Tag: horses

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.

All riders should spend more time riding along hedges preparing for the day monster’s are out of view and quiet. I’m certain all pheasants harbour psychopathic tendencies that enjoy waiting until your horse is only 12 inches away before squawking their disapproval, then deliberately flying straight at your head.

Pigeons aren’t innocent either. Forget the picturesque image of a beautiful country cottage adorned with a lone pigeon perched on a thatched roof gently coo-cooing. No, pigeons hold meetings in tree’s plotting your demise.  10 even 20 of them sit there giggling and elbowing each other as you approach. Meticulous timing and planning goes into the exact moment they all simultaneously take flight. All those flapping wings are comparable to the sound of a standing ovation at the Royal Albert Hall.

I still have no idea what unsettled all three horses, yet it goes a long way in explaining my passion for the horse, their power is formidable. The rapid change in direction and the speed they can complete this manoeuvre is astonishing.

Sadly one of our small group would never ride again.

My friend and I react instantly, although it would take another thousand words to describe what our bodies and muscles did in that split second. Another thousand words to explain how and why we had their trust, what they may have been desensitised to and what training they’d had, all culminating in stopping a bolt.

You either stop a bolt from occurring or you manage a bolt. Once that flight instinct kicks in and the horse is in full flow I don’t believe it’s going to end quite as soon as a rider would like.

The times I have found myself in this situation I have let the horse run initially, what else is there to do? Fighting with his mouth will be ineffective if he is convinced a lion is about to sink its teeth into his backside. You are not there in his mind, he is quite literally running for his life. Adrenalin plus instinct is a powerful force in any animal.

Fighting with a horse’s mouth is also unseating as you are not concentrating on anything else that could be done to calm your horse. The direction he is heading in should be a focus. There could be a left turn coming up or something to jump, even something to stop dead at, have you seen it and are you prepared? I’ve seen many a rider come off at a sharp turn simply because they hadn’t seen it coming. In nearly every case in my experience I have found the horse a short distance away calmly grazing, or at times circle around to rejoin the group. If the rider had just sat the corner regaining control may have only been seconds away. Although it has to be said, losing the rider may have contributed to calming the horse. The rider may have added to the stress and prolonged his flight instinct by panicking.

Hacking along the side of a canal while talking on my mobile may seem complacent to some, especially when a gust of wind revealed a huge orange sack that had been hidden in the tree until it billowed out full of air. My horse bolted away from the canal edge and across a field. I was still talking on the phone by the time I regained control. So not complacent at all, control was re-gained far quicker than dropping my phone and frantically pulling on the reins.

There isn’t an organism on this planet that expends energy for no reason, not a plant, an animal or microbe. The horse wont either, so don’t give him a reason. It’s a myth that horses left to their own devices will run around all day, or the wild horse will cover great distances on a daily basis.

They don’t.

They stand around grazing, grooming each other, resting or sleeping. Movement will occur as they graze and move between water and food sources. Horses would rather eat than run around needlessly. Watch the horses that are in paddocks when they are spooked. They will herd up while running, but they soon stop, look in the direction of fear, snort…then drop their heads to graze. They literally can’t wait to start grazing again.

Observe how they look to the first animal that has started grazing, that’s very likely the herd leader. They look to their leader to find out whether it’s safe to graze or not. The rider experiencing a bolt should also be the herd leader by communicating to the horse that everything is fine, a rider cannot communicate this while frantically pulling on the reins. Riders that do this aren’t calm, they are frightened and the horse knows the difference.

You are giving them a reason to keep running.

My friend and I came across approximately 30 children out in the country-side out on a school trip. The sight before us was a sea of colour, their anoraks and pack lunch boxes in every colour of the rainbow. They had all sat down for a picnic and all those small faces turned to us, mainly to look at the horses. I can’t berate the teacher here, I’m certain the decision she made was to not spook the horses. The correct decision was exactly the opposite of what she asked the children to do.

She told them to all stand up.

