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”
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.
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’.
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.
The advert will nearly always start with how the owner is full of regret, they nearly always have a sad heart, sometimes family circumstances forces a heart-breaking sale, and apparently it’s time to let this amazing horse go to his forever home. This horse is incredible and will ensure the next owner can compete to a high standard. Next comes the parentage, and there will be some long-winded name the writer assumes everyone will have heard of. I believe some people may be interested in blood-lines but I also believe those buyers won’t be on Facebook looking for a ‘good-do’er’. Moving on, this horse will have hunted, competed at both show-jumping and dressage, is good in all traffic, good to shoe, box, load, travel, clip, catch and is 100% bombproof with 3 good paces and ‘easy’ in all ways. There it is, in black and white, the generic horse selling advert.
The writer will not tell you they hunted just the once because during the meet when the farmer’s wife was handing out sausage rolls and mulled wine the horse reared 97 times and kicked out at the hounds running around its hooves. The first jump was negotiated at a heart-stopping flat out gallop but in the last stride the horse did a gravity defying 30 mph to 0 mph sliding halt. But hey, all was not lost, the rider at least made the jump while the horse followed the hunt on the other side of the hedge leaving them quickly alone with just the sound of the wind for company and the ever fading bark of the hounds.
Competing at both jumping and dressage is true enough (probably). The advert would be too long if it actually included that while the rider was performing the part of the test that required ‘a medium walk on a loose rein’ the horse actually napped out of the arena door. Or that a relative/friend was drafted in to stand with a whip and a ready click of the tongue at the scary looking upright. This doesn’t matter because after the second attempt of the course it went ok-ish and they were pleased with the clear round rosette that now proudly adorns the fridge. Plus they did win occasionally, the year the horse and rider dressed up as Santa and Rudolf at the yard Christmas Show was a resounding success and over the years the story may become a little embellished to where it wasn’t a Christmas Show, no they actually won the Working Hunter class.
The horse was obviously good in traffic some 3 years ago when a group from the yard went for a hack around the village on a quiet Sunday afternoon. They met at least 4 cars and even John on his bicycle that was off to visit his Aunty Mavis who lived ‘down the way’. The horse wasn’t too sure about John and his bicycle, but going past this nightmare contraption sideways while snorting with a clattering of hooves still counted as been quite good, mainly because no-one died.
No-one ever seems to question why a 12 year old horse wouldn’t be good to shoe and box, but these details seem to add some padding to the already outstanding achievements of this amazing horse. As is the 3 good paces, I should hope so! I have to reach back, way back, in my memory to try to recall a sound horse that is missing a good pace, but I’m struggling to recollect a horse that can cope with both walk and canter, but is unable to execute a reasonable trot. Clipping always goes swimmingly well although it can be somewhat of a hurried affair to get it completed before the Sedalin wears off. Loading is also entirely possible, but the advert omits minor details such as it takes 3 hours, 46 carrots, a lunge line, 4 people and a bucket of feed to actually complete the mission of getting the horse on the trailer. But getting to a show on time is entirely possible if you start attempting the load at 4 a.m.
The ‘good to catch’ is somewhat worrying and things have not gone well if you have a horse that does not trust a human approaching it with a head-collar. There could be various reasons why, too many to include here, but all those reasons add up to a whole. This whole has produced an animal that wants nothing to do with you at all. Logic defies me why people then think it’s acceptable to tack such an animal up to ride. There is some work to do here and it does not involve riding.
Many adverts contain the same generic information yet no two horses have had exactly the same training and experiences. Never assume an 8 year or 12 year old horse has seen everything, or is experienced in all manner of environments and situations. You may just end up with an equine brain full of incorrect training and faced with undoing 12 years of miscommunication and unpleasant experiences. If all of these adverts contain the same generic information, then what aren’t they telling you? The adverts won’t contain information that includes intermittent lameness and bouts of colic. Or that yes, the horse is great on the road, but avoid garbage collection days, the horse cannot tolerate wheelie bins.
Lastly…100% bombproof? There is no such thing.
They don’t hate or love us either they merely tolerate us because they have no choice. This is the equine version of Stockholm Syndrome. Those horses that can no longer cope with pain, fear or confusion will react in a way that earns them the label ‘Dangerous’. Unfortunately it is always viewed as the horses fault and his bad character.
Usually when a novice purchases a horse things can go well for a while, things are not going well for you in the eyes of a professional horseman, but you are blissfully unaware of this, as far as you are concerned everything is super. The horse greets you every morning at the yard and you think this is cute. The horse whinnies at you because you may provide food, he comes to you in the paddock because you may provide food. Everything else you do around or on him is merely tolerated. What the horse ideally wants is to be left alone by humans and to graze with his herd. From getting the horse in from the field to putting him out again, everything in between is him merely tolerating the situation.
