Category Archives: Articles

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!

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.