What was once a quiet carpet of colour, became a large moving noisy wave of blues, pinks, reds and oranges, consequently…my friends horse bolted. It’s actually a happy memory, one we still laugh about today. She looked at me with some rolling of the eyes as I waved goodbye. She didn’t change a thing, not her position or rein length. I stayed in the same place, until it dawned on her horse we weren’t following, and nothing was chasing him. Within minutes her horse was back at my side.

On that December day however things didn’t end well. The rider fought with the reins, her grip was so tight that when the horse pulled against her for release, she tipped forward. Even if nothing else was to occur, it was obvious her position was now at the point of no return.

Her upper torso was lying on the horses neck, and not accustomed to this position…he bucked. She hit that ground from a distance of approximately 15 feet. Humans, as I learnt that day can actually bounce. But this is meant as no joke, I actually wish I could erase that sight from my memory.

Bolting does not have to be a horrific experience that ends badly. Of the situations I have been in or witnessed, remaining calm is key to regaining control quickly and safely. Added to that, with experience and preparation bolting can be averted 99.9% of the time anyway. Lastly, with so many British roads flanked by hedgerows introduce your horse to the psychopathic pheasants, plotting pigeons, barking deer and rogue plastic bags in the countryside first…and well away from traffic.

Horse Blaming

The two ladies were heading down the hacking track toward me, they were talking loudly which caused me to look over. One of them was riding a horse, the actual owner was walking beside the horse holding onto both reins. It was apparent by the rider’s position that she was a novice. It begs the question why was a novice sat on a horse that needed 2 pairs of hands on its reins? As they passed me I heard the owner informing the rider that with this horse you had to show him who was the boss,  to be firm and not to take any nonsense.

I carried on watching as I knew there was about to be a problem as the horse looked uncomfortable, he was head high and his steps were tentative. I was waiting for him to pull backwards as he had every right to do so. With the owners hands being in that position the horse was essentially being led from pressure below and behind the chin. The movement occurring in that horse’s mouth must have been very distressing, at best confusing if not a painful experience with 4 hands yanking on his bit.

The horse reared up. I watched the owner more than the rider as she was the one shouting. She stepped away horrified, only then did she let go. This is yet another situation where a rider puts their trust in a human that allegedly has horse knowledge. However at the moment the owner became scared, and out of her depth… she stepped away. If indeed that horse had any nonsense on its mind, the situation would have ended catastrophically for the rider.

The threesome turned around and headed for home. Again they passed me and I could hear the owner verbally berating the horse. It hadn’t reared out of malice though as I’m fairly sure horses have no such emotion (or any concept of what nonsense may mean). This wasn’t a horse that had bolted once the owner let go, it wasn’t even napping. It simply wanted the pressure in its mouth to stop.

I felt bad for the animal and I mentally apologised to it on behalf of the entire human race.

This owner was not new to horses either, she had been at this particular yard for 20 years. Yet she had no knowledge or understanding of what her hands were doing, and was quite prepared to take a novice out into open country-side on a horse which in her words needed to be treated firmly. Also its worth noting in the 2 years I was a livery at this yard, I hadn’t seen the owner hack this horse out, not once.

It seems in some cases an equestrian is regarded as experienced because they have knowledge on types of feed, supplements, how to muck out, bandage and tack up.  Yet the horse trainers I am aware of (which I would trust with my life) probably couldn’t even name one brand of hoof oil, or know how to tie a tail bandage. But they understand the animal fully, their instincts, behaviour and psychology. Yet it is common for a potential rider to approach and pay a person for a lesson or hack that has more knowledge of caring for horses, rather than someone that actually understand how horses tick.

Two weeks later I am stood in my stable and I hear more horse-berating occurring. The person is attempting to lead a horse by a rope attached to the bit. She is at least 3 feet in front of the horse and pulling on the rope like she is in a tug of war contest. I point out to her the saddle has slipped and is now sitting on the side of the horse. This particular animal knew something was occurring that felt different on its back, so did not want to move forward. Far from being a stupid horse then as I’ve seen saddles slip before and the horse take flight bucking wildly. However this intelligent animal stopped and waited for someone to notice…while tolerating a metal bit that was being pulled repeatedly. The saddle was adjusted and the horse obediently walked forward.

