The Loading…Issue?

My horse does load and travel quite well. But if we were to stop and pass a trained eye over the entire event from start to finish the process is far from a comfortable experience for my horse. This has not proved overly problematic in the past as I have always relied on specific tactics in the event my horse decides not to put a hoof on that ramp. Fortunately buckets of feed and lunge lines haven’t featured in any of the horses I have loaded over the last decade. While it is tempting to divulge the tactics I have used, it would be irresponsible to promote or encourage such practices. Rest assured none of them involved beating, hurting or scaring the animal. Knowing you have a few tricks up one’s sleeve, and having a Plan B can only mean one thing however…the horse was never trained to load correctly in the first place.

A horse that is even slightly suspicious of placing its hoof on that ramp must have doubts. I accept full responsibility that initially I did not train this particular horse to load correctly because I was ignorant. Going up the ramp, coming down the ramp, it’s such a small part of the day that it’s often the case we do not stop to read the signals. People tend to concentrate on the why they are travelling that day. It could be a show, hunting, a sponsored ride or a trip to the beach for example.

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There must be without a doubt the sound of a million sighs of relief throughout the world on a daily basis when that ramp finally closes and the horse is loaded.

Should there be a ‘Phew!’?

Of course not, and If a person finds themselves feeling relieved then they should address the fact that they must have been worried in the first place.  Addressing this fact is accepting the horse has not been trained to load correctly. Blaming the horse for not loading is only going to reflect badly on its owner because a horse does not teach itself to load.

It occurred to me recently that my horse had not travelled in 5 months. To be honest this should not be a passing thought because this should in fact be part of my training schedule. This is the problem, people fail to even have a training schedule, there’s no weekly or monthly plan. Many owners (not all) consider that all training occurs in the saddle. Training should occur 100% of the time you are near a horse. If I were to write a list of all the things an owner should do on a weekly and monthly basis they would consider it an impossible notion due to time constraints, I think it also. Which is a shame for our confused and mostly bewildered equine friends, but it certainly keeps our horse trainers in plenty of work having to address issues involving mounting, leading, riding, loading, traffic, jumping, bolting, shying and another 100 problems.

Even if I had trained my horse the correct method of loading from the out-set many years ago, handling and training a horse in all manner of situations and environments should still be maintained frequently. We can’t blame the horse for anything, only ourselves.

Confessions of a Hunter: Part 2

Hedge Dwelling

The earliest records of the now almost extinct sport of Hedge Dwelling can be dated as far back as 1540. It is widely believed the sport coincided with the sport of fox hunting that had been growing in popularity in Norfolk since 1534. Traditionally hunting on horseback mainly focused on tracking deer but due to the decrease in deer populations open land was subsequently enclosed for protection purposes. This proved something of a hindrance to the hunters that ideally needed vast areas of open land to track deer successfully. Subsequently hunters began focusing their attention on hunting fox and hare. However this sport relied on flushing out small prey from hedge-rows which unfortunately hindered the hounds that had difficulty penetrating the dense foliage, due to the thorny and abrasive nature of the plants.

Records show around this time the sport of Hedge Dwelling rapidly grew in popularity as people were needed to flush out the prey that would go to ground in almost impenetrable undergrowth. Traditional attire of the Hedge Dweller consisted of a hat made of a hard substance which researchers theorise could have been made of whale bone, a thick tightly woven woollen jacket which was both water-proof and could protect a person from thorns, knee high leather boots and leather gloves. A stick with a deer antler handle was often carried to knock away thicker branches.

As said previously this sport is almost extinct, but I myself had the privilege of partaking in this ancient past time very recently. It is an early start for most people that hunt as there is much to do, which ultimately culminates in both horse and person attending the meet with the strictest punctuality and with a good standard of presentation. With this in mind the responsible hunter would expect to retire to bed at 9 pm in order to be at the stables at 6 a.m.  For reasons that escape me, although I have a vague recollection that whiskey may have been involved, I ‘retired’ to bed at 3 a.m. Therefore I was feeling somewhat bewildered that I was being prodded just 2 hours later by someone insisting one should adorn a pair of jodhpurs and to stick ‘that mess’ under a hair net.

