Monthly Archives: September 2017

A question of colour

A day at the British Skewbald and Piebald Association national championships is always a revelation. It isn’t just the beautiful horses and ponies, it’s the dedicated owners – and yes, in the nicest possible way, some of them are obsessed.
They’re convinced that solid-coloured horses aren’t a patch on skewbalds and piebalds, although the message has definitely got through that if an animal wouldn’t be a good example of its type if it were bay, patches won’t put things right.
There’s an old saying that “A good horse is never a bad colour.” You can take that whatever way you like.
Apparently the original meaning was that a washed-out colour is a sign of weakness, which is why pale chestnuts and light bays were frowned on in many circles. I prefer the alternative meaning: that a good horse is a good horse whether it’s black, grey, bay, or pink with ginger spots.
We all have likes and dislikes and in some cases, you can see a kind of logic. I’ve met people who love greys (hands up, I’m one) and those who won’t consider buying one, simply because it’s hard to keep them clean.
Well, you won’t find many of the latter in the British Connemara Pony Society. It didn’t bother the Lone Ranger, either – although for someone who tried to keep his identity secret, he chose a particularly conspicuous horse. The skewbald ridden by his sidekick, Tonto, might have offered some camouflage in the Wild West, but you’d have seen Silver galloping towards you from miles away.
A prejudice against chestnuts is common, and chestnut mares get a really raw deal in the image stakes. It’s amazing how many people dismiss them as hot and unpredictable, ignoring the fact that bay geldings can show the same traits.
Perhaps members of the anti-chestnut brigade should have a word with the Suffolk Horse Society. This iconic and critically endangered breed, also known as the Suffolk Punch, was prized for its temperament in the heyday of the working farm horse, and those who love it strive to ensure its survival.
Opinions are also divided on black horses. Some dislike them because of an association with funerals and a well-known event rider once told me that he’d never buy one, because he thought they were all grumpy and un-generous. Tell that to the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment or a bunch of Fell pony owners – then run for cover.
Yet another old rhyme says:
One white sock – buy a horse
Two white socks – try a horse
Three white socks – look well about him,
Four white socks – do well without him.
This is because white legs usually lead on to white feet, and white feet are supposedly weaker than dark ones. My bay cob with three white socks and feet to match says that isn’t necessarily so, and so does my farrier.
So what’s your favourite? Is it a classic hunter bay, a palomino with a body coat the colour of a newly minted sovereign, or a golden dun?
Does coat colour affect whether you would buy a horse or pony, or is it the last thing you think about? Would you buy a flashy chestnut with white socks, or pass it by?
And have you ever overcome preferences or prejudice, and been pleasantly surprised? If so, we’d love to see your pictures.

From the other side of the fence

So, where are you off to this weekend? Whether you and your horse are flying over fences, heading down a centre line or strutting your stuff in a showing class, one thing is certain – the competition wouldn’t run without volunteers.

Take the recent British Show Horse Association’s national championships, for example. This comprised two days of competition, starting at 7.45am and carrying on until the last partygoers decided they needed their sleep.

Without unpaid volunteers, some of whom had taken leave from work to be there on the first day, it wouldn’t have happened. There are the judges, of course, but there are also the stewards, the people in charge of the rosettes and trophies, and many more.

Where would dressage be without the judges and their writers? How would showjumping survive without judges, stewards and those who pick up the poles? What about the cross-country fence judges who sit around for hours, often at the same fence?

Some people make a point of thanking volunteers who help them enjoy their sport. A few forget; and a minority behave badly when asked to stick to the rules.

Organisers vary in their attitudes, too. One eventing centre in my part of the world offers fence judges the choice of a bottle of wine or a free schooling session. Another is famed for its packed lunches, delivered by quad bike.

On the other hand, there was the hunter trial organiser who expected fence judges to be in place all day, without factoring in lunch or – more importantly – loo breaks. After a few hours, there was mass mutiny, the event was put on hold and there were very long queues at the blue boxes.

So why do people volunteer – and why should you? For many, it’s a chance to be part of a sport and a world they love and perhaps don’t compete in any more. For others, like me, it’s because it gives you a different perspective.

As an example, it’s easy to be intimidated when you’re on a cob or hairy pony in a dressage warm-up and people on posh warmbloods are bouncing off the walls at you. However, when you’re writing for a judge who murmurs “All the gear and no idea” as she watches a woman dressed up to the nines, but obviously terrified of her fire-breathing colossus – who is tacked up to the nines – you feel better.