The same day I was walking passed the arena. There were several small jumps set up and 2 children are riding their horses. For reasons unknown to me one child does not ask for canter in the conventional way but trots to the corner and uses her whip to ask instead. As she reached behind her to smack the horses flank she does not give with the rein and the horse was subsequently socked in the mouth with the bit.

I winced.

The horse which I assume was reacting out of pain threw its head to the floor and stopped dead, the child took a short flight and landed in front of his head. Within 1 minute there was a group of people standing around the crying child. However the horse which was now standing in the corner with its reins on the floor was completely ignored. It’s worth noting also the horse hadn’t gone to the gate, leaving the arena wasn’t on its mind. Sadly no one seemed interested in checking that the horse wasn’t injured and in pain, or even removing its tack and taking it out of the arena. When asked what had happened I could hear the second child informing the adults that the horse had thrown the girl off.

Again I mentally apologised to it on behalf of the entire human race, but as ever…the horse always gets the blame.

Equi-Vision

Mel had left the stable block to take the ten minute walk down to the paddocks. My horse was already in and we had been chatting for some time while I groomed. I didn’t know this woman very well which didn’t matter as horse women generally only talk about subjects pertaining to equines. Mel was a tall strapping lass in her mid-twenties and was fairly new to riding and after several lessons had decided to get a horse on loan. This is an arrangement that can work out far cheaper than paying for regular riding lessons. The owner of the horse was on the yard frequently so Mel wasn’t thrown in the deep end, help and advice was usually on hand. Mel was happy to feed, groom and have a walk, sometimes a trot around the arena. She had no aspirations of going on a 6 mile hack or competing at the local shows. Max was a gelding with a quiet, gentle personality and the situation seemed amicable.

15 minutes had passed since she had left to catch Max and my mobile started ringing, it was Mel. She was out of breath and screeching down the phone that she had been chased out of the field by another horse. I knew which horse she meant, and although he was very dominant, I had never heard of him chasing anyone.

My experience with this horse is that he would try to follow to the gate when leading another horse out. He wasn’t anxious about being left alone as there were other horses sharing the same field. I always got the distinct impression he was trying to cut off the horse I was leading in an attempt to herd it up. On occasion I would be walking through the field just to check the water trough and he would follow me, if I ignored him he would get so close that his muzzle would brush the back of my head.

There are times to correct such behaviour and times to ignore it. This comes from understanding the environment, the specific situation and reading their body language. There would be little point in sending this horse away on every single occasion, there may be a time when I need his trust. Constantly acting aggressive will not help me on a wet windy day when I need to catch him in. Hanging out with me and simply being curious as to what I’m doing when cleaning the water trough is not the time to be waving a rope in his direction.

Bowing his neck and trotting around me in a circle is the time to stop such behaviour. There’s little point in continuing to walk. People often head for the gate only to find themselves in a precarious position once there.

Stop walking toward the gate.

This is the worst place and situation in which to rectify a problem. Stop and face the horse, or horses. Stand your ground while communicating to them to desist following. This isn’t a situation that should be rushed. Don’t turn your back, don’t keep walking. Keep sending the horse away until it understands not to follow.

They will understand!

If a horse appears aggressive and wants to send you out of the field, you are basically obeying it by heading toward the gate. Don’t leave until you are ready, and it is safe to do so.

I took the 10 minute walk down to the paddock to find Mel leaning on the gate, her face was red and puffy and I could see she had been crying. I asked her to go into the field with me, but she flat out refused. We could have spent just 15 minutes in that field and learnt why the situation had developed, and how to avoid it in the future but in her mind now the horse was dangerous.

On leading Max back to the gate Mr Dominant displayed his disapproval and trotted over. I turned to face him, unclipped the lead rope from Max’s head-collar and gently swung the rope to and fro toward him. I didn’t let him pass or circle around me, I simply indicated he was to come no further. Max and I left the field without incident.

But what has Max learnt?

