Category Archives: Articles

Let’s hear it for the girls…

They say that you should tell a gelding, ask a mare and discuss it with a stallion, writes Carolyn Henderson. But as anyone who’s benefited from the horse equivalent of girlpower will appreciate, a good mare will give you everything she’s got.

Why are so many riders prejudiced against them? If a stallion makes his opinion clear, it’s accepted far more readily than if a mare tests a rider’s ability, yet both are ‘entires’ who demand equal tact.

Of course, geldings should also be treated with tact. But how many times have you heard the words ‘stroppy mare’ being used as an insult? And though it’s a reverse compliment, how many riders almost apologise for their lovely horses by insisting that they’re ‘not at all marish’?

The fight against prejudice goes back a long way. In 1837, Charles James Apperley, aka the author Nimrod, commented that the prejudice against mares as suitable hunters was “much to be lamented” and meant they were more likely to fall into the hands of those such as farmers, who would not be able to make the most of their ability. Apologies to any farmers…

Horses are individuals and there are probably as many geldings with oversized personalities as there are challenging mares.  However, riders with a special affinity for mares say that whilst a good gelding will often work for you, a good mare will work with you.

There are many more successful geldings than mares competing, but it would be interesting to know how much of that is due to rider prejudice. Here’s a thought – if event rider Lucinda Fredericks hadn’t taken on the double whammy of a little chestnut mare called Headley Britannia, would she have won all three Rolex Grand Slam events? Lucinda is super-talented on any horse, but on Brit, she was unbeatable.

There might be times when mares are ruled by their hormones, but owners should be able to cope with this via good management and nutritional support, a sensitive approach and, if necessary, veterinary advice. Don’t just take my word for it: listen to the realistic assessment of event rider Will Furlong, who is sponsored by Feedmark.

“Mares are great when they are on side, not so good when they aren’t,” says Will. “The brain and temperament are the most important thing for me in a mare. When you find one like that, she will try harder and dig deeper than any gelding will.

“You have to treat each individual horse differently. What works for one horse might not work for another. In general, you have to be a bit more sympathetic with mares, but I think there is a traditional and unfair image of all mares being horrible to deal with and difficult to ride.”

So, let’s hear it for the girls. And if you’ve got a great mare, we’d love to hear about her.

“It’s worth spending more time on the ground with them to develop some more trust, something I do with all my horses. I don’t necessarily go out looking for mares but I think that in general, people should be more accepting of them.”

Go native

Are you an adult rider tempted by the adverts featuring native ponies for sale? If so, adjust your brain before you buy, writes Carolyn Henderson.

A friend who events her 14.1hh Connemara – and regularly beats the big boys and girls –  says the first thing to decide is whether you think like a pony, or think like a horse. It all comes down to the old joke about how many equines it takes to change a light bulb:

 

Warmblood – “Light bulb? What’s a light bulb?”

Thoroughbred – “The light bulb’s gone! How terrifying!”

Show hack  – “How dare you ask me to change a light bulb?”

Show pony – “Lights? Where? Just make sure you get my good side.”

Native pony – “Why bother? I’m not afraid of the dark – and if the bulb’s gone, you can’t see me raiding the feed bin.”

 

Before anyone points out that they have a warmblood which deserves the equine equivalent of a PhD or a Thoroughbred which would win an award for bravery, it’s a joke. Apart from the bit about the native pony…

Let’s say you’ve bought a fabulous Connemara with fabulous paces, so you decide to do some serious schooling in preparation for a dressage competition. Everything goes well on day one, but on day two, you take him into an arena and it feels as if the handbrake’s on at every stride.

Lesson one: With a warmblood, you might have to remind him of everything he’s supposed to know before moving on to a new concept. With a native pony, you’ll probably need a constant stream of new concepts, because once you’ve trotted three circles, he’s bored.

In fact, when it comes to flatwork schooling, you might have to forget that arenas exist. Pick markers out hacking and ask for transitions, or practise lateral work on a bridlepath or in an open field, and you’ll usually get a great response.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re fooling him by schooling on a hack. You can’t fool a native – but you can negotiate. If you keep him interested, he’ll co-operate. As going to parties is interesting, you should also find that the work you do on a hack can translate to a decent test away from home.

You can also negotiate by combining flatwork schooling with jumping. In pony terms, lengthened strides over trotting poles have much more value and canter circles at one end of the school are worth the effort when followed by a jump down the long side.