You feel even better when the judge enthuses about an ‘ordinary’ little horse who performs an accurate, rhythmic test with a smile on his face. Sometimes, it’s encouraging to know that the ordinary can be extraordinary.

When you’re competing, you may think everyone notices your mistakes. When you’re writing/stewarding/fence-judging you realise that everyone makes mistakes; it’s how you recover from them that matters.

If you haven’t tried helping out, give it a go. You’ll get more from it than you think. If you have, tell us what you do and why you do it!

September endurance update from Annie Joppe

Well the European Championships has now been and gone and a lesson learned.  Unfortunately, despite all the meticulous preparation, it did not go according to plan.  Fantom refused to eat and drink on the journey, including the overnight stop and arrived at the venue pretty dehydrated.  This was easily corrected and he began to eat and drink well.  He was, however, much quieter than usual which I was actually quite glad about at the time but in hindsight I should have been warned all was not well.

We had a lovely opening ceremony where we all looked very smart in our new Fairfax & Favor boots and the following day the pre-ride vetting went without a hitch with all horses passing with flying colours.  The crew had spent two days looking for and at crew points.  This was made pretty difficult by the heavy traffic and constant road works in Brussels which had to be driven through to access almost every crew point.

The start was at the edge of a large park which gave access to miles and miles of forest.  Fantom didn’t warm up well, being very quiet but, after consulting with the team vet, we started with the rest of the squad near the back of the field.  After about 100 metres we had two main roads to cross before plunging into the deep, dark beech forest.  We only got to about 3 kms when Fantom applied the brakes and it became apparent that our race was over: he had tied up.

Fantom is absolutely fine now and it was a relatively minor episode with no lasting damage but at the time it was pretty devastating.  In retrospect, I feel we should have had regular blood tests leading up to our departure to ensure everything was OK and, perhaps, we should have left home at the last possible minute, even sending the crew on ahead to do the preparation.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

OK, onto the next competition two weeks after returning from Brussels.  This was originally going to be Chiara’s first 2* at Euston Park but, with all the work and preparation needed for Fantom and losing that crucial week training whilst we were away, I decided to consolidate at 1* and to aim for a faster speed at that level.

We had several good training sessions just after I got back.  A long trip to the woods with the short sharp hills to canter up went well giving Chiara a reminder of the stamina that would be required.  Euston Park is pretty flat so we did several sessions in the new stubble fields around here with her pulses improving all the time.  Work and feed tapered the week before although I kept up her Replenish (she is on this all summer as have been Fantom and Dilmun).  Chiara was shod with pads in front for the first time as, although she now has tough little feet thanks to Hardy Hoof, there are some wicked flints at Euston.

Although Chi was a little reluctant to load, she travelled well and regularly took mouthfuls of her special fibre beet tea with carrots and ate loads and loads of hay.  As this was a smaller competition at Euston than the previous ones, the pre-ride vetting was on the morning of the ride and the start time was very civilised.  This meant that we had plenty of time to sort everything out the day before and even take Chi out for a little wander round to get her used to all the flags and markers.

Ride day was great.  It was a relaxed yet competitive atmosphere and the start was perfect with everyone trotting out across the parkland rather than the gallop that I remember from some previous occasions.  However, as the pace built up Chiara got more and more excited and after a while I decided to turn her off course for a few minutes so that the leading pack could go past giving us some space.  After that I had a much better race with Chi being responsive and much more focussed on where she was going.  We still have to work on presentation times but generally her behaviour in the vet gate and vetting was much better.  Eating and drinking could still do with improvement too but at least she seems to be able to drink with the bit in now.

It was a good result, 6th out of 17 starters and a good speed of over 18 kph.  Chi also came 5th in the best condition and finished feeling keen so it all looks good for the future.

My season has now finished but endurance in the UK goes on until the middle of October so perhaps some crewing and helping opportunities will come my way.

Lessons in education

When Oliver Townend won Burghley horse trials on the relatively inexperienced Ballaghmor Class, he probably surprised everyone but himself.

The grey, who lives up to his name in every way, is ten years old. When you’re looking at that level of competition, it’s the equivalent of a primary school pupil coming out top of the country in A-level results.

Oliver said afterwards that some people thought he shouldn’t have taken Ballaghmor Class to Burghley, but he knew the horse had the ability and the jumping confidence – and because he knew him as an individual, he knew what he could cope with. Mr T’s own ability and jumping confidence rate on equal terms, of course.