The worst case scenario in my eyes happens every day all over the world. It’s the novice parents that buy their child a pony. It’s just all wonderful in the parents eyes, the child is so happy running up to the pony with a carrot, giving it cuddles, hanging off the neck and playing with it like it’s a 4 legged flesh and blood version of Barbie. On searching for suitable images I actually struggled to find a pony that wasn’t pinning its ears, the worst I saw is too unsuitable to even show. But through the smiles and laughter of a happy child, pause for a while and take note of the pony’s ears, be responsible parents and ask your child to show the pony some respect.
Riding schools are particularly stressful places, there’s a lot of human traffic and noise, the ponies can all be tied up too close together when ready for lessons. They tolerate uneducated hands pulling on their mouths, flapping legs and constant chatter from the children, they can be hot and sweaty from the previous lesson, I think at this point the level of tolerance can vastly decrease. While a professional horseman can at least help his horse to have a high level of toleration during training by communicating properly, many other owners are handling animals that have an ever decreasing level of tolerance. There is definitely a scale and when a horse reaches zero tolerance the manure hits the fan and unfortunately the horse gets the blame.
A horse doesn’t love or hate, like or dislike or favour one person over another. A horse is aware of its resources and its surroundings, pain, discomfort, hunger, feeling cold/hot, thirsty, other horses and its own instincts. Your horse has no concept of been naughty, bad, silly or good. The level of tolerance a horse can obtain can also be negative or positive. That horse you see in the barn standing alone, head down and ignoring the world has a high level of negative tolerance, he’s so tolerating of people and his surroundings that he’s switched off. He’s not deaf or old, he’s not sulking, anti-social, or a ‘funny old boy’, what he wants is for you to go away with your bad communication, screaming kids and terrible riders and to be turned out in a field where he can finally feel some comfort with his own kind.
The top dressage horse you have just seen perform perfectly on the tv has a high level of positive tolerance. But achieved by someone of Carl Hester standard, who has communicated well, the horse is not confused and understands what is being asked of him. However, this horse is not enjoying himself, he’s merely tolerating been ridden and would without a doubt rather be grazing in a quiet pasture.
Be mindful of your actions on and around horses, strive to communicate effectively in a way the horse can understand, and while we are all very busy exploiting these magnificent animals aim for your horse to have a high level of positive tolerance.
Over the years I have ridden on the British roads hundreds of times without incident. Car drivers, bike riders, lorry drivers, tractor drivers have all been courteous. Once I met a wide load truck carrying an armored tank. Admittedly my old boy was somewhat wide-eyed at this, but the driver stopped and we actually had a pleasant chat at his driver-side window. I’m careful when riding on the roads, and I only ride with an experienced rider, never alone or in the company of novices. There are tactics we use, none of which I have seen used by riders when I am in the car. We trot around bends if there is no oncoming traffic, and yes you can hear cars approaching. We do this to reduce the time of being in a vulnerable position and to not hold up traffic from behind. If we hear traffic approaching from behind we pull over to the verge as much as possible, but we also stop if the road is narrow. I always turn my head to the driver to make sure he has seen us, and that he is slowing, and it’s amazing the effect eye-contact can have on a stranger. If I believe there is going to be a problem, for example a very large noisy lorry is coming, I have never hesitated to ride up someone’s drive-way, or into their garden, I have been all sorts of places! I am quite happy to push through a hedge if I decide to remove my horse from danger.
I have accepted however as soon as I place my left foot in a stirrup to the moment I dismount, everything in-between is MY responsibility, it’s MY risk and no one should take the blame for MY decision to ride a horse.
No matter what my horse spooks at I accept I have been irresponsible by not preparing my horse to disregard any number of spooky objects, noises or situations. I rarely see people investing time with doing ground-work and as far as I’m concerned the horse should have seen and been in many situations even before you have made the decision to sit on him. It seems crazy to me people do not invest in their own LIFE. More often than not precautions consist of high viz jackets, a body protector and a riding hat. How absurd it seems to wear gear in anticipation of falling off! People wear less equipment when sky-diving. If I went to a theme park and they kitted me out in gear that would help me survive a roller-coaster ride, I wouldn’t get on it, it would appear too dangerous.
The video below shows a number of unfortunate situations culminating in two horses being hit by a car, and I have edited this to remove the point of impact.
