Category: riding

Why I Hate Spurs

I am just going to come out and say it. Spurs should only be used if you are a very, VERY good rider. If a rider does not have the skills, knowledge or patience to re-educate a horse with desensitised sides, which is why the majority of bad riders are using them, then spurs are the last thing they need. It is not my intention to become part of the no bits, no spurs, no anything brigade. Spurs may have their place in the equestrian world, and are traditionally used all over the planet, in my view, to refine the leg aid. An extremely well trained horse may for whatever reason ignore the leg, and I use the word ‘ignore’ loosely. There could be many reasons why the horse has not responded in that particular instance. So strapped to the leg of an expert, one that is aware of their own movements and know exactly what they are asking of the horse, then yes spurs have their place. But then compare that to someone that has been riding 3 years and are strapping spurs on because they are about to do a pre-novice dressage test, or jump 60 cm at the local show.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that KICKING a horse in the ribs with a blunt piece of metal probably hurts like hell. If in doubt hand your spurs to a friend and have them punch you in the ribs with them. Many will argue they only use them when necessary, and even when used it will be a jab, not a kick. Really? No-one will convince me an inexperienced rider has such a great command over their legs that they are aware of what their legs are doing 100% of the time. If a rider cannot rule out an accidental jab might just occur, no matter how infrequently, then they shouldn’t be wearing them. Yes horses can ignore the leg, but in many cases they have been taught those flapping, constant nagging legs, at times, mean nothing. If a horse is at the stage where over time, they are frequently ignoring certain aids, then it’s time to readdress your riding skills, not reach for spurs.

Ego’s should be left in the car, and for good reason. Admitting you may need help and employing a trainer is no failure by any means. This is exactly what you should be doing. By actually admitting the relationship between rider and horse is unravelling to a degree that the horse is ignoring the rider, is the first step to improving. Strapping spurs on and reaching for a whip with a horse that is already confused to what you are asking is creating a recipe for disaster. What happens when the next piece of equipment fails, reach for an electric cattle prod? No, of course you would be horrified if I suggested such a cruel thing! But then, do you think your horse is happy with your untrained legs that are jabbing metal into his sides?

So where do you go from here? You go back to basics. Decide if your walk was perfect before you ask for trot. Slow, medium, fast walk…was it perfect? I bet it wasn’t. Many of you enter that arena, walk one lap and go into trot to warm up. How do I know you are doing that? Because I used to as well, it was the way I was taught, it’s the way everyone is taught. Even before a lesson, I have been asked many times by the instructor have you warmed up? I was taught a good schooling session always involved walk, trot and canter. Yet how did that instructor even know my walk was perfect, how would have they known how my horse was when entering the arena, how many instructors can even read equine body language? I could have spent 10 minutes at the arena gate booting a rearing horse for all that instructor knows. I could have spent 10 minutes teaching my horse to completely ignore my leg. A good trainer will know, a trainer that really wants to help you improve will want to see everything you do with that horse.

99% of us, yes including me, that aren’t at the top of our game, are not expert horse riders, do not have an excellent command of every single muscle, aid, movement, presence of mind and seat, before reaching for those spurs…find yourself an excellent trainer instead.

Here I further discuss the subject of spurs, and give an example of their misuse, including the confusion and discomfort that they can potentially cause.

I am in no way slating this rider, simply because everyone of us makes mistakes, no-one can ever say, at least shouldn’t say they are perfect riders. Unsavoury things have been said about this lady across various social media platforms, yet none of it is helpful. We should all strive to learn from each other, and to increase our knowledge which in turn improves the welfare of the horse. I don’t care who you are, no one is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes. It is better to be aware of our lack of horsemanship knowledge in order to build our education, than pretend we know everything and remain ignorant

 

 

Too windy To Ride?

I raised my chin to look directly above me, the tall birch trees were swaying in synchronised unity. A million leaves being rattled by the wind had the sound not unlike a fast moving river moving over boulders. I admonished myself for having the stupidity to ride my horse through the large copse of trees on such a gusty day. But I had been ambling along oblivious to both the weather and where the track led. Furthermore the track had forked before the wood, so I had indeed the option of riding around it, missing it entirely. But no, I had been riding along like Dolly Daydream and it hadn’t occurred to me branches, even trees may fall on such a gusty day. Well, not until I saw how much the birch trees were swaying. Even the crows had the sense to leave long before the stupid human turned up. We should probably get out of this wood I muttered to my horse. My horse, who was also taking part in this Dolly Daydream episode, was gently chewing on her bit while gazing down the track. I don’t know what I was thinking, well, evidently nothing. It occurs to me now ‘thinking nothing’ is not such a bad thing sometimes. It really hadn’t dawned on me it might be dangerous to hack on such a windy day, and for good reason, nothing eventful happened.