Max has learnt that Mel isn’t in charge, he has seen Mel run away and been ‘sent’ out of the field. In terms of herd hierarchy she is beneath Mr Dominant. Every horse in the field will understand this…also every horse in the adjacent fields. Horses understand strength and weakness, dominance and subservience. They watch and they learn, it’s what horses do. Learning to ride and groom is such a tiny part of horsemanship. Invest 99% of your time in learning about herd dynamics, instinct and psychology. Watch their body language and understand what they are saying.

I saw a grey mare this morning watch me as I walked up the track, I knew I didn’t need to call to my horse as she would very quickly check to see what the grey was looking at. My horse looked over and also spotted me, then the coloured mare looked in the same direction. That’s now 3 horses looking over. The mare in the adjacent field then also turned to look, and as she did her foal stood up and looked toward me. I was a good distance away walking on wet grass, they wouldn’t even have heard me, yet all the horses knew I was coming. I knew how it would unfold, and it was magic to know this and watch it.

So while every horse in Mr Dominant’s field will have identified he is more dominant that Mel, they would have also noted I sent him away, I’m more dominant than their herd leader. Every horse in that field and adjacent fields will have understood. Although herd dynamics can shift and change, with correct communication and being aware of my own body language, I’ve made my own environment much safer in dealing with any of these horses.

Horses in stables on busy yards are also watching, they may appear to be calmly munching on hay but horses are very alert animals. They are always aware of everything occurring in their immediate environment.  Spend enough time on a large yard and you will notice its always the same people having accidents, the same people who fail to catch a horse, or get dragged when leading. Then there will be one or two people who rarely have problems, can catch that horse, and never get dragged. The horses have watched, they know who is weak and who is strong, who to follow and who to ignore.

They are watching you…always.

Confessions of a Hunter: Part 4

The Terminator

Even with 120 hooves splashing with thunderous gusto along the rutted muddy farm track I could still distinguish that 4 of them were gaining on us from behind. This isn’t normally a concern but my ears informed me that this horse was becoming dangerously close to the rear of my horse. I took a swift look behind and saw it was George on his strapping great piebald cob. He met my swift gaze with a look of apologetic dread as he pulled frantically on the reins. But from my view point it may as well have been a new born kitten pulling on the horses mouth, it had no effect what-so-ever. In that instant we both understood he was out of control and there was nothing anyone could do to help.

The tightly packed field on this narrow track should have made it impossible for a horse to pass us safely… or even politely. Obviously his horse hadn’t read the book on hunting etiquette. No, the large well-built gelding would indeed have a gap if my pony could be pushed out of the way. The intention was completely clear as he menacingly advanced on us like a low flying airbus.

Usually when two horses clash sides, remaining seated is entirely possible even if the stirrup is torn from one’s foot. The major problem with being completely barged out of the way by an animal weighing 650kg is that it hurts.

The gelding was close now, just as his flaring nostrils were 6 inches behind my left heel, I felt my mare being pushed to the right. All thoughts of an impending crushed leg vanished from my mind as I looked in that direction, I had bigger problems. With a good deal of horror I realised this side of the track was flanked by a very steep embankment. Not to imagine Dover Cliffs, but I would estimate it to be a drop of approximately 30 to 40 feet. The short stout tree’s growing on the slope could perhaps stop my pony plunging to her death, but I reasoned it diminished my chances of being thrown clear should she tumble over the edge. Images of myself sandwiched between a tree and a flailing horse flooded my mind as adrenalin levels reached an all-time high.

This was the first hunt of the season hence the large field, and like everyone else I had been looking forward to this day. But here I was, feeling sure this would be my last ride…ever. However this wasn’t the first time my mare had experienced horses attempting to push past us.

Exactly one year previous to this a similar situation had developed in which a horse had come galloping up behind my mare. The red ribbon that adorned her tail is actually quite useless during hunting. As while every rider may know the significance of it, argy-bargy dominant horses fuelled by oats and adrenalin, do not. Unfortunately this particular huntsman’s horse would not be taught the danger of galloping up behind my cantankerous mare this day. Albeit with admirable aim, my horse delivered a killing shot with enough power to incapacitate an adult buffalo. It would have under normal circumstances put paid to high spirited shenanigans…had there not been a human knee in the way. Regrettably the rider suffered a fractured knee cap and was out of action for the rest of the season.