Going native can be challenging. Instead of shopping for sparkly browbands, you’ll be looking for grazing muzzles and getting out your weigh tape every fortnight, because these ponies can turn into balloons on four legs with remarkable speed and remarkably little grass.

You may also have to put up with unenlightened remarks from people who think ponies are just for children. Grit your teeth, smile, and tell them it’s horses for courses, and that you’re in good company.

If a 13.2hh Fell pony is good enough for Her Majesty The Queen, it’s good enough for me. It’s also one hell of a lot of fun.

 

Searching out the science

Are you blinded by science, or are you having the wool pulled over your eyes in the name of pseudo-science?

Reputable companies give good, free advice, writes Carolyn Henderson. While they’ll obviously give their own products as examples, they should be able to explain their recommendations in plain English.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of mis-information out there. Some comes from well-meaning folk who think they’ve stumbled on a magic herb that will do everything bar raise the dead; the rest is down to claims that really shouldn’t be out there and before the days of social media, probably wouldn’t have surfaced.

There’s a fine line between clever but responsible marketing and exaggerated claims. But before you splash out on a bag of Wonderfeed or a bottle of Piaffe Better, make sure the claims are legal, decent and truthful.

In the UK, companies are not allowed to market veterinary products unless they have a marketing authorisation from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. That means non-veterinary products, including feed and supplements, can’t be ascribed veterinary properties. Those who break the rules face prosecution and the latest case, earlier this month, resulted in a £5,000 fine for the company concerned.

Nutraceuticals – products derived from food sources which have extra health benefits in addition to their basic nutritional value – have become part of modern horse management. We’ve all got our favourites, but if your horse has a problem, start by getting your vet’s advice.

If you’re a competitor, the buck stops with you on banned substances. It’s frighteningly easy for a horse to consume or absorb a banned substance and fail a subsequent dope test, as the recent case of the horse affected by an ingredient in his owner’s hair-thickening product proves.

The list of banned substances grows longer by the year and some riders believe the system can be unfair. However, as long as there are unscrupulous people, there will be rules designed to protect horses – and you can’t argue with that.

Our responsibility as owners is to make sure we buy feed and supplements from the safest sources we can find and feed them responsibly. Look for products which have been audited to meet the British Equestrian Trade Association’s NOPS (naturally occurring prohibited substances) code. Make sure that every horse has his own feed and water containers, and keep them scrupulously clean to minimise the risk of cross-contamination.

Some companies also volunteer to join the Universal Feed Assurance Scheme (UFAS) which requires them to adhere to stringent production procedures. These companies are regularly audited to retain their accreditation and use high quality, traceable ingredients, to meet legislation and safety standards.

If you’re confused, ask questions. If you’re competing and aren’t sure whether an ingredient is banned, check the FEI banned substances list at https://inside.fei.org/fei/cleansport/ad-h/prohibited-list and if necessary, ask your vet.

Be careful. If the blurb on a product or the claims on a social media page sound like science fiction, they might be just that.

Riding out the weather

Other nations reckon we Brits are obsessed by the weather, writes Carolyn Henderson. They could be right, but horse owners have a special take on it.

Long summer evenings? Some people might be dreaming of relaxing in the garden with an equally long, cool glass of something. But as a member of the Feedmark team points out, what’s important is that we can ride late in the evening without having to pile on layers of clothes or worry about getting everything done before it gets dark.

That presumes you haven’t already ridden at silly o’clock in the morning. When the temperature soars, 6a.m. hacks or schooling sessions set you up for the day, unless your horse or pony is susceptible to sweet itches and you need to avoid the midges.

Unfortunately, I’m a lark who is married to an owl and my owl gets grumpy about being woken up before he’s had his allocated hours of beauty sleep. Any tips on how to avoid a dawn chorus of grumbles will be gratefully received.

Another British characteristic is that whatever the weather, we’ll find something to moan about. The June Mediterranean heatwave was a novelty and there were smiles from those making hay while the sun shone, but then we got fed up with it. It was all #toohotforhorses and #toohotforjackets, although a few die-hard showing people dedicated to tradition insisted on staying buttoned up when judges suggested they remove them.

In my part of the world, the heavens suddenly opened and for the next 48 hours, we were studying instructions on how to build your own ark. The grass needed the rain, we assured ourselves – but couldn’t whatever deity controls the weather arrange for it to rain at night? Between 10pm and 5am would do nicely.