While the reader of my birch tree memoir may assume I was riding a chilled out, bomb-proof equine, you couldn’t be more wrong. My horse, at times (too many times) can actually be a head-strong, dominant, cantankerous nutcase that has a talent for moving from 0 mph to 35 mph in 0.3 seconds. I have a lot to thank this horse for, as I was quite literally forced to educate myself in the ways of the equine. I have ridden in all sorts of dire weather, even thunder and lightning. Obviously riding in lightning isn’t advisable, and neither was it my intention. I have a large amount of respect (and fear) for random bolts of electrical discharge with a temperature of 53,540 degrees Fahrenheit coursing through my body. I just occasionally get caught out, that’s all.

Horse Lightning

So what’s going on with my horse, that at times, has a brain resembling a washing machine on spin cycle?

I unwittingly trained my horse to find comfort when hacking in all types of weather. I didn’t have the knowledge or understanding at the time to realise what I was doing. But nevertheless was accomplishing beneficial training for both rider and horse. It is usual for me to cool off a horse by leaving the school and going for a gentle hack. I have never found any interest in riding or leading a horse on a loose reign after a session in an arena, because quite frankly it’s boring. These cooling off sessions consist of asking a minimal amount of instructions. I need to cool off as well, so apart from pointing my horse in the correct direction and using the tiniest amount of leg, she is actually under no pressure to do anything other than just amble along. So no matter what the weather is doing, my horse would rather have a stress free amble than be in the arena working.

Off course setting out on a long hack where I may trot, jump, or canter, and need her focus while doing so, and particularly when using roads, will in her mind be work. But for all those times she has found comfort during the cooling down sessions she has also been prepared to both accept and ignore the weather.

Birch Trees

The concept of your horse finding comfort opens the mind to endless possibilities. If your horse naps at a particular place, or a certain distance from the yard then ask for work just about anywhere else, apart from that place. If your horse naps toward the yard, by all means go back to the yard, and work your horse. He will soon start to think twice about wanting to return to the place of work. Horses can often refuse to enter an arena, and we have all seen that spectacle at shows! Even my own horse went through a phase of rearing at the arena door. There is no need for all the shouting, kicking and the general hullabaloo that can occur. Do some work in the arena, then another day go in the arena and ask very little of your horse. Just occasionally, if he’s lucky he might find something good to eat in there, trust me he will remember. This is why I dislike routine which I often write about. The horse will be more compliant if he can find comfort in all sorts of situations and environments whether he is working or not.

Do not assume your horse will be a nightmare to ride on a windy day. Further more if you already have a horse that has proven to be a nightmare on a windy day, start slow and try to analyse what you were doing before, during and after the hack. Training with patience and understanding will produce a horse you can enjoy even on those gustier days.

 

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An Open Letter Reply – Motorbikes

Horses are complicated animals, very complicated. Less complicated to an expert perhaps, but only after years of dedication, observations, gaining knowledge and working around them does an expert understand equine behaviour and psychology. In this respect a novice has no clue to the complexities of the equine brain. To a person that has no knowledge of horses whatsoever they must seem very uncomplicated, perhaps just a four legged mammal that people ride. This is why I write about horses, if I live another 40 years I will still not have even scratched the surface of the many subjects relating to equine behaviour. It’s a harrowing journey in some respects because as I gain more knowledge, I am also haunted by the mistakes I have made in the past. My aim now is to spend the next 40 years striving to get things right. I write because if I could help just one person avoid my mistakes and help someone understand their horse better, I know at least that horse will have a better life.

Continue reading “An Open Letter Reply – Motorbikes”

Don’t Look Down, You Will End Up There

Whoever came up with that line should be cold hosed on a winter morning, naked.Those that are fond of saying it should stop and think how those words may impact a child. I cringe when I hear an adult saying it to a group of children, it’s worse than  cringing, I feel like someone has physically slapped me and it makes me wince. The line I usually hear next is check your diagonal!

See where I’m going with this?

Continue reading “Don’t Look Down, You Will End Up There”

The Bolt: Part 2

When out hacking through the countryside or along roads my mare will display anxiety when approaching and passing horse paddocks. If these horses are just standing around grazing she will become head-high and attempt to focus on the herd. I can feel her attention has shifted from me and I’ve become a mere passenger. Continue reading “The Bolt: Part 2”

The Bolt

All 3 horses spooked sharply. Conditions for a hack that December day were great, admittedly it was cold, but the sky was blue and the wind was busy ruining someone’s hair in another part of the country. It was quiet and frost still lay unthawed in the shadows of the hedge-line. These are the worst spooks, initiated by things you didn’t see or hear coming. This wasn’t a chip-wrapper gently blowing toward me in which I had time to communicate to my horse it’s okay. This wasn’t a florescent lycra-clad cyclist passing me from behind. This particular monster was silent and unseen.