My trusted steed was on true form as usual and is at best a handful even for someone that is compos mentis. However a thoroughbred intoxicated by whiskey fumes is a thing of nightmares for the rider that is non-compos mentis. As the previous night’s mascara was migrating down my cheeks and the hair-net struggling to do its job it appeared my reputation with this particular hunt was also about to unravel. Fortunately I was somewhat relieved to notice the hedge-rows consisted of a particularly dense and thorny variety of plant. Remembering the ancient sport of Hedge Dweller I was quick to grab the opportunity to redeem myself and volunteered to take my sturdy stick with the antler handle and be Chief Hedge Dweller for the day. I had planned to ask the Master permission but unfortunately he was not to be seen, nor the hounds or indeed, anyone else. I had unwittingly galloped off in another direction entirely away from the rest of the field during a lapse of consciousness. I put this partial black-out down to a dodgy prawn from last night’s malaba curry.

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My horse took her semi-conscious rider back to the lorry to which she quite happily loaded herself, and enjoyed the full hay net that had been tied up there. Fortunately there was a troublesome hedge-row quite close by that was crying out for the services of a Hedge Dweller and I was keen to carry out my duty post haste. By happy chance the traditional attire of this ancient sport was almost exactly the same attire worn by hunts in modern times, so I was well protected.

After a length of time being Chief Hedge Dweller I realised I was been prodded for the second time in just a few short hours. My friendly lorry driver had returned from following the hunt on foot, and felt a little baffled to find a horse on his lorry but no client in sight. According to him the sound of gentle snores were emanating from a nearby hedge and on investigating…found me. I vehemently dispute his recollection that I was asleep! No, I stand by the fact that I was an asset to the hunt this day by volunteering to flush out prey from the under-growth and felt proud to be upholding the ancient tradition of Hedge Dwelling.

The Strict Routine

My horse was very strong on a hack recently, and while we may have only been walking, it was still necessary to correct the speed. I hadn’t asked for this fast paced walk, in fact I was looking for a nice amble across the English county-side. The walk she had chosen felt hurried and anxious, and when I applied pressure to my reins she totally ignored it. Now I could have got home 30 minutes earlier than planned, but this needed correcting. Situations like this are no more than a nuisance at walk, yet my horse ignoring my pressure and deciding her own speed at trot and canter could prove a lot more dangerous.

Very frequently situations in the saddle are not always just connected to riding, and situations such as mine are a consequence of everything else an owner does around the horse. Yet I see very little evidence of people making this connection, I often see just the opposite. Problems in the saddle are just that, it’s a schooling problem, a bad temperament, the horse is in season, it’s the spring grass, the saddle needs re-flocking or a stronger bit is required.

A very sad situation occurred recently in which a young rider was thrown from her horse and received a fatal head injury. I may not know the exact circumstances but the article I read stated that the girl had finished riding and put the horse in the stable. For reasons unknown she brought the horse back out the stable and mounted the horse again. The hat had already been removed, as the saddle and she mounted on the concrete base. The horse bucked her off.

This is a set of circumstances in which having a strict routine could get someone hurt or killed. We see the same routing every day in which someone has finished riding, untacks the horse, grooms and feeds, or some variation of that, but usually some sort of routine is established.

Returning to my own situation of my fast paced anxious hack; this was resolved by giving some thought to what I had been doing the last few times I had both handled and ridden my horse. I had done this very same trail the last time I hacked and when I had finished I untacked my horse, groomed, fed and turned her out. I had unwittingly trained my horse that if we just get finished she will get a bowl of feed and can get back to her herd sooner. Schooling wise, I did correct this pace while riding but this was just 10% of what I needed to do to change this behaviour. I didn’t want a stronger bit, and ideally I wanted my horse not to be anxious when hacking.

The next time I handled my horse I fed her first, then groomed and did some groundwork. Some days I didn’t provide any hard feed and I avoided riding the same trail if I had hacked that way the last time. Sometimes we didn’t hack but rode in the arena, or did dome road-work. Fundamentally I always did things (everything) differently than the last time. My horse is now in a situation where she cannot predict what is coming next.

Is she anxious? No.

My horse is calm because she is not in control of the situation, and if she is not in control then the person who is calling the shots…is me.

Be wary of livery yards that seem proud to advertise their horses have ‘a strict routine’. No don’t be wary, just avoid them. Ideally you want a yard that lets you mind your own business, which is entirely possible in my experience. The horses you see and hear in the morning kicking the stable doors wanting to be fed are not calm and contented horses, they are anxious.