That rain soon turned to floods and had we built that ark, it would have been very handy for a trip to the Royal Norfolk Show. I take my hat off to the riders who gritted their teeth and turned in such spectacular performances – especially the showjumpers, who were rocking the  retro look  in what looked like transparent “pac-a-macs.” If you don’t know what I mean, ask your granny.

It could be worse. We could have the wrong sort of leaves on the bridlepaths, or snow balling up in our horses’ hooves. But even when the long days are just a memory, we’ll carry on riding – bundled up in layers and waterproofs if need be – because that’s what true Brits do.

 

The look of champions

The Hickstead Derby has a roll call of equine legends, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.  If you had to pick one of those illustrious names to be the champion of champions, who would it be?

For many, the title would go to a one-eyed horse called Adventure De Kannan. When he powered round with rider Trevor Breen in 2013, he won our hearts as well as the prestigious trophy.

That’s the reason for his final lap of honour in this year’s Derby – a chance for the crowd to acknowledge not just his brilliance, but his courage, in a special ceremony before he retires from competition at the age of 17.

Addy, as he’s known at home, doesn’t realise that in theory, he’s at a disadvantage. You could say the same for the miniscule Stroller, who won the Derby in 1967.

Stroller was only about 14.1hh (145cm) whereas Addy is 17.1hh (175cm). Yet the one thing they have in common is the one thing you can’t put a price on – a great brain.

A long time ago, my then trainer tried to persuade me to buy a horse who could help me make the jump from the lower levels of affiliated classes to “proper” Grade C competitions. This horse, he said, had the heart of a lion and the mind of a saint.

I tried him and loved him, even though he dished so badly, he could – in the words of the Irish dealer selling him – trot down the road and kick out the windows on either side. “He won’t stay sound for jumping,” said the vet who looked at him, so I didn’t buy him.

What I learned the hard way is that sometimes, the most important part of a horse’s conformation is the bit between the ears. That horse had a better brain than me: a few years later, he was winning Grade B classes with a rider who had followed her heart rather than her head.

Adventure De Kannan had already proved his ability when he had to have an eye removed due to recurring uveitis. But how many of us would buy a horse with one eye, even if it didn’t seem to affect him?

I hope I would, now that I’m older and a little bit wiser. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you meet a horse who is so generous, you know he’ll help you even though he doesn’t look the part.

And sometimes, if you have the sense, you say “Thank you” – and buy him before someone else does.

Tell us about your experiences where you’ve gone with your heart rather than your head, or where you wish you had.

Help your horse cope in the heat

The current heat wave is a godsend for most of us, but for your horses, excessively warm weather can be detrimental, leading to dehydration and even heat stroke if not managed well.

By following a few simple rules while the weather is hot, you can significantly reduce the risk of your horse suffering with problems due to the heat:

  1. PROVIDE PLENTY OF WATER – Having access to fresh, clean water is vital all year round, but as temperatures increase, horses lose more water from their bodies in the form of sweat to keep themselves cool. This means that they require more water to stay hydrated so make sure your horse has plenty available to them. Grass has a high water content, and feeding soaked feed or hay, will also contribute to their overall liquid intake.

 

  1. PROVIDE ELECTROLYTES DAILY – These vital body salts are essential in many bodily processes, and are particularly important for hydration, activating the thirst response in the horse, and for muscular health and performance. Contrary to popular belief, these should be fed daily, not just provided when competing, as it takes a long time to make up for any deficiencies or imbalances. Even horses that are not in work will sweat when the weather is very hot, and horses in hard work will lose up to 15L of sweat per hour. This sweat contains around 150g of electrolytes, hence the importance of daily supplementation. The best way to ensure that your horse is receiving all the electrolytes that they need is to add electrolytes such as Feedmark’s Replenish into their feed- but, if you haven’t already been feeding them, do this gradually.

 

  1. ENSURE ACCESS TO SHADE – If possible, turn out in fields with shelter from the sun, or if stables are cool bring horses in during the day, to avoid the hottest midday sun.

 

  1. RIDE WHEN IT’S COOLER – Either don’t exercise your horse during periods of extreme heat, or avoid riding during the hottest part of the day; instead aim for early morning or evening exercise when it’s cooler. If you have to work your horse when it is hot, keep to low intensity exercise, and cool your horse down slowly after you finish working them.

