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What Are Pony Beads?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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Pony beads are plastic or glass beads similar to seed beads, but much larger in size. They are popular with both adults and children as they easy to work with and are available in a wide range of colors, finishes and shapes. These beads are often used in hair fashions, ornaments, children’s crafts and jewelry making.

Explorers such as Lewis and Clark brought European glass beads such as these to North America. The beads got their name when they were delivered by the Pony Express. Native American women used glass pony beads, along with seed and crow beads, on fringes on leather clothing and moccasins. They also used them along with other beads to make necklaces for their tribe and neck gear for the horses.

Pony beads are known as barrel beads in the United Kingdom because the original shape looks like a barrel. Today, however, these beads are available in many other shapes. Heart-shaped beads are popular for barrettes and jewelry and there are butterfly and animal shapes as well. Theme-shaped ones sold in assortment packs such as different types of sport balls or different modes of transportation are also popular and are usually plastic rather than glass. Christmas pony beads are usually plastic as well and are often red, green or white and shaped like Santa Claus, snowmen, trees and more.

Plastic pony beads can be opaque or transparent. The transparent ones can look closer to glass if they are good quality and seamless. Metallic finished plastic ones are coated in gold, sliver or copper-look paint, while glitter-finished ones have small specks of glitter added.

One of the great things about pony beads is that they come in a wide range of colors. There are many shades in the same color family so you can get more sophisticated looks. For example, you can use them on the ends of tiny braids in hair in many shades of the same color, such as all blues. Or, you can make beautiful spoke-shaped ornaments by stacking beads of the same color family onto corsage pins and then radiating the finished pins out from a center piece of cork or craft foam.

Another great thing about pony beads is that they are often quite simple and fun for children to use. The plastic variety is inexpensive and the large holes make these beads easy for children to work with. Younger children can thread them to make simple jewelry, while older ones can weave them to make the popular animal-shaped "Beadies" key chain accessories and similar crafts. The transparent beads also make excellent woven sun catchers to hang in the window.

Some needle crafters like to add pony beads right into their work. This technique can be used for purses and bags as well as hair “scrunchies” and trim for fringed dresses and skirts. Cords can also be crocheted or knitted and made into chokers with the beads added.

What Are Pony Beads?

Pony beads are typically small plastic beads sold in craft or hair supply stores. The actual bead is barrel-shaped, though some refer to it as donut-shaped with a hole in the middle. They come in a variety of colors, including clear and a range of different sizes. The most popular size hole is the 4 mm, while the most popular bead size is the 6x9 mm option.

Are Pony Beads Popular?

These beads are tremendously popular, and people use them for hair braiding so routinely that they are sold at hair supply stores. The beads can be used as an adornment at the top, middle, or bottom of the braid. You can also use pony beads for the whole length of the braid or just halfway. Pony beads are usually also in stock at salons but be sure to check with your stylist first because they may not always have the colors and sizes that you want in the store.

Craft stores always have vast supplies of pony beads, and you can purchase them in bulk or smaller packages. People buy the beads for a multitude of different projects, and the difficulty level can range from easy to advanced. Since pony beads are tiny, they can also be a choking hazard for small children and pets, so be sure to use them with the appropriate supervision.

What Can You Do With Pony Beads?

Aside from being famous for braiding, people use pony beads for all kinds of crafts. In fact, there are so many wild things that you can make from pony beads and pipe cleaners or leather rope or fishing line, etc., that it is wonderous. Some projects that pony beads are regularly used for include:

  • Key chains
  • Magnets
  • Ornaments
  • Jewelry
  • Devotion or worry beads
  • Bookmarks
  • Garland
  • Stemware charms

In many different religions, children begin making religious beads in their youth during camps or as a community activity. Pony beads are a way to start crafting these spiritual accoutrements before using the more expensive, authentic beads later. Roman Catholics make rosary beads, and Shia and other Muslims use misbaha beads. Japamala or nenju beads are central to East Asian religions.

Where Did Pony Beads Come From?

There is some contention about the origin of the beads in the United States and across the globe. Beads have roots in almost every country worldwide, and they come from nearly every culture. However, in the United States, it is suspected that some European glass was brought to the original colonies for jewelry making and trading purposes. Other small beads, known as seed and crow beads, were made of different materials from Native American cultures already present on the continent.

Why Are They Called Pony Beads?

If you subscribe to the idea that pony beads are the glass beads that came from Europe, then they are called pony beads because they were traveling via pony express across the settlements. Trading and commerce were mobile rather than the people traveling to make purchases.

Alternately, if you support the supposition that Native Americans had their own bead selection already, the name pony beads came from what the Europeans understood about the adornments for tribal horses made from the beads. There is still some argument about whether or not pony beads that are mass-marketed are the correct size and variation of the Native American version of pony beads.

Pony Beads vs. Crow Beads

Pony beads are what the European settlers called crow beads. In an attempt to replicate and create their own, they made beads from glass and named them pony beads for one of several contested reasons. The mass-marketed pony beads are much larger than the originals.

Crow beads are the larger beads that people thought of when they saw pony beads. Native Americans used crow beads for crafts and artwork. Crow beads were initially made from shell, copper, bone, and stone materials. Native Americans used pony beads, actual pony beads, for necklaces, horse adornments, chokers, etc. Crow beads are much larger than pony beads.

What Are Other Kinds of Beads?

Many cultures have their own kinds of beads with a long history embedded in their culture, mixed with trade routes and intermingled with conquests and travel. Many of the beads have mixed-up names, just like pony beads, whereas others are true to their original monikers. Other beads from across the globe include:

  • Austrian crystal beads
  • Czech glass beads
  • Rudraksha beads
  • Ghanian powder glass beads
  • Magatama beads
  • Wampum beads
  • Heishe beads
  • Komboloi beads
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