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A strict routine has a knock on effect with everything someone does with their horse which involves riding and handling. The added danger is when you do something that suddenly breaks this routine. If you have ridden your horse at 4 pm every-day for the last 2 years then one morning decide to ride at 7 am, you may very well have a horse that throws a tantrum. It isn’t the bit, it isn’t the saddle, and it isn’t because your horse is mean. It’s because you have trained your horse to expect breakfast at 8 am and to be ridden at 4 pm.

I was made aware of a horseman a couple of years ago, although I do not know his name and I have never met him, all the same I tip my hat to him. He purchased a ‘dangerous’ horse. This horse was turned away for many months while the horseman just observed him. During this time the man could see nothing physically or psychologically wrong with this animal, so brought him back into work. In my mind and without a doubt I feel sure this man was bringing back balance to this horse’s brain. He was undoing years of bad horsemanship, routine, strong bits and uneducated handling…by just letting the horse be a horse for 6 months.

My partner hunted this horse several times after been cared for by this man, so you can believe me when I say this horse was not dangerous and was good as gold when ridden.

Throw that routine out, good horsemanship is not just about sitting in a saddle. Give some thought to what you do around horses. The rears, the bucks, the napping and being strong when led may just have nothing to do with your tack or because the horse is dangerous. It may just be better not to invest your money in changing tack, but investing your time in understanding horse psychology.

Combining Passions

It was suggested to me recently that I make some horse related instructional videos for a 3rd party, which I am happy to do. I am by no means Adobe Evangelist Terry White but I strive to be, and that’s what counts, at least that’s what I tell myself! Anyway this gave me the idea of linking my passion for writing with my other passions of photography, image editing, video editing and of course…horses! I am now hunting for ideas for short videos that may help other people with horse care and general knowledge. Please let me know your suggestions! I have put together a short video on plaiting a mane, and there will be another on plaiting the tail very soon. The video footage was actually captured for plaiting the tail but a few unfortunate circumstances meant that the quality isn’t quite as I hoped.

Firstly, I was stood in the sun for quite some time shooting the ‘mane’ footage which caused me to become quite dehydrated and tired. Secondly someone suggested a ‘cool glass of shandy’ (it may have been me) after we had finished filming. This last suggestion proved to be somewhat catastrophic, and I rushed plaiting that tail like a Suffolk dwelling business man racing to catch a train out of London at 5.30 pm on a Friday evening.

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The mane footage was completed and edited however.

I tend to plait up the evening before a show to save me doing it in the morning. My mare has never shown any indication these bands are a nuisance, she has never rubbed during the night, not even an itch of an inch of a plait!

Because they are not sewn in like traditional methods the soft bands allow the hair to move, so there is no pinching or pulling of the hair-root. As you will be able to see from the video the bands are perfectly safe to use and will not split or damage the horse’s mane. The evidence is apparent in how thick and healthy my horses mane is! The plaits stay in all the next day.

Whatever your chosen discipline these will not fall out and are easy to remove once we are finished. My technique will have your horse looking show-perfect the entire day! Let me know what you think, and if you have any suggestions for topics for more videos’ let me know, I’ll do my best. Thank you to my friend Dean Spackman, for been a great camera-man and an amazing director! I promise to inundate you with chocolate brownies!

Buyer Beware

I have in the past on many occasions, climbed aboard a horse that I knew nothing about. The reasons are multitudinous but the most common reasons were; I’ve ridden horses that have been problematic for the owner and I have been asked to put it through its paces. I have ridden horses that have already been bought and the owner has asked me to be the first to ride it. Or  I have gone along with a potential buyer to try out a horse for them.

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Firstly, there is no way on Heaven and Earth the average rider can know a horse after 30 minutes in the saddle. Going into the arena and completing walk, trot and canter on both reigns, and maybe popping over a small jump will not tell anyone much of this horse’s history or level of training. The horse could be absolutely perfect in the school yet tomorrow it may stand on a plastic bottle and throw its rider. The small things can get a person hurt because they just didn’t consider them. People concentrate on whether the horse is good in traffic, if it jumps well, loads, has competed etc. all the big things.

I was grooming a very quiet, well -schooled horse once and it stood on a plastic curry comb. It shouldn’t be physically possible for a horse to complete a 360o somersault but this one did, almost breaking my arm in the process. A horse can be brilliant on the road until one day it comes across a mattress that has been dumped in the verge. But we can’t possibly prepare our horses to be unresponsive to every household item, or just about any possible object on the entire planet, can we? Not technically, but we can certainly strive for the correct response by exposing them to as much as possible while teaching them they can trust us to decide whether a mattress is an alligator in disguise or not.

