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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!

Lessons in education

When Oliver Townend won Burghley horse trials on the relatively inexperienced Ballaghmor Class, he probably surprised everyone but himself.

The grey, who lives up to his name in every way, is ten years old. When you’re looking at that level of competition, it’s the equivalent of a primary school pupil coming out top of the country in A-level results.

Oliver said afterwards that some people thought he shouldn’t have taken Ballaghmor Class to Burghley, but he knew the horse had the ability and the jumping confidence – and because he knew him as an individual, he knew what he could cope with. Mr T’s own ability and jumping confidence rate on equal terms, of course.

It makes you appreciate how complex it is to bring on a young horse, and how great the responsibility is. It’s also one of the most rewarding things you can do, whether you’re backing a pony or taking a showjumper through the grades.

Rosettes? Nice when they come along, but they don’t compare with the thrill of that first confident hack, balanced clear round, or pleasing dressage test. Out and out competitors may not agree, but those of us who lack the killer instinct and look on competitions simply as a way of monitoring our progress will understand.

I know some very competent riders who won’t consider taking on an unbacked or just backed horse. Some say they aren’t interested in riding a horse until its ready to compete, but if you’ve backed a horse and instilled a good foundation, you have a much better idea of how he’ll react and how you can help him out when necessary.

Others say they’re scared of getting it wrong, but I don’t believe any trainer who claims that he or she never meets set-backs. Thinking ahead and minimising risks and problems is part of a trainer’s skill, but there are always times when you have to “re-phrase” what you’re asking a horse to do, or go back a step before you can move on.

I’ve also met some relatively inexperienced riders who have done a great job starting their horses’ education. Their common denominators have been the possession of common sense and the ability to ask trainers they respect for help when needed.

It’s often said that only experienced riders should attempt to back and school young horses. The trouble is, how are people supposed to gain that experience? Not everyone can or wants to work with horses.

Surely it’s far better to learn by doing it, provided you have someone you can trust to help you when needed and your horse has the right temperament. You must have the right temperament, too: if you’re a nervous rider in general, or impatient, don’t do it.

And if you’re on a high because you’ve backed and/or brought on a horse for the first time, do tell us, because your success will encourage and inspire others.

Dare to be different

Are you stuck in an equestrian rut? We all know the feeling that no matter how hard we try, we aren’t making progress.

If so, try something different. You’ll have fun – and probably an adrenaline rush, although you don’t necessarily have to pin on your brave badge. Your horse could benefit, too, even if you need to leave him at home and borrow an equine specialist.

Here are some suggestions – if you have others, we’d love to hear them.

Cantering through the stubble fields. Last week, I persuaded one of my nearest and dearest to enjoy what was meant to be a leisurely poddle around nearby stubble fields. He hadn’t ridden for two years, but which of us wanted to canter? You’ve guessed it.
A lot of riders might sneer at this, but cantering in a big, open space on a willing but obedient horse is a huge confidence booster. And yes, the going was great and that canter did go up a gear…

Try side-saddle on a schoolmaster. It’s brilliant for your posture, which will have a knock-on effect when you go back to riding astride, and you can’t help but feel elegant in a side-saddle habit. For those of us of a certain age, there’s also a chance to wear a veil and hide the wrinkles.
Seriously, many riders say they feel more secure when riding side-saddle. Some people with back problems say they are more comfortable sideways than astride.
Myth number one: it’s for people who don’t jump. Forget that, there are ladies who show-jump and team chase sideways. In 2013, Michaela Bowling set a new British side-saddle high jump record by clearing 6ft 3in. Her horse, Laughing Larry, is blind in one eye.
Myth number two: it’s only for women. Male grooms traditionally trained horses to take a side-saddle so their lady employers could ride them safely. Nowadays, women are doing it for themselves, but there are still men who ride side-saddle to preserve the tradition, or because they’ve suffered leg injuries.

Go Western. Experts say learners develop an independent seat and find their balance faster and more easily if they ride Western. If you ride astride, it reminds you not to rely on your reins. And if you ever get the chance to ride a trained reining horse, take it. Those spins and sliding stops are unbelievable.

