Is that King Size? Or a Super King Size?

I`m talking about beds. No, not your bed at home, your horse`s bed.

There was recently a post on a forum with people taking photos of their horse`s clean stables and comparing the size and relative comfort for their equine royalty.

My old yard manager always had deep beds (the best part of a foot) but this was tiny compared to some of the photos! It`s madness! Horse`s don`t benefit or feel comforted by a deep comfy bed like us mere humans. Additionally, who are we really comforting? Our horse, who is already glad to be out the rain, or ourselves, feeling guilty that our horse isn`t actually sharing our bed at home?
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A bigger bed takes longer to muck out, you use more bedding, and wheel more wheelbarrows. Now, the problems that come from this: one, you don`t then have time to ride; two, you don`t have any money left to get some riding lessons; and three, your arms are too tired to ride.

The net result? No riding for you, you`re too busy being obsessive over the stable.

That`s not saying that I don`t like a neat stable: my straw bed is thrown up every day and left up so the matting can dry. I don`t have massive banks because my horse doesn`t need them, and I like to be able to rotate them regularly. When I put the bed down it is half of his stable (12ft x 6ft, which is more than enough space for him to pee, poo, and lie down if necessary), and a few inches deep. Pat it down with the fork, as the BHS say, and you can`t feel the floor. Any bigger and he churns up the front or mushes his haylage into it. I then sweep any loose bits of straw back into the bed so the front is clean. But I don`t worry too much about comparing the edge of the bed to a spirit level. Life`s too short – I`d rather be riding.

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Let`s go back to the original discussion of how big your bed should be. A few people had commented on the thread saying that they had known horses quite literally “fall out of bed” and injure themselves – someone even knew a horse who had broken it`s leg when it had an excessively large bed. Large beds of shavings or pellets are pretty dense, so are fairly immoveable and I can quite see how an injury would occur. A friend of mine has heard that horses get ligament problems from a large bed; I`m not sure on the details so if anyone knows anything else or read research then please link it to me!

Another person stated how more bedding can actually be more economical as horses will be cleaner. Obviously this depends on the horse; but a bit of bedding does help absorb urine and I can see how it would be cleaner for a time. But then that`s creating a sensible bed as opposed to a smattering of bedding over rubber matting. I`ve discovered this myself with my yard. Previously, the riding school ponies were given “pee beds” at night and they were always filthy the next morning. So when I took over I started bedding down more. Not excessive, just a reasonably sized area and passing the BHS pat-test. Definitely cleaner beds, and less of a smell of urine in the barn – result.

The other argument is the potential health problems to horses – thrush and other foot related problems, and respiratory diseases. Now, if you have a sensible bed and clean it daily then you should spot health problems before they become and issue, and you are reducing the likelihood of contracting an illness anyway by being cleaner.

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We could go on forever … there are pros and cons for each type of bedding (for example did you know wood pellets are best used in a deep littering system?), different horses, their routine, stable size, personal preference, horse current health. I just think you should be sensible … don`t be overly extravagant but don`t be a stingy owner either.

Atypical Myopathy

It was one wet and miserable November evening. “Come on Mum, we need to go see her”
“But we won`t see anything now” It was true. It was 5pm and almost pitch black already. But I insisted, I wanted to show Mum a friends new pony. Who was adorable! So we drove up the road to the most distant field, parked in the layby and went into the field. It was fairly dry and we picked our way across the field fairly easily calling the pony.

It was then that I realised the shrill whinnying was not in fact the wanted pony, galloping over to greet us (it`s in everybody`s dream) but another pony from near the fence. We trudged back against the wind and found the grey pony stuck in the fence calling frantically. Trying to calm the pony I rang down to the yard and asked for some wire cutters to be brought up. Within five minutes some arrived with a headcollar. But by then we`d started moving the pony and realised that something was wrong. Severely wrong. She was sweating, trembling, and could barely stand up. Once again, we rang the yard, and a trailer was driven up. Somehow we loaded the pony in the trailer and got her back to the yard. Thankfully one of the stables on the driveway was empty so she didn`t have far to walk off the trailer. That was when the vet was rung and everyone was dismissed, except for the yard manager.

I had a phone call later that evening to tell me the pony had died.