One year later I’m staring down at this steep embankment at full gallop, we are so close that the edge is breaking away causing soaking wet clumps of soil to roll and bounce down the slope. My mare’s ears are pinned flat to her head and she has one eye on the piebald airbus, there’s a silent exchange of equine swearing occurring between both horses.

I don’t care if she is angry, I don’t care if she’s gesticulating to the horse to move away. I want to know if she’s seen the bloody steep drop, I want her to concentrate on that as opposed to arguing with George’s horse!

George is also aware I am about to be pushed over the edge, he is both terrified and furious at his horse and is panic-shouting something of an apology. It occurs to me I could use my stick to crack the horse across the muzzle in an attempt to move him away. But as it turns out my horse had other plans. Just as I’m certain we are both about to plummet to our deaths if I don’t intervene, my mare delivers a formidable blow with a back left.

The sound is audible even above the many hooves travelling at speed in 8 inches of water logged mud. This isn’t the dull thud of a hoof impacting muscle either. This sound is comparable to the discernable crack of a whip, expertly and powerfully used by the likes of Indiana Jones when relieving a gun-wielding bad-ass of his weapon.

My mare doesn’t strike the riders knee as in the previous year, no she booted the knee of George’s horse.

Let’s just say this horse fully understood the perils of galloping up close behind someone’s horse that day, because he was instantly crippled. The horse pulled up immediately on 3 legs hopping lame. I’ve no idea how long it took poor George to negotiate his way back to the lorry with his broken steed in hand. Although news did reach me some weeks later that the horse was likely to recover after 3 months of box rest.

It is at this point I should point out, if you haven’t guessed already, that the owner of the fractured knee cap from the previous year was also called George.

The same George in-fact.

Yes for 2 years straight my horse is responsible for making one particular huntsman hang up his riding boots right after the opening meet, and entirely missing two seasons in a row.

Muchengeti Mweya 

Under normal circumstances when a missing child is found alive there is a feeling of overwhelming relief at the happy outcome for everyone concerned . None of these feelings would surface however when the child first locked eyes with the man, the only person she had seen during the last 8 hours. In this situation there was only a sense of trepidation and fear.

The paddocks at the riding stables were huge, not 10 acres, 20 acres huge, more like 100 square kilometres huge. It wasn’t usually a problem finding the horses that were to come in as they would never wander more than a few kilometres away from the gate. Food in the paddock would consist of rare patches of dry grass growing from the nutrient rich but arid ground. The horses understood that coming on to the yard was advantageous because they would be given hay and hard feed. Furthermore the water trough was near the gate and it made no sense to wander from the only liquid source in such a vast area.

The horses that were abandoned by their owners would eventually give up grazing near the gate as there was nothing to be gained from staying. These unfortunate animals would wander off and die of dehydration or starvation, which ever took them first. The carcasses would be devoured by jackals, warthogs and birds. Whatever was left would be reduced to bare bone by a million maggots. The bare bones would be cleaned of marrow, before being dispersed by nature, dust to dust, ashes to ashes … the horses simply disappeared.

The horses that did survive the hunger and thirst could unfortunately end up in a snare, Jane would on occasion come across the traps and deconstruct the thin strong wire loops that were attached to the buffalo thorn trees. The snare had two purposes, the first would be to capture the animal, the second to cut the neck as it struggled to get free hence killing it. This will all sound very barbaric to those people used to finding their meat neatly packaged on a Tesco shelf. The snare itself throws up some very unsettling scenes in one’s imagination. But those too poor to shop at a super-market were unlikely to be able to afford a high powered rifle.

Moreover, in this part of the world poachers could be shot with no questions asked. In this part of the world a black man with a gun could be shot no questions asked unless he was wearing a uniform. There were simpler ways to capture an animal.

