Improving Symmetry

I hacked a client’s horse earlier this week while she was on holiday. I often lunge her, but never school for a couple of reasons. The mare has several weaknesses – stiff hocks, previous suspensory injuries, and a weak back – so I’d rather train her rider to improve the mare’s strength, muscle tone and way of going from the ground because I’d be worried that I’d ask too much too quickly from her and cause an old injury to flare up. I’m pleased to hear that the physio reports back up my observations in that the mare’s muscle is becoming more even and healthier, which is down to her rider being consistent and improving them both steadily.

Anyway, I hacked the mare out to exercise her this week, and whilst I focused on her working in a long and low frame, pushing with her hindquarters, I knew the lack of circles was a benefit in this situation as I could concentrate on working her topline in one direction so there was less risk of me overworking her.

Once in the woods I had a few short trots, which was very enlightening. The mare threw me up so I was rising when the left fore and right hind stepped forward. I changed my trot diagonal, and it felt completely different; weaker and less coordinated. This isn’t noticeable from the floor, highlighting how useful it is for an instructor to occasionally sit on client’s horses.

We’ve been working on the mare’s straightness, and her default position is taking her hindquarters to the left. Although she doesn’t do it as frequently or to such an extent now, I did wonder if the assymetry in her trot diagonals is related to this crookedness.

The stronger hind leg is the right hind, as that’s the stronger diagonal. If the right hind naturally sits closer to the centre of her body when she’s in her comfort zone of left bend.

I mentioned this to my client when she got home, and she was aware that the two diagonals felt different and regularly swapped between her trot diagonals when hacking to make sure she built both diagonal pairs up evenly. Which I always advocate to prevent asymmetry arising. However, in this case, I wonder if we can improve the mare’s straightness and symmetry by favouring the weaker trot diagonal whilst hacking to build the strength in the left hind and to encourage it to come under the body more to propel her forwards.

My client agreed, and is going to do more rising on the weaker trot diagonal in her next few hacks, and hopefully we’ll start to see the mare getting straighter in her school work, which can only be of benefit to her.

A Hacking Incident

I was hacking this week when we had a little accident which I thought was worth sharing in case anyone has a similar incident so that you know how to respond.

The two of us were hacking along a byway track, which is used regularly by cars and horses, when suddenly my friend’s pony staggered and started hopping along. The little mare tried to put her left fore to the floor, but couldn’t weightbear. As soon as she’d stopped trying to walk (I’d already stopped) my friend jumped off.

I could see her trembling with what I could only assume was pain. I genuinely thought she’d broken her leg or popped a tendon. My friend cradled the left fore and looked at the foot.

She told me there was a stick caught, so I hopped off too and had a look. It wasn’t a stick, it was a large nail. Embedded in the poor mare’s frog.

We decided to try and remove the nail as we needed to get her home, which was only five minutes away, and being a smooth nail we were likely to remove the whole thing.

I held the horses while my friend wiggled the nail out. Thankfully her pony knew we were helping and stood like an angel. The nail had blood on, and had penetrated the frog by about half a centimetre. You can see the darkened area at the tip of the nail on the photo below, which is dried blood.

Immediately the pony seemed more comfortable and was sound so we started walking home and discussed treating the wound.

As it was a puncture wound we want to keep it as clean as possible and avoid any infection, which can be very tricky to treat so I suggested flushing out the wound, applying some form of antiseptic – iodine spray for example – and dry poulticing the foot to keep it clean. We talked about turn out versus box rest and decided that whilst it was warm and dry it was much of a muchness as to which was more beneficial. Given that the mare doesn’t like staying in my friend preferred the idea of turning her out in a poultice.

Given that the foreign object was an old nail, I checked that the pony’s vaccinations were up to date, and I did suggest it would be worth ringing the vet for advice and to see what they recommend with regard to tetanus boosters. I know that with serious injuries they often give a booster as part of the course.

When we got back to the yard there was a farrier there, so my friend took her pony over for him to have a look at. After all, the foot is their area of expertise!

