Author Archives: Penny Church

May the Luck Continue!

We have been having the most wonderful time here at Castle Hill Stables, with all the horses running their absolute socks off over the last fortnight. In our last 15 runners, only two have finished out of the top 4, and they have all tried their hearts out, allowing us to reach the ‘hot list’ of trainers all this week.

The Doorman was given a couple of days in the field to relax after his wonderful victory at Carlisle, before proceeding to take off with Alice on his return to the gallops. Clearly in good order, the decision was made to take him to Sedgefield (left) to see if he could double up in the Novice hurdle there five days later. His travel companion, Cup Final, was also trying for back for back wins in Novice Chases, but ended up running a very gallant race to take 2nd over a trip that would be well short of his ideal conditions. However, he learned plenty more about jumping bigger obstacles, and there is definitely more to come in this sphere from him.

Back to the Door, after giving all of us and his wonder jockey Richie McLernon a heart attack at the first when he decided to plough through it (luckily his size meant this was not much of an issue!), he was flawless after that, taking up the running at the second last to cruise to another victory by 2 and a half lengths. He was extremely pleased with himself after this, and delighted that it meant more field time! Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and he ran a good 3rd at Hexham last night under a lot of weight to end his winning streak, but was certainly not disgraced. He will have a nice little break now to freshen him up, and a chase campaign may well await him later in the summer – if Alice lets him, he currently seems to be covered in cotton wool!

Call The Cops, Dursey Sound and Hawkhurst have also been picking up prize money over the jumps in the last couple of weeks, and all are progressing nicely and appreciating the better ground.

We then moved back onto the flat at Newcastle, where Rey Loopy (right) was heading back to a nice straight course after looking a little lost last time out around Kempton’s bends – he is, after all, 17hh of lanky three year old legs so we can’t really blame him! He was looking superb in the run up to the race, and his front end had finally caught up with his massive back end, so we were all hopeful of a nice showing from a horse we have always had faith in. A huge, backwards type, his owners have shown great patience with him, and boy did he reward them! Tucked in behind a wall, everyone was hopping around praying for a gap, and when it came a furlong out boy did he fly! Paul Mulrennan cruised up looking supremely confident, and they demolished the field by 3 1/2 eased down lengths. We were over the moon to give the wonderful Daniel Shapiro and David Clifford a first win in their Porima colours, and I think the celebrations could be heard the other side of Newcastle! It was also a first ever win for the Wood family who are in him, so big smiles all round! He has been given a rather hefty 11lb rise, but I would like to think their is still a fair amount of improvement to come from him. He may run at Musselburgh on Friday, but that will be ground dependent.

Once we had all come back down to earth, Daniel and David’s colours were given another airing when worn by Time For Treacle (left, with a very happy Andy!) at Leicester a couple of nights later. She is also owned by John Milner, Marcus Rees and Bob Michealson. Very disappointing on her first outing, when hanging violently left and basically not joining the race even a tiny bit, we weren’t sure what to expect here and she was very much written off by the commentators beforehand, who were very rude about this sweet little filly! Robbie Fitzpatrick, who rides out a lot here, and knows her well, was in the saddle, and he gave her an absolute peach – she jumped well and stayed straight as a die, staying on really well to take 3rd and earning herself an apology from the TV pundits! We were over the moon with her, and on that evidence she should be very capable of picking up a race this year.

Moon Over Rio and Megan Nicholls were up next, and boy did they try their hearts out! Megan gave her a lovely ride, tracking the favourite the whole way round, who was only rated 33lbs higher than our little filly after all… Anyway, our little mare certainly gave him something to think about, mounting a huge challenge in the final furlong to just miss out on the winner’s spot and take 2nd. It was a lovely run from her for the Blue Lion Syndicate, and hopefully we will find her a winnable opportunity soon.

So, as you can see, it’s been pretty good all round here and spirits are high, with a celebratory BBQ in the offering tomorrow night for the hard working staff who have been flat out recently! May the luck continue, and hopefully I will have more good news for you next week!

Until next time,

Dance

Groomed for stardom

Behind every great horse, there’s a great groom, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. Top riders know and appreciate that – it’s why Valegro’s groom, Alan Davies, has become a celebrity in his own right.