The next day, my day off, I was casually minding my own business, pushing all thoughts of the pony to the back of my mind when I had a phone call. “We have to get all the horses in off the grass. Now!” My colleague was in a real panic. “OK, what`s up? Why?” I asked trying to calmly assess the situation whilst tugging on my jodhpurs. “I need everyones help. Everything has to stay in. The vet says”

So off I head to the stables, breaking many speed limits but dodging the cameras, and when I arrive the yard is deserted. “Right. What`s going on?”
“Oh some people have gone up the road to catch the horses in the top field… I`ve drawn a map of which horse is going in which stall or stable. In the pony stalls we`ll need to make an extra section at the end. You know, using the slip rails … some will have to go in the indoor arena … but I don`t know who`s going to fight…”
So I pulled on my bossy boots.
“Lets get these beds put down then so the horses have somewhere to go. Otherwise it will be a nightmare trying to bed them down and not know have anywhere to tie them. The ponies are coming in first? Right you go and do the pony stalls. Beds and a haynet will be fine at the moment, we can worry about the waters when we have more people. I`ll start with the stalls in the barn.”
We all set to work, and were joined by more liveries, extra haynets were pulled out from somewhere, water buckets scrounged, and the barn was soon full of deep straw beds. The liveries and staff who had gone up the road brought in the first load of riding school ponies, who were given a stall and hay to keep them occupied. Then they went to the next field, and then the next, and then the next. Until every single horse was in off the fields and the barn was full of happy munching.
Then came the mammoth task of securing them all! I don`t know if you know how stalls work, but they`re designed for horses to be tied up during the day (or in the old days, at night) but in this barn the horses were backed in, to avoid the risk of being kicked when you walked down the barn at lunchtime. Instead you just risked being bitten. We didn`t want to leave the horses tied up all night. What if they wanted to lie down? Or more importantly, what if they couldn`t reach their water? It made sense for the haynet to go at one side of the stall and the water on the other so that it wasn`t filled with hay. Our ingenius solution was jump poles. A couple of strong men were dispatched to bring the long jump poles from the school, which were passed through loops of string at the front of the stalls. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But you may have forgotten the troublesome nature of ponies or bored horses. They will lean on the poles, or try and duck under. So we ended up with cross poles as well, to make climbing through even harder. Looking back the risks are awful; we would never have got them all out in a fire, and what if they`d got a leg caught and panicked? It doesn`t bear thinking about.
The next day was surreal. The vets were coming to take blood samples of all the horses to test for atypical myopathy. Not that they really knew what it was at that point. But at 8am we heard an odd noise from the indoor arena. So we investigated. Only to find our favourite and most popular pony gasping for breath, his whole body racking with the effort, covered in sweat and shaking. The vet was called and came almost instantly, but there wasn`t anything for us to do except watch this poor pony suffer and struggle to breathe. It was like he was being suffocated by his own body. The vet gave him an IV, took blood, and tried everything to save him. But in the end we had to put him out of his misery. It was awful. We were so useless.

The vet then suggested taking everything`s temperature, and during the next hour we found five more cases. They were pulled out the barn, taken to the indoor arena and hooked up to IVs there with several vets monitoring them (back up had been called at this point). We worked around the dead pony`s body, which was covered with rugs.
After a couple of hours the knackerman arrived to take the carcass away. The trouble was that he couldn`t get in. Particularly with the equine hospital at the near end. So the only option was for us to drag this pony`s body to the lorry. It was probably one of the weirdest experiences I have ever had. I completely dissociated so that I could hold myself together. Now the thought of it makes me squirm!
Lessons were abandoned, but a few clients turned up and we had to turn them away. One freelance instructor arrived, became angry that she`d driven all the way over to be told there weren`t any lessons. Then she saw the crying mess we were all in and immediately apologised. I kept busy, mucking out, giving hay, checking temperatures.

One casualty was taken to hospital, where she died three days later from kidney complications. The rest of them thankfully made a complete recovery, but the rest of the week was surreal and unlike nothing I`ve ever experienced before. I was impressed with how everyone pulled together and supported each other. Mucking out, taking temperatures, checking vital signs, became the norm and by the weekend we were semi functioning and starting to get back to normal.

Our plight was the first that our vets had experienced and through it a lot more research was done into Atypical Myopathy; we even got a mention in national newspapers! Most recently, sycamore seeds have been linked to Atypical Myopathy, or at least a fungus that grows near the seeds in certain weather conditions. I found the most useful site for this disease; http://www.myopathieatypique.fr/en/ which is done by the experts specifically aimed at improving and sharing knowledge and research.

Riding Schools

It`s not a great economic time for riding schools is it? Now we`re in off season mode we`ve been having very quiet days, with the odd lesson or hack, and then it all kicks off at 4pm and you end up finishing late in a mad rush!

