Otis Update

I thought you’d all like an update on Otis.

He’s come through the winter nicely, although dropped a little bit of weight in the last month since his rug has been off, but I’m happy with that as he needs to be a little slim in spring so I don’t have to reduce grazing or anything. It’s not like he can be exercised to remove excess weight!

He’s still hairy, although that’s rapidly falling out of him. He’s very happy, still a little limpy in trot, but it doesn’t stop him cantering over for breakfast!

What I have enjoyed seeing these last couple of months is his relationship developing with Mallory. We always knew he was a gentle, sensitive soul. One who just rests his head against you and absorbs all your problems. Who calms you with a blink of his large, brown eye. But recently it’s become even more evident.

I bring him out of the paddock to feed as his field mate practically inhales his food and Otis’s is yummier, so it’s easier to separate them. I leave Mallory sat in the barrow, on top of the hay while I put the buckets down. Usually singing “postman pat and his black and white cat… Just as day is dawning, he picks up all the postmen in his van” because she’s delivering the horse’s food.

Then we take the barrow into the field, lift her out, and empty the hay. As I’m doing this she usually runs back to Otis, hugs his head (which isn’t much smaller than her whole body), tells him she loves him, and then turns his bucket upside down before giving it back to me, whether it’s empty or not. He just stands there, lapping up the attention, and carefully moving towards the bucket when she’s out the way.

His gentleness is paying off though, as any banana skins or apple cores are specifically requested to go to Otis now. But I love how tolerant he is of her, and how he’s teaching her how to treat others, whilst letting her express her feelings and childlike tendencies – carefully laying her favourite comforter over him, clapping, giggling in joy as she sits on him bareback, usually backwards, spinning Around the World regularly to change her view.

Phoenix’s Hydrotherapy

I’ve recently been managing, well surviving, Phoenix in winter mode. She’s not as hyped as previous winters, and kept a lid on herself until February. Hopefully by the time she’s twenty she’ll be cool as a cucumber over winter!

Sure, she was a bit fizzy, but a good canter took the edge off. Then, a new horse went into the adjacent field, so Phoenix spent the next couple of days charging at the fence line defending her territory and herd. When I rode her she was super tense and tight over the lumbar area of her back.

So I booked her in with the chiropractor pronto, who found a slight misalignment but mostly tight muscles. About the same time, Phoenix had her first season of the year, and seemed even more sore in her lumbar, which I can only put down to period pains as it’s fairly close to her ovaries. She also had a massage the following week and definitely felt looser in that area afterwards.

Phoenix’s biggest issue when she gets a sore spot is that we then have a mental block about it. For example, this time the tension in her lumbar area caused her to almost wince when asked to bring her right hind slightly further under her body – travers, right canter, leg yield. Which then sends me down a rabbit hole as to whether there’s an underlying issue…

However, after some stretches which showed full range of movement, just moving with caution, and some lunging in just a cavesson proved that there’s nothing physically wrong, just her suspicions that it will hurt, combined with the need to canter in a straight line for several miles to burn off the excess energy. Similar to many kids coming out of lockdown!

Which means that I’m now schooling to loosen up her lumbar, getting it to work correctly, and making her realise that it doesn’t hurt and to relax into her work again. Which she’s starting to do after some canter work. The better weather is also helping and I’m pleased with her work at the end of the last few schooling sessions. They feel progressive again.

While all this has been going on, I had had thoughts about boxing her the five miles to use the water treadmill. Hydrotherapy is a very good workout for their core and my initial plan, to try and keep winter Phoenix in her box next year, is to take her weekly to the treadmill over the worse of the winter months. It’s another form of exercise; when the weather is bad riding is a calorie burning exercise rather than being particularly beneficial to her way of going, so this would take the pressure off me to ride her on wet and windy days, hopefully keep the energy levels in check, and help keep her topline (which unfortunately has deteriorated this last 6 weeks while she’s been tense and reluctant to use her back properly). I felt guilty at the thought of travelling her during lockdown as whilst travelling for hydrotherapy is permitted, Phoenix wasn’t exactly in dire need of it.