Play polo. I’ll skip over this one. I loved the polo pony my polo taster day instructor gave me, but had an insurmountable problem: I couldn’t hit the ball. That aside, it’s great for improving your focus and reactions. In my case, apart from when you want to hit the ball.
I’m told that horseball is also a lot of fun. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable can reassure me that it isn’t rugby on horseback.

Hunting. Whether you want to be a thruster who tackles huge hedges or someone who toodles along at the back of the field, hopefully you’ll find that those who go out regularly will be friendly, welcoming and encouraging.
Most horses love hunting. You’ll probably feel the same way.

Ride on a beach. However far you have to travel to reach one, just check the tide tables and do it. My favourite is Holkham beach, Norfolk. If you time it right during the summer, you might see members of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment riding their fabulous black horses.

Where’s your favourite beach? Send us a postcard, or post a picture…

Standing up for sportsmanship

GB’s eventers and Paralympians won gold medals at the European Championships and our dressage riders missed out. But they all reminded us that what matters most is giving credit to your horse – and the value of sportsmanship.

Some riders, at all levels, pay lip service to sportsmanship. Others mean what they say: take a bow, Carl Hester. His praise of his horse after the Brits came fourth and his comment that sometimes it’s good to have other teams at the top should be engraved on every rider’s heart.

I imagine that he knows, from experience, that it’s wonderful to be at the top but that no one can be there forever – and that when you get knocked off that top spot, you have to re-group and fight back.

You can prepare and prepare for a competition and accustom your horse to everything you think he’ll be likely to meet. However, no matter how many times you simulate hazards and distractions, he’ll still be a horse.

“He normally does a perfect rein-back, but he had his eye on the camera the whole time to see if it was moving,” said Carl when asked about a blip in his and Nip Tuck’s test. He didn’t blame the horse, he accepted that these things happen.

Nip Tuck, aka Barney, has been with Carl since the horse was a yearling. He isn’t the textbook picture of a perfectly conformed dressage horse and is listed on Carl’s website as standing 18hh. Add a hot temperament and you can see why it was so important that Carl had faith in Barney when many critics said the horse would never make it to the top; he’s admitted that there were times when even he thought Barney wouldn’t be able to progress as he has.

Top riders in all disciplines praise their horses when things go right and blame themselves when things go wrong. It’s particularly noticeable in the eventing world, perhaps because three phases give so many opportunities for pear-shaped moments.

But even when you can see that a horse was set up perfectly for a fence and glances off, nine times out of ten the jockey will put it down to rider error. Similarly, when training pays off and a rider who has really worked at dressage tops that phase’s leader board, it’s the horse who will get the praise.

Luck does come into it: two horses might tap the same showjumping pole equally hard, but it might stay up in one case and fall in the other. On the other hand, you can’t rely on it and in general, the more practice you put in, the luckier you’ll be.

Generosity of spirit, to your horse and your fellow riders, will take you a long way. It will also make you happier.

Riding for a fall

Have you made an involuntary dismount recently? If so, have you posted pictures of your bruises all over social media, or laughed it off?

Falls are never a laughing matter, even if you manage to raise a smile – as did showjumping legend John Whitaker. It’s great that John could joke about his crashing departure from Cassinis Chaplin in the Longines Global Champions Tour and rather ironic that the horse is named after the funny man of silent films.

But we can only imagine how he must have felt when, in the first few minutes after he hit the ground, he couldn’t feel his feet. Not the ideal way to spend your 62nd birthday – and anyone who claims John is too old to stay at the top of his sport is talking out of an unmentionable part of their anatomy.

Fortunately, John was given the all-clear. Hard on his heels came another legend, Olympic eventing medallist and cross-country course designer Ian Stark. More than a year after a horse he was riding fell over backwards, Ian discovered that doctors had misdiagnosed a serious pelvic injury and he had to undergo complicated surgery.

It’s a fact of life that if you ride, you’ll fall off or be ejected. The odds are that the better you are, the greater the likelihood that the fall will be potentially serious. We lesser mortals sometimes have trouble reconciling our centre of gravity with a horse’s, but riders who seem to have built-in seatbone adhesive rarely lose it. When they do, it tends to be in a big way.

