Riding Camp

In recent years horse-loving adults have been taking a leaf out of their kid’s books, and started going camping. It’s like Pony Club camp, with as much fun, and more alcohol.

My riding club runs a summer camp as well as dressage and showjumping mini camps during the year, but this year was the first that I managed to go. I wasn’t sure about going until after Easter, when I’d got on top of Phoenix’s tension issues, but I decided it would benefit both of us.

Camp started for us on the Friday morning, with a jump lesson. We were with the green horses, and Phoenix was one of the most experienced horses, but this suited us both as I was definitely uptight and unsure of how she’d behave at a busy venue. I wanted a quiet, calm lesson to settle us both. The lesson focused on quietly approaching small fences in a steady rhythm, and calmly riding away. Phoenix was great, and it did the job of setting us up for the weekend.

I spent a lot of time in the run up to camp worrying about how Phoenix would cope with being stabled and ensuring she ate sufficient forage. I was really pleased that she seemed to settle immediately into the stable, and started munching on her haylage. I planned to hand graze her as much as possible, but the fact that Phoenix was so chilled definitely helped me relax.

Our second lesson, on Friday afternoon, was flatwork. We worked on shoulder fore in trot and canter, and I felt that Phoenix had an epiphany on the right rein: riding right shoulder fore really helped her uncurl her body and improved her balance on right turns. She had previously been resisting my attempts at creating right bend and scooting forwards in panic as she lost her balance, but she seemed to thrive off the challenge of shoulder fore, even managing it in canter to my surprise.

I was up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning so had the pleasure of waking up the horses. It was cross country day, and I was thrilled with how Phoenix took on each challenge. Considering that she’s only been cross country schooling twice and seen some rustic fences on sponsored rides. We had a few stops, but it was as though she needed to study the question as when I re-presented she locked on and flew it confidently. We focused on Phoenix not rushing or panicking over the jumps to build her confidence. I wanted her to have a positive experience, and then I can develop her confidence over steps and through water over the summer. Phoenix was the bravest of our group too, getting up close and personal with the life size model elephant!

I spent most of Saturday afternoon hand grazing Phoenix and chatting to friends. The part of camp that I was most enjoying was the uninterrupted time I had with Phoenix. I wasn’t against the clock, or distracted by my little helper. I felt it really helped us bond. She’s still very aloof, which made the little nicker she gave every time I came into sight much more rewarding.

Our camp also had the weighbridge come, which I found useful for getting an accurate weight for Phoenix for worming and travelling. She weighs 495kgs, which I’m happy with. There were also off-horse Pilates sessions we could join in. Under the impression that it would be a light workout to take into consideration how much riding we were doing over the weekend, I signed up for two sessions. A minute into the plank I was regretting this decision …

On Sunday morning we could choose our lesson format. I opted for another showjumping lesson as I felt that was most beneficial to us. After all, I have regular flat lessons and have a progression plan in that area, and with a showjumping competition on the horizon, my choice was obvious really. Phoenix jumped the course confidently and boldly over all the fillers. It was the biggest course I’d jumped her over without building it up gradually in height and “scare-factor” so I felt it was a good test for her, and a positive note to end camp on.

It’s easy to see why adult camps are growing in popularity; I felt I came away from camp feeling like I had a better relationship with my horse, with a few new exercises to work on, and some new training goals. It was great being surrounded by friends, getting support, encouraging others, and putting the world to rights over our banquets (that’s the only way to describe the quality of the catering!).

I’d better start negotiating childcare for next year’s camp!

Best of Friends 

A horse’s memory is fascinating. How much do they remember? Do they remember people, horses, places? Can they remember their early life? 

Matt has been owned by Mum and me for thirteen years. He’s had various friendships with geldings of a similar age and then Otis came along. For two years they lived together in a large herd, often not spending that much time together in the field, but coming in together, being stabled next to each other, and sharing me. 

Otis, I’ve had for nine years. He spent between the age of eighteen months and four years at the same yard as Matt, being friends. Sort of.

Then for the last six and a half years Otis has lived in Berkshire, away from Matt.

When we brought Matt to boot camp in September I wondered how the two would get on. What I didn’t expect was for Otis to hear my footsteps, whinny to me, and then Matt whinnied in recognition. Was Matt whinnying to anyone because he was in a new place? 

I led Matt over to Otis’s stable and they sniffed each other before I tied Matt up and left them companionably. Both boys are friendly enough, but Matt will squeal and strange horses and usually give a kick out if they get too close behind him. Matt did not squeal at Otis, nor put his ears back. 

Each day Otis was on box rest and I brought Matt in he whinnied to him. I’m sure you’re probably thinking that he’d whinny to anyone who came into the barn, but he didn’t. He only neighed to Matt. He also got quite upset when Matt was turned out, whinnying and bucking in his stable. Not a behaviour exhibited when any other horse left the barn. 

Otis is a cuddly horse, but Matt can be quite stand-offish, except for the fact that whenever I remove their rugs they are all over each other like bees to flowers, grooming each other frantically. 

I can even tie them to the same string so they can groom while I brush their legs. The other day they had a bit of an argument because Otis wanted his left side itched and Matt refused, which resulted in Otis turning his back on Matt, who looked marginally put out. 

I’m convinced they remember each other from Wales. It’s like they’ve never been apart; still lead together nicely, call to each other, and act like best friends. I’d love to put them in the same field but with Otis’s rehab I don’t want to risk them playing too much. Perhaps when Matt comes back to prepare for the champs… 

Maybe their bond is so strong because Otis knew Matt at a key time in his development – a youngster in a big herd needs an older brother. After all, he’s spent more of his life without Matt than with him. And perhaps Otis is the only vaguely familiar face to Matt at a new yard, which is why he’s latched onto him so much? Or maybe the fact I look after both of them means they’ve accepted each other as brothers?

Whatever it is, I find it really interesting and would love to know about any studies that have been conducted into this area. I’ve heard of mares being reunited with their grown up foals and not showing any recognition, and also of horses recognising old stable mates at shows. 

Matt will go back to Wales in January, and I’m starting to feel sorry for splitting them up. I think Otis will really miss him, but hopefully having me all to himself will help. Likewise I hope Matt reintegrates with the herd and forgets about Otis because I’d hate to think of either of them pining for the other. 

Seeing them together, and knowing that they have a long term friendship also makes you wonder the long term negative effects of individual turnout, and the benefits of keeping horses in small social groups.