Phoenix took to the treadmill happily, walking straight on, although the look in her face when it started and she shot backwards was a picture! It was interesting watching Phoenix’s lumbar muscles begin to work over the course of the treadmill session, starting a little locked but by the end her whole back was swinging nicely.

I’m not expecting a huge transformation in her physique as a result of going on the treadmill. This month of sessions is to help get her using her back again and feeling stronger. In the summer I can work her correctly easily and get her long and low (which is not natural or easy for her, like stretching out a strong spring which likes to be on alert) but now she’s experienced the treadmill she will be ready for the winter, when she comes weekly and hopefully we have a more constructive training programme. As well as the fact we will hopefully be allowed out competing and to blow off steam on the gallops.

Roll on spring!

Boredom in the Mundane

Is anyone else reaching their limit during this lockdown?

This last week I seem to have hit a wall. The weather definitely doesn’t help. It’s been dreich for weeks, but the Beast from the East is really the icing on the cake. I get the sniffings of spring; like snowdrops creeping through and daffodils about to bloom; some warmth in the sun, and Phoenix not wanting to come in at 4pm!

We’re on week five (read five hundred and sixty three) of this third lockdown and it’s all become a bit mundane. Days merge together, walks are limited by weather and ground conditions. Local hacks are repetitive, the jump paddock is boggy, the horses are in winter mode. I’m bored, Phoenix is bored. Household jobs have lost all appeal – I mean, I can’t spring clean the house more than once a year. There are DIY jobs to do around the house and garden but it’s cold and wet, and not very appealing!

I think I’ve lost my mojo. I guess it happens a bit to all equestrians after Christmas, but usually we pull ourselves through with some goals, competitions or days out with friends. But with nothing to distract me, I find myself feeling glumpy. That’s a combination of glum, gloomy and down in the dumps.

I’m not one for moping, so I need a plan of action.

With this week’s weather I’ve decided to back off riding Phoenix. The lane is too icy to hack, and she doesn’t go well in the wind or cold. Her made-to-measure quarter sheet should be delivered tomorrow, so why put myself through tense, argumentative rides in the meantime? I’m better off doing in-hand work and being her friend.

I’ve spent the last couple of weekends doing some little projects – weaving a rainbow, embroidering a cat, some jigsaws, hanging up photo frames. But it’s not satisfying me. I’m going through the motions, but I’m not inspired. There’s a punch needle kit downstairs, but that’s proving frustrating to say the least.

Next on my list is reweaving the seat of a small chair from Portugal with seagrass which was mine as a toddlers and now looks a little worse for wear. The seagrass has arrived, the needle is with Royal Mail, so all I need to do is watch some YouTube tutorials…

Anyway, suggestions on a postcard for ways to get my mojo back!

In the meantime, let’s keep hoping that spring is on it’s way, and restrictions are eased so we can have a change of scenery, offload children onto grandparents, and see friends again.

Keep listening out for Too Ticky’s barrel organ.

Online Learning

The idea of distance learning has been around for years. Whilst taking my A-levels I did an Open University short course as part of a project to help students choose a degree. It was fairly enjoyable, but I think I only managed it because I was already devoting my life to studying and didn’t have any other plates to spin. How adults return to learning with a job and family is beyond me.

Over the last year though, distance learning has made a huge leap forwards. Instead of it being for mature students, or the infirm; every school child has done it at some point or another. They will have done different amounts of online learning, but kids of all ages have had to learn to learn with less support from their teachers.

I would never have considered having to teach equitation online last year. The closest I’d ever gotten to distance teaching was giving a client guidance when they sent me their concerns between lessons. It may have been as simple as guiding them on adjusting their horse’s diet, or how to overcome a simple nap in the arena. But they were all short term plasters; damage limitation until I saw them in five days time.

The first lockdown in the spring saw me offering to teach the BHS Challenge Awards over Zoom. As well as giving feedback on riding videos or teaching a child wearing a backpack containing a Bluetooth speaker connected to their parent filming them in the middle of the arena – I tell you what, you get a lot less back chat when communication is one way! That was a challenge, and not ideal, but useful to keep them ticking over and refocus them on the basics.

