Category Archives: Articles

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.

Dream foals and breeding nightmares

Baby pictures are popping up on everyone’s news feed, and we’re all enjoying an overload of cuteness, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

Naturally, we’re talking foals. The human kind are adorable if they belong to you or someone in your family, but are not universally irresistible. Foals, however, are guaranteed to capture your heart.

If you have a nice mare, it’s tempting to imagine what her offspring would be like even if imagination is as far as it can go. Hopefully, horror stories about unwanted, dumped youngstock and advice about responsible breeding from welfare organisations have hit home.

But what do you do if you can tick all the boxes that make you a responsible breeder – and it all goes wrong? What do you do if you put your 15.2hh eventing mare to a 16.1hh eventing stallion and get not a potential 4* horse, but a 14hh pony? Or you breed a foal with glaring conformation faults?

Both scenarios can happen. A friend who found herself in the first situation put it down to the fact that her mare was out of a 14hh show hunter pony mare, and genetics decided to go back a generation. Instead of the foal being her future ride, it became her daughter’s.

The second was highlighted in a discussion group by an owner who posted a picture of her three-year-old homebred. The filly was back at the knee, a fault which puts tendons under extra strain, and had weak hindquarters and straight shoulders. Yet both the dam and the sire had correct conformation and had competed at top level.

There are lots of horses with bad conformation giving lots of pleasure to their owners. But while you can buy what you choose, you can’t choose what you breed. You can only do your research and hope for the best, which is why they say that fools breed horses for wise men to ride.

There is no such thing as a perfect horse and there are plenty of badly conformed ones giving pleasure and even success to their riders. Unfortunately, they are less likely to stay sound and more likely to cause heartbreak.

The owner of the three-year-old above said that before she put her mare in foal, she told herself that whatever she bred, she would do the best for it. She intends to back and educate the filly and find her a loan home with a light workload; she won’t sell her, because she wants to make sure she’s safe.

Image credit to World Horse Welfare.

What a brilliant owner, and what a lucky filly. Compare her with the poor colt foal (pictured) who was dumped and left to die, just days old, in a Norfolk forest. If he hadn’t been spotted by a local farmer, he would have had no hope. As it is, he has a long way to go despite being taken in and given round the clock care by staff at World Horse Welfare.

So, enjoy the foal pictures and videos – we’d love to see them. If you’re making plans for the patter of tiny hooves, good luck.

Every newborn foal represents a dream. I hope yours come true, but please plan for every eventuality.

Here’s to our riding royals

When non-horsey people see pictures of the Queen out riding, or Prince Philip driving his team of ponies, they have one of three reactions, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

  • How do they manage it? After all, Her Majesty is 91 and HRH is 96 in June.
  • Surely it’s too dangerous at their age – shouldn’t someone stop them?
  • Why do they ride/drive those funny little black things instead of proper horses?

The basic answers are:

  • Our monarch and her consort know that if horses have been part of your life, you need to keep them in it for as long as possible. If I reach 91, I hope to celebrate in the saddle.
  • Riding is a risk sport, but life will be shorter and a lot less fun if you let age rather than ability and inclination dictate when you hang up your boots or whip. Riding is undoubtedly a lot safer if you wear a hat or helmet rather than a headscarf, but that’s a different debate.
  • Those “funny little black things” are Fell ponies. The Queen’s favourite is called Carltonlima Emma and the mare has been immortalised by model horse specialists Breyer. As I discovered when a representative of the breed joined our family, you can have as much fun with the right Fell pony as you can with a horse. You might need a sense of humour sometimes, but laughter is the best medicine.

It comes down to the fact that horses are good for you. As various bigwigs have said, the best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse. They should have said ‘man or woman’, but as 75% – 80% of the UK’s riding population is female, we’ll take that as a given.

Riding and looking after horses is good for your physical and mental well-being. On a practical level, it gets you outdoors, works muscles, builds co-ordination and balance and burns calories.

The mental benefits of riding and being around horses are priceless. When you focus your attention on your horse, you focus it away from irritations, pressures and problems. Even if it’s only for a short time, you give your brain a break – and when you go back to those problems, you’re better placed to deal with them.

A friend with a high-powered, stressful job gets up at 5am every weekday to look after and exercise her horse before she leaves for work. She calls it her sanity time, which many people will relate to, and says that even though she could afford full livery, she doesn’t want to – she’d
rather have that time getting in tune with her horse.

In her working life, she’s a powerful high-flyer.Her horse doesn’t care about how important she is, and perhaps that’s another reason why our Queen and other members of the royal family are so passionate about their horses – whether they be racehorses, event horses or Fell ponies.

A horse won’t flatter you or react in a way calculated to impress you. He doesn’t care who you are, what you earn or how important your role is perceived to be.

Horses are great levellers, as members of the royal family who compete often point out. That’s the beauty of them, and that’s why I hope the Queen will celebrate her next birthday with a hack on Carltonlima Emma.

Facing up to a horse in pain.

There are two things that riders should think twice about saying, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. One is “My horse is being naughty” and the other is “My horse always goes like that.”

You may disagree, and you may phrase the first observation in stronger terms. But before you’re tempted to think that your horse is refusing to canter on the left lead because he wants to wind you up, or fidgets when you want to mount because he feels like behaving badly, look at some brilliant research from one of the UK’s top equine vets.

Signs of pain include wide eyes, ear position, and head twisting.

Dr Sue Dyson, the Animal Health Trust’s head of clinical orthopaedics, has developed an ethogram to help identify changes in a ridden horse’s facial expression. These changes can help identify signs of pain – and may help some people discover that their “naughty” horse is, in fact, lame.

While most people should be able to spot obvious lameness, low grade problems can challenge all but specialist vets. If a horse is 1/10 or 2/10 lame, a rider may put it down to reluctance to go forward or insist that a horse is “bridle lame” – and that’s another term to argue about.

As Dr Dyson points out, if pain-related problems are dismissed as behavioural glitches, a horse will continue in work and the problem will get progressively worse. His owner may not seek veterinary advice until months down the line, when treatment may be more difficult, more expensive and have less chance of success.

What she’s found out is that lay people – and even some vets – find it easier to identify changes in a horse’s facial expression and head position than to spot subtle lameness. Her ethogram is a catalogue of facial expressions including the ears, eyes, nose, muzzle, mouth and head position – not to be confused with a hypothesis that facial characteristics can be used to categorise

This horse had a pain score of 3 for its mouth. (AHT)

horses as right or left-brained introverts or extroverts.

In its first stage of testing, the ethogram was applied successfully by people from different backgrounds, who studied photographs of horses’ heads while they were ridden. In the second stage, the ethogram was used to distinguish between sound and lame horses. During this phase, a pain score from 0 – 3 was applied to each of the facial expressions, then totalled to determine an overall pain score for each horse.

Dr Dyson used 519 photos of horses and ponies, ranging from children’s ponies to advanced competition horses, which she had categorised as lame or sound. A total of 27,407 facial markers was recorded, with results showing that there was a scientifically significant difference in pain scores given by the assessor for clinically lame and sound horses.

The fact that a horse lays back his ears when another invades his space doesn’t, of course, mean that he is lame. But by focusing on this range of expressions, Dr Dyson has proved that the ethogram is a clear indicator of pain which owners, riders and trainers could apply.

Even more exciting, she and her team are working on a “whole horse” ethogram that could give even clearer indications that a horse is in pain. What better way to help us face up to our responsibilities as owners?

If you’d like to find out more, watch this video of Dr Sue Dyson discussing the research.