The most dangerous kind. Continue reading “The Bolt”

The First Riding Lesson

The 8 year old child awoke early to the sound of weaver birds that were industriously building natural wonders made out of stiff grass. The house was quiet as her family continued to sleep soundly. The noise of something shifting outside the bedroom window indicated that one particular mammal knew the child was awake, which was her faithful German Shepard.

6 months previous to this morning the child had been told to sit quietly and mind her manners during a visit to a family friend’s house. This is what happens to 8 year old children, they always have to go where their parents go, no matter how dull it may seem to a young mind. Their chatter filled the air of this man’s large lounge, but the child sat in silence swinging her short legs back and forth on the sofa while staring at the ceiling fan. She was prohibited from playing in the garden, because like many gardens in this Zimbabwean town, there was a guard dog out there that would more than likely eat a stranger roaming in the garden.

The child asked if she could use the bathroom, what she really wanted to do was have a good nose around, anything to break the boredom. After a good 5 minutes of looking through the cabinet and sniffing pungent liquids in glass bottles the child grew disappointed at the lack of makeup and other girly paraphernalia. It would seem to the child there was no mummy in this house. The cabinet consisted of things called Old Spice and Brut 33. Also a good squeeze of the tube of BrilCreem meant the girl had spent 3 of the 5 minutes mopping stinky white stuff up off the floor.

Slowly walking back to the lounge she passed the double glass doors that led to the garden. Hesitant now, she stopped and listened to the adults chatting, and did the only thing a bored child would rightfully do. She carefully tried the door handle which was indeed unlocked. She quietly opened it just enough to slip through into the heat of the day.

The garden was large, very overgrown and mostly without colour apart from the splashes of yellow from gnarled unmanaged lemon trees which were adorned with fruit. The path led to a clearing consisting of worn away grass interspersed with dusty patches of soil that had been baked under an African sun. The child saw a rudimentary kennel with a post that had been hammered into the ground. Attached to this post was a heavy duty chain, and secured to this chain was an enormous German Shepard. He was dozing in the hot sun with flies swarming around his eyes and chewing on his frayed ears. His paws were lightly paddling the air, perhaps he was dreaming of a time when he was once running free through the African bush. There was a battered metallic object near him which must have once been a shallow bowl which had become flattened over time.

The child called out to the dog which instantly leapt to his feet and launched himself towards her barking wildly. The child ignored the 2 rows of yellowing teeth and walked toward the battered metal plate.

Is this yours? The child asked the dog as she picked it up.

The behaviour of the dog instantly changed. Perhaps he thought the small girl had brought food for him. He sat and whined, his now wagging tail formed swirling semi-circles in the dust. The child knelt beside the dog and caressed his head. She then ran her hand down his face to his neck, and unclipped the chain.

Two panicking parents and the boring man came rushing into the garden some 10 minutes later. By the looks on their faces they perhaps thought they were about to find the corpse of their 8 year old child. What they were presented with however was a very much alive little girl playing a game of Frisbee with a battered metal plate and a fly-chewed, but happy dog.

This is why the girl with sun-bleached hair now had a German Shepard sleeping outside her bedroom window every night. Either the boring man did the right thing and gave his dog a chance of a happy life, or he decided that he had the worst guard dog ever. Either way, the dog went home with the little girl that day.

So 6 months later the dog shifts his weight as he hears his young friend has woken and is getting dressed. The child is too excited to sleep any longer for something is happening today that she has been dreaming about since she was 3 years old.

The short boots are second hand but the child doesn’t care and for the next half an hour she sits at her parent’s dining room table making a terrible mess with boot polish. Her father had always instructed her to put down newspaper when using polish, but the child could not find any.

Before leaving the house the child grabbed her black velvet riding hat and gazed at it with wonder and excitement. Again its second hand, but the grateful child doesn’t mind. She looks inside and suddenly understands the lack of newspaper in the house. Her mother has lined the inside of the hat with last week’s edition of the Harari Times. There was no chin strap either, as they either hadn’t been invented by the late 1970’s, or this hat was an antique. Either way, the child would grow to learn the importance of a chin strap, and why it’s not ideal to use newspaper to make a hat fit.

At 6.00 am she set off to walk the 2 miles to her friend Susan’s house, but not before hugging the giant dog that outweighed her by at least 2 stone. Upon arriving she rang the doorbell but there was no answer so she tried again. Muffled sounds could be heard from inside and 20 seconds later Susan opened the door in a bedraggled, just woke up state. The blond girl eagerly asked her friend if her Dad was ready to take them to the stables. Susan did not share her excitement however and informed her friend that she was 4 hours early! With that, the door was slammed shut and Susan presumably went back to bed. Susan may be forgiven for assuming her friend would then return home.