There has to be a better way of doing this. Potentially you could give staff a two hour lunch break, and have them work until 7. Or do shift work. But who wants to have a two hour lunch? I`d make use of it by riding my own horse, which is a tight squeeze to do in one hour, but for those with older or retired horses it`s just more time to twiddle their thumbs. I guess you can do shift work. At the yard I trained at we did “late nights” which meant we started at 2pm and finished at 9pm, with everyone else knocking off at 6pm. I hated coming in at 2pm because I didn`t know if I was coming or going, what had happened so far in the day, and also found myself playing catch up on the yard so I didn`t end up finishing late. The problem with this shift pattern is that the people not doing the late night tend to just go “ta-ra see you in the morning” at 5.59pm and leave you with a whole barn to sweep, 10 horses to turn out, and 6 horses to tack up for the evening lessons, and then tuck them all up in bed after. At one point I used to do the whole day… starting at 8am and finishing at 9pm. It was horrendous and I was always shattered on Thursday morning.

Going back to running a riding school economically I think the old-fashioned small yards with one instructor might well be the way forward. If you own a yard with a handful of horses you can pick and choose when you want to do your lessons; fit it in with any appointments, vets, dentists etc, and also, when you have to do the after-school teaching you can organise yourself to do the morning yard jobs and then have 4 hours to yourself before going back to the yard for half two to get the ponies ready. Then it doesn`t matter if you don`t finish til 7 or 8. Also, this approach means you need little staff; meaning not many staff to support when it snows and there`s no lessons. However, the trouble with this set up means that your clients are your friends, and your world revolves around your little yard. It`s hard getting perspective then, and also means you can end up old fashioned as you aren`t exposed to modern developments or schools of thought.

I guess if you go into riding schools big time, and have immaculate arenas and horses and lots of instructors and a VERY rich clientele base then you can afford to have one groom per horse and have everything spick and span all day long. But financially speaking this isn`t possible and the instructors end up doing the yard work. But it`s impossible to run a busy riding school with a skeleton staff. Imagine the changeover at 10am; 8 children getting off ponies, 10 children getting on, plus 4 adults mounting for a hack, and then having to make sure the excess horses are put away, untacked and rugged up?!

So it`s a hard balancing act, but I tend to think a smaller, well trained team of staff could operate a small riding school more efficiently and economically than a larger, more diverse riding school.

Spring Cleaning

This weekend has been a horsey spring cleaning weekend for me and my Uncle/Housekeeper. He spent Saturday with our field friend`s Dad cutting down overhanging trees, which is a particular problem now that sycamore seeds have been linked to atypical myopathy. My previous yard had an outbreak of it; I found one pony suffering from it on Sunday afternoon and by Monday the vets had recommended that all horses were confined to stables until further tests had been done. The barn was full to burst! That Tuesday we had an epidemic, at one point 6 horses were linked up to IV drips in the indoor arena with the vet taking vitals every five minutes. Another pony died, and one girls pony went to hospital, but she later succumbed to the illness. Nothing conclusive was found but it was a harrowing week or two, and I am keen to avoid repeating the experience!

So the men chopped down any overhanging sycamore trees, plus the odd branch that was in the way, which revealed that most of the fencing was being held up by the trees! So the boys have moved pastures while we get the fencing fixed. We`ve also gained an extra 6ft of grazing around two wooded sides! The work continued this morning, until I brought work to a halt by bringing down a box of tasty chips and drinks.

Not content with renovating the field, our next job was to pull out the rubber matting, dry out the stable floor, wash the matting, clean out the stable and hay bar (which I have neglected through the summer months). Then came the impossible task of refitting the mats. It`s amazing that 6 rectangular mats can come out of a stable but not go back in! A bit of stamping and swearing at them soon solved that problem, but I won`t be attempting that job any time soon! Those mats are heavy! I read somewhere that you can get liquid rubber matting, it might be an option for my yard … when I buy it after winning the lottery.

I have a large automatic drinker in my stable, which is fab, I don`t miss filling up buckets! But if my horse doesn`t stay in for a few days, e.g. in the summer, algae grows very quickly. So I did a bit of research about what people do to help keep them clean. Water tablets are a popular, but expensive, option; I thought about having one of those little bubble machines, like in fish tanks, but I don`t think my horse would like drinking from it! I even read that some people put a gold fish in their trough …

So the stable is looking very smart, I just need to tidy the shed, stable cupboard and the storage box outside the stable. No peace for the wicked.