Jane shouldn’t have been in this paddock as little girls were normally shielded from the horrors that could lie beyond the gate. The stables employed yard hands to do the mucking out and everyday tasks. But for whatever reason Jane’s pony had not been brought in for her that day. This is why she wandered off to the paddock without telling anyone her intentions. It only became clear that Jane had disappeared when later in the afternoon her Dad came to pick her up from the stables. There was some shock when the yard owner realised Jane had not gone home already, and she had not been seen since that morning.

The child was declared missing.

Little white girls going missing in this part of the world could potentially create a very dangerous situation within the community. Jane’s Father was like every other man in this small town and had been drafted into the reserve police and armed with formidable weapons. Jane herself had been taken up the firing range every Saturday morning and taught to operate a Belgian FN rifle. Her fathers locked cabinet also contained a Mossberg pump action shot gun.

It is unclear why Jane lost sight of the paddock gate but once she realised she had, there was nothing to do but keep walking to try and relocate it. With the onset of heat stroke and dehydration Jane became disorientated and her mind became muddled. She became terrified the jackals, warthogs and birds would eventually cause her disappearance as well. On reaching the boundary fence Jane climbed over and continued walking ever deeper into the African bush. Her scalp became frazzled from the Sun and her socks were so wet from sweat that her jodhpur boots were rubbing her heels raw. Jane could feel that her feet were bleeding, but knew she’d never get her boots back on if she was to look. Flies that seemed to lack all sense of self-preservation were intent on sitting on her salty face and the constant batting them away was enough to cause insanity.

Only by the grace of the Universe was Jane lucky enough to stumble upon a rudimentary road that was nothing more than a dry sandy track. It’s at this point she spotted a tall black man, and as the man spotted her they both locked eyes.

He was tall and thin, the bottoms of his trousers were frayed and his dusty feet stood on flip flops that had seen better days. He wiped his face with his hand in what seemed an attempt to wipe away the vision before him. He shifted his feet uncomfortably and for the briefest moment looked panic stricken as he looked up and down the road.

When people say a situation is awkward they have no idea what awkward can really mean.

With a sinking heart the little girl understood why he was acting nervous. She had already seen and experienced more things than the average little girl should in this part of the world. Jane should have felt relieved that she had stumbled across an adult, but she already knew he couldn’t help. Both the police force and the reserves would be armed, everyone looking for her would be carrying an automatic rifle.

It may pose an unusual sight and perhaps instigate an unfortunate situation if they were to find this black man walking down the road miles from anywhere holding the hand of the lost little white girl.

He quite rightfully wanted nothing to do with her.

Jane still begged him for help but he would only reply in the Bantu language of Shona and gesticulated that she should go that way. Jane didn’t want to go that way alone, she was frightened, tired and didn’t want to get lost again. But the man remained adamant and continued pointing down the road. Jane set off with the little water she had left in her body streaming down her face. After a couple of minutes she looked back and it gave her some comfort to see the man was following her, but with a good distance between them.

As the afternoon was drifting into evening Jane realised the distant rumbling she could hear was the sound of an approaching car. She stopped and waited as a police Landrover came into view kicking up the dust of the road as it bounced along the rugged arid track. The car came to an abrupt halt and two policeman jumped out and ran toward her, one of them scooped a very grateful Jane up into his arms. While Jane was being carried back to the car she looked over the policeman’s khaki clad shoulder to wave goodbye to the tall man in flip-flops …but he had disappeared from view.

Wazviita.

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.

Confessions of a Hunter: Part 3

The Rogue River

Of the many rivers that snake their way through the English countryside on their journey to the sea, this river was a rogue. A rebel amongst the well behaved picturesque rivers we all love to sit by and have a picnic. This river stuck two fingers up to the likes of Constable and Monet. Dare I say, this river would spit on your cucumber sandwich and whisper to the wasps that you will be having a Victoria sponge for dessert. The grassy verges were harassed and bullied until they upped roots and moved to a better neighbourhood. It pulled down the beautiful Willow which now lay fallen, spanning the river like a macabre bridge. The torrent of water proudly displayed other fallen vegetation within its clay-brown swirling tentacles.