I am of the opinion a potential buyer should not get on a horse that is unknown to them. When booking a viewing the last thing you need to see is someone already on the horse and riding it in the arena. They haven’t seen it caught and led from the field. If it was boxed then they haven’t seen what it was like when the handler approached it. They haven’t seen the behaviour when groomed, tacked up, and mounted. The buyer hasn’t seen anything that might give them clues to the horse’s character, training or history. Even if the seller allows someone to catch the horse, lead, tack-up, mount and ride the horse, will this person be experienced enough to recognise the signals and understand what type of horse they are dealing with?

I have a 100 memories in my head of people purchasing an inappropriate horse that will not suit the lifestyle or ability of the rider. An off the track Thoroughbred will not suit a happy-hacker, and you may think pointing this out is unnecessary and surely I made it up. No, it happens.

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These are my options when my mare retires to secure myself an appropriate horse, bearing in mind I’m not going to ride an animal that is unknown to me;

  • I buy a 2 or 3 year old only on the understanding it has had minimal handling. By starting with a blank canvass, I reduce the possibility there are any hidden surprises that may lurk in this horse’s history. I also buy from a reputable breeder that has maintained the health of the animal.
  • I buy a horse that is already known to me, that I have seen ridden/handled in many situations and environments for a long time by someone I trust.
  • I pay a reputable professional horseman to find me a horse with a good temperament which has been handled/ridden correctly, and one that would suit my lifestyle.
  • I find an appropriate horse myself but have it on loan with a view to buy, I then do 4 weeks of groundwork before deciding this animal is suitable.
  • I don’t own a horse, I loan one or share a horse with someone that understands how to communicate with a horse correctly.

These are the only appropriate options open to me that I feel are necessary to protect my well-being, physically and mentally. This is from a person that would once climb on anything. The reason for doing so was ignorance. Having the ability to ride is 1% of good horsemanship, if you consider that most of the time we spend around these animals is actually from the ground. Having the ability to sit bucks, rears, spins etc. just means someone has a good seat but that’s all it means. Having the ability to understand why this behaviour is occurring, and having the patience and knowledge to resolve such issues… that is good horsemanship.

Look at the options above and consider them. Don’t ask someone like the ‘past me’ to try a horse out for you, it’s a mistake. That pony I rode for someone was fine, one week later their child couldn’t sit a buck and broke her arm. That Thoroughbred I rode was good as gold in the school, the next day it reared and the owner was hurt.

I have many of these memories and unfortunately riding a horse once or twice didn’t help any of these people, mainly because all I could do was ride. I didn’t have the knowledge or skills to tell them anything useful about this horse.

If I had possessed the skills back then, then the very last thing I should have done…was put my foot in that stirrup.

Losing Confidence

Consider a person that has been show-jumping for the last 15 years then one day with a gut-churning realisation they suddenly feel apprehensive about the up-coming show this weekend. As the event draws ever closer the nerves increase and by the Saturday they are a quivering scared mess that would prefer root-canal than to actually be in the ring all of 6 minutes.

Losing confidence is the realisation you don’t know what you are doing, that’s it in a nutshell and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

One might argue that this theory doesn’t make sense because they have had many lessons and have been jumping since they were 7 years old. But consider who taught you, was it Carl Hester or your best friends neighbour from down the street that used to ride back in the 1970’s?

Maybe the person was a qualified instructor and for some reason having this qualification means they can provide all the knowledge you will ever need to successfully excel at show-jumping. Has anyone ever asked an instructor to provide evidence that they excelled at show-jumping or any other discipline? I know I haven’t.

On reflection it seems rather risky and stupid to climb on board such a large animal to negotiate a number of jumps without checking the credentials of the instructor. Then consider the person who is teaching you without this qualification. Perhaps it’s someone that rides dressage only, or it’s the yard manager, or it’s just about anyone that owns or works with horses. People assume when they book a lesson for themselves or their child the person standing in the arena must be a professional.

It’s a very dangerous assumption.

This could mean the very foundation of your education in riding flatwork, jumping, hacking, endurance or cross-country is built on very shaky, crumbly ground. The knowledge you have built up in any discipline could be the equivalent of looking at a jig-saw with 102 pieces missing and the full picture is never revealed. The brain is an amazing organ that continually gathers information to help you survive, flourish and become successful. As the years tick by the brain will continually look for those missing pieces. Eventually your sub-conscious starts filtering through information to you that the brain is not just growing impatient for those pieces, it has accepted the jig-saw will never be completed.

