Winter is Coming

I have been looking towards winter with some trepidation for the last couple of months, dreading a potential repeat of last year’s emotionally unstable Phoenix.

So as with everything, I made a plan.

I decided to maximise on the fact that she’s come on so well in her training over the summer, and reap the rewards by booking a few competitions. Having something to focus on would also help distract me too.

So in the last five weekends, Phoenix and I have been adventuring four times, and have two more adventures before November. She’s entered four showjumping classes, doing three double clears and being placed in all four. She’s been placed first and second in dressage tests, which whilst they weren’t her best work felt much more established than her last test and the consistency had improved. She’s also been on the Badminton sponsored ride to get in some cross country practice. Our next two outings are hunter trials, which will hopefully put us in good stead for some one day events next year.

So we’ve had a lovely few outings, thoroughly enjoying ourselves and building on her CV.

I planned to make some changes to Phoenix’s management this year, but I wanted to ensure I did it step by step so that I learnt which aspect she didn’t appreciate and what stressed her. She’s continued to spend time in her stable over the summer so that it is a familiar environment, which would hopefully reduce any stress there.

I decided to get her saddle checked before she started living in, and to buy her a dressage saddle that I’d promised myself, so that I knew there wasn’t an issue with either saddle or back. Phoenix’s regular massages mean I know that her overall muscle tone is healthier and better than last year, with any problems being ironed out quickly.

I have come to realise over the summer that Phoenix doesn’t cope well in the wind and rain. She gets chilly very quickly, even when we’ll rugged up, and when ridden is more tense and “scooty” in the wind and rain. I retrieved my exercise sheet which when Otis grew out of it several years ago I loaned to Mum and Matt, who rarely used it. Over the last week I’ve used it a few times and definitely found Phoenix to be more settled and rideable with it in adverse weather.

With this sensitivity to wind and rain, I decided to give her a blanket clip, not a full clip, so that her loins had extra protection. Additionally, she found clipping a very stressful experience last year, so I planned to clip her before she started living in. Then I could gauge her reaction to clipping without the factor of being stabled. We actually had a much more positive experience last week; Phoenix ate her bucket of feed, and let my friend gibber in her ear while I clipped away. It’s not my best work of art, as I quit while I was ahead and stopped clipping when she ran out of food! But it was a positive experience, and there hasn’t been a change to her behaviour under saddle.

So I’ve ticked off clipping, saddles, and back, and still had a lovely, happy horse to ride. Next on my list was feed. Phoenix didn’t eat well last year, not tucking into her hay, or drinking sufficient. She’s happily eaten hay in the field the last month so I decided not to change her forage unless she went off it when she started staying in. And then I would immediately introduce haylage. However, I bought some Allen and Page Fast Fibre a couple of weeks ago and have introduced it alongside her chaff based bucket feed. This has a low calorific value, but will fill her tummy up and hydrate her, which will hopefully mean she is less skittish as a result of gastric discomfort. I’ve recently increased her magnesium the level she had in the spring, and maintained her daily dose of gut balancer.

My plan was to get all of these steps established before Phoenix came in at night, but the fates were against me as last weekend she and her field mates started living in due to the atrocious weather conditions. I haven’t been able to exercise her as much as I wanted to this first week due to family problems, but I was thrilled when I have that Phoenix has been lovely to ride, and that she seems happy in her new routine.

It may be that Phoenix is more settled this year; in her ridden work, at the yard, with me, and having experienced a winter living in, so is less likely to become a stress head this winter. But by taking these steps I feel I’ve done my best not to overload her system with simultaneous changes, and could identify triggers that upset her.

I’m not so anxious about winter now as I feel in control, yet ready to make positive changes at the first sign of stress from Phoenix.

Getting Her On Side

I’ve been working with a rider and her new mare over the winter, and we’ve had to adapt our approach several times as she is quite opinionated and nappy. She was very weak upon arrival, having been a broodmare for years, so it’s been a slow journey of hacking, lunging, and working over poles from the ground. Now however, we’re at the point where we’re asking slightly more of her under saddle and she’s taking umbridge at having to work her muscles a little bit harder.