So what can we do to minimise the risks, accepting that we’ll never abolish them? The first essential, says a friend who has broken in and produced more horses than I’ve had hot dinners, is to accept that it’s fine to be brave, but stupid to be foolhardy.

When she takes on a member of staff as resident CTD (crash test dummy: a sense of humour is the second essential) she doesn’t want someone who claims he or she will get on anything and never think twice about it. What she looks for is a rider who appreciates her ability to ‘read’ horses and knows that if she says it’s fine to take the next step, it will be.

Her current CTD is lightweight and as flexible as a rubber band. He’s also happy to listen to her, respects her judgement and loves horses. Magic.

The third essential is to not be stupid. It might be tempting to ride without a hat, but please think again. I interviewed a neurosurgeon who said his pet hate was women who rode without hats because wearing a hard hat messed up their hair.

“If they think that looks bad, they should see what a woman looks like when her hair’s been shaved off and I’m going through her skull to relieve the pressure,” he said.

Give yourself permission to be cautious. Call it risk assessment, weighing up the situation, whatever you like. Being a confident rider also means having the confidence to use your common sense and, when necessary, change your plans.

If your horse comes out of the stable like Tigger on springs, lunge him before you ride – it’s what my trainer friend calls “giving them a spin”. If his regime changes, check his diet and remember that you should feed according to the work done, not according to the work you’d like to do. If nutritional support helps, ignore those who scoff and say the benefits are all in your mind.

When you’ve done everything you can, accept that no one goes through their riding life without buying a piece of ground occasionally – and follow John Whitaker’s example by getting back in the saddle as soon as you sensibly can.

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An innovative pre- and probiotic formulated to optimise gut function and the natural digestive process in all horses and ponies. BioPro provides Yea-Sacc1026, a clinically proven probiotic that helps to balance the population of good bacteria in the gut; and FOS (soluble fibre) to help promote a healthy population of gut bacteria and maintain gut health. Ideal to feed prior to and during changes of routine to maintain normal gut function, such as: turning out on to new pasture or spring grass; moving yards; and competitions or travel.

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Targeted ingredients to help with undesirable oral behaviours by soothing the digestive system and maintaining healthy pH levels. Settelex provides Aluminium Hydroxide which helps maintain healthy stomach mucosa and pH levels, as well as Calcium Carbonate and Magnesium to promote a healthy level of acid within the stomach. Ideal for horses and ponies who carry out these oral stereotypies, especially when stabled, helping to limit the use of collars and damage to stable doors or fence posts.

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Kicking the guilt trip

Hands up if you spend half your time enjoying your horse and the other half feeling guilty, writes Carolyn Henderson.

Maybe it’s because you seem to only see your other half/family in the gaps between getting home and rushing off to ride. As for non-horsey friends – well, you might see them on social media, but as for conversations in real life, forget it.

And how about the guilty certainty that you’re a second-rate owner? You don’t have time to take your tack apart and clean it every day and sometimes – shock, horror – you ride without brushing all the shavings out of your horse’s tail. Even worse, some days you can’t find time to ride at all.

If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone. Here are some suggestions that I hope will make you feel better:

1.The fact that you feel guilty means you want the best for your horse/other half/family. If your life is so perfectly organised that you don’t suffer occasional twinges, you must be either Superwoman or Superman. Have you seen any riders wearing underwear over their breeches? Me neither.

2.Having a passion might make you a more interesting person, or easier to live with. In the interests of research, I asked my husband what he thought I’d be like to live with if I gave up horses.

He turned pale and said, “It would be awful.” Before I had time to feel hurt and even more guilty, he added that the fact that we had different interests meant we had plenty to talk about. (We have been married for a very long time and you have to work at these things.)

He also highlighted our unspoken deal that we do things together that take these interests into account. That means I’m due for another trek around an RSPB reserve; I suppose you can’t have everything.

3.More seriously, riding and looking after horses helps keep you sane, fit and active. The older you get, the more you appreciate that. If it wasn’t for a combination of pushing wheelbarrows and Pilates, I reckon I’d be living at half the pace.