The brain is saying stop.

Consider this; I get invited to conduct a lecture at Oxford University to give a speech on quantum physics. Well firstly I can talk, and have been doing so for 45 years. I have studied quantum physics and do in-fact have a science degree. I’m a grown woman that can operate a car to get me to the venue, and I know how to dress appropriately. Therefore I am fully equipped to conduct this lecture, right?

No, and the very thought of doing so is already making me nervous!

Now consider what’s missing; I am not accustomed to public speaking and quantum physics is a complex subject and was just one module during a very long degree in which I mainly studied Earth science and geology. There are too many jig-saw pieces missing for my brain to feel confident in conducting such a lecture. So while it may seem evident I have every right to be in that lecture hall, Professor Cox I am not.

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The brain is telling me if the full picture cannot be understood then my chances of been successful are slim. This is translated as feeling nervous and not confident, even quite scared. This shaking foundation would register a very strong 7.9 on the Richter scale. My brain rightfully so, will tell me not to proceed.

An accident may damage your confidence, but if your confidence was in a good place to start with and built on a very good foundation of knowledge and skills, then I believe this is quickly overcome. Even the best riders will fall off…sometimes, even if it’s rare. Blaming a fall for a loss of confidence just isn’t acceptable. Blaming a fall for a complete loss of confidence when your foundation of knowledge was not strong in the first place is acceptable.

Confidence comes from knowing exactly what you are doing.

Tread with caution who you choose to gain knowledge from, as I am all too aware there are instructors teaching right now that themselves don’t ride anymore due to confidence issues.

What will they teach you?

The EquiShrug

The only reason I looked up from the very important task of minding my own business was because I heard someone shout. You find yourself already looking in the general direction of the noise before it even occurs to you the golden rule of minding your own business has just been broken. The horse tentatively drifting about in what I assume was intended to be a 10 metre circle was wearing what is potentially a nightmare contraption in uneducated hands – a Pessoa. Fortunately it was apparent the horse was completely desensitised to the lunging whip that for some reason was been held high in the air gently swaying. If you had seen the same action from a distance while standing on a beach this person would have resembled a talented kite flyer. Being desensitised to a whip waving about is generally a good thing for horses, but they should also recognise when you are attempting to apply pressure.

From the ground the stick can be thought of as an extension of your arm to communicate with the horse. There is all types of pressure everyone should be aware of which will include your own body language and even the direction of where one is looking. I’m aware of what my feet are doing, my eyes, hands and the stick, and this is perhaps just 10% of what I could actually include in this article, but it’s not possible. This is the reason I hardly ever lunge, I see it as such a fine art to get everything correct that I don’t believe I am good enough. I accept it takes 100% concentration and only a skilled professional can properly lunge a horse. So take on board that if someone can say they have been around horses for nearly 40 years and feels they cannot expertly lunge a horse, then why are people doing it when they have owned a horse for the last 2 years?

They lunge because they are unaware of the fundamental errors they are making, the horse is going in a circle and that is all lunging means…apparently.

I am in something of a unique position having owned one of my horses for over 20 years. I can look back and somewhat painfully recall the mistakes I have made with this mare. Yet when I had professional training my horse transformed before my eyes, my horse didn’t become good as she was always a good horse. Unfortunately she was owned by an ignorant human that could not correctly communicate with her. She has taught me that horses are very forgiving creatures, because even after all my fundamental errors this mare is gracious enough to still have a ground and ridden relationship with me.

As I continued to look toward the horse in the Pessoa the owner brought that stick down and thumped it on the ground behind the horse, the horse took two steps forward and for reasons I don’t understand the person made snapping motions on the line causing the horse to stop. Again the lunge whip came crashing down, and the hapless horse took a tentative step forward. Nope, that wasn’t correct either as the line was again used in the snapping motion. I was confused as the horse! My eyes were darting between the horse and the person’s hands to attempt to understand what they were trying to achieve. I am of a species that is allegedly the apex predator, the most intelligent of this entire planets numerous species, yet I couldn’t understand…so what chance did this horse have!?

Well the horse had no chance of understanding. He’d tried forward and back none of which seemed correct. He did the only other thing that seemed an option, he gave up trying. This is the point I was rewarded for breaking my golden rule of not staring. The horse turned to the owner, sighed and planted himself. The human equivalent of this body language would be a human turning toward someone else, shrugging their shoulders and say ‘What?’ I have termed this the EquiShrug. The owner was quick to shout and call the horse stupid. I wish I could have told her the horse was a kind-natured animal that had done its best to understand the human. He didn’t rear out of frustration, he didn’t buck in anger, and he didn’t gallop in a circle with anxiety. No, he’d done his best to understand and his kind soul had responded with an EquiShrug.