This has been our approach in recent weeks. Begin by just walking her on both reins with a light, loose contact so she is unhindered and doesn’t have an excuse to start napping to the gate. Then we progress this up into trot; a forwards thinking trot with large circles and changes of rein until she commits to work and settles into her own rhythm. At one point we were lunging her with her rider as she was far more receptive to my directives from the centre of the circle, and then we transitioned to her rider predominantly giving the aids and I backed her up if the mare baulked. Then we had an imaginary lunge line, before slowly taking the mare off the circle where she had to submit to her rider’s aids.

She behaves perfectly for the warm up part now, but as soon as you start asking questions and putting on a bit of pressure the tail swishes, the hindlegs kick out and the bunny hopping begins. So I’ve adopted the approach that we ask her questions so subtly she doesn’t even realise she’s being asked anything.

For example, the mare has a very quick, tense trot which is very much on the forehand. We want to slow the tempo, shift her weight backwards and get her pushing forwards from her hindquarters. It’s not just a simple matter of half halting with this mare as she’ll take any rein aid as an excuse to stop and mini-rear, especially if the alternative is hard. I told my rider to think of her trot being on a sliding scale, of one to ten. Currently it was a six. Quietly, whilst trotting round on both reins and using circles, I asked her to experiment with the tiniest of aids to bring the trot back to a steadier five, then back to six, then back to five. She only needed to spend a couple of strides in the five trot, but the idea was that we made these micro adjustments so that her horse didn’t notice that we were adjusting her gait and balance. The aim was to move towards a four trot, which we did after a few minutes, so that when we opened the trot back up into a five trot it was better balanced than the initial trot, but the mare would find it easier than the four trot and so be compliant.

It worked. The tempo became steadier and the mare relaxed so that her frame softened. The best part was that she stayed with her rider and continued with a good work ethic.

The next lesson, I wanted to work on improving the mare’s suppleness as she was much more balanced in her trot. She didn’t take well to the exercise I gave, which incorporated ten metre circles and stopped playing ball. Not wanting to lose the work ethic we’d created last week, I adopted Plan B. We reverted to riding large circles and when the mare felt particularly forward thinking and focused, I got my rider to ride an eighteen metre circle. Then back to the bigger circles. We repeated this, throwing in smaller circles more frequently and then the larger (normal) circles became eighteen metres and the smaller circles were fifteen metres. Eventually, the mare was happily riding ten metre circles without a second thought. She just hadn’t realised that we were asking her harder questions.

I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst you always have to “ask a mare”, with this one in particular you have to skirt around the subject, make suggestions and then let her take the idea and think that it’s her own so that she willingly performs the exercise!

I used the bow tie exercise (blogged earlier in the week) last lesson with them but we had to slowly build up to the rapid changes of bend and small circles in order to keep the mare on side. By the end my rider felt she was a lot more adjustable and accepting of her aids. You could start to see where she is working more correctly because the hind leg action is improving, her neck is lengthening and lowering, and she has some cadence to her stride.

Hopefully we can build on the mare’s new work ethic and begin to ask questions slightly more directly as she develops muscle and finds work easier. Then hopefully she’ll become more open to corrections to her way of going from her rider. She may always be one who has to have an indirect approach, but I feel that now we’ve grasped the smooth handle (a What Katy Did reference for other bookworms) we will see lots of good work from this mare in the future. It’s always a good challenge deciphering the workings of a horse’s mind and how best to befriend them.

Everything in the world has two handles. Didn’t you know that? One is a smooth handle. If you take hold of it, the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle, it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift.

A Hole In The Market

I think I’ve found a hole in the market. A gaping big hole filled with equine owners needing advice.

When I was doing GCSEs and had no idea what I wanted to do as a career my Dad organised me to have a day out with one of his customers, getting an insight to his job. I think Dad was hoping I’d be inspired to follow in his (Dad’s, not the unknown man) footsteps and do a degree in soil science.

I wasn’t. It was quite an interesting day, but I wasn’t inspired. I spent the day visiting farms, and having meetings with the farmers about their soil pH levels, appropriate fertilisers and what crops to grow where. I can’t really remember the job title of this man, but it was along the lines of soil analysis advisor.