Now of course, we’re still allowed to teach private lessons, but unfortunately Pony Club has had to halt all face to face activities. In the spring we did some photo comps, weekly riding exercises, achievement badge activities. But this time we’d already planned the efficiency test training up until the Easter holidays.

So I had my work cut out coming up with Plan B, but the result is that my branch is offering training from D test to B test. For my part, I’m training the younger members for their D and D+ tests, as well as offering achievement badges for the youngest members, and those not ready for their next efficiency test.

I’ll be honest, it’s unchartered territory for me. And the kids know how to use Zoom better than me – “you have to share sound separately, Susy” – but I’m enjoying the challenge of working out how to teach from a screen.

To begin with, I made a PowerPoint for the two efficiency tests. I made one PowerPoint as the D+ test has a very similar syllabus to the D test, just more in depth, so one PowerPoint, with special D+ slides covers everything.

Everyone learns in different ways, so I felt it was important to try and bring in several different learning styles. I found some videos to supplement where I would demonstrate if we were in person; such as putting a headcollar on; then put a combination of notes and pictures on the slides, which together with me talking and posing questions, ticked most learning styles. Screen sharing has proved to be a very useful tool!

I also find that kids, especially younger ones, can find it difficult to verbalise a process, or describe something using words. So for our points of the horse session, I told all of them to bring a toy pony along (or photo for the older ones) and as we went through the different points, they could point to the appropriate place on their pony. I also used my, I mean Mallory’s, rocking horse to stick labels onto. When I did the pony behaviour badge with the younger children they had to show me using their model pony and rider how to approach a pony, where to stand to lead it, how to turn them out, etc.

I’ve also added activities into the training, which they can do with me, or afterwards, as revision. For the youngest kids, we had a matching exercise (draw a line from the horses face to the matching emoji, to the word) and some colouring. This meant that the pre schoolers could do the colouring while I talked to the older members at a slightly higher level.

I think for the topic of tack for the D and D+ training I will recruit the rocking horse, as the tack is removable. And for the colours and markings badge I want to do in a couple of weeks time, I’ve got a painting exercise for us to all do together. But I’ll continue to think outside the box for ways to engage the children, who usually have the attention span of a gnat on a hotplate!

Please send any other ideas on a postcard!

First Aid Kits

Do you have a first aid kit at the yard? Human or equine? Or both?

I have a human one in my car, but thinking about it, it probably needs updating. I only use it for plasters. I also have a Pony Club one, which is definitely up to date, for when I’m teaching rallies. Horse wise, I have one at the yard. But thinking about it, it should also be updated…

A couple of weeks ago, I had a freak accident with a client’s horse, which reminded me to update my first aid kits!

My client was running late so tied her pony up in the usual spot along the fence outside her stable. I offered to tack up while she got ready. I put the saddle on; girth on the bottom hole, and then reached through from the off side to do it up. As I was putting the strap through the buckle the mare swung round towards my right leg, to try and bite me. I twitched my leg away, still holding the girth. After all, it’s not a new behaviour when the girth is being done.

Anyway, when my leg moved, the mare tossed her head away, you know how horses do in anticipation of being hit? Well she did that. And in doing so, scraped her forehead on the gate hinge.

“Oh, she’s cut her head.” says my client, bringing the bridle over.

I look. “Oh s***” I think, as I see that the small drop of blood is actually linked to a triangle of flapping skin, which is slowly starting to peel away from her forehead.

My client rang the vet, while I hunted around the yard, asking other liveries, for first aid equipment. If the vet was coming I didn’t want to mess with the wound, but I could remember that flaps of skin need to be put back in place to maximise the likelihood of it… Sticking. Is that the right word? Cotton wool leaves fibres in the wound, which I didn’t want. Eventually, I found a non-adhesive, Melolin dressing and I covered the wound and then bandaged her nose with vet wrap so that we didn’t have to hold it while waiting for the vet. I didn’t tell my client that the smooth white thing we could see was bone…

When the vet arrived he sedated her, although I think she was already semi-comatosed from the bash. He snipped away the hair, gave her a local anaesthetic and then flushed out the wound before stitching her up.