 

  1. WASH DOWN: Washing your horse off after riding is particularly important in the summer when they are likely to sweat more – cold water, and the evaporation of it from the coat helps the horse to cool down, and washing also removes dried sweat, which if left on the horse would attract flies. If your horse is overheating then continuously cover the whole body with cold water and get expert advice.

 

  1. APPLY SUNCREAM! If your horse has any delicate pink bits of skin, applying sun cream to these areas will stop the skin burning.

Let’s hear it for helpers

Schooling your horse is only the start, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. Unless you have an endless supply of horsey helpers, you must also train your nearest and dearest.

That way, you get the help you need, avoid arguments about the time and/or money you devote to your horse and keep everyone happy. It takes skill and stealth – but it’s worth it.

With apologies for blatant sexism, men are usually more responsive. The secret is to find something they know more about – or think they know more about – and make them feel indispensable.

It doesn’t matter if you can reverse a trailer full of hay into the tightest space and keep your cool, knock up a set of jumps to professional standard and fertilise a field like a pro. If these are jobs that take you away from your horse, persuading that special someone to do them gives you time for the important things in life, like riding.

At every show, you see fathers, partners and spouses supporting wives/partners and daughters. Some get to the stage where they enjoy being part of the action and become as competitive as the riders; others are just filling in the time until the return journey.

Showjumping has most to offer, especially if you’re as inventive as one of the Feedmark team. She persuaded her father to time her jump-off rounds, just to check that the show’s equipment was accurate.

Keeping dressage dads happy isn’t so easy. If they don’t ride, then as far as they’re concerned, you’re going around in ever-decreasing circles. Even if that’s true, never admit it.

Instead, give them a checklist. Get them to check that bridle straps are in their keepers, your number is in place and you’ve removed your horse’s tail bandage.

Hint: Every now and then, allow an extra ten minutes for your warm-up and leave the tail bandage on/’forget’ to affix your bridle number. It helps to keep them keen.

If you’re a showing competitor, hard luck. If you’re showing the family lead rein M & M pony, double hard luck. Only true aficionados enjoy watching showing…and even they can run out of steam when there are 30-plus M & M lead reins in a class, as happens at some county shows.

Hint: Give them a few phrases that they can deliver at the ringside, thus impressing other spectators. “Nice horse, but perhaps slightly back at the knee” is a good one. It doesn’t work, of course, if your man happens to be standing next to the said horse’s connections – if he’s that unlucky, the get-out-of-jail answer is to blame the unlevel ring.

Seriously, do try and get your nearest and dearest hooked on horses. It’s a blessing to have someone who will bring in your horse when you’re working late, calm your nerves before a competition and (I put my hand up for this one) tell you to keep breathing while you ride a dressage test so you never again halt at G and nearly pass out.

They deserve medals, because we couldn’t manage without them. If you’ve got someone who deserves to stand on the virtual winners’ podium, do tell us. All secrets will be gratefully shared.

 

What’s yours called?

When Horsey McHorseface won his first race, he joined the ranks of equines who will be remembered as much for what they are called as for what they achieve, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

The three-year-old was named as a tip of the hat to Boaty McBoatface – the “people’s choice” when the Natural Environment Research Council asked the public to choose the name of its £200m artic research vessel. However, the government decided that Boaty McBoatface wasn’t appropriate for a vessel of this stature and instead, named it after Sir David Attenborough.

We have to stick with the names in a horse’s passport for all official purposes, so you just have to hope that whoever chose it didn’t have a wicked sense of humour. I know a showjumper who called one horse Badly and another, Topless.

He took bets on whether a commentator was sharp-witted enough to spot the potential traps. The clever ones announced him as “Here we have Badly/Topless ridden by Joe Bloggs”; you can guess what happened with the others. Topless was eventually sold to a very brave lady rider.

The British Horseracing Authority has all sorts of rules about racehorse names. No name can have more than 18 characters, including spaces between words, which is why Youlneverwalkalone lacked an l and an apostrophe.

The BHRA is particularly careful to make sure no “lewd, crude or offensive” names are registered. Someone there must have a sense of humour, though, or Hoof Hearted and Noble Locks wouldn’t have made it. If the second one has you puzzled, stress the second syllable of the first word and remember that he’s a gelding.

