Moorpark area riding horses. As a teen-ager, she barrel raced.
She teamed up with Gloria Conly, another horse aficionado, a year ago to open Pony Pals. Conly has been a riding instructor for 35 years and raises Morgan horses.
With college and the birth of her children, Eppstein had drifted away from horses. But five years ago she went to a child's birthday party where the parents had hired the owner of some ponies to give the children rides.
"I thought, I could do that," Eppstein said. And she did. She bought three ponies and traveled the birthday party circuit. Then she met Conly, and the ideas started hatching.
"Nobody teaches riding for little tiny kids," she said. "Why not put it all together and have a farm."
Last December they relocated from another nearby ranch to Tierra Rejada, where they are still building permanent pens for the farm animals. Kids who visit Pony Pals don't have to take lessons. For $2 they can ride a pony through a wooden structure similar to a maze, or they can ride one attached to a kind of carousel.
But if it's lessons they want, they'll find a gentle approach geared for young children.
"Now hold the reins like an ice cream cone," Tonja Pederson, 18, told a class for 3-year-olds. "Let him know you're the boss. What do you say when you want him to go? That's right, you say giddyap, give him a kick, and cluck your tongue or make a kissing sound. No, don't kiss him."
The kids sit on miniature saddles and wear riding helmets that are hard-shelled to protect their heads. Parent help out in the small ring and give encouragement.
"She's a horse fanatic," said Ceci Grode, smiling at her daughter Kelsey, who wears tiny white cowboy boots. "She doesn't have dolls. She has 10,000 horses." Kelsey, who lives in Camarillo, can spend an hour after her lesson feeding the ponies carrots.
It's the same with Katie Erickson, 3, of Oxnard. "This kid is horse crazy at 3," said her mother, Jeanene Erickson.
The kids learn to handle the reins and control the pony themselves. They learn to trot early. They also do stretching exercises on the ponies and play "Simon Says." Pederson leads them on a mini-trail ride outside the ring and around the site.
A series of four weekly beginning lessons for children 3 and older costs $100. Older kids and adults can take lessons for $15 an hour. Groups are limited to about five riders. Both English and Western riding styles are taught.
"We're not pushy, we let the kids go at their own pace," said Eppstein. "We try to have everyone have fun."
She still does birthday parties, but now she does them on-site at Pony Pals. The parties start at $150 for 11 children.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Pony Pals is located at Tierra Rejada Ranch, 3370 N. Moorpark Road, Moorpark. Take the Tierra Rejada exit off the Moorpark Freeway. The entire Pony Pals complex is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Riding lessons are available during the week. For information, call 495-0918 or 522-6977.