It’s also one reason why Valegro’s rider, Charlotte Dujardin, has become patron of the British Grooms Association. After all, she started her working life as a groom on a dressage yard, aged 16, and look where it led.

Carl Hester, Charlotte Dujardin and groom Alan Davies with Valegro. Image: Kit Houghton

Many youngsters dream of working with horses. Many parents don’t want them to, fearing that they’ll spend all day shovelling you-know-what and being paid the financial equivalent.

There’s another side to the story, though. I spent a day last week on a top yard, where the horses are happy and beautifully cared for and where two of the stable staff clock up more than 40 years between them as members of a close team.

So why does the owner of that yard – and several of its counterparts, across the disciplines – say how difficult it is to get good staff?

One show producer says that every time she interviews potential staff, many applicants expect to be allowed to compete her horses in the ring as soon as they start. That’s like applying for a job as a shop assistant and turning up on your first day expecting to be the manager.

In defence of that owner, staff who show aptitude do get the chance to compete, once they’ve proved themselves. Unfortunately, many applicants don’t want to work at weekends, which sort of rules out the opportunity…

Another yard owner, this time in the eventing world, blames colleges for building what he calls “ridiculous expectations”. He says students leave college expecting to find jobs as yard managers rather than being prepared to work their way up.

He, like most riders at the top of their game, has his own ways of doing things. For instance, he likes his horses to be fed hay from the floor so they mimic grazing posture. He didn’t like the bright young thing who told him he should use haynets because his way was wasteful.

It’s easy and unfair to have a go at colleges, many of whom do a great job. If students have ambition, colleges should encourage them, albeit in a realistic way.

There must also be many cases of grooms being undervalued, underpaid and overworked. Working with horses is never going to be a nine to five job and plum posts are hard to find, but there’s no justification for grooms being exploited.

By all means dream of becoming talent-spotted to become the next Charlotte Dujardin, but unless you’ve got that talent, plus a lot of luck, be prepared to settle for another role. Being a groom doesn’t have mean being second-best.

Dream foals and breeding nightmares

Baby pictures are popping up on everyone’s news feed, and we’re all enjoying an overload of cuteness, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

Naturally, we’re talking foals. The human kind are adorable if they belong to you or someone in your family, but are not universally irresistible. Foals, however, are guaranteed to capture your heart.

If you have a nice mare, it’s tempting to imagine what her offspring would be like even if imagination is as far as it can go. Hopefully, horror stories about unwanted, dumped youngstock and advice about responsible breeding from welfare organisations have hit home.

But what do you do if you can tick all the boxes that make you a responsible breeder – and it all goes wrong? What do you do if you put your 15.2hh eventing mare to a 16.1hh eventing stallion and get not a potential 4* horse, but a 14hh pony? Or you breed a foal with glaring conformation faults?

Both scenarios can happen. A friend who found herself in the first situation put it down to the fact that her mare was out of a 14hh show hunter pony mare, and genetics decided to go back a generation. Instead of the foal being her future ride, it became her daughter’s.

The second was highlighted in a discussion group by an owner who posted a picture of her three-year-old homebred. The filly was back at the knee, a fault which puts tendons under extra strain, and had weak hindquarters and straight shoulders. Yet both the dam and the sire had correct conformation and had competed at top level.

There are lots of horses with bad conformation giving lots of pleasure to their owners. But while you can buy what you choose, you can’t choose what you breed. You can only do your research and hope for the best, which is why they say that fools breed horses for wise men to ride.

There is no such thing as a perfect horse and there are plenty of badly conformed ones giving pleasure and even success to their riders. Unfortunately, they are less likely to stay sound and more likely to cause heartbreak.

The owner of the three-year-old above said that before she put her mare in foal, she told herself that whatever she bred, she would do the best for it. She intends to back and educate the filly and find her a loan home with a light workload; she won’t sell her, because she wants to make sure she’s safe.

Image credit to World Horse Welfare.

What a brilliant owner, and what a lucky filly. Compare her with the poor colt foal (pictured) who was dumped and left to die, just days old, in a Norfolk forest. If he hadn’t been spotted by a local farmer, he would have had no hope. As it is, he has a long way to go despite being taken in and given round the clock care by staff at World Horse Welfare.