The wound looked very dramatic, especially with the diluted blood dripping everywhere. And I felt awful. Even though the logical side of me reminds me that I didn’t actually do anything aside from remove my leg from her jaws. We can learn from it; tie her tighter, use a different tie spot, but ultimately it was a freak accident. And a timely reminder to check the first aid kit regularly!

Within a couple of days the wound was healing nicely, and as the noseband didn’t interfere with it, she could be ridden lightly. The stitches were removed after ten days, and two weeks on the only sign remaining is the short hair on her forehead. I did notice the next time I rode her, that she thought twice about biting as the girth was done up.

Looking online, there are various equine first aid kits available, so it’s worth checking those out, but remember the contents aren’t exclusive, so if you can think of something else to put in the first aid kit then, perhaps specific to your horse or their usual ailments.

Snow Day!

Most of the UK had a snow day today. Made better than normal because it was a Sunday so it didn’t cause the country to grind to a halt, or confusion to reign over cancelled school and the guilt that you should be working, not enjoying the white stuff.

We had a lovely day, one of the best snow days. We went as a family to the yard as the snow began to fall, and Mallory got more and more excited. It’s the first snow she can remember, and she’s been hoping for some since Christmas. When she woke up on Christmas Day and learnt that Santa had visited, she immediately looked out the window to see if it had snowed.

Anyway, I wanted to fulfil a bucket list activity and ride in the snow. Luckily for me, Phoenix is barefoot so I didn’t have to worry about snow balling in her feet. Unluckily for me, she hadn’t worked for 48 hours so was rather fresh! We have fields to ride around, which was perfect for this morning’s task. I tacked up as the snow fell thickly, and to Phoenix’s surprise, she didn’t go straight to the field.

She danced down the track to the fields before getting used to the feel beneath her hooves. We had a lovely walk round the fields, checking the ground, before having a canter. Not as fast as Phoenix would have liked, but plenty fast enough considering the weather conditions.

Phoenix and I returned to the yard, in a cloud of large,swirling flakes, finding a snowman on our way, with a very excited toddler and husband.

I think riding in the snow definitely takes some getting used to. In countries that have more than 12 hours of snow, you have chance to adapt and prepare for snow. Most people in the UK don’t ride on a snow day because of the problem of snow balling in shod hooves, and the fact it’s a novelty. Yard jobs take longer, and the horses tend to be on their toes. I found it most disconcerting that I couldn’t see the ground properly, and had to trust Phoenix to pick her way around dips and puddles. I never expected Phoenix would be the one I ticked this activity off on.

After riding, it was time to turn out with plenty of hay in the field. Luckily I had my yard staff so jobs didn’t take too long and Phoenix was quite happy in her snowy field. Some people leave their horses in when it’s snowing, and to be honest, it depends on how easily you can get to the field – is it safe? If it’s a treacherous journey then it’s better to stay in. Equally, if your horse is likely to be unsettled in the snowy field it might be safer to leave him in.

Once Phoenix was sorted, Otis needed looking after. I gave him and his field friend a slightly larger than normal bucket feed, and then doubled their hay ration. Because of the snow, they were going to have a second hard feed this afternoon, and most probably extra hay, depending on how much they ate during the day.

I did discover the most perfect combination of sounds whilst with Otis. As all equestrians know, the sound of a horse munching on hay is one of the most relaxing sounds ever! However, the crunch of fresh snow is also a lovely sound. Put the two together and it’s an auditory utopia. In my opinion anyway. What do you think?

Rehab – a Secret Blessing?

Your horse picking up an injury and needing long term rest and rehabilitation is everyone’s worst nightmare, but sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise.

Looking after a horse on box rest is exhausting, but you do get a much stronger bond from so much time spent on the ground. Useful if you’re a new partnership.