4.There are people who dismantle and clean their tack every day and whose horses are always impeccably turned out, with never a hair out of place. The first ones are called grooms and the second are professional riders, owners with grooms or owners who keep their horses on full livery.

I’ll stick to making sure bits are rinsed off and there is nothing on my tack that could irritate a horse before I ride, and cleaning it thoroughly once a week. If I occasionally leave an odd shavings flake in a tail, I can’t see when I’m in the saddle, so who cares?

5.Above all, remember that no one’s perfect. If you do your best, your family and friends still recognise you and your significant other still loves you, you’re doing well.

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Vitamins, minerals and naturally sourced antioxidants to help balance the diet of horses and ponies on a restricted grass intake. Prolamin contains key ingredients to support the diets of prone individuals, especially during spring and autumn flushes of grass. This low-calorie formulation supplies the essential micronutrients for a restricted ration, and maintains hoof health, improving diet and lifestyle. Prolamin consists of two separate parts that are to be fed together, one part is pellets and the other is herbs. As well as 25 essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids; it provides the important antioxidants Vitamin E and Selenium.

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A rich source of Omega 3 essential fatty acids to provide non-heating energy and a glossy coat, Linseed is often fed to horses who need to gain weight and improve condition. Linseed provides a good Omega 3 to 6 ratio, and is high in digestible protein which supports muscle function. Feeding Linseed promotes healthy hooves, maintains skin health and coat condition, and it also supports joint health.

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All orders include FREE next working day delivery*.

Terms and conditions: Order online at For telephone orders please call 0800 585 525 / 01986 782368. 3for2 on selected weight supporting supplements offer valid from 08/08/2017 until 14/08/2017. *Free next working day delivery applies to the UK only, but it may take longer to reach Highlands and Islands. This offer CANNOT be used in conjunction with any other offer or promotion.

In praise of schoolmasters

Schoolmasters (and mistresses) are worth their weight in gold – as long as you get the real deal, writes Carolyn Henderson.

The Mum who posted online looking for a jumping pony schoolmaster doesn’t stand a chance. She wanted a “kick, point and shoot” pony that was guaranteed to take her daughter around 85cm courses.

She’ll probably find one, but that pony won’t be a schoolmaster. He’ll be a robot, and her daughter will learn very little from riding him.

The true schoolmaster is the horse or pony who knows its job inside out and will jump confidently/perform that perfect lateral movement if the rider presses the right buttons. If the rider asks the right questions, the horse will give the right answers; if the rider gets it wrong, the horse will set his own agenda.

The best schoolmasters I’ve known seemed to have a sense of humour. I know that’s anthropomorphising, but I can’t find any other way of describing it.

One was a beautifully schooled gelding who would turn and stay perfectly in balance from subtle weight aids. If you got it wrong and used too much inside rein, he would put himself in shoulder-in and stay there.

When you realised what you were doing and made a correction, he’d float across the school. You could imagine the thought bubble floating above his ears: “At last! I thought she’d never get it.”

The other was a former advanced event horse who, at the age of 18, still enjoyed showjumping. His proviso was that the rider had to establish a canter rhythm and stick to it; the moment you tried to hook back or ride for a long one, he put the brakes on.

It was a salutary lesson, because those brakes could lock on in an instant. It got the message across to riders who couldn’t help themselves trying to adjust their horse’s stride, no matter how many times their trainer told them that their job was to get the horse to the fence in a good rhythm and the horse’s job was to jump it. I know – I was one of them.

Most horses are in their teens by the time they reach schoolmaster status. They’re hard to find and they need and deserve every care we can give them. The best trainers protect their schoolmasters as fiercely as they protect their family, and heaven help you if you blame the horse for your mistakes.

So what if a schoolmaster has a few lumps and bumps? So what if he comes out a bit stiffer through his joints than he used to and needs nutritional support, careful warming up and so on?

Give him all he needs, and if that includes regular massage treatments, appropriate manipulation and downright mollycoddling, good for you. It isn’t just that horse who will benefit – it’s every horse you ride through the rest of your life, thanks to what the schoolmaster has taught you.