So, enjoy the foal pictures and videos – we’d love to see them. If you’re making plans for the patter of tiny hooves, good luck.

Every newborn foal represents a dream. I hope yours come true, but please plan for every eventuality.

Annie and Fantom Meet Her Majesty The Queen!

Well, I was right; plans did change!

After Hardy’s ride in Dorset I was so pleased with Dilmun’s fitness that I was happy to continue his preparation for Windsor.  However, on increasing the canter work both in terms of distance and speed, it became apparent that Dilmun was simply not ‘up for it’.  He has never particularly enjoyed monotonous canter work as he has quite a low boredom threshold and this year he was almost resentful of being asked to canter either round and round the cross country course or up and down the beach.  I feel that, even if we had some gallops in Cornwall, he would not enjoy them after the first session.

In the meantime, Fantom’s canter work had been increased to match Dilmun’s and was going really well.  A comparison of heart rates after the same piece of canter work showed Fantom’s recovery rate to be much quicker and his attitude spoke volumes – spooking at jumps, bunny hops and so on.  It was an easy decision to make a substitution and enter Fantom instead of Dilmun to compete at Windsor.

Poor little Chiara had a minor accident, slipping on some concrete and cutting her hock.  Although nothing serious, this wound has taken a long time to heal being almost on the point of the hock but it is now nearly healed over and work has recommenced.  Her next outing will be a 40 kms local ride where I intend to up the speed a little to prepare her for her first 1* in early July.

Dilmun has not been forgotten; indeed he would never let himself be forgotten!  He did another 40 kms ride locally a week ago to consolidate the fitness he had and with the intention of pushing a little faster.  Because it was a competition, he loved it storming around at a much faster speed and finishing with a pulse of 37 beats per minute and proving that his fitness had much improved.  He too will go to a local ride in about three weeks’ time with a view to doing a longer distance to prepare him for 80 kms races later in the season.

Back to Fantom and, wow what a horse!  We duly went off to Royal Windsor to compete in the CEI 1*.  There was a good International entry and we were really looking forward to it.  As we were required by the squad to complete an 80 kms race prior to selection, this was perfect.  However, it meant riding carefully, not too fast and no risky racing finishes.

I had decided previously to ride at around 18 kph at a fairly even pace in order to put in a good solid performance.  The ride went totally to plan completing at just over 18 kph with the fastest presentation times of the day and, to top it off, we came 3rd!

Now for the really good bit: the following day the first five competitors from each class travelled in convoy to the main Royal Windsor showground where we were escorted into the main arena and our prizes were presented to us by HM the Queen and the King of Bahrain!  Fantom, who accompanied me in hand, had been a little fidgety waiting to go into the arena but as soon as he saw the Queen he stood stock still, ears pricked: I was so proud of him.  It was a very emotional occasion but a moment that I will hold dear all my life.

I have had so much support to get to this from my crew: husband Robert, Jo and Andrew Chisholm and crew for the day, Jenny and Bob.  Also Feedmark, my wonderful sponsor, who provided all the amazing supplements to keep Fantom performing to his very best ability and, of course, I owe it all to the amazing horse Fantom is.

Now, back to Cornwall and to the daily task of preparing for the next competition.  Fantom is at rest for a few weeks and Dilmun and Chiara are coming back into full work.  The ancient Wizard is now on holiday for the summer which he seems happy enough about.

Here’s to our riding royals

When non-horsey people see pictures of the Queen out riding, or Prince Philip driving his team of ponies, they have one of three reactions, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

  • How do they manage it? After all, Her Majesty is 91 and HRH is 96 in June.
  • Surely it’s too dangerous at their age – shouldn’t someone stop them?
  • Why do they ride/drive those funny little black things instead of proper horses?

The basic answers are:

  • Our monarch and her consort know that if horses have been part of your life, you need to keep them in it for as long as possible. If I reach 91, I hope to celebrate in the saddle.
  • Riding is a risk sport, but life will be shorter and a lot less fun if you let age rather than ability and inclination dictate when you hang up your boots or whip. Riding is undoubtedly a lot safer if you wear a hat or helmet rather than a headscarf, but that’s a different debate.
  • Those “funny little black things” are Fell ponies. The Queen’s favourite is called Carltonlima Emma and the mare has been immortalised by model horse specialists Breyer. As I discovered when a representative of the breed joined our family, you can have as much fun with the right Fell pony as you can with a horse. You might need a sense of humour sometimes, but laughter is the best medicine.

