Tag: riding

Confessions of a Hunter

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

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

Fox_Hunting_-_Henry_Alken

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

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

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

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

To_the_Craners_of_England_-_Henry_Alken

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

Selling My Horse!

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.horse-2048590_960_720

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.

Horses Don’t Like Us

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.

pony-painted-and-child

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.

Grand Prix Freestyle at Olympia 17th December 2014

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.

Riding and Road Safety?

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.

Stirrup

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.

This Horse Is Dangerous

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.silhouette-2125305_960_720

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.

First blog post

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. horses-786239_960_720

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.