This day the Rogue River was about to capture a new kind of prey.

James sat on his high horse looking down at me from his 17.2 Warmblood. The horse was a beautiful chestnut with cannon bones the size of tree trunks, and his mane was plaited to perfection. I doubted James had completed the exceptional presentation of this horse. People like James didn’t appreciate fiddling with plaiting bands or having remnants of clipped hair down their pants.

My neck was becoming stiff while looking up at him from my 14.2 pony but I continued to smile and feign enthusiasm which may have wavered slightly as he loudly announced that his new horse had cost him £12 grand. But apparently he was of good stock and out of Fanfaron Sac De Vent, at least that’s what I thought he said. Somewhat conveniently I then spotted Rupert who had his hip flask out and I was trying to catch his eye. A nip of whiskey right now would be just the ticket. James could tell I was becoming distracted and thankfully rode off to impress someone else.

The time came to end discussions and to tuck away hip flasks as it had just been announced there was no way around this river, we would have to cross it. The entire field went quiet, even the hounds seemed to understand and probably for the first time in their entire lives… stopped barking.

The bravest riders went first, which unfortunately made things worse for everyone that hung back. It became obvious the water was deeper than expected, and the horses became agitated as the cold water lapped at their bellies. The first two horses struggled up the muddy bank, legs were splaying, slipping and again trying to get a grip. It looked awkward and horribly unseating and we all cringed at the near falls of both horse and rider. The bank became wetter and further churned up as more horses flailed and soaked the ground.

I admit I pushed in, I was going to cross this river right now, rather than wait for it to be a dead certain we’d both fall at the steep muddy bank on the opposite side. Disastrously, everyone else had the same idea! The next few minutes were mayhem, I found myself stuck in the middle, and the deepest part of the river. Horses were clambering up the other side so there was no room for me to move forward. By now horses were falling, and of course unseating their riders. Hunters found themselves on hands and knees crawling up the bank caked head to foot in mud.

I stayed put in the middle of the river with water filling my boots, fortunately my pony remained calm. I caught glimpses of her wide eyes as she looks left and right at the spectacle before her. She seemed to be assessing the situation, in my heart I knew she was. James charged past us both. His stirrup iron would leave a bruise on my upper leg for the next 5 weeks, but at least it didn’t get my horse.

His plan was to rush the bank in the hope his horse would jump up higher onto sure footing, but I already knew his plan was flawed. I may have even told him if he’d just pulled up beside me, instead of tearing my thigh muscle in half. The bank and the area beyond was a quagmire, there was no sure footing for man or beast.

Both horse and rider fell in spectacular fashion. The horse lost his footing and flipped sideways into the water, and James was thrown a good 3 feet into the river. Probably due to being somewhat dazed and bewildered that the son of Fanfaron Sac De Vent was unable to jump clear, James was unable to gain his footing so was swept violently along in the current.

His hat. That image will remain as sharp in my memory as the day it happened. The Rogue River had captured James in its tentacle-like grasp, and took him on a white water ride toward The Macabre Bridge. He made some attempt to grab the decaying bark but to no avail. We all lost sight of James as he was dragged by the current under the fallen willow…but his hat remained, dancing about like a black buoy on a choppy ocean.

It was now my turn, I wasn’t keen but we couldn’t stand in a river for the rest of our lives.

No reins, no leg just a handful of mane to stabilise myself I let my pony find her own way, and she did.  Once on level ground I spotted the horse that belonged to James trotting about waving his head and snorting to shouts of ‘loose horse!’ We cantered to his horse and cut him off and I was able to grab his reins. The 3 of us returned to the soaking wet, muddy throng just in time to see James clambering out of the river some distance away. A little cheer went up amongst a smattering of giggles.

I handed the reins to James who seemed surprised my little pony and I had made it up the bank, and indeed caught his horse without incident.