The farrier said that she was lucky; the nail had gone in at an angle so whilst it was still a puncture wound it hadn’t gone up into the foot. The lack of blood was a good thing as only the frog was damaged. And the nail had pierced the frog closer to the toe than the heel, which is preferable.

I think we had a lucky escape in that the mare is fully up to date with vaccinations, and with the location of the injury so hopefully after a few days rest and keeping the wound clean she’ll be back to her normal bouncy self!

I did send a few messages to local yards to warn them to be vigilant along that track in case there was more debris on the track to cause another injury as it had the potential to be so much worse.

Ticks

I’ve had to invest in a tick twister for my grooming box in recent weeks, as Phoenix and her stable mates have had a couple of unwanted freeloaders.

These freeloaders are brought into the horse’s paddocks by deer, of which we have plenty in the area. The ticks then attach onto the horses.

Before we look at the ins and outs of ticks, let’s see what tool I had to purchase. I bought a tick twister, which is a nifty little hook. You hook the split end under the tick, against the skin, and when the tick is “locked in” the twister you simply just twist the twister (the name gives it away, doesn’t it?) and the tick is removed whole, and the horse unharmed. Don’t forget to stamp on the tick for maximum satisfaction!

It’s very important that the whole of the tick is removed; if you use tweezers or any other tool the legs can easily be broken off and left in the skin, causing a risk of infection. Which is why I’d rather be prepared and have a tick twister to hand!

In this country, we only really see multi-host ticks, which happily live on deer or dogs, yet will catch a ride on horses too. If your fields are regularly used as deer highways then you want to keep an eye out for these bloodsuckers. They live in long grass and hedgerows, so within reason keep the grass short and hedges cut back. Horses often pick up ticks when being hacked, especially through woods. They also dislike sunlight so hopefully the upcoming summer will deter them!

Birds, especially guinea fowl, love eating ticks so they can be a helpful tick deterrent.

There’s only so much you can do to minimise ticks in your horse’s environment, especially as the ticks we see in the UK are predominately hosted by wild animals. If you have a horse particularly attractive to ticks, just like some children are prone to getting headlice, then you can use spot-on treatment or purchase fly sprays which also repel ticks.

Otherwise, just keeping an eye out for ticks when you are grooming them and remove them immediately.

Tractors

I thought I’d share a desensitising experience I had last week. It made me very late for child pick up, but you can’t turn down these opportunities – or discourage others from helping horse riders in the future.

Phoenix is usually great with tractors, as they provided her with forage when she was a youngster, and she’s usually quite happy with them around the yard. However, when an elderly tractor rattled and rumbled up behind us on the lane on our way home the other day, she wasn’t impressed. She just got a little uptight with it behind us, and when we pulled it to let the tractor pass she fussed and fidgeted, and when I turned her round she wasn’t convinced about going past.

I was about to hurry along home with the tractor huffing and puffing behind, but the driver shouted, “she’ll have to get used to it… I’ve loads of time!”

He turned the engine off, and we walked back and forth past it until Phoenix deflated and breathed out. Lots of patting and verbal reward. Then the engine was turned on and we repeated the process.

Then we just stood alongside, while the engine grumbled away. She did relax a bit, and in her own way enjoyed the stroke she got from the driver when he got out to introduce himself to her.

Once Phoenix was happy in this situation we all moved forwards. And I mean all. We walked next to the tractor up the narrow lane for five minutes, with Phoenix eventually deciding that she could have a look across the fields without fear of the tractor pouncing on her. At this point, I let the tractor draw away so that she could completely relax before getting home.

Teaching a horse to accept a “monster” is all about finding their comfort zone, and making sure they are relaxed, before slowly pushing their boundaries, only taking another step when they accept the previous one. Body language is paramount here: a drop of the head often signifies when they move away from flight mode, and an exhalation huff can only be achieved when they’re relaxed, so watch out for these signs, as well as feeling your horse physically relax.

