Category Archives: Articles

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.

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.




50% EXTRA FREE this May.

We are offering 50% extra free on some super supplements that are perfect for your horse this season…


Provides Chastetree Berry, a herbal element known for supporting the pituitary gland combined with nutritional support for hoof, skin and coat health maintaining a healthy immune system and hormone balance for general health and well-being.

For more information, or to BUY NOW click here. 



A blend of natural ingredients to help support skin health, especially in horses or ponies prone to poor coat condition, challenged skin and sensitivity.


For more information, or to BUY NOW click here.



A unique blend of herbs used for generations to support and maintain normal hormone balance in mares, especially during the spring and summer months.


For more information, or to BUY NOW click here. 



The original natural calmer providing magnesium, B vitamins and calming herbs, to maintain a healthy nervous system of fizzy and excitable horses without reducing performance.


For more information, or to BUY NOW click here. 



That’s not all! Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, you can also get up to £20 off your order with our Spring Offer!

For more, go to or call freephone 0800 585 525.

All orders include FREE next working day delivery**.









Terms and conditions: Order online at For telephone orders please call 0800 585 525 / 01986 782368. 50% extra free offers valid from 02/05/2017 until 31/05/2017. Spring money saving offer valid from 03/04/2017 until 31/05/2017: £10 off of an order of £50 or more after any discounts have been applied; £15 off of an order of £75 or more after any discounts have been applied; £20 off of an order of £100 or more after any discounts have been applied. **Free next working day delivery applies to the UK only, but it may take longer to reach Highlands and Islands.

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.

Let’s look after our riding schools


Can you remember your first riding lesson? Mine was light years ago, but I can still remember every detail, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

The small riding school in Lincolnshire was run by two dedicated sisters called Daphne and June. They introduced me to a 12.2hh strawberry roan pony called Amigo and explained that I’d learn not just how to ride, but how to tack up, groom and muck out.

When my Dad told them I could draw a saddle and bridle and label every part, and knew the name of every piece of grooming equipment and what it was for, they nodded in approval.

There was so much to take in on that first lesson. At the end, Daphne told me I must pat Amigo’s neck to thank him; the poor pony must have thought he was being patted to death.

Lots of you will have similar memories of special riding school ponies. But will your children or grandchildren have the same chances?

Unless you’re born into an equestrian family and are brought up in jodhpurs, a riding school offers the only chance of getting close to horses and ponies. Yet riding schools are under threat because of massive hikes in business rates and insurance cover, the latter due to a change in the law.

What happened to all those official declarations about riding being such a valuable activity? And what happened to all those promises about the Olympic legacy?

Times change and businesses have to adapt. Many riding schools no longer take pupils on hacks because the roads around them are too busy. And whilst some of us saw graduating from a school’s safe starter ponies to feistier ones as a badge of honour, today’s riding school owners know that some clients have their solicitors on speed dial in case their children fall off – which means feisty ponies are out of a job and children miss out.

Those who run riding schools do it for love. They certainly can’t do it to get rich – you only have to look at the costs of feed, bedding and shoeing, let alone rates and insurance, to work that out.

The latest British Horse Society statistics show that there are just under 900 BHS-approved centres worldwide. Prices vary, but private lesson prices starting at about £20 for half an hour. At one legendary school, you can have a 45-minute lesson on a dressage schoolmaster, with an equally legendary instructor, for about £80.

At my local cinema, it costs £20 for an adult and one child to see a film. So how come we still hear claims that riding is an expensive, elitist sport?

Unfortunately, until the powers that be wake up to the fact that riding schools should be treasured and helped, not rated out of existence, that’s what will happen. Some schools will close and others will have to put up prices so much, a lot of families won’t be able to afford them.

I hope things change, and that the children in your family have the chance to meet their equivalent of Amigo.




Why ‘some old guy’ means so much to everyone.

Even those who don’t know one end of a horse from another have probably heard that showjumping stars Nick Skelton and Big Star are retiring, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

The announcement flooded across websites and social media and made mainstream TV. That’s important, just as it was when our dressage riders at the London Olympics wowed those who didn’t know a Piaffe from a pit stop, and the non-horsey world became aware of dancing horses.

It’s an irresistible story – the 58-year-old man who is lucky to be alive, let alone ride. In 2000, Nick fractured his first cervical vertebra in two places, an injury known as the hangman’s break, and was told that another fall could be fatal. In 2016, he and Big Star captured the general public’s imagination, and now they’ve done it again.

Nick Skelton and Big Star jump to Olympic Gold in the individual final at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 19th August 2016.

When asked to sum up why so many fell in love with his story, Nick was down to earth and disarming. “I think it’s the age factor,” he said. “Some old guy doing what I did ended up winning gold.”