She didn’t, the girl with the second hand boots and the news-paper packed hat sat on the curb outside Susan’s house for the next 4 hours thinking of horses, eagerly waiting for the moment she had been dreaming of since the age of 3.

 

*I dedicate this story to the memory of my beautiful dog Thor.

The Emergency Dismount

Meredith and Linda had been meeting up at 10 am every Sunday for the last 6 months in order to hack out together. There was nothing particularly different about this day, they also chose to ride the same usual trail. The two ladies enjoyed each other’s company and would ride side by side chatting about the previous week’s events which involved work and family life. They both enjoyed this particular route as it consisted of a woodland trail that would lead to open country side with gentle grass slopes. There was one such slope that the two ladies always chose to canter up, and this day was no exception.

Meredith would always lead the canter as her horse was more sensible and easier to control. Interestingly however, no-one had ever suggested to Linda that if her horse was not easy to control, perhaps cantering through open country-side might be a bad idea. Both ladies went into trot, and canter quickly resumed as the horses had already anticipated this gait. Within 2 seconds this ‘normal’ day became catastrophically different from all the other days they had ridden together.

Linda’s horse was not interested in a sedate canter up the hill and went into gallop, quickly outpacing Meredith’s horse. The latter was not accustomed to being left behind, so quickly followed suit which meant both horses were now racing uncontrollably up the hill. Usually in these situations the rider will swear profusely while trying to regain control and will anticipate the horse will probably stop at the top of the hill as normal. Things may have turned out this way but Meredith decided to perform an emergency dismount (her words) when she could see that Linda had lost control of her horse, and her own horse had then become strong. In what have must been a split second decision, Meredith decided her life was in danger so threw herself from her horse. Unfortunately Meredith’s right fibular wasn’t designed to accommodate 11 stone of human hitting sun-baked ground at 25 mph so responded in a way which meant Meredith’s riding hat would be left gathering dust for the next 14 months.

Here you may think I’m about to wrap the story up, and inform you of the absolute disadvantages of using the emergency dismount, but no, it gets worse.

Linda was doing relatively fine during the first 4 seconds of this bolt, and even though she had lost control, nothing had really changed during this short interval. Both horse and rider were heading up the hill at neck breaking speed, so while probably terrified she was at least still in the saddle.

Linda had almost reached the top of the hill and her horse was starting to slow, at this point I fully believe Linda may have been able to gain control. Additionally the horse had probably been unwittingly trained to stop here anyway, as both women had done exactly that for the last 6 months. Meredith’s horse however, which was now riderless, completely out of control, and undoubtedly spooked at his riders dismount swept past Linda like a run-away freight train. The circumstances of what unseated Linda at this point are unclear, but they would be multitudinous non-the-less.

Linda’s hat will not be gathering dust for the next 14 months like Meredith’s, as Linda is now paralysed from the waist down and will be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

Was this an unavoidable accident? Not in my view.

Rightly or wrongly I believe Meredith put Linda in terrible danger by not continuing to try and gain control of her horse. Linda’s chances of gaining control with a panicking galloping riderless horse behind, beside or in-front of her were greatly diminished. All sorts of catastrophic events could have occurred with this horse running in a blind panic, there may have been children in the area, or even a busy road to cross further on. The hill should have not been cantered up every single time the ladies were out, and riding the exact same trail was a mistake. I am by no means blaming Meredith for Linda’s now tragic circumstances. However Meredith gave up all responsibility of the animal and the proceeding events by removing herself from the horse and the situation…to the detriment of Linda.

But rather than list all the things that were not right, let’s turn to this very dangerous, very misconstrued term I’ve heard bandied about over the last few years…The Emergency Dismount. Here is an example of myself performing such a thing; My friend and I are hacking out together at a steady walk and her horse spooks sharply at a pheasant flying up from beneath us. She is thrown to the floor and hurts herself. This is a location that I never intended to dismount, but it is now necessary as my friend needs help. I have done various things in this situation but they mostly consist of checking the person is ok, catching the loose horse, and ringing an ambulance if need be. An emergency dismount plainly speaking means an unplanned dismount when a situation deems it necessary. Ideally you will dismount when the horse is relatively calm, and standing still.

There is no way I would throw myself off a moving horse and I will hang on for dear life if I have been unseated. The times I have been thrown have been so fast and unexpected that I have hit the floor with relaxed muscles.

Leave the intended dismount at trot, canter and gallop to the professional stunt people and trick riders. They have spent many years perfecting this technique but still probably broke bones along the way, it also unlikely they call it an emergency dismount. If anyone would like to practice an emergency dismount at canter or gallop perhaps stand on the roof of a car travelling at 25 mph and throw yourself off, I already know you won’t be so keen on the idea.

*This is a true story although the names have been changed