The EquiShrug

Another example of this was again witnessed as I patiently waited for someone to turn their horse into the paddock. I was holding my own horse 15 feet away waiting to use the same paddock. The horse was asked to walk through the opening, which it attempted to do, but again the lead rope was banged under the chin. Different owner, different horse, it was even a different yard! The horse stopped, even backed up which I saw was a completely correct response after receiving such halter pressure. Unfortunately this isn’t what the owner wanted, and the horse was pulled forward again. I turned my back as the horse went through the gate to resume minding my own business. I had to turn back when I heard shouting and for some unknown reason the horse was back outside the gate! I can’t even imagine how this came about, I should have kept watching. The rope was pulled again to indicate to the horse to walk forward, at this point the horse planted himself with the EquiShrug response, to which I simultaneously burst out laughing.

Homo Ferrum

It is widely accepted Homo Sapiens are the dominant species of Modern Human although approximately 150 000 years ago the genus Homo Ferrum evolved and diverged from other hominids in Africa. While not as successfully abundant in numbers as Homo Sapiens they subsequently spread globally. While the two species are similar in appearance and both have 23 pairs of chromosomes, DNA sampling can be used to identify homo type. This is generally unnecessary as characteristic traits of Homo Ferrum are easily identifiable by the time the child reaches the age of 5. Characteristics include lethargy, procrastination and an inhibited sense of smell. Physical differences include stronger back muscles and biceps than that of their closest living relative of Homo Sapiens. Because of these traits Homo Ferrum often choose careers as black smiths and farriers. Both species have lived peacefully together for many millennia as Homo Sapiens have adapted to accommodate the physical and behavioural differences of the Homo Ferrum. This is particularly apparent in the relationship between equestrians and farriers.

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The equestrian will know that if the farrier is booked to shoe their horse at 10 a.m they must wait until the farrier is unpacking the tools and filling the bucket with water before deciding to retrieve their horse from the field. The 20 minute walk to the field and back accommodates the farrier’s need to procrastinate. Fortunately it has been raining all night which is an added blessing because now the horse owner needs to spend a further 10 minutes cleaning the horse’s legs off. The farrier reciprocates this kind understanding of his species by feigning impatience, which simultaneously gives him the chance to be lethargic by sitting on the back of his van tapping his foot.

By 10.30 am the farrier has now been on the yard for a good half an hour and finally the horse is brought to him and tied up. He is now ready to start work but gleefully notices the hooves are covered in hoof oil which he knows will buy him another 5 minutes of procrastination while the owner wipes it off. The owner feels quite smug in that she was considerate enough to remember the oil this time. However both species finally realise with trepidation there is nothing more to do than actually start removing the horse’s shoes.

The owner settles herself down on the back of the farriers van and begins to recount her life over the past 6 weeks. She knows the farrier will be greatly interested in how things went at the West Wycombe Sponsored Ride and how her friend Jane fell off because her seat is so crap and her pony is so badly schooled. It’s at this point the owner remembers Jane’s pony lost a shoe during the ride but assures the farrier that he can magically find the time to get this horse shod also. The owner quickly moves the subject on because she is keen to educate the farrier on the shoeing techniques she read on the internet last night. He seems impressed with her extensive knowledge although he doesn’t say much, it’s because he’s listening intently. The farrier has removed all the shoes and is rasping a back hoof, it’s at this moment the horse lifts his tail and deposits 28 lbs of manure between his legs. This is fine as the owner already knows Homo Ferrum has an inhibited sense of smell and he’s quite comfortable having an enormous pile of shit 12 inches away from his face, so she leaves it there.

The owner realises her time is running short and will be late for work unless she leaves the yard 11.30 am sharp. Due to the very relaxed disposition of the farrier she knows it is perfectly acceptable for him to put the horse back out in the field for her, and anyway he may as well as Janes pony needs bringing in. With a wave and a smile the owner skips off the yard shouting something about forgetting her purse but she’ll pay next time…oh and so will Jane! Miraculously hoof filings, discarded nails and enormous piles of poop would have completely disappeared by the time the owner appears back on the yard the next day. This is known as the Lackadaisical Phenomena that only occurs to the most recently discovered species of Homo Inconsideratus.