Let’s take a similar situation, of a plastic bag. If your horse spooks at it then find the distance from the bag that they will stand, watching it but without tension. Then just wait patiently, scratch their wither, chat to them, until they lose interest in it. They’re now in their comfort zone. Next, walk past the bag, at the same distance away as when they were stationary. Repeat until they have accepted level two. Now, move slightly closer to the bag and walk past. And wait. Then a bit closer. Wait and repeat. And then some more. With each extension of their boundary, the horse will feel anxious, adrenaline will kick in as the fight or flight response is initiated. Waiting for them to accept this situation makes it a less stressful process and means it is more likely to be successful in the long term.

Of course, you often need to repeat the exercise over a few days, starting hopefully from a comfort zone that it slightly closer to the “monster” and potentially getting closer and closer to said monster in each session. I always find that this slowly slowly approach results in a happier horse, who is less stressed in future similar situations, and is more confident. It takes time, but all good things do.

Phoenix’s First Sponsored Ride

Phoenix and I have had a tumultuous few months; tight left gluteals and hamstrings followed by some internal stress bubbling over on her part (possibly caused by adapting to living in at night through winter) but we are getting it back together, and with some nutrition advice – more on that another day – I am better prepared for next winter so I can help her adjust. Phoenix internalises her worries so seems calm and in control, until it fizzes up and she pops. Not that dissimilar to how I handle things …

Anyway, with her having longer turn out, a clean bill of health from the physio, and a positive flat lesson last week, I decided very last minute that we both needed to have some fun, and entered us for a sponsored ride.

Some of you may remember that Otis had a reputation for doing airs above the ground for a solid two hours at his last fun ride. Before I handed him a life time ban. Matt had restored the fun part into fun rides a couple of years ago, but as Phoenix was a sponsored ride virgin, I was unsure how she’d take to it.

Anyway, in typical Phoenix style she loaded and travelled like a dream. I always feel very smug as we load her because she never falters. I unloaded her, tacked up then let her graze while we waited for our friends to arrive. Despite many sponsored ride veterans leaping around in anticipation, Phoenix felt remarkably calm and unfazed by her surroundings. It was by far the busiest place she’s ever been to.

Once our friends were ready, with horses she’d never met before, she let me mount and walked calmly down to the start, ignoring our cavorting friend behind us.

We set off in a working trot; she was a little tense and choppy to begin with but soon settled and opened up her stride as we crossed two fields.

We then pushed into canter, and it was forwards yet calm. We were leading, and it was very organised. No one overtook as we didn’t want any horses to get their racing heads on. My friend then drew away onto a line of small tyres. I followed. They were about 2’3″, but Phoenix leapt them confidently, doubling the height.

We did a couple more, sticking to the smaller options while she was over jumping. Considering her limited cross country experience and the fact she’s not really jumped since Christmas, I found her to be bold and basculing nicely. I think the physio has helped her utilise her back muscles more.

Unfortunately after a few jumps I felt Phoenix was chasing her friend in front, and not giving due consideration to the jumps, so I put her in front for a couple. Which made her sit up and think a little.

After a nice, long walk with fabulous Watership Down scenery, where she was calm and relaxed, we rode another line of jumps. This time, she stayed listening to me, and jumped like she was on springs! She’s so light in the forehand when she jumps, it felt phenomenal!

Another long walk to recover, and I was really pleased with how she coped by other horses cantering past, and being in such close proximity to her new friends.

We jumped another line of fences on the way home, and I couldn’t have been prouder! She took barrels, tyres, logs, hanging logs, all in her stride. She felt relaxed, confident, and very happy. I was on cloud nine. The last few months were forgotten and I could feel the talent, willingness, and unison that is Phoenix. She was perfectly behaved, and took everything on board sensibly – I was very proud of her performance.

Unfortunately, the official photos were over early jumps where she was still a little exuberant and whilst I’d have loved to commemorate our first sponsored ride together, there will be many others and far better photos I’m sure. I hope! Now though, I’m looking forwards to our next big adventure in May, and in the meantime we’ll get practising our dancing again.