Showing people have a sense of humour, too. Back in 2001, Kelly Lyons was reserve in the working hunter class at the Royal International Horse Show on a lovely big Irish gelding.

He was called The Barsteward, because when he was a four-year-old, he wasn’t quite so lovely. In fact, he was a right barsteward.

Cob owners seem to have the most fun. Lynn Russell has gone through the galaxy from A-Z, starting with Apollo and finishing with Zenith. Somewhere in the middle, there was a Galaxy and, thanks to a big book of planet names, she’s unlikely to run out.

Carol Bardo and Jayne Webber had some good ones, from The Keystone Cob to Robocob and Strictly Cob Dancing. The best one, though, was Carol’s wonderful coloured cob, The Humdinger – because that’s exactly what he was.

Some horse names cause a stir for obvious reasons. Others hit the headlines even though you’d think they couldn’t offend anyone.

Take Brian, for example. Who could possibly take exception to a 17.2hh Shire cross called Brian?

Thames Valley Police did. They took Brian on six weeks’ trial, thinking that he’d make a formidable police horse, but announced that if he made it through the selection process he’d need a new name.

All the force’s other horses boasted names relating to deities, such as Thor and Odin. Brian was, they felt, a little too wimpy, even if it was the name of the Monty Python team’s unlikely Messiah.

When the news got out, social media went mad as Brians all over the UK complained about the slur on their moniker. In the end, Brian decided he didn’t fancy being a police horse and that rather than cope with all that city traffic, he was a country boy at heart.

Traditionally, it’s bad luck to change a horse’s name. If you really can’t stand it, you can always give him a stable name. I don’t know how the lovely ex-racehorse Beware Chalk Pit got his name, but he’s now covering himself in glory in Retraining of Racehorses and other showing classes and thoroughly deserves his stable name – Perfect Pete.

So – what’s yours called? If it’s all in a name, we’d love to know.

 

Letting horses be horses

You give your horse the best possible care, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. You make sure that his diet is spot on, that he’s fit for the job physically and mentally – and then he sidelines himself fooling around in the field.

We’ve all been there, which is why we can all sympathise with Danish dressage rider Agnete Kirk Thingaard. Last week, Agnete announced that her lovely mare Atterupgaards Orthilia – who helped Britain win team silver at the Rio Olympics when ridden by her previous owner, Fiona Bigwood – was out of action for the summer because of an injury sustained in the field.

It’s a shame dressage doesn’t include a mark for horsemanship. If it did, Agnete deserves a perfect ten for sticking to the principle that, in her own words, horses should be allowed to be horses.

Many years ago, a successful dressage rider told me that one of the yard’s top horses was about to have a holiday.

“I bet he’ll enjoy his time in the field,” I said.

There was a shocked silence, before said dressage rider announced in scandalised tones that of course the horse wouldn’t be turned out. He was much too valuable for that: instead, he’d be moved to the largest box on the yard and led out in hand twice a day.

That sort of regime is, hopefully, rare. There are still some racing yards where horses spend 23 hours out of 24 in a stable, but there are also trainers who make sure their horses go out and get their heads down every day.

It isn’t just that horses are natural grazing animals with a psychological need to chew, unless health issues mean vet-prescribed box rest, they need to go out every day to relax – when did you last see a horse weave in the field?

Turnout time also provides numerous nutritional and health benefits, as Nutritionist, Olivia Colton MSc from Feedmark explains; “a constant supply of forage, such as turnout on a grassy paddock, is more suited to their digestive systems, being trickle feeders. Unlike humans, the horse’s stomach continually secretes acid, so if there is limited fibre to buffer the acid produced it can lead to digestive issues. The ability to be more mobile in the field as opposed to a stable is also beneficial for the musculoskeletal system, helping to relieve stiffness.”

Some people advocate a 24/7 outdoor lifestyle for every horse, but not every horse agrees – at least, not the ones I’ve known. For every horse who prefers to stay out at night in the wind and rain, there will be one waiting at the gate ready to come in.

And yes, you can have too much of a good thing. There are plenty of tactics for reducing the intake of horses and ponies who get fat at the sight of a blade of grass, although I’m still waiting for someone to design a grazing muzzle that my cob can’t wriggle out of.

Any equine is an accident on four legs waiting to happen. All we can do is minimise the risks, keep our fingers crossed and accept that by letting our horses be horses, we’re doing the best for them.

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.