It makes you appreciate how complex it is to bring on a young horse, and how great the responsibility is. It’s also one of the most rewarding things you can do, whether you’re backing a pony or taking a showjumper through the grades.

Rosettes? Nice when they come along, but they don’t compare with the thrill of that first confident hack, balanced clear round, or pleasing dressage test. Out and out competitors may not agree, but those of us who lack the killer instinct and look on competitions simply as a way of monitoring our progress will understand.

I know some very competent riders who won’t consider taking on an unbacked or just backed horse. Some say they aren’t interested in riding a horse until its ready to compete, but if you’ve backed a horse and instilled a good foundation, you have a much better idea of how he’ll react and how you can help him out when necessary.

Others say they’re scared of getting it wrong, but I don’t believe any trainer who claims that he or she never meets set-backs. Thinking ahead and minimising risks and problems is part of a trainer’s skill, but there are always times when you have to “re-phrase” what you’re asking a horse to do, or go back a step before you can move on.

I’ve also met some relatively inexperienced riders who have done a great job starting their horses’ education. Their common denominators have been the possession of common sense and the ability to ask trainers they respect for help when needed.

It’s often said that only experienced riders should attempt to back and school young horses. The trouble is, how are people supposed to gain that experience? Not everyone can or wants to work with horses.

Surely it’s far better to learn by doing it, provided you have someone you can trust to help you when needed and your horse has the right temperament. You must have the right temperament, too: if you’re a nervous rider in general, or impatient, don’t do it.

And if you’re on a high because you’ve backed and/or brought on a horse for the first time, do tell us, because your success will encourage and inspire others.

Dare to be different

Are you stuck in an equestrian rut? We all know the feeling that no matter how hard we try, we aren’t making progress.

If so, try something different. You’ll have fun – and probably an adrenaline rush, although you don’t necessarily have to pin on your brave badge. Your horse could benefit, too, even if you need to leave him at home and borrow an equine specialist.

Here are some suggestions – if you have others, we’d love to hear them.

Cantering through the stubble fields. Last week, I persuaded one of my nearest and dearest to enjoy what was meant to be a leisurely poddle around nearby stubble fields. He hadn’t ridden for two years, but which of us wanted to canter? You’ve guessed it.
A lot of riders might sneer at this, but cantering in a big, open space on a willing but obedient horse is a huge confidence booster. And yes, the going was great and that canter did go up a gear…

Try side-saddle on a schoolmaster. It’s brilliant for your posture, which will have a knock-on effect when you go back to riding astride, and you can’t help but feel elegant in a side-saddle habit. For those of us of a certain age, there’s also a chance to wear a veil and hide the wrinkles.
Seriously, many riders say they feel more secure when riding side-saddle. Some people with back problems say they are more comfortable sideways than astride.
Myth number one: it’s for people who don’t jump. Forget that, there are ladies who show-jump and team chase sideways. In 2013, Michaela Bowling set a new British side-saddle high jump record by clearing 6ft 3in. Her horse, Laughing Larry, is blind in one eye.
Myth number two: it’s only for women. Male grooms traditionally trained horses to take a side-saddle so their lady employers could ride them safely. Nowadays, women are doing it for themselves, but there are still men who ride side-saddle to preserve the tradition, or because they’ve suffered leg injuries.

Go Western. Experts say learners develop an independent seat and find their balance faster and more easily if they ride Western. If you ride astride, it reminds you not to rely on your reins. And if you ever get the chance to ride a trained reining horse, take it. Those spins and sliding stops are unbelievable.

Play polo. I’ll skip over this one. I loved the polo pony my polo taster day instructor gave me, but had an insurmountable problem: I couldn’t hit the ball. That aside, it’s great for improving your focus and reactions. In my case, apart from when you want to hit the ball.
I’m told that horseball is also a lot of fun. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable can reassure me that it isn’t rugby on horseback.

Hunting. Whether you want to be a thruster who tackles huge hedges or someone who toodles along at the back of the field, hopefully you’ll find that those who go out regularly will be friendly, welcoming and encouraging.
Most horses love hunting. You’ll probably feel the same way.

Ride on a beach. However far you have to travel to reach one, just check the tide tables and do it. My favourite is Holkham beach, Norfolk. If you time it right during the summer, you might see members of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment riding their fabulous black horses.

Where’s your favourite beach? Send us a postcard, or post a picture…