Positive, Neutral and Negative Riders

I heard an interesting analogy last week, which I thought I would share with you as it’s a good attitude to have each time you go to ride your horse.

There are three types of rider: those who have a positive effect on their horse, those who have a neutral effect, and those who have a negative effect on their horse.

It doesn’t sound very nice really, does it, saying that you have a negative or detrimental effect on your horse. But we all started off as negative riders. When we were bumbling around with clumsy steering aids and heavy rising, those riding school horses tolerated us and accepted our mistakes as we learnt. But this comes at a cost. The horse’s way of going will deteriorate over time by them losing topline muscles and learning to compensate by working in a hollow manner; they may lose the level of impulsion and cadence to their gaits.

Once you’ve mastered the basics and have control over your aids, and can maintain your balance you begin to become a neutral rider. That means that the time you spend riding your horse (assuming you are appropriately matched) won’t cause their way of going to deteriorate, yet you also won’t improve their level of schooling.

Finally, there is the positive rider. These are more experienced riders who can enhance the horse’s way of going; teach them new movements or fine tune their current skills.

Throughout our riding careers you can find yourself as all three types of rider at some point. If you are overhorsed, you may be a negative rider for the short term but with the right help you can improve your skills so that you become a neutral rider. You may find yourself riding a young or green horse, in which case you need to be a positive rider to further their education.

As a rider, horse owner and horse lover, you should want to do the best by your horse, and that means that on a bad day you want to have a neutral effect on your horse – perhaps you’ve had a busy day at work and just need to hack or lightly school. But every other day, you are a positive rider, and enhancing your horse with every ride. Be that by improving a certain movement, building their self confidence, or by riding exercises to improve their muscle tone.

It’s a good ambition to have, regardless of whether you want to ride an advanced medium test, event internationally, or hack confidently or enter your local riding club competitions; you should aim to be a positive rider for the benefit of your horse.

An Update From Phoenix

Phoenix has had a quiet month in January with one thing and another, but hopefully she’ll soon be back on track.

Just before New Year I had a fabulous lesson, where she was getting the idea of relaxing in trot immediately after canter, and things were all slotting into place. The following day I had a lovely hack and then she had a couple of days off while we went away.

That following week she was tense again to ride. I was disappointed, and felt we’d regressed in her training. Then at the weekend she bolted going into right canter. At first it was just a quickening and some tension, but the more transitions I did the worse she got.

Right canter has always been her weaker canter, and in retrospect throughout December I was finding that I was being put into position left after right canter.

Simultaneously, mounting had become more stressful, with her being tense, sometimes having her back up as I mounted, and jogging off. I felt she was beginning to make negative associations with the school and being ridden. On hacks, she was perfect, as usual.

It took me a week to try and get to the bottom of it. Was she being emotional? Was she struggling with the winter balance of feed and turnout? Was she getting too fit? Was she in pain anywhere? She wasn’t lame, but I did think she seemed restricted in her left hindleg. When she had her monthly massage, extra tightness in the muscles in her left hindquarter was noted.

I backed off the canter work, trying to improve her right bend. She’s a trier, and she really tried to give it to me. But something was hurting because every so often she’d bring her left hind forward and then stop, as if wincing. It was this point that I decided she needed some form of physio or chiropractic work.

Phoenix is a naturally uptight character, so I felt a physiotherapist would be most beneficial initially and once her muscles had been released, if she was still not quite right, a chiropractor would be more effective with less resistance from the tight muscles.

While I waited for her physio appointment, I did some ground work to keep her brain ticking over, and practiced mounting and just walking around. I wanted to focus on reducing her anxiety in the arena. Anxiety which stems from her expecting pain, I think, but hopefully by reminding her to stand during mounting and then just walking around she would be in a better frame of mind when I start working her again. Phoenix is a quick learner, and after a couple of sessions she felt her normal self around the mounting block.