Yes, I replied ‘Not a bad little horse considering she only cost £250’

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

The Natural Born Killer

The gentle horse roams silently in the paddock while softly swishing her tail, two mouthfuls of grass are grazed and a hoof moves forward creating a steady rhythm that is soothing to watch. It’s a beautiful autumn day and a Red Admiral carelessly surfs the soft warm breeze. At least that’s how I like to remember this day, the reality is not quite as poetic. It’s an autumn day and there may have been a butterfly, a moth, maybe a few dung beetles kicking about.

My horse catches my eye because she is behaving peculiar. Her head carriage is relaxed, which somehow makes this even worse, and she is twisting her front right leg on the spot in semi-circular motions. Of course I go over to investigate and she doesn’t move, I also see nothing on the ground in the vicinity of this one hoof. The semi-circular motions continue and it’s quite a bizarre sight! I push against her to encourage her to move but she stands her ground so I reach down to pick the foot up. She resists me, but after a few pulls I have lifted the hoof and underneath… I see fur. At best I think it’s a patch of rabbit pelt, the remnants of a meal from a fox or kite. But as I lift the fur it’s heavier than expected, in fact I soon discover it’s an entire rabbit. My horse has pummelled this poor creature into the ground, and she has done it without a care in the world.

But our gentle equine friends don’t kill, do they?

I was enjoying a steady canter on this mare through an open field, my only other companion being my faithful labrador who would run alongside us effortlessly. We must have disturbed a hiding fox as suddenly one darted out in front of us, to which my dog took off in hot pursuit, unfortunately…so did my horse! She quickly outpaced the dog and I had to scream at him to get out of the way. Rather than being trampled he barrelled sideways down a ditch. It was too late for me to stop this rather bizarre ‘bolt’ as I had already been at canter, I had already wasted a few precious seconds trying to save the dog and I had never even for a second anticipated my horse would chase a fox. My mare’s head carriage was very low, rendering the bit useless. Her nose was 2 inches from the floor and 6 feet behind the terrified fox. Her ears were pinned flat to her head and she was without a doubt either going to sink her teeth into this fox or strike out. Eventually the fox used the same tactic as my dog and I lost sight of it as it also barrelled sideways down a ditch and disappeared into the undergrowth.

Other incidences of my mares murdering ways involve squishing rats in her stable and chasing dogs out of her paddock.

HORSE ATTACKS DOG IN UNLIKELY GAME OF CHASE

In all seriousness, it isn’t just my horse that kills, all horses can kill. In fact horses are somewhat formidable killing machines. But the horse is a ‘prey animal’ you may be thinking, maybe…for a lion. This term gives people the idea the horse is defenseless and will run away from anything. This couldn’t be further from the truth and horses will quite often stand their ground. A stallion will protect his herd, a mare will protect her foal, and these are the same instincts that are alive and well in that horse that stands in the stable eating hay.

I can understand my horse probably recognised the fox as a predator, perhaps she saw me and the dog as part of her herd, and she is without a doubt a dominant mare. Rats are creatures that scurry around her feet and perhaps she’s been nipped, perhaps not, maybe she is being territorial…perhaps she just doesn’t like rats! The killing of innocent rabbits in the field has me scratching my head however, is she protecting the limited resources or is she being territorial or both. It’s tempting to think she was just being aggressive for the sake of it, but animals rarely expend energy for absolutely no reason. Also when I saw her stomping the rabbit none of her body language exhibited aggression, she looked very calm in-fact. …answers on a postcard please.

I have never seen evidence that any of the animals she has killed have been consumed, not played with, or even chewed. I have only once witnessed a horse picking up a dead bird and began eating it. I will never know if this horse intended on swallowing the bird as the owner (understandably) removed the bird from the horse’s mouth. Although I have seen a video of a horse eating chicks and its uncomfortable to watch. The video shows dry dusty ground that is depleted of grass, so perhaps the horse has no choice but to eat them in order to survive. There could be evidence of miss-management in this case because rather than remove the horse to grass, or provide hay, or indeed save the hapless chicks from being consumed…videoing of the event was seen as far more important.

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.

Loading2

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.