It comes down to the fact that horses are good for you. As various bigwigs have said, the best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse. They should have said ‘man or woman’, but as 75% – 80% of the UK’s riding population is female, we’ll take that as a given.

Riding and looking after horses is good for your physical and mental well-being. On a practical level, it gets you outdoors, works muscles, builds co-ordination and balance and burns calories.

The mental benefits of riding and being around horses are priceless. When you focus your attention on your horse, you focus it away from irritations, pressures and problems. Even if it’s only for a short time, you give your brain a break – and when you go back to those problems, you’re better placed to deal with them.

A friend with a high-powered, stressful job gets up at 5am every weekday to look after and exercise her horse before she leaves for work. She calls it her sanity time, which many people will relate to, and says that even though she could afford full livery, she doesn’t want to – she’d
rather have that time getting in tune with her horse.

In her working life, she’s a powerful high-flyer.Her horse doesn’t care about how important she is, and perhaps that’s another reason why our Queen and other members of the royal family are so passionate about their horses – whether they be racehorses, event horses or Fell ponies.

A horse won’t flatter you or react in a way calculated to impress you. He doesn’t care who you are, what you earn or how important your role is perceived to be.

Horses are great levellers, as members of the royal family who compete often point out. That’s the beauty of them, and that’s why I hope the Queen will celebrate her next birthday with a hack on Carltonlima Emma.

Facing up to a horse in pain.

There are two things that riders should think twice about saying, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. One is “My horse is being naughty” and the other is “My horse always goes like that.”

You may disagree, and you may phrase the first observation in stronger terms. But before you’re tempted to think that your horse is refusing to canter on the left lead because he wants to wind you up, or fidgets when you want to mount because he feels like behaving badly, look at some brilliant research from one of the UK’s top equine vets.

Signs of pain include wide eyes, ear position, and head twisting.

Dr Sue Dyson, the Animal Health Trust’s head of clinical orthopaedics, has developed an ethogram to help identify changes in a ridden horse’s facial expression. These changes can help identify signs of pain – and may help some people discover that their “naughty” horse is, in fact, lame.

While most people should be able to spot obvious lameness, low grade problems can challenge all but specialist vets. If a horse is 1/10 or 2/10 lame, a rider may put it down to reluctance to go forward or insist that a horse is “bridle lame” – and that’s another term to argue about.

As Dr Dyson points out, if pain-related problems are dismissed as behavioural glitches, a horse will continue in work and the problem will get progressively worse. His owner may not seek veterinary advice until months down the line, when treatment may be more difficult, more expensive and have less chance of success.

What she’s found out is that lay people – and even some vets – find it easier to identify changes in a horse’s facial expression and head position than to spot subtle lameness. Her ethogram is a catalogue of facial expressions including the ears, eyes, nose, muzzle, mouth and head position – not to be confused with a hypothesis that facial characteristics can be used to categorise

This horse had a pain score of 3 for its mouth. (AHT)

horses as right or left-brained introverts or extroverts.

In its first stage of testing, the ethogram was applied successfully by people from different backgrounds, who studied photographs of horses’ heads while they were ridden. In the second stage, the ethogram was used to distinguish between sound and lame horses. During this phase, a pain score from 0 – 3 was applied to each of the facial expressions, then totalled to determine an overall pain score for each horse.

Dr Dyson used 519 photos of horses and ponies, ranging from children’s ponies to advanced competition horses, which she had categorised as lame or sound. A total of 27,407 facial markers was recorded, with results showing that there was a scientifically significant difference in pain scores given by the assessor for clinically lame and sound horses.

The fact that a horse lays back his ears when another invades his space doesn’t, of course, mean that he is lame. But by focusing on this range of expressions, Dr Dyson has proved that the ethogram is a clear indicator of pain which owners, riders and trainers could apply.