The physio session was really interesting. Whilst not showing a response to pressure along her back, the physio denounced Phoenix to be very guarded. Her posture has changed in the last couple of weeks, and it took the physio quite a lot of work to release the deep muscles over her back and hindquarters, particularly the left. By the end of the session, Phoenix was flexing her back properly and had a much more relaxed demeanour. Her eyes had softened and she looked happier. I just felt guilty it had taken me so long to work out what the problem was.

She had a couple of days off, and I felt she seemed happier in herself, with a softer eye and with a better posture. I lunged her in the snow over the weekend (the joy of being barefoot!) and she looked considerably more comfortable in her action, with less tail swishing and less resistance to the right.

A week after physio, I got back on. Her back needed a break and chance to recover. I was a bit anxious about how she would behave under saddle. Mainly because I really wanted this to be the solution to her tension. The first trot she was coiled like a spring, but the more work we did the more she relaxed and felt like the old Phoenix. She just needed to work and realise it wouldn’t hurt.

The next day I took her for a hack, and she seemed perfectly happy. I’m so glad! She needs a couple more days of just walk and trot work, before introducing brief periods of canter.

She has a follow up appointment in a couple of weeks which I very much hope shows an improvement in her muscle tone.

I’m also organising for her saddles to be checked (the dressage one seems to be moving… which may explain why she was happier cantering on hacks when I was using my jump saddle. Duh!). She seems to be taking after Otis, the number of saddle checks she’s needed so far. Until then, I’ll stick to the jump saddle as she seems much happier.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about the cause, or the root of the problem, and how I can prevent it reoccurring in future. If I’m honest, I think there’s been a need for physio for a while. Perhaps I should’ve done it before I started riding her. She’s naturally uptight anyway, so muscle tension isn’t immediately obvious because there’s an element of it all over. She has monthly massages, which worked on the same areas as the physio did but on a superficial level. Which highlights the fact equine massage is an excellent maintenance tool (otherwise I think I would’ve hit this problem earlier) but physio or chiropractic treatment is sometimes still required to correct misalignment or deep tissue problems. The increase in Phoenix’s workload in December meant that the underlying soreness went from slightly uncomfortable to painful for her. Combined with a change in the fit to her saddle, which exacerbated the soreness, meant that throughout January Phoenix has been trying to tell me very clearly that she’s not happy. I was just a bit deaf though, and it took me a while to see the wood for the trees. I’ll listen harder next time Phoenix, I promise!

Sharers

I was asked the other day on my opinion on sharers, which is becoming a more and more popular option for horse owners. So here are my thoughts.

I’ve seen sharing arrangements which work really well for all parties, and I’ve also seen it go horribly wrong with the sharer fleeing at the first cold wind of winter or the first sign of lameness and the horse owner picking up the pieces.

For the horse owner, having a sharer can help reduce the workload of horse ownership; a sharer can make a financial contribution, help keep your horse exercised and fit, and help out with yard chores. Which can give you a lie in, or a day off from horses. It can help you maintain a healthy horse-family-work balance.

For the sharer, it’s an opportunity to forge a strong bond with a horse which you can’t do in a riding school environment, usually at a fraction of the cost. You get the horse ownership experience without the full time or financial commitment, which can work really well for those with young families or students.

Unfortunately though, I repeatedly see adverts on social media of young people who are basically looking for free rides in return for mucking out. Yes, I understand that financially they may not be able to afford riding lessons, but I worry that their naivety of riding unsupervised, plus the fact privately owned horses often have more get-up-and-go than riding school horses, poses a huge risk to the horse owner.

I still think that sharing arrangements can be a good solution for horse owners, it needs to be entered into carefully and with both eyes open.

Firstly, you need to decide why you want or need a sharer. Is it to help you exercise your horse as they can be too fizzy for you? Is it to give you a horse free day a couple of times a week? Is it to help cover your livery bill? Some share arrangements exchange riding for money whilst others exchange riding for chores. When advertising for a share you need to be very clear with what you expect in return.

Regardless of your sharing currency, there are a few hoops to jump through to help set up a successful share.

