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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 he 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!

Make a fuss about fireworks

If you’re a horse or pet owner, chances are you hate fireworks because of the distress and even injury that they can cause to animals. Hopefully, you also share my loathing of Chinese lanterns, which can cause devastating harm to wild and domesticated animals as well as damaging property.

I’d love it if the sale of fireworks to individuals was banned and that “quiet” ones only could be used solely at licensed, organised events. As for Chinese lanterns, I’d be ecstatic if they were banned, full stop.

Am I the anti-social one? If so, I don’t care. I don’t think we in the UK enjoy fireworks. I think we’re caught up in a tradition that could be consigned to the history books without anyone feeling hard done by.

Think back to your childhood memories of Guy Fawkes Night, if it’s part of your family tradition. Do they give you a glow as warm as a crackling bonfire and a sense of history? Or are you more likely to remember loud noises, cold hands and feet and a sense that you weren’t really enjoying yourself?

For many people, Guy Fawkes Night is simply Bonfire Night. It isn’t really a commemoration of the failure of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, when activists planned to assassinate King James I and blow up the Houses of Parliament in the name of religious freedom.

Instead, it’s a chance to stand around a bonfire, eating jacket potatoes, sausages and toffee apples, washed down with mulled wine/beer/beverage of your choice. If that appeals, go ahead – but why not ditch the fireworks and save money and stress?

Every year, petitions to the government demanding restrictions or bans on the sale of fireworks are started on the government website. Every time a petition on petition.parliament.uk, attracts 10,000 signatures, the government must respond, while 100,000 signatures mean that the petition must be debated in parliament.

Such petitions regularly attract more than 100,000 signatures, so if you feel strongly, search for and sign current ones. If you think I’m curtailing your freedom of choice, and know that you only use fireworks responsibly, please remember the many who don’t and the heartbreak they can cause.

The only fireworks display I remember with pleasure was staged as part of a performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. It was held on a summer’s night at a stately home, well away from “ordinary” houses.

Unfortunately, I have a sharper memory of what happened to a neighbour’s mare six years ago. The organisers of a nearby event in a rural area forgot to warn neighbouring farms that they would be letting off loud fireworks for ten solid minutes and the mare, who was stabled, panicked.

She cut her eyelid, developed stress colic and was later found to have damaged a suspensory ligament. All that because of ten anti-social minutes.

Ever since, her owners have added a supplement designed to promote calmness to her winter regime. The memories of that ghastly night are so strong, they say they’re tempted to sprinkle it on their cornflakes.

These days, fireworks are everywhere and Guy Fawkes Night lasts for a fortnight. I appreciate that fireworks are part of Chinese New Year – after all, the Chinese are said to have invented them and 90 per cent of the fireworks we buy are made in China – but fireworks and those unspeakable Chinese lanterns at weddings, for heaven’s sake?

Stick to sparklers and let the happy couple make their own fireworks. They’ll have much more fun.

Words of wisdom

The best trainers know how to spark light bulb moments. With just a few words, they make you understand what others may have failed to get across.

A quote from legendary showjumping trainer George Morris is going viral. If you’re one of many struggling to see a stride, he has this to say…

“Distances are like men. Never take the first one you see, there will always be another one.”

Then there’s the wicked sense of humour from a dressage trainer desperate to get a female pupil to lengthen through her upper body…

“Headlights on!” Obviously, it only works with the female anatomy.

Or there’s the simple suggestion, again from a dressage trainer, to help a rider who produces fabulous work in the warm-up and goes to pieces as soon as it’s competition time:

“Don’t think about riding against other people. Think about riding against your last performance.”

Sometimes, wisdom comes out of the mouths of children. The rider who used to go to pieces before entering at A improved thanks to the previous suggestion, but cracked it after she heard her seven-year-old daughter say:

“I don’t like horse shows. Mummy’s sick, then when we go home she says she’s enjoyed herself.”

First it made her guilty, then it made her laugh at herself. Once you can do that, you tend to feel better.