Confessions of a Hunter

The blood curdling screams tore through the air like a hot poker being driven into fresh snow and exceeded the sound level of a glacier calving off the Antarctic Peninsula. If those screams had been heard at 2 a.m on a housing estate in Milton Keynes the police would have been called, an ambulance…heck, it would have warranted an armed response. But there was no reaction from the 30 something people that were in close proximity to this woman. Was she on fire, or was she witnessing the skies ripping open to reveal Jesus and the 4 horseman of the Apocalypse?

No she was experiencing a downhill, 30 mph flat-out gallop with the The Kimblewick Hunt. This screaming woman was behind me, as nearly everybody was considering I was riding the fastest pony ever to exist in the entire history of the planet. My 3 ring gag was about as much use as a sandbag used to hold back a tsunami. Even years later I am on occasion still jolted awake by the sound of the Master shouting “If you can’t control that horse you will go home!”

Fox_Hunting_-_Henry_Alken

I do not turn my head to the sound of the terrified screams because things are going well for me. At least I tell myself that if my hearing is still intact I am therefore still alive. I daren’t move a muscle because in these situations ‘that image’ always pops into the equestrians head. Yes, you are in the midst of a flat out gallop and you imagine the horse tripping. It becomes apparent my nightmare pony has a plan to keep us both alive, for at the bottom of the hill is an open gate. If this had been a Sunday afternoon stroll with the labrador, this innocent looking gate would have proved no threat what so ever. But unless the laws of physics could be miraculously re-written in the next 20 seconds, 30 horses passing through this gate would be the equivalent of a speeding elephant trying to successfully negotiate a cat-flap. As we both passed last year’s winner of point to point (easily) while simultaneously committing the cardinal sin of passing the Master, we both pass through that opening unscathed. Well nearly, my ears stung quite considerably at someone shouting, but I hastily reassured myself that the person ‘who should go home’ wasn’t me.

We pull up and look back, and its carnage. Knee caps have been removed and indeed it’s now apparent it’s the Master himself that needs to go home. Well technically he needs a hospital and 6 months bed rest. He’s not alone either as I spot various people that have been ungraciously torn from their horse by every hunter’s worst nightmare…the fence post. There are even stirrup leathers and irons now adorning both posts. Hunters are sensible people and we always know how to react in such harrowing situations, yes we break out the whiskey and fags.

Theresa May has recently declared she would like to lift the ban on hunting and that she will renew the Tory pledge to hold a free vote on overturning the ban. This will undoubtedly upset various animal rights groups. Admittedly politics isn’t my cup of tea and I am happily perched on the fence over this, and can actually see reason in both arguments regarding ‘for and against’ hunting. I have seen a hare killed once by the hounds and the entire event of this animal departing our gracious planet lasted approximately 2 seconds. From half a mile away it resembled a hurricane of hounds dancing in a dust-bowl, and then it was over. The animals ate the hare and it would have barely been a mouthful each. The articles I have read depicting hunts chasing a terrified fox relentlessly for 3 hours was something I have never experienced.

Animal right activists may even gain a little comfort in knowing what the average hunter experiences out in the field. A small number of riders leave after the opening meet, more leave after the first hour. Add to that those that retire early when losing a shoe, and those riders that get lost or left behind. I can assure you 4 people will fall at the first hedge, another 3 will be wiped out by a fence post, and another 6 will be terrified at that downhill gallop.

To_the_Craners_of_England_-_Henry_Alken

Talking of which, what did happen to the screaming woman? After the whiskey and fags, and mopping up of various ungraciously dismounted folk, and bagging up an assortment of knee-caps she was last seen walking up a country lane toward the direction of her horse-box. Was she ever seen out hunting again? No.

Passenger versus Partnership

Laura considers herself an experienced horse owner and rider. Laura is the person you go to if you require something from her extensive and always stocked first aid kit. She is the one with 27 rugs in her stable and every type of equine boot that was ever invented. The knee boots admittedly hang on a hook in the corner as they fell out of favour in 2011. Laura has rented her stable at this particular yard for the last 17 years and in that time has owned 3 horses. Every yard has a Laura, they become part of the woodwork. As a new livery you soon learn no-one upsets Laura because of the sometimes fraught, but mostly amicable relationship she has built up with the owners of the establishment, she has reached the status of ‘I’ve been here longer than anyone’. This gives the impression that if you do not like Laura, her 17 years makes it apparent that if you fall out with her, you will be the one that leaves. There-fore even if you dislike Laura, it’s beneficial to always greet her with a heart-warming ‘Good morning!’ while continuing to raid her extensive first aid kit as and when required.