Even more exciting, she and her team are working on a “whole horse” ethogram that could give even clearer indications that a horse is in pain. What better way to help us face up to our responsibilities as owners?

If you’d like to find out more, watch this video of Dr Sue Dyson discussing the research.

 

 

 

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Dance updates us on the world of racing.

The beginning of last week saw a huge flurry of activity here at Castle Hill, with the arrival of the Middleham Open Day. We were also very lucky to be entertained over the weekend by a visit from Lynn and Gary from Trojan Horse, as well as Hazel and John Palmer from the Ontoawinner family, which was a huge amount of fun! Poor old Hazel and John then had to go watch Vaux (Henry) run at Redcar on Monday, the same day as the Open Day, where Henry’s tremendous run of bad luck continued when he was almost bought down by a faller during the race. He did very well to keep his feet, and all credit must go to Graham Lee for keeping him safe, and both did very well to run on to finish mid-division. This lad must be due a mountain of good luck soon!

Back to the Open Day, Racing Welfare should be very proud of the show they put on. The yards were rammed, and our very own bar, selling Middleham Beer, was extremely popular! Us horses all behaved beautifully, and I was naturally the receiver of a lot of visitors and compliments! We were also very proud of all our lads, and were sent many compliments after the event on their insightful chats with the guests. Particular thanks must go to Stuart, Chris and Mr Mole (left, Stuart and Mole), who had quite the crowd around them all day! After the stables closed, the local pony club came in and the lads took part in a hugely competitive competition involving running, riding and gymkhana. Whilst we didn’t win, despite my awesome coaching, Madi, Tabs and Stuart did us proud and the whole event was an enormous amount of fun.

It has also been a grand week for Cup Final, who travelled down to Southwell on Friday for his Chase debut, after listening to plenty of advice from yours truly! In an expert piece of placing from Ben (also known as blind luck…), Cup had the perfect race to start in, having only one runner to go against. I think I need one of those! He jumped brilliantly after taking a bit of a leap at the open ditch, and the faster they went the better he got, before giving us all a heart attack round the home bend when he started to come heavily off the bridle. A 3 miler, the 2 miles was a little sharp for him, but his class won out in the end, and after jumping the last in front, he was well on top coming past the finishing post to give himself the perfect start over the bigger obstacles. Richie McLernon was, as ever, superb, and it was fantastic to get another win on the board for JP McManus. It was also a relief for Sam McCullagh (right, with Cup) to finally lead up his first winner, and June was very pleased with her charge who she rides every day at home!

Our other runners have been mixed, with a bit of frustration occurring on some days this week! The ground was too firm for me at Sedgefield, so I looked after myself and came home safely in a perfectly respectful 4th place. You aren’t in this game as long as I have been without knowing when to push and when not too, believe me!! Giant (Giant Redwood) made a silly novicey error and came down on his first run over hurdles, which was irritating as he is a quite brilliant jumper at home. However, I am sure he will learn from it and engage the landing gear next time! Wibble (Man Of La Mancha) jumped his jockey out the saddle on Sunday at Wetherby, before proceeding to pop over a chase fence – clearly he thinks hurdles are beneath him! George (Epeius) ran a decent race first time back on the grass at Thirsk, with everything happening a bit quickly for him in the early stages back on fast ground over 6 furlongs, but stayed on well to take 5th.

Until next time,

Dance

The real value of older horses

How much is a horse worth? Yes, this is a trick question – and there are several answers, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

The nicest is the one you hear from an owner whose horse is part of the family and regarded as priceless. These owners tend to be women, and they often have a T-shirt that proclaims: “He said it was me or the horse. We miss him”. Hands up, I’m one of them – although my husband bought me the T-shirt.

Another answer comes from a dealer friend. She reckons that a horse is worth whatever she can persuade someone to pay for him – and there is a logic to that, whether you’re talking about a horse to hack or a top class competition animal.

But however you assess market value, there’s an accepted tenet that most “ordinary” horses reach their prime market value when they are between seven and 10 years old. The reasoning is that by the time they get to seven, they’ve built up some experience and after that, accumulated wear and tear means they’re less likely to stay sound.

You can shoot holes in that argument remarkably easily. Younger horses can be just as prone to injury and its after-effects, while experience is only valuable if it’s good experience.

