Over the years I have more than once, blamed a groom for forgetting to bolt the stable door when finding my horse loose on the yard. Then one day I witnessed my mare jumping out of her stable! Well that’s putting it more mildly than what really happened when my horse escaped. Continue reading “Aggression Doesn’t Always Mean Dangerous”
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.
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.
If I was to suggest to a non-equine friend of mine to come and hang wall-paper for me I already know she would be horrified and she would insist she knows nothing about house decorating. This is wall- paper people. Yet the same friend and many like her will wake up one day and decide to buy a horse. They imagine long rides across the British country-side, the birds are singing and the sun is setting turning the sky a beautiful orange.
Usually this decision comes from child-hood memories that contain 5 or 6 riding lessons, and now they are in their mid-thirties with disposable income they seize the opportunity to ride a horse again. No consideration is given to the fact that they are now 6 stone heavier and 25 years older. No consideration is given to the fact they really hadn’t mastered rising trot before they quit, and are not equipped with horsemanship skills or knowledge. Further-more the riding school pony she rode was 28 years old and was used to riding in circles every darn day in the same dusty arena.
So what does my friend do? She will go out and buy something ‘beautiful’. It must be chestnut, or all black with a flowing mane. It needs to be 8 years old because for reasons that escape me, that’s the golden age apparently. This horse has done dressage, it’s hunted, it’s done road work, it carried a 12 year old, it’s worth a lot of money…therefore it must be good, it’s the perfect horse.
It’s an exciting time, there’s a new hat to buy, a body protector, jodphurs and an Ariat riding jacket…and the long leather Tattini Breton boots are just to die for? Of course to complete the professional look she needs to carry a whip, she is not sure why, but its long, it’s black and the model in Horse and Hound was holding one, so why not?
Things go well for a while, mainly because she just sits there and goes for gentle walks around the arena. People at the yard tell her it’s a beautiful horse and she feels very professional and blessed. Slowly but surely little things start to happen that she completely ignores because she loved him by then, and anyway these little things are part of his character. He turns his back on her in the stable, he pins his ears when tightening the girth, he refuses to stand close enough to the mounting block or starts to get strong when leading to the paddock. The brand new tin of hoof oil remains untouched as apparently he’s funny about having his feet picked up.
The new friends she has made at the yard will tell her it’s the spring grass, or she needs to change his feed, perhaps get a new saddle, or to get his teeth checked, the list is endless as are the opinions. Unfortunately no-one has the knowledge to know whether this behaviour is physical or psychological. My friend lacks the skills to see if he is being dominant, or it is in-fact a pain issue. She missed seeing the small issues develop, and only noticed them when the problems became detrimental to her own well-being.
It’s never going to occur to my friend, not in a thousand years that while she was walking gently around the arena she never loosened those reigns, she never stopped that pressure on his mouth, it’s never going to occur to her that she inadvertently retrained the horse to ignore that pressure. What did she think would happen when she tried applying the same pressure at trot and canter, any guesses? Her balance was off and she was not aware of her own body language so in this scary moment she unwittingly clamped her legs on, basically signalling to the horse to go faster.
But she does not realise why this situation developed as it’s obvious the horse ignored her brakes because he’s dangerous, he’s strong and wants to bolt. Of course she fell, she hurt herself and needed 6 weeks off work. Her yard buddies blamed the dealer that sold him to her, some said he’s quirky or he has a screw loose. Because she is inundated with all of this fabulous advice she doesn’t actually call a professional to ride the horse, no one calls a trainer to get their expert opinion.
It doesn’t matter now because now he’s got that label. My friend decides to sell the horse, unfortunately all her new friends are keen to let everyone on the horsey grapevine know that ‘that horse put his last owner in hospital’. Not one person will say the owner was completely incompetent and had no business buying a horse, let alone sitting on one. No-one will tell my friend this because us equestrians get called busy-bodies and apparently a know it all, so we keep quiet.
If I were to ask Monty Roberts, Clinton Anderson or Pat Parelli if they considered a horse dangerous I would hope and pray they would answer yes. I am aware even the professionals have to be conscious of their own body language around horses 100% of the time, 100% alert when reading signals from the horse and to be 100% precise when communicating with the animal. Consider the concentration, the years of training, the commitment it takes to get to the professional level of horse expert. There is no room for error with these guys, but even then, with all that knowledge they can never rule out the risk of a freak accident. It happens. Consider that risk for a novice then, the risk of injury becomes highly likely.
After 2 years of falls, being trampled, dragged, bitten and owning a now worthless horse I should ask my friend what she would prefer, wallpapering my wall or buying a horse? I’m guessing she will supply the paste and avoid patterns depicting sunsets.
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.