Firstly, insurance. You will have your own insurance, but you need to check that your horse is covered with other riders, or that other riders are covered. A good option is to get a sharer to take out BHS Gold membership as this will cover both them and your horse on the ground and in the saddle.

Assess their riding. Have them ride your horse under your supervision a few times, and doing all that they will want to do. So watch them school, pop a fence, and hack. They don’t need to be brilliant, but your horse shouldn’t be offended by their riding. Find out their riding goals, as it is really beneficial to have complementary aims. For example, if you like hacking and the sharer wants to do dressage this can provide variety for your horse. If you don’t like jumping then a sharer who does can be beneficial to your horse’s mental well being and fitness. However, regardless of what you both want to do, you need to have a similar approach to riding. For example, you don’t want to spend your days working your horse in a long and low frame to get them working over their back and relaxed, only for your sharer to undo all hard your work by pinning their heads in or galloping wildly round the countryside. I would strongly encourage sharers to have regular lessons, ideally with the same coach as the horse’s owner so that you can be sure you’re both singing off the same sheet, even if it’s at different levels.

The horse owner should watch how the potential sharer acts on the ground, whether they’re confident around horses and know their hoof pick from their body brush. Even if they’re straight out of a riding school and know very little, they can still learn. It’s worth the owner spending a few sessions with the sharer to help them build confidence on the ground and to set the owner’s mind at rest that their horse will be well cared for. Again, from an owner’s perspective, make sure you’re happy with the standard that the chores are done to when assessing the sharer. They can have room to learn, but you don’t want them doing a poor job and then you playing catch up the following day. It is also worth checking that the sharer is happy with any other horses they may have to deal with. For example, if your horse is in a field with one other then the sharer may well have to feed or hay both horses on their days, so they need to be happy with this, and the owner’s of the other horse does too.

I would also be careful of sharers who are fresh from the riding school as they often don’t foresee how time consuming the looking after aspect of horse care is, especially when they’re fumbling with tools or buckles, so can either shirk their duties and just chuck the tack on with a careless glance over the horse, or lose interest after a week. As an owner, your horse is your first priority and you want them to feel as loved by their sharer as they do by you. It’s definitely worth investing the time in training up a sharer so that they’re happy, your horse is happy, and you can then enjoy your horse free time without worrying.

Draw up a contract. This may seem formal, but it’s a useful reference point if anything goes wrong. The contract doesn’t have to be complicated but should contain the following subjects:

  • Insurance
  • Number of days and which days the sharer has use of the horse. The arrangement for flexibility or additional days (such as school holidays). How much warning needs to be given for changing days.
  • The chores or payment the sharer needs to provide in return for riding, and how often. Some sharers pay weekly, others monthly, some in advance and others in arrears. Some sharers have to do the chores for the entire day that they are riding the horse on, so for example turn out and muck out in the morning, and bringing in in the evening. Others just the jobs when they’re there to ride.
  • What the sharer can and cannot do with the horse. It may be that the horse has physical limitations (for example, an old injury which means they can’t be jumped too high or more than once a week) or that the owner doesn’t feel the sharer is competent enough to hack alone. However, there may be a clause that the sharer can compete or attend clinics with the approval of the owner.
  • What happens in the event of the horse going lame. Unfortunately I’ve seen many sharers up and go when the horse is injured and needs a period of box rest, leaving the owner high and dry. It may be that the sharer has such a bond with the horse that they want to continue caring for them without the benefit of riding, or the owner may have another horse the sharer can ride.
  • The notice period for terminating the contract. This may be a natural end because of the sharer outgrowing the horse, or changing jobs or moving house (or yard) but in order to end on a good note, it is more respectful to forewarn the owner.
  • Who is responsible for livery services? If for example, the sharer has to have the horse turned out on one their days, who foots the bill at the end of the month? Who is responsible for cleaning or repairing tack?

Of course, creating a sharing agreement is far more complicated than it initially seems, but having a good starting point for discussion helps both the horse owner and sharer work out what they want from, and what they can bring to, a sharing arrangement which will then hopefully have the horse’s welfare at its heart and makes for a lasting friendship between owner and sharer.