Anyway, it’s come to my attention recently, probably stemming from my experience with the independent equine nutritionist, that a lot of horse owners need help with managing their land.

The trouble is, as I see it, that there is less rotation nowadays of horses, sheep and cattle, who all eat different types of grasses which results in stressed paddocks. The fields are usually not rested sufficiently, or people have limited acreage with relation to the number of horses.

Additionally, horse owners may take on land which hasn’t been used for horses before, or even take over very poor grazing, and without the right care these types of land never become suitable for horses.

How great would it be if you could approach a consultant of sorts. Who would run a soil analysis, look at the land, and advise how best to fertilise and care for the land?

Did you know that buttercups (which are poisonous to horses) grow in acidic soil. So if your pasture is full of buttercups you could spray them annually (and what of the environmental impact of this?) or you could slake the field, and apply limestone to raise the pH level and so deter the buttercups from growing next year. Or, if your field is full of clover and previously used as cattle grazing it will be high in nitrogen levels, so you want to apply a fertiliser which has lower levels of nitrogen.

Someone well versed in caring for soil, and have an interest and understanding of equine requirements could easily do a report for you, using the results of a soil test, photographs and maps of the land. They could tell you what to do this year, including harrowing, topping and reseeding (such as what grasses will grow best on your land and be most suited to your horse), and could tell you what action to take in the future for the long term health of your fields. Perhaps, they could also be involved in helping you ascertain how best to rotate your paddocks with regard to drainage and shelter. Or with limited acreage, help you design an effective pattern of electric fencing so that you can adequately rotate grazing. Not only would individuals with their couple of horses on their own land be interested (in my opinion), but livery yards may well be interested in having a plan drawn up for field management. After all, we work with, or own horses because we like riding and caring for the horse; caring for the land is an aside and often overlooked.

If I had my time again would I see this as an alternative career? Possibly, after all I come from a family who sit in a coffee shop and notice that the molecule of coffee painted on the wall is both incomplete and unstable, and then have a twenty minute conversation about it. But ultimately I think I’d have stuck with teaching. So maybe if you’re looking for a career, or niche in the market, you should be investigating this avenue.

Rug Wear

WordPress won’t let me reblog a post more than once … so I’m going to direct you to one of my earliest posts, which I think is important to bear in mind.

Whilst rug designs have come on in leaps and bound, so there is far less of a problem of badly fitting rugs causing rubs, horses are wearing rugs much, much more.

They used to wear rugs in the winter, then go without from spring through to autumn. Nowadays, horses wear rugs of varying weights autumn through to spring, then wear fly rugs or rain sheets throughout the summer.

Which of course is absolutely fine, and often a necessity for convenience, or to protect horses who are particularly irritated by flies. But wearing rugs constantly, however well fitting, can cause patches of hair or mane to disappear and the skin to become sore.

I recently noticed that one of the horses that I ride had the slightest pink patch on his withers, so we immediately removed his lightweight rug, and have left him naked for a week, despite rain forecast and despite flies coming out of the woodwork. I was really pleased today to see that his wither looks completely normal again, and hopefully a few more days with no pressure on that area and he’ll be fine.

And now, you can go and peruse my original post about fistulous withers !

Juggling Babies and Horses

I’ve survived my first winter juggling horses and babies, and it is possible! So I thought I’d share a few hints and tips for anyone about to undergo this challenge.

I have two major tips.

Firstly, get a baby carrier. We started with the Baby Bjorn and now have a Little Life on loan. It makes things so easy, plus lugging a toddler round burns off some serious calories! With them in a carrier you can catch or turn out, groom the body (nothing below the elbow else you risk toppling over), feed, muck out, poo pick, lunge. Rugs are tricky though. This means that when they’re clingy or the pushchair isn’t cutting it, you can still do a few chores. And get some you time. This is often how I get her to sleep too, so it’s a useful strategy to have.

