Monthly Archives: November 2017

All he wants for Christmas…

What does your horse want for Christmas? No, I haven’t made a quick start on the sloe gin, it’s a serious question.

As the shopping countdown starts, those in the know suggest that glitter quarter marker kits – including one that looks as if a Christmas fairy has landed on your horse’s backside – and bling with everything will be top of many owners’ shopping lists. Smaller riders will no doubt be clamouring for unicorn horns that attach to pony browbands.

Bah humbug. My boys will get a big bag of carrots from me and probably some gift-wrapped Polo mints from a family member who has established this as a tradition. However, I must admit that I fancy a pair of rein sleeves with jingle bells to give atmosphere to our Christmas Day hack – simply because it helps establish a good rhythm, you understand.

Given the choice between a browband studded with sparkly crystals, bells on his reins and a bag of carrots, I reckon every horse would go for the crunch rather than the bling or ring. But if you want to indulge yourself and think you’re doing your horse a favour, go ahead!

Just don’t take one company’s advice that you should buy your horse a present this Christmas if he’s been well-behaved or won rosettes. I’m sure it’s meant light-heartedly – if not, how do they recommend you should treat the children in your family?

Of course you should want to do the best for your horse. If he needs a new rug and it makes you happy to re-brand a necessity as a Christmas present, feel free. If not, treat yourself to an extra lesson or clinic, because your horse will feel the benefit as much as you do.

But if you want to make sure your horse has not just a happy Christmas but a happy life, remember the principles enshrined in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which requires you to ensure that any horse, donkey, pony or mule for which you are responsible:

  • Has a suitable environment in which to live.
  • Has a healthy diet.
  • Is able to behave normally.
  • Has appropriate company
  • Is protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease


Happy Christmas, with or without a sparkly browband or jingle bell reins.

Saving our heritage

When dressage and showing classes for ridden heavy horses were introduced, social media was awash with disparaging comments. One of the kindest labelled them as “gimmicks” – and one of the cruellest referred to “elephants in tutus”.

Critics have egg on their faces, as the classes are hugely popular and standards are high. But heavies, along with breeds ranging from the Cleveland Bay to some of our most prized native pony breeds, are on a rollercoaster path to survival – so the more riders realise the huge talent they offer, the better.

This year, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust predicted that our iconic heavy horse breeds could die out within ten years. The Suffolk Punch is on its critical list, with fewer than 300 registered breeding females in the UK, whilst Clydesdales are vulnerable (500-900) and Shires are at risk (900-1500).

That’s bad enough, but how many people realise that the Cleveland Bay, Dales pony, Eriskay pony and Hackney horse and pony are also on that critical list? Or that the Dartmoor and Exmoor breeds are endangered, and Fells and Highlands are vulnerable?

Even the New Forest pony is at risk. If you drive through the New Forest, you might not believe that, especially when you have to wait whilst ponies amble across the road.

These animals aren’t just part of our heritage. In some cases, they shape it.

Last year, naturalist Chris Packham claimed that ponies were destroying the biodiversity of the New Forest and criticised the system which allows those with commoner status to graze ponies there. Natural England’s Jenny Thomas said she was more worried about the loss of commoning, rather than too many ponies being grazed.

She said the New Forest was “the last remaining stronghold” of several plant species that would otherwise be lost, and which only grow where there is heavy trampling from grazing animals. That’s also why Exmoor ponies are used for conservation grazing.

It’s easy to say that more people ought to breed these animals to preserve our heritage, but they need to be bred for a purpose and to be fit for that purpose. We’ll never return to the days

Image credit: Carolyn Henderson

when horses worked the land as a matter of course – though if you get the chance to see skilled practitioners in a ploughing match, don’t miss it – but we should be aware of their value for riding and driving.

That may mean that breeds must evolve, without losing vital traits. When I started reporting on showing classes for Horse and Hound in the 1980s, Exmoor ponies were inevitably straight in the shoulder and when you sat on one, it was as if its ears were in your mouth. Similarly, many New Forest ponies had straight shoulders and big heads that were out of proportion to their frames and you’d have been laughed out of the ring for suggesting that a Highland pony could canter.

Today, the best examples of these ponies epitomise quality, versatility and breed type. As long as we stick to those aims, and there are breeders dedicated and passionate enough to preserve them, we can hopefully keep them safe.

Don’t forget the value of partbreds, either. There is an argument that purebred mares should only be covered by purebred stallions, which I’ll leave to more knowledgeable people to debate. But why not cross a heavy horse stallion with, say, a Thoroughbred or warmblood mare?

We can’t all breed or buy animals to preserve bloodlines, nor should we breed field ornaments. But we can be open-minded and we should all heed the RBST’s call to support the National Livestock Gene Bank.