As an afterthought, he added: “If you want something, and you fight for it, you will get it.” Many will say that’s not true, but if you’re realistic, it should be.

So let’s hope that the widely publicised retirement of Nick and Big Star will prompt a few more people to wonder if there might be something in this horse riding stuff, after all. If some of those aren’t in the first flush of youth, that’s even better.

Few people can power round huge showjumping courses when they’re Nick’s age – with apologies to John and Michael Whitaker, of course, who are slightly older. Whatever they’ve got, they should bottle it and sell it.

But just about anyone of any age can learn to ride, or pick up the reins after a long break. Don’t be worried about looking silly, because if contemporaries take notice, it will be in envy and admiration.

As for the partnership’s personal futures, there is a popular educated guess. Nick’s son, Dan, is a racehorse trainer in his fourth season and before that, spent nine years as assistant trainer to Paul Nicholls. What’s the betting that Nick will be spreading some of his expertise around his son’s already successful yard?

Big Star is set to concentrate on what stallions do. If you have a worthy mare and want to breed a Big Star baby, now could be your chance – just don’t get trampled in the rush.

Finally, there is still hope for those of us who don’t bounce as well as we used to. Nick might be hanging up his competition boots, but John Whitaker, who will be 62 in August and his  57-year-old brother, Michael, can still show younger riders how it’s done.

Andrew Nicholson at Burghley Horse Trials. Credit:

In the world of eventing, Andrew Nicholson, aged 55, is a name younger riders fear. So too is Sir Mark Todd, aged 61.

Remember what the man said. If you want it, and fight for it, you’ll get it.

Keeping traditions in the right place.

We horsey folk live in a funny old world, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. Sometimes, it seems like an alternative universe.

While everyone else has been pounding keyboards over Brexit, sections of the horse world have been getting hot under the collar over dressage riders wearing brightly coloured boots and show horses sporting the wrong browbands. The latter might sound like a Wallace and Gromit film, but feelings run high.

Adult side-saddle riders usually wear silk hats or bowlers when showing. Image: Carolyn Henderson.

It all comes down to tradition. In some cases, there are acceptable reasons behind mysterious rules – for instance, chunky show cobs wearing brightly coloured, ribbon-bedecked browbands look like elephants wearing tutus, whilst plain leather bridles with broad nosebands and browbands complement their workmanlike looks.

I’ve been writing about horses long enough to remember the days when wearing the wrong boots in the show ring was the equivalent to riding in your PJs. I’ve passed on professional show riders’ tips about having garter straps sewn to the tops of your boots and counting the number of plaits your horse should sport.

For the record, garter straps go back to the days when breeches were made from non-stretch fabric. They were designed to help keep your boots up, and your breeches legs down.

And while we’re playing Trivial Pursuit, tradition dictates that there should be an odd number of plaits down the horse’s neck, plus one for the forelock. Perfectionists always aimed for nine, but although gurus now advise putting in as many plaits as suit your horse’s conformation, the style police won’t arrest you if you have the “wrong” number.

As new enthusiasts from non-horsey background entered the equestrian world, many traditions were questioned or ignored. Dressage riders started it with blinged-up browbands, and when Charlotte Dujardin admitted that she “loved a bit of bling” the rest of us felt no guilt about releasing our inner divas.

Some traditions were made to be broken, and I’m glad they’ve gone. After dandy brushes at dawn on social media pages, showing riders accepted that in most cases, they had to wear hats with three-point safety harnesses.

Charlotte Dujardin chooses a safety hat. Image: Kit Houghton.

Common sense prevails in dressage and eventing, too. Even riders who are permitted to wear top hats often choose to wear stylish safety helmets instead. That includes the lovely Charlotte Dujardin, who sets trends as well as breaks records.

I wouldn’t wear bright blue boots in the dressage arena, but I can’t find a sensible reason why anyone who wants to should be permitted from doing so. The 2017 British Dressage members’ handbook makes no stipulation on the colour of riders’ boots, and says: “As long as the core dress rules are adhered to, embellishments and additions to any item of dress are permitted as long as they do not pose a welfare risk to the horse.”

So, is tradition best consigned to the dustbin? Not always.

At one time, competitors were always polite to judges and officials, even if they went home and moaned about people with failing eyesight. Private moans stayed within a small circle because that, of course, was before social (or anti-social) media had been invented and people didn’t need reminding to engage their brains before they engaged their keyboard fingers.

Some traditions are rooted in safety. Riding left hand to left hand when two or more horses are in a school avoids accidents, as does jumping practice fences only from the direction where the red marker is on your right. Yet some riders either don’t know, or don’t care.

Traditional values of courtesy and common sense? Yes please.

Tradition for its own sake? It’s up to the individual. But whatever side of the fence you choose, please be kind to each other.