Both riders are drifting about the road with no real purpose when they should both be 100% concentrating on the environment. It’s an overcast day and the road is wet, the car driver is without a doubt going too fast and loses control at the bend in the road. In this situation the high-viz jackets are actually useless but who is at fault here? Instead of looking for fault both riders should accept as soon as that left foot went into the stirrup everything that unfolded after is their responsibility. Personally I would of made the decision not to do road work on a dull wet day, I’m not sure how windy it was, but again if I could not hear on-coming traffic I wouldn’t risk it. Even though I accept from this footage the riders can in-fact hear the car approaching. It’s an unfortunate incident and something every rider should accept can happen.
People are keen to share their experiences on Facebook and Youtube of road-rage incidents, which usually involve a child or woman screaming at a car driver, or even smacking a car roof with a whip. Ladies we have to share the road, and you have no right to be screaming at anyone. This sort of behaviour gives responsible riders a bad name. Pull over for the car, thank the driver and be courteous. Yes I agree the moronic car driver is trying to squeeze by you on a narrow road, but I usually just point and indicate I will pull over at the next available space/verge/garden/layby. It has always ended well and the car driver is grateful I have done my best to get out of his way. But just try to remember, you chose to be in this situation and it is the responsibility of the rider to accept the risk. Take this on board next time your left foot goes into that stirrup.
The Horse Industry
My Experience: I consider myself proficient in reading horse body language, although I believe there is always more to learn so do not consider myself an expert in horsemanship, I just strive to understand them better. Having worked in the horse industry and owned horses for nearly 40 years I have seen many changes in respect to training, owning, keeping and handling of horses. I have seen a decline in owners mastering horse skills and horsemanship knowledge. A rapid decline in-fact, 30 years ago it was rare for someone from an average income household to purchase a horse, when I was a child only one other person owned a pony out of the entire school. Now my hair-dresser has a horse, the cashier in Tesco has a horse, actually so does my dentist. This is all well and good, and why not you may ask yourself. It’s not good because horses are now so easily accessible the practice of irresponsible breeding is occurring, there are too many horses that don’t sell. These animals get left neglected in fields across Britain, they die and their bodies get dumped along a road side.
Modern Owners: So many potential owners see a horse as something you sit on, no really, that’s what they think. It’s that easy, you buy a horse, saddle it up and you sit on it. Now consider the accidents that are happening from falls, kicks and when riding on the road. We can blame the horse, we can blame the car driver, heck we can blame that plastic bag that blew under the horse. Everybody else is responsible apart from the rider/owner. No-one thought to train that horse to disregard plastic bags, pheasants, speeding cars, barking dogs, tractors and a hundred other things. Please don’t blame that lady with the umbrella either, you should have been in the school showing your horse an umbrella. People aren’t training their horses because they do not have the time or knowledge and after all, it’s just a horse that you sit on, right? On a positive note occasionally I do see a new owner get professional tuition straight away, and no, I don’t mean off a 25 year old ‘riding instructor’. I mean from a professional horseman that understands horse psychology and is a clinician and trainer and has been in the industry at least 30 years. Anyway, considering all the things horses are likely to spook at I’m incredulous why these people ‘sit on them’ without any preparation (see my umbrella comment). My riding instructor was a complete dragon in my 8 year old mind, and she made me trot for two years before moving onto canter. These days I see people cantering on their 3rd lesson! A review I read recently on a riding yard said ‘Don’t go there my child wasn’t cantering after 2 lessons’. That riding school was avoiding serious injury to your child, my dear.
Grooms: At least 20 years ago being a groom was a skilled job, tasks would involve clipping, bandaging, treating minor injuries, managing ailments and conditions, taking care of tack, training, riding and lunging, grooming to a high standard, plaiting, rasping feet, the list was endless. Now with this growing tide of horse ownership the standard of grooming has fallen into decline as owners themselves are in no need of a good groom because surely all one does is brush off the horse before sitting on it. Groom’s wages fell, and good grooms left the industry. Grooms can now be as young as 15 with about as much knowledge as the owner that has had 4 riding lessons.
Management: Horse knowledge used to be passed down through the generations, it was a subject one would continually study, one would strive to understand these animals better. This rarely happens now, and it can’t happen, as much as some people will not like my views if an owner is working a 40 hour week, when would they have time to increase their horse knowledge and to train their horse? They simply just don’t have the time. Livery yards are becoming bigger, the stables are wall to wall, often 30, 40 + horses under one roof in a converted barn.
Full year turn out is becoming impossible as while yards can build more stables, they do not have enough land to offer much grass so the horses stay in most of the time. Colic and gastric ulcer cases are on the increase, and of course they are. Too much feed, too much hay with lots of standing around, any animal on the planet including us will suffer the consequences of eating and not moving. Every topic I have covered here could be its own subject and a thousand words long, and it will be. I can’t change the horse industry, and it’s not all bad. The horse is an incredibly forgiving and tolerant creature and I wish to write about my own experiences which span 40 years.