Secondly, get a great support team! I honestly feel so lucky with who I have supporting me. The girls on my yard are very good at keeping an eye on the pushchair for me whilst I turn out, or muck out, so that she’s never unattended. If I’m riding in the school and she’s fussing, someone usually comes along to borrow her, and entertains her on the yard watching the farrier, watching the guinea fowl or stroking the dogs. Plus I’m always having much appreciated offers to babysit so I can hack. The other week we had a bad night, just falling asleep as my alarm was about to go. After cancelling my alarm, I sent a message to the yard Facebook group pleading for someone to turn out for me, and instantly I had messages of “of course, now get some rest” which I was very grateful for.

Then of course is my chauffeur slash babysitter, who manages to multitask (he is a man, remember!) and looks after her, whilst mucking out for me! I’m so lucky! It does mean less video footage of lessons, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice.

In terms of managing chores and routine, sharing catch and turn out duties with a friend makes life so much simpler. I usually do the mornings because evenings are a race against the clock to get home for tea.

I’ve used wood pellets for bedding, as I’ve used previously for Otis and Matt, which means that if we’re having a bad day, or a clingy one, I can skip out. Then on a child free day, I can put in the new bedding and do a thorough job. Phoenix is very clean, which means her bed is dustier than I’d like, and she’d probably be better suited to shavings. But as I never muck out with her in there I’m not too worried.

A hay bar means it’s quick and easy to give her forage – again helpful on those clingy mornings. Mixing dinner and breakfast and leaving them in her stable and ready for the morning round respectively, and having one feed of fibre and balancer means less faffing with measurements.

I think it’s also important to have a flexible routine. Plan when you hack, because that requires childcare, but if you’re planning to ride and baby isn’t playing ball, don’t beat yourself up that you haven’t ridden, just lunge. Or if you suddenly have some time to yourself, jump on board. Even if today was supposed to be a non riding day. Or if you’re having a bad day and the baby’s tired, jump in the car, do a bit of rocking in the pushchair at the yard, and use this nap time to ride. I still feel very smug if I’ve managed to time my ride to coincide with a nap. It’s a longer, more peaceful schooling session and I feel like I’ve had a break. And if you haven’t managed any saddle time this week, guilt trip the other parent into babysitting.

A few times over the winter I got up at 5am and went to ride under the lights. In the summer I’m hoping to squeeze in an evening ride or two in the week. This is only really an option with a yard that’s nice and close to home so you don’t waste precious baby free time in the car.

I also take a few snacks and toys to the yard, after all you know what a time warp yards can be. And you don’t want your chat, or ride, cut short because of hunger or boredom!

Yes, horses and babies can both be done, but be prepared to relax your mucking out standards, bend your routine, and get yourself some amazing, supportive friends!

High Winds

There’s so many topical subjects to blog about this weekend. But I’m going to steer clear of the can of worms which is equine ‘flu, and instead talk about the high winds which have been forecast for this weekend.

There was a lot of talk on an instructors forum earlier in the week about risk assessments and teaching in stormy weather. Regardless of whether you are a teacher, horse owner, or riding school client, there are things you should be aware of in windy weather.

Firstly, consider if it is actually safe to ride on a windy day. I’m a big believer in not being a fair weather rider, and getting horses used to all sorts of weather. But you have to stay safe. So it might be that you lunge instead of ride, or flat instead of jump. Or school instead of hacking. Or just do some pony pampering and ride tomorrow instead!

With my instructor hat on, I need to make sure the arena is safe. An indoor is great, but you do need to be aware of tree branches banging on the roof in stormy weather. In an outdoor arena, you want to be aware of external threats. It may be the plastic covering on the stack of hay bales near the arena is billowing around, or nearby trees are dropping branches. If the arena is big enough, you may decide to work at one end to reduce the hazards.

As much as you can, try and make the area safe. Put away jump stands so they don’t blow over in a sudden gust and spook the horse. Remove any flapping objects or weigh them down.

If you have to travel your horse to a venue, such as a clinic or competition, then you need to consider whether it’s safe to do so. Are the roads likely to be blocked by fallen trees, or flooded? Is your horse a good traveller, and are you confident towing a trailer or driving a lorry in windy weather? If you aren’t happy, then you are better off rearranging or cancelling your plans.

Each horse is individual, and every rider is individual, so as an instructor I need to talk to the rider. If the horse is young or of a spooky nature, I’d probably advise changing the lesson plan to potentially lunging or in hand work to be safe. If the rider is a novice, or nervous and I don’t think they will benefit from a lesson in the wind then I will chat to them too.