If we don’t collect genetic material from these breeds now, we’ll lose them forever. And then it might not be “Dead as a dodo” but “Dead as a Suffolk Punch”.

Creating the right image

Congratulations to Debbie Smith, who has won a BHS award for her work trying to help make riders safer on the roads, writes Carolyn Henderson.

When more than 100,000 people signed her petition calling for a legal requirement for drivers to go past a horse wide and slow, and to be compelled to abide by hand signals asking them to stop and slow down when asked, Parliament was obliged to debate the issue.

I doubt the law will be changed, if only because of the difficulty in enforcing proscribed width and speed restrictions, but we should all try to get drivers on our side. Most are – but it’s also up to us to make sure we don’t give the wrong impression.

We need to give our image a makeover. There are still too many people who think that all horse owners have big cheque books and a big sense of their own importance, when most of us go without things non-horsey folk take for granted to pay for our passion.

Just a smile can make all the difference, so when I drove past a young woman rider in textbook wide and slow fashion and she didn’t even make eye contact, I stopped in a safe place, got out and asked if she had a problem.

No, she said. Why would I think that?

I explained that because she didn’t acknowledge the fact that I’d slowed down, I thought she might be worried about something.

She shrugged, didn’t spot the sarcasm and said she was thinking about something else, so hadn’t noticed.

I suggested that she should notice, because she was causing problems for those of us who showed drivers that we appreciated their courtesy. You don’t even have to take a hand off the reins to show appreciation – so there’s no excuse.

We can’t assume that other road users understand that the quietest horse can spook occasionally, even though rule 215 of the Highway Code says: “Take great care and treat all horses as a potential hazard; they can be unpredictable, despite the efforts of their rider/driver.”

And yes, you will get the occasional moron who thinks that you’re using a hand signal request to slow down just to antagonise him or her. Again, the Highway Code is on our side and tells drivers: “Look out for horse riders’ and horse drivers’ signals and heed a request to slow down or stop.”

Much of it is down to education, so maybe we should ask driving instructors not to just tell pupils to follow the code, but explain why. And yes, if a rider doesn’t acknowledge a learner’s efforts, maybe instructors should explain how getting the message across to learner drivers is good news for riders, and that courtesy on both sides helps keep us all safe.

I can see why so many riders are now wearing head cams. You can find frightening footage from these, showing what happens when drivers don’t think – or think that riders shouldn’t be on the roads.

Without being stroppy for the sake of it, we have as much right to be on the roads as any other user. We need to protect that right – which is why we should all thank Debbie Smith – but we need to monitor our behaviour as well as that of the drivers we meet.

Horses for courses

Being in the wrong job is miserable. If you’re stuck in an office when you’d rather be outside, or crunching numbers when you’re longing to be creative, you’ll know what it’s like.

So, what’s it like for a horse to be in a similar situation? Obviously, horses don’t grow up dreaming of career paths, even if they’re bred to race or have top showjumping or dressage bloodlines. But because their owners choose what they do, there are times when horses can be square pegs in round holes and owners need to think about their horses’ needs rather than their own ambitions.

There are racehorses who don’t want to race, dressage horses who go sour at the sight of white boards and showjumpers whose pedigrees spell out the promise of ability but who appear to have very little in real life. How much of that is due to poor training, over-drilling and/or bad experiences is another topic for debate.

Likewise, how many disappointments are down to riders who buy an expensive horse with the magic P-word – potential – but don’t have the experience or talent to bring it out?

The flipside is the riders who spot special talent in a horse who just wasn’t meant to do what he’s doing, let alone do it so brilliantly. Steph Croxford’s unlikely dressage star, Mr President, was part Hackney, part Gelderlander and part warmblood and was meant to be a driving horse. He – and, fortunately, Steph – realised that his talents belonged in another area.

Then there are the ponies who somehow find the scope to power around huge courses, or even reach the top in eventing: horses like Marion Coakes’ showjumper and Olympic silver medallist, Stroller, or Karen O’Connor’s Theodore O’Connor (Teddy), a 147cm pony who was part Thoroughbred, part Arab and, unbelievably, part Shetland pony. The latter pair was shortlisted for the USA Olympic team but sadly, Teddy had to be put down after a freak accident at home.

Unfortunately, horses who defy the odds are much rarer than horses who fall foul of them. While any horse should be capable of working in balance on the flat and over schooling fences, there are times when the two halves of a partnership are best suited to different things.

In that situation, there are two options. One is to find the horse a new home with a like-minded rider. The second is to switch your focus to the area in which your horse excels – and some people prefer to do that rather than part company. Either way, you both need to be happy.

If you’ve switched disciplines to keep your horse happy, or have uncovered unexpected talent, we’d love to hear about it!