But the bit about rehab that I find so interesting is when you’re bringing a horse back into work. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it’s a fantastic opportunity to really correct and improve the way your horse works.

Sometimes a horse may be tight in their neck and struggle, for example, to work long and low. Well being out of work atrophies those muscles, and weeks of walking is the perfect opportunity to establish long and low, and develop their topline.

It might be something you want to work on with your own riding, and putting some focus on you can often take the pressure off your horse, which slows your rate of rehab (it stops you rushing into canter work, for example) and gives your horse more time to strengthen up. There’s nothing to stop you having lessons whilst still in rehab; just be sure your instructor knows and understands your present limitations.

I’ve started helping some clients bringing their mare back into work after an extended time off with foot problems. Before I got physically involved, they did a month of walk hacking before a couple of weeks of short trots. The mare had been signed off from the vets, but her owners didn’t know how to bring her back into work so sensibly asked for advice. I suggested a prolonged walk only period because the mare is a bit older, and I think it’s always better to spend an extra week at stage one if in doubt. Plus it was the middle of winter so why not take it steady and not put pressure on yourself to do that daily walk when it’s dark, wet and windy.

Anyway, we started at the beginning of January with me riding twice a week, and her owners riding her in between. Prior to her injury, we had started working on relaxation, and encouraging the mare to lower her neck and stop being so hollow. I also wanted to encourage her to use her hindquarters, and take a longer stride, as she was a long way from tracking up in trot. This was the ideal time to focus on that because the bad muscles had reduced, and we could take the time in the slower gaits. Of course, she may have been compensating for any pain and not using herself as well as she could. In which case now, in theoretically no pain, she should be able to use herself correctly.

We started with short trots around the outside of the arena, and I was pleased to feel that the mare felt really sound, and was starting to take her head lower, but long and low was still a long way off. We walked over poles, which are always exciting for her, but she rapidly got the idea, and slowed down, lowering her head and stretching her legs. Afterwards, both her walk and trot felt looser.

It’s only been three weeks, but already I can see the difference in the mare’s posture on the yard, and she’s carrying herself in a longer frame – head lower and neck longer. The trots have gotten longer, still predominantly straight lines but now the odd 20m circle to help her rebalance. We’ve done raised walk poles, which are quite tricky for her and the distance between walk poles is getting longer as she’s getting stronger. Five walk poles is about her maximum at the moment, otherwise she tenses and tries to rush the last one instead of stretching a little bit more – as you can see in the video below. After doing this set of poles a couple more times she figured out how to stretch over all five poles and didn’t rush.

The plan for the next few weeks is to plateau really; no canter yet, but longer trots, more big circles, more walk poles of increasing difficulty, and a longer and lower frame. I also want her owners to get more involved so they start to do more of the work, and they develop the skills to help the mare into the longer, lower frame. We don’t need to push on with the intensity of work, and I really feel both sides of the partnership will benefit from time spent building this skill set and topline muscles. The canter also fizzes this mare up, so I’m concerned the canter may temporarily undo our trot work so I want the trot to be very established before taking this step.

Although a long rehab is not what anyone wants, I really believe this mare will come out stronger than before, with a much better posture, way of going, and musculature. It will be interesting to follow.

Find the silver lining of an injury and rehabilitation programme. Find the weakest areas for both of you, and use the loss of condition as a blank canvas for you to have another go, particularly as you’ll have learnt more about your horse, more about soundness, and more how a horse should work to prolong their working life. It’s tough, but so many horses and their riders come out of rehab better and stronger.

2020. The Year of Change.

2020 is coming to a close and whilst 2021 isn’t starting much better, I think it comes with hope.

It’s not been the year that anyone predicted (I won’t go into the details; you’ll find them in the history books in 50 years time) but there have been highs and lows, and lots of self discovery. And it’s worth reflecting upon.