This is where riding school clients need to take note. If your lesson, on your own horse or otherwise still takes place on a windy day, then you need to be prepared, and accept a change to your lesson structure. It may be that you don’t ride your favourite horse because they are unpredictable in the wind. Or it may be that you have a lesson instead of a hack because it’s safer. If you were supposed to have a jump lesson, you may be end up doing pole work or flat work because there’s a risk the jumps may blow over. If you were hoping (yes, some riders like doing it) for a non stirrup lesson you may be working on other areas because it’s safer for you to keep your stirrups as there’s an increased chance of your horse spooking in the wind. Your instructor will do what they feel is best to keep you both safe.

Really, stormy weather doesn’t need a big panic, you just need to be careful and assess the weather forecast (it might be better to rearrange your ride from the morning to the afternoon when it’s calmer), adjust your riding plans to get the best out of you and your horse, and most importantly to stay safe. And if you really aren’t sure, chat to your instructor, even if you aren’t booked in for a lesson that day, to see what they advise as they know the pair of you and your capabilities well.

Snow Days

It’s finally hit us, the first snow of winter. Or slush really. It’s not as bad as last year’s Beast From The East, but maybe now is the time to get snow ready at the yard, and create contingency plans.

Firstly, getting some grit to the yard is paramount otherwise you’ll be taking up ice skating instead of horse riding! It’s worth discussing with all the liveries about putting it down; either to prevent it being swept away or to prevent horses or dogs snuffling it up.

Ideally, I’d have a water butt, pre-filled with either rainwater or tap water, so that even with the yard taps frozen, liveries still have access to water. This is particularly useful for the early morning risers. It might also be a good idea, if you are an early bird, to arrange with a stable neighbour who comes at a more civilised time, for them to fill your water buckets in your stable for the night.

If you don’t think your car is tough enough to negotiate the icy lanes to the yard and bad weather is forecast then it’s time to get prepared! Find out if any liveries with an AWD live near you who could give you a lift. Organise with friends so that you all only need do one journey to the yard a day, to reduce the risk of having an accident. Mix some feeds up in advance, and make up some haynets so that if you are stranded and need to call in any favours then it is far easier for friends to sort out your horse. Just be aware you May be looking after their horse while they swan off on their summer holidays! A few years ago I worked at a livery yard when heavy snow hit over lunchtime. I was inundated with calls and texts of panicked liveries trying to come up to put their horse to bed and becoming stuck on the roads. My job was made far easier by those who had prepared night nets and evening feeds when they’d been there in the morning.

Prepare yourself for your horse to have limited turn out and exercise, which may mean cutting back on their hard feeds, or utilising your yard’s walker, and being prepared for a fresh horse when the weather improves, so perhaps lunging them before you get on.

Try and make sure you have sufficient feed and bedding in stock. If the horses are staying in more you’ll use more bedding, and they’ll eat more forage in cold weather. Besides, the last thing you want to worry about is a trip to the tack shop in the snow and ice.

Give yourself more time. You don’t want to be rushing around the ice rink, or jamming on the car brakes at corners. And stay safe by turning your horses out individually instead of a pair, or getting a friend to lead one for you. This morning, for example, I knew once I was off the yard Phoenix and her giant field friend would be fine walking to the field as they’re barefoot and it’s a grass and gravel track so had some grip. However, I was concerned how I’d get Phoenix out because her neighbour was still in and he’s very grumpy in the mornings. I didn’t want him to lunge at either mare, they shoot backwards and slip over. So I asked a friend to lead Phoenix out in a big arc so that she was out of reach of Mr Grumpy. Then, I could easily take the two of them.

Keeping enough coats in your car, plus a torch, food and drink, is really useful in case you get stuck somewhere, but I’m sure the RAC recommend that anyway.

I don’t think there’s much more you can do to prepare yourself for snow days, but if everyone communicates and pulls together all the horses should be fed, watered and happy with no casualties, even if it’s just by the All Wheel Drivers. Who I’m sure will cash in their favours when the summer holidays come!

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!