Search for great horsey sayings and you’ll find plenty of erudite ones. “The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse” has been variously credited to Lord Palmerston, Winston Churchill, Will Rogers and others. Whoever said it first was, as we all know, dead right.

I also like the sentiments of actor Viggo Mortensen: “One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a horse master. He told me to go slow to go fast. I think that applies to everything in life. We live as though there aren’t enough hours in the day but if we do each thing calmly and carefully we will get it done quicker and with much less stress.”

While we’re taking horse sense into real life, remember the lines from comedy writer Allan Sherman. The sentiment might not be original, but if you happen to work in a place where they have meetings about meetings, you’ll love:

 

“They sit there in committees day after day,

And they each put in a colour and it comes out grey.

And we all have heard the saying, which is true as well as witty,

That a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee.”

 

Horse sense – defined by comedian and actor W C Fields as “The thing a horse has which stops it betting on people” – has been shared down the ages. Talk to top riders in any discipline and they’ll often say that horses which are challenging as youngsters often become their brightest stars. For instance, Oliver Townend says that his 2017 Burghley winner, Ballaghmor Class, was so sharp as a youngster that he had every member of his team on the floor at some stage.

Guess what? Back in the days of the ancient Greeks, the biographer and philosopher Plutarch (AD 46 – AD 120, if you’re interested) proclaimed that “The wildest colts make the best horses.”

So, whom and what will riders be quoting two centuries from now? We have to assume that horses and riders will still be forging partnerships, because the alternative is so depressing.

I hope George Morris stands the test of time, even if dressage trainers of the future are telling their pupils to fire their lasers, or whatever.

And if you have any inspirational quotes, do share them.

Horses moving home

According to a 2016 survey, moving home is in the top five most stressful “life events” – and that’s just for people.

Imagine what it’s like for a horse. One day, he may be in a place and with people he’s come to know. The next, everything’s different: new environment, new people, new horses.

Inevitably, most horses change homes during their lifetimes. But do we put enough thought into making the process as painless as possible? And can you also go too far and create problems because you’re trying too hard?

A dealer friend who specialises in riding club all-rounders advises customers to get their new horse home and get on with it. She tempers that with a few warnings: lunge the horse before you get on him for the first time; ride in an enclosed arena, if possible, and get the horse listening to you without putting him under pressure; and finally, don’t stuff him full of hard feed from day one.

She reckons that the owners who ring up claiming that the nice all-rounder she sold them has turned into a fire-breathing monster have inevitably ignored her advice to feed nothing but forage and a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement for a few days. Instead, they give the horse a week “to settle down” while feeding for the work they aim or simply imagine they’ll do, not appreciating that they might as well just light the blue touch paper and stand back.

It’s easy to anthropomorphise, but I love the analogy someone gave me many years ago when I was anxious about how an unbroken three-year-old I’d bought from his breeder would settle. He had been with the same group of youngsters from birth, so how would he adapt?

This wise woman told me to remember how it felt to move from a primary school to a much bigger one. It was strange, and sometimes a bit scary, but there were reliable people in charge and you soon made new friends and adapted to a new environment and routine.

As a new owner, you have to be that reliable person in charge. Your horse will settle, even if some things are more challenging than others.

Just as country kids can find cities overwhelming, and city kids can take time to adapt to a country environment, horses have to adapt. In my part of the world, we know it takes time for any equine which has been in a busy, built-up area to adapt to our wide, open spaces.

It can take up to a year for them to get used to our particular challenges, which include hares taking off from under hooves, field irrigators rotating and spraying you just as you ride past, and herons lurking in drainage dykes to lumber into the air at the wrong moment.

Give him time, keep him thinking and lay off the rocket fuel. And if you’re building a relationship with a new horse and have tips to share, we’d love to hear them.

Are you a high-tech horse owner?

Are you a high-tech horse owner? Or does the thought of apps and data analysis send you running for cover?

There are opportunities out there in technoland that we should all appreciate. Gait analysis has been a vital tool for our Olympic equine athletes as well as “ordinary” riders who want the best for and from their horses.