I know the pandemic has hit many people hard, and in all honesty, I’ve been very sheltered from it all. I think it’s a reflection of the company I keep in that I’ve only known a handful of people who have had mild look-after-yourself-at-home cases of Covid. We’ve been careful, but we have a toddler so therefore don’t have a busy social calendar. There’s a few things we’re missing out on; the good friends (you know, the ones you actually miss laughing about nothing with) and family. But can you imagine if this had happened 20 years ago when the Internet was in toddlerhood? We can Zoom to our hearts content.

I’ve now been a whole year in my role as Chief Instructor for a large and thriving Pony Club branch. It wasn’t the year we had planned, but I was certainly kept busy drawing up lockdown activities, jumping through hoops to get rallies up and running with the necessary protocols in place. I now feel like I know the majority of members and have a clearer understanding of them, their ponies and their aspirations. Don’t tell them, but I love this role!

Then my day business, Starks Equitation, had a compulsory hiatus in the spring. Which, whilst I would never have ever considered a six week holiday, was quite enjoyable. It actually gave me chance to do some life and home admin, refresh my professional side, attend some webinars, and enjoy the special time when a 2 year old transitions from limited phrases that only a parent can understand, to elaborate two way conversations (read arguments). This period did make me appreciate my job even more, so I was more than happy to hand over childcare duties and return to work. Since then, my work hasn’t really been affected by the pandemic. We’re outside; the lessons are individual; we can’t get too close to each other; we’re around horses so therefore hands get washed before touching our faces!

If anything, Starks Equitation has benefitted from the lack of competitions and organised rides, and limited social diaries, as horse owners are focusing their energies on their training at home, getting the fresh air and exercise so needed when working from home, as well as the psychological boost that our equine friends supply.

So professionally, life hasn’t really changed much. Personally, it has and it hasn’t.

I think the main thing that 2020 has taught me is how lucky I am. We have a stable family life; few arguments and a big enough house that we can get the desired space we need. We have a garden to make the most of the good weather. We have horses, which is an excellent excuse to get some fresh air each day, as well as giving me some me time. We are financially secure enough that we can purchase equipment for an activity to do at home, or buy a new coat so that we can continue with daily walks in winter.

I’ve never had a huge desire to travel, and yes we missed out on our trip to Austria for my 30th birthday. But it will still be there when we’re allowed to go. And in the grand scheme of things it’s really a first world problem, isn’t it? Whilst it would be nice to have a couple of days away from our house, it’s not a bad house, and not a life or death issue. I’ve learnt that I am really quite contented at home in my own bubble. I knew I was always a home girl at heart, but a lack of social obligations has made me realise I’m more than I realised.

It’s been a life saver having horses to tend each day; a reason to keep going; and also the fact that you will distantly bump into others at the yard, which takes away any loneliness and the change in conversation is refreshing.

I have discovered these last couple of weeks, perhaps it’s my body and brain reaching the end of the year and being reset, that I’m feeling aimless in my riding with Phoenix. She’s working well, but with limited competitions, and the risk of them being cancelled, I’m losing motivation to school her. Instead, I’ve been hacking more, but I do need a change of scenery – to hire a venue to school over a course of showjumps, or to hack on different territory. Yes we can technically still do this, but is it morally correct? And half the fun of these things is going with a friend. Which you can’t. So I’m lacking the enthusiasm to do this. I’ll sort myself out by 2021! I’m enjoying my time with her, which is the main thing.

From a family perspective, I feel like 2020 has drawn us together. There’s more juggling with limited childcare, but we’re more involved with her development, and can see our influences on her behaviour daily. We’re lucky to have a single household slash childcare bubble, which definitely helps relieve the pressure, and again gives variety to conversation. I’ve also found that doing so much online I’m saving quite a bit of driving time, and that is usefully utilised with self-care routines, like brushing my hair properly, exercise classes, booking chiropractor appointments instead of meaning to for weeks. As a result, I feel like my confidence in my self has improved.

2020. It’s had it’s ups, although it may be hard to find them sometimes, and has taught us much about ourselves. So before kicking 2020 out the back door on New Years Eve, remind yourself of the positive memories it’s given you.

If it’s taught us one thing, it should be this:

Leisure (1911)
W.H. Davies
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?-

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.