Calmer Bites

A few weeks ago I had a slightly psychotic Phoenix on my hands. I think it was the transition from living out 24/7 to living in at night, combined with her getting fitter. I couldn’t fault her behaviour on the ground, or out hacking, or even in the school. She wasn’t spooky or naughty, just hot – like she was on a constant adrenaline high. A good, long workout didn’t take the edge off, so I knew it wasn’t an excess of energy. But she definitely wasn’t her usual self. I did wonder if she was stressed, but channeling it internally, so it came out as anxiety as opposed to bad behaviour.

I thought about calmers, but I wasn’t convinced they were the answer because her behaviour hadn’t changed, or at least she hadn’t become spooky. But I did wonder if she had a bit of a chemical imbalance, akin to people suffering from bipolar disorder. This would explain the uptightness and that a long workout didn’t tire her out.

I couldn’t see what stress factors she had as we’d not competed recently, her diet hadn’t changed and was low in sugars, and she’d seemingly settled into the yard and field happily, which made me wonder if she’d been stressed (perhaps the first week of living in) and the chemical levels in her brain had become a bit stuck at the incorrect levels. I’m sure a psychologist could explain this far better than me, but in layman’s terms that’s what I felt was going on.

I did some more research, and a friend told me about calmer bites. They seem to be a relatively new thing on the market, but basically they contain L-Tryosine which triggers the production of serotonin, which helps stabilise moods. They say it “takes the edge off” a horse’s excitability, which is what I felt Phoenix needed.

I think the instant calmer syringes work in a similar way, but as Phoenix is not the easiest horse to worm, I thought a bite size treat would be more effective – at least she’d ingest more of it! 45-60 minutes after administration, the seratonin levels should increase, and the horse becomes calmer. The effects last for three or four hours and you can “load” a horse with several cookies over a couple of days.

Calmer bites are commonly used the day before a competition and on the morning of to help calm a horse. Or for travelling or clipping. They don’t contain any FEI banned substances so are legal for competition use.

Now, I didn’t particularly want to end up relying on calmers or anything, but I did think that the calmer bites could help reset Phoenix. I tend to think that if a horse is stressed and needs “calming” there is a problem somewhere in their management, diet or training, so by feeding calmers you are not addressing the cause, merely masking it. However, if it would get Phoenix back on track I thought it was worth a shot.

It was a bit of a gamble, as there have been mixed reviews on the calming cookies products (as with any calmer but I think that’s down to the cause as much as anything) but I fed Phoenix a calmer bite twice a day for three days as a loading dose, and definitely found that she was calmer. Probably a better explanation is that she wasn’t on high alert and over reactive to my leg aids, or as anticipative to canter and repeat canters during a schooling session, which made her much more rideable. As she had maintained her perfect manners out hacking and on the ground, I couldn’t say that they had had a positive impact, but I definitely liked her more relaxed attitude towards schooling.

Phoenix had the calmer bites for three days and since then she seems to have remained more level headed, so I think that they will have helped normalise her seratonin levels, which had dropped for whatever reason. The most likely cause I can think of is the transition from her summer routine to her winter routine. Which she seems to have accepted now, as she’s not pulling her rugs onto the floor, tossing hay from her haybar, or spilling her water in the mornings as she waits to be turned out. It will be interesting to see how she transitions next year.

For now though, I’ll keep the rest of the calmer bites and try using them when she’s next clipped to see if it keep her more relaxed, acting as a mild sedative so that she is more accepting of the clipping process.

I would say that calmer bites are not the answer to a horse being stressed, but they could be used as an aid to training. For example, if a horse has had a bad experience travelling then they may be useful the next time they travel to help give them a good experience and overcome their fears. But a horse will only truly overcome their fears by their carer taking the steps to build their confidence during transportation.

The calmer bites I used for Phoenix are made by Equine Science, and can be found on their website.