I spent a fascinating day watching a combined gait analysis and saddle-fitting clinic. Sticky markers were applied to a horse’s joints and a camera 25 times faster than the human eye measured his gaits and identified any deviations, such as one hindlimb flexing less than its partner.

Rider analysis, using a special jacket and the same cameras, was equally absorbing. No rider is symmetrical, and it cheered me up no end to learn that I have the same problem/bad habit as a top Olympic rider – but learning to correct the problem and remember how it feels for you and your horse when you get it right is a great motivation.

When gait analysis was combined with saddle fitting, you could see how a slight tweak could make a big difference. It also showed that a “favourite” saddle might not be doing a horse or rider any favours.

You may also see benefits from a headcollar that is safe to leave on a horse overnight and which monitors his vital signs, adapting to his normal patterns and sending an alert if these change beyond an acceptable level. It was invented by an owner whose horse died from colic; even if someone lives on site, there are occasions when signs of distress might not be spotted until it’s too late.

There are apps galore for your mobile phone, from ones which track your hacking route to some I can’t appreciate. For instance, I won’t be asking Santa for headphones which fit inside an ear bonnet and play music from my mobile playlist into my horse’s ears. In case you’re wondering, I did check that this information wasn’t released on 1 April.

The idea is that it distracts a nervous horse, but how do you know you’re not distressing him further? And I don’t just mean inflicting a dedicated Abba playlist.

Some high-tech applications are just the same old things we’ve always done, in a different format. I know when the vet and farrier are due and when I need to arrange worm egg counts, because I have these quaint-old fashioned things called a calendar and a diary. I can also set my phone to remind me, should I need to, so I don’t need to pay for a special horse owner’s app.

As an oldie who had to learn about technology rather than grow up with it, I’ve learned that it’s as good as the people who develop and apply it. The brilliant saddle fitter who worked with gait analysis combined his skills with the information it provided and the data was recorded and analysed by someone who is also a rider and trainer.

Technology can’t work alone, but in the right hands, it’s awesome. It can’t tell you how to ride, worm and feed your horse, but it can provide information that helps you make decisions and corrections.

At the end of the day, the responsibility rests with you. And if you have a favourite app – or even if you’re a total technophobe – we’d love to hear from you.

The honourable all-rounder

Are you and your horse all-rounders – and proud of it? Or do you confess, in an embarrassed sort of way, that you “just do a bit of everything”?

Riders are so eager to specialise that being an all-rounder has acquired a tinge of being second-best. I’ve even heard it used in a derogatory way, along the lines of the old saying: “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

While it’s great that young riders can develop a passion for a discipline, they and their parents should remember that pyramids are built on broad bases. If you don’t have a good grounding in all-round horsemanship and riding, you won’t make it as a dressage, showing or showjumping star.

I don’t mean that youngsters who show a natural talent shouldn’t be nurtured. This summer, I watched a friend’s ten-year-old with a natural eye for a stride produce a fabulous flowing showjumping round over a tricky course. She dreams of being a professional showjumper and maybe, one day, she’ll achieve that.

The thing is, she was at Pony Club camp. That week, she and her pony had flatwork lessons, enjoyed gymkhana practice – where she cheerfully admitted she was “rubbish” – and tackled a small cross-country course.

Another friend revels in new challenges. Her latest venture has been to try barrel racing on her ex-showjumper, and they ended up in the rosettes – just as they do when competing in dressage and showjumping.

Surely it isn’t a coincidence that horses and ponies who have varied lifestyles seem to be the happiest, or that many riders who are at the top of their game insist on their horses having time out from their specialities to go hacking, work over poles and so on.

And where do you see so many examples of horses with their ears pricked, enjoying every moment? You’ve guessed: eventing. There will always be riders who equate the dressage phase to swimming with sharks, or wince at the thought of the showjumping poles clattering down, but they still love the challenge of this ultimate test of all-round ability.

A horse who can do everything at riding club or Pony Club level is a joy and a treasure. A rider who can do the same has every right to be proud.

So don’t put yourself down or let anyone assume that an all-rounder is inferior to a specialist. Tell yourself – and everyone else – that one-trick ponies aren’t necessarily the best.

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!