Everyday at 9 a.m Laura breezes onto the yard clutching a bag of apples, flap-jacks and sometimes the latest copy of Your Horse. You duck down in your stable because you are terrified Laura will insist on feeding your horse 7 or 8 flapjacks while pointing out why your horse must have gastric ulcers because he is showing all the symptoms that are listed in the magazine. You breathe a sigh of relief only when said magazine and flapjacks are safely in her storage cupboard and only then emit a totally fake, and an overly high pitched ‘Good morning!’

After 2 hours of coffee drinking and educating the obviously grateful liveries that all their horses have gastric ulcers Laura decides it’s high time she gave her horse some much needed schooling.  After-all, her horse has spent 2 hours kicking the stable door and throwing his head about, which has nothing to do with the fact his stable is an oxygen-deprived stink-hole or that he’s fetlock deep in poop and hasn’t had his hay-net filled since last night. No, it’s because he’s an attention freak.

stable

Laura leads her horse out of the stable, puts his bridle on and ties him up to get her saddle. At this point Sarah the yard owner strides across the yard and Laura must tell her how some of the riding school ponies must, yes you guessed it, could have gastric ulcers, and rushes to retrieve the now battered, somewhat soiled copy of Your Horse. After yet another coffee, 3 cigarettes, a pair of snapped reins, and finding spare reins, Laura finally gets the saddle on the horse.

Been somewhat rushed for time now Laura enters the school and does 2 laps of walk around the arena. The horse is lazy this morning and chooses to ignore Laura’s constant tap tap tap of her heel. This does not deter Laura however as perhaps the horse will choose to listen on the 800th tap. She doesn’t count, but she stays optimistic that although her horse ignored the first 2 taps he might miraculously pay attention when the tapping gets in the high hundreds. Laura decides a trot will wake him up so kicks just that little bit harder, unfortunately the horse has already squirreled this particular type of pressure away into his brain under the file name ‘ignore’.

Equestrian Competition Horse Riding Horse Jumping

All is not lost however, Laura has a special friend she can rely on called ‘Mr Schooling Whip’. 2 or 3 asks on the flank of her horse and the lazy walk becomes something of a lethargic trot. After one lap consisting of a lethargic trot, breaking back into a lazy walk, then back into a lethargic trot Laura is exhausted and decides it must surely be time for a coffee break. On dismounting, her horse gets the most gloriously grateful pat and 4 flapjacks for being such a good boy. Laura, now feeling ecstatic that she has finished riding for the day, can resume breezing around the yard telling everyone else how to look after their horse, and if you are especially lucky, she may help you with transitions in the arena while sipping her coffee and pointing out why your position is incorrect.

There are many Laura’s probably on every livery yard the world over. Not much is asked of the horse, in-fact it’s the horse that is in control. This supposedly ‘dumb’ animal has trained the human. It’s an advantageous situation on the whole. The stable isn’t much fun, but no energy is been expended while being supplied with hay, and he does eventually get turned out to pasture some 47 coffee’s later. The situation becomes serious however when you have a dominant horse that in time learns to ignore the owner completely when in the saddle, when leading, when loading and all manner of handling.

But for now, let’s just address the riding. Riders make the fundamental mistake of changing gait when the gait they were in remains far from perfect. No-one should be asking for trot when the walk is not perfect, and at all speeds i.e. slow, medium, fast walk. No-one should be asking for canter when the trot is not perfect, and again at all speeds. People need to just slow down the rate at which they train their horses. If your horse is ignoring your leg aid at walk, you are not ready to trot. Take an hour or take 2 hours concentrating on keeping your lower leg still and when you do use it make sure the horse knows it means something. It doesn’t matter if it takes 3 weeks to achieve walking around the arena in a medium walk, this is hands down better than the flappy whip yielding exhausting way that Laura rides. Laura is a passenger because her horse ignores her and this is potentially a dangerous situation. Far better to develop a partnership with your horse and this can only be done with patience and understanding. Fitting in a quick ride between Tesco and the school run should not exist in your brain. Have a monthly plan on what you would like to achieve and make time to make every schooling session count for something. Forget the coffee and chitter-chatter, attend to your horse. Lastly, unless you brush your horse’s teeth, leave the flap-jacks at home.