An Open Letter

To the Riders Trotting Along That Busy Road in the Dark,

Apologies it’s taken me so long to address the situation which took my breath away on Tuesday 18th December, but in order for this letter to be free of expletives the steam had to stop coming out of my ears.

It was 7.45am, dark and dismal, and I was driving along a busy A road which links several villages to a large town. You know where you were, but I’m just filling in the picture for anybody else. It’s a 60mph limit, and a fast road. To my surprise, I could see a long line of car headlights coming towards me. Usually a queue of this proportion is caused by a tractor or cyclist. There was in excess of twenty cars. I spy a couple of floating yellow fluorescent shapes. I slam on my brakes as much as I can with cars behind me, and then see two horses and riders trotting along the road, the first one with their right arm out and closing in on the white line in the road, about to cross the road.

I’m an equestrian myself, so don’t feel that I’m pointing a finger because I’m a selfish townie. I just don’t understand why you felt the need to be riding along a fast road. In rush hour. In the dark.

We were days away from the shortest day, you’d almost made it to the day that all equestrians celebrate.

What was it that was so important you had to hack in the dark? I can take an educated guess that you were minutes away from home. Which means that you set off when it was even darker. I can’t even make your excuses that you’d gotten lost or it had got darker quicker than you thought on an afternoon’s hack.

We’re all in the same boat. We’re all fed up of the endless darkness, but really we’ve got three choices in winter:

  1. Organise our work, or use flexi-time to ride during the day.
  2. Hack at weekends, and use the ménage during the week to either lunge or school.
  3. Don’t like schooling? Either invest in some lessons so you learn to love it, pay someone to school your horse for you, or resign yourself to the fact your horse isn’t going to be exercised during the week.

However, hacking in the dark is dangerous. To you, your horse, and to other road users.

Let me just return to your attire. Hi-vis is very fashionable now, we all wear it – cyclists, joggers, horse riders alike. You had yours on. But it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t see your horses. Well I saw a flash of a stripe on their nose. What if you’d been separated from them? They could’ve been hit by a car! Secondly, I couldn’t see your right hand indicating. You can buy hi-vis gloves, light up whips, lots of gear which would mean drivers couldn’t mistake your use of arm signals.

Have you ever read the Highway Code? Or taken your Riding and Road Safety Test? When you are turning right you should continue to stay next to the kerb, not drift out towards the centre of the road. What if an impatient commuter had roared up the outside to overtake? Splat. That’s what.

I can understand that you were keen to get out of the way of the traffic and off road. But you can’t tell me the traffic caught you by surprise. It was 7.45am. The beginnings of rush hour. If you don’t want to be in that position, don’t hack out at that time of day. In daylight or darkness.

Really I think what angered me the most is that the equestrian world are striving to improve our rights on the road, and respect from other road users. The BHS has its Dead? Or Dead-Slow? campaign, we’ve made Hi-Vis more accessible, comfortable, and fashionable. We’ve reported swarms of ignorant cyclists, and British Cycling is now educating their members. We’re gaining respect, and making the roads safer. And then you come along and ride with total disregard to other road users, and with little regard to your own safety, and ultimately anger and upset the numerous commuters who had to follow you along that dark road. They’d be late to their destination. They’ll moan about “bloody horse riders causing traffic jams” to their colleagues. The next thing you know, hundreds of non-horsey road users have lost all respect and patience for us. And it takes a long time to regain that respect. They aren’t going to slow down for the next horse they see on the road. Which incidentally, is endangering another horse and rider who could be riding in the perfect visibility conditions, modelling so much hi-vis you can see them from outer space, and following the Highway Code to the letter.

You know who you are, please, please, please take a minute the next time you decide it’s a good idea to hack before sunrise on a winter’s morning. Spring and summer will return soon and you can do all the hacking you like then, but for now just leave your horse in their stable rather than put their lives at risk and upset every road user during rush hour. Please. For the rest of the equestrian world’s sake, don’t undo all our hard work at making the roads safer for us to use.

Merry Christmas!