So why do so many riders still think that a horse in its teens isn’t worth considering? They could be missing a great opportunity.

One of my horses is 15 this year. Some readers will say that hardly counts as middle-aged and advances in nutrition and veterinary science back that up. His favourite hacking companion is an 18-year-old, ex-Grade A showjumper whom a friend bought as her first horse.

Hands up, I thought my friend was taking a huge risk. The vet who carried out a pre-purchase check found signs of an old injury, but thought the mare was suitable for low level Riding Club activities.

No one has told this lovely 17hh warmblood that she should be taking life more sedately. Watch her turn herself inside out when she’s loose-schooled, prick up her ears when she sees a jump and lengthen her stride out hacking and you’d take her for a horse half her age.

She still performs great flying changes and if you press the right buttons, you get the right results. For the first time in years – perhaps the first time ever – she’s hacking out, being treated like the princess she is and enjoying a varied lifestyle.

Treat older horses as individuals, rather than numbers, and you may be surprised at what they can offer and what you can achieve with them. There is a downside, of course, and that’s the fact that the older a horse is, the more likely it is that you will have to make difficult decisions at some stage.

The hardest decision of all is deciding when it’s time to do the last thing you can for his welfare. Retirement isn’t always an option for horses, owners, or both and old horses rarely die in their sleep. If you care about him, you’ll find the courage to do the right thing.

In the meantime, remember that with horses – and certainly with ponies, many of whom lead active lives well into their 20s – age is just a number, and can add up to many years of fun.

The perils of buying ponies.

Buying a horse for yourself is difficult enough, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. But when a friend asks you to help them find the ideal partner for their child, the challenge level shoots off the scale.

After negotiations between mother and 12-year-old daughter, we struck a compromise. It was a bit like the arguments you negotiate when buying school shoes; Mum wanted something safe, sensible and reasonably priced and daughter wanted something pretty, forward going and preferably palomino.

 

Once we’d compromised on coat colour and established that the potential rider’s idea of forward going was a pony that she didn’t have to kick, finding candidates should have been easy.

Unfortunately, there are sellers who either have no idea of their ponies’ temperament or stage of schooling or are simply dishonest. First, there was the one whose current young owner mysteriously wasn’t there to ride it. When we refused to let my friend’s daughter get on until we’d seen it ridden, the seller’s older daughter was roped in.

We watched what we had been assured was a paragon of virtue buck every time it was asked to canter, and realised that perhaps they had been hoping the extra weight would weigh the pony down.

Then there was the pony who went beautifully all the way down the arena, then spun and galloped back to the gate as fast as his 13.2hh legs would carry him. “Oh dear,” said his owner. “He’s never done that before.”

Perhaps not, but he wasn’t going to get the chance to do it again. We also discounted the pony who “only needed front shoes”, possibly because when you tried to pick up his hindleg, he tried to kick you.

Finally, we found a formidable-sounding lady with a New Forest pony for sale.  I grilled her and then she grilled me with equal determination.  When we met, it was like negotiating a treaty.

It worked. The pony was everything she said he was: a happy, cheerful chap who had nice balanced paces and reasonable conformation and popped willingly over small jumps.

The owner insisted that his potential new owner should groom him and tack him up, which was great, and he went nicely when ridden by her daughter. My friend’s daughter and the pony hit it off straight away and  a few days later, after a satisfactory pre-purchase vetting report, the deal was done.

I’m pleased we found her a pony she loves – bay with a white star is now infinitely superior to palomino – but depressed that there are sellers out there prepared to tell lies and risk the safety of a child.  These weren’t dodgy dealers, they were private sellers with children of their own.

Maybe they were prepared to put up with problems while the ponies were in their ownership, although I’m pretty sure the kicker and the one who napped in the school were being sold because of them. But while there’s no such thing as a bombproof pony, they were asked before we went to see them if their ponies had any problems or quirks.

Since when did it become acceptable to risk the safety of someone else’s child? If you can’t solve a problem, get help from someone who can.

Don’t just decide to pass it on and keep your fingers crossed. It isn’t fair on the pony – and it certainly isn’t fair on the children whose safety and confidence is compromised.