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.




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Dance updates us on the world of racing.

The beginning of last week saw a huge flurry of activity here at Castle Hill, with the arrival of the Middleham Open Day. We were also very lucky to be entertained over the weekend by a visit from Lynn and Gary from Trojan Horse, as well as Hazel and John Palmer from the Ontoawinner family, which was a huge amount of fun! Poor old Hazel and John then had to go watch Vaux (Henry) run at Redcar on Monday, the same day as the Open Day, where Henry’s tremendous run of bad luck continued when he was almost bought down by a faller during the race. He did very well to keep his feet, and all credit must go to Graham Lee for keeping him safe, and both did very well to run on to finish mid-division. This lad must be due a mountain of good luck soon!

Back to the Open Day, Racing Welfare should be very proud of the show they put on. The yards were rammed, and our very own bar, selling Middleham Beer, was extremely popular! Us horses all behaved beautifully, and I was naturally the receiver of a lot of visitors and compliments! We were also very proud of all our lads, and were sent many compliments after the event on their insightful chats with the guests. Particular thanks must go to Stuart, Chris and Mr Mole (left, Stuart and Mole), who had quite the crowd around them all day! After the stables closed, the local pony club came in and the lads took part in a hugely competitive competition involving running, riding and gymkhana. Whilst we didn’t win, despite my awesome coaching, Madi, Tabs and Stuart did us proud and the whole event was an enormous amount of fun.

It has also been a grand week for Cup Final, who travelled down to Southwell on Friday for his Chase debut, after listening to plenty of advice from yours truly! In an expert piece of placing from Ben (also known as blind luck…), Cup had the perfect race to start in, having only one runner to go against. I think I need one of those! He jumped brilliantly after taking a bit of a leap at the open ditch, and the faster they went the better he got, before giving us all a heart attack round the home bend when he started to come heavily off the bridle. A 3 miler, the 2 miles was a little sharp for him, but his class won out in the end, and after jumping the last in front, he was well on top coming past the finishing post to give himself the perfect start over the bigger obstacles. Richie McLernon was, as ever, superb, and it was fantastic to get another win on the board for JP McManus. It was also a relief for Sam McCullagh (right, with Cup) to finally lead up his first winner, and June was very pleased with her charge who she rides every day at home!

Our other runners have been mixed, with a bit of frustration occurring on some days this week! The ground was too firm for me at Sedgefield, so I looked after myself and came home safely in a perfectly respectful 4th place. You aren’t in this game as long as I have been without knowing when to push and when not too, believe me!! Giant (Giant Redwood) made a silly novicey error and came down on his first run over hurdles, which was irritating as he is a quite brilliant jumper at home. However, I am sure he will learn from it and engage the landing gear next time! Wibble (Man Of La Mancha) jumped his jockey out the saddle on Sunday at Wetherby, before proceeding to pop over a chase fence – clearly he thinks hurdles are beneath him! George (Epeius) ran a decent race first time back on the grass at Thirsk, with everything happening a bit quickly for him in the early stages back on fast ground over 6 furlongs, but stayed on well to take 5th.

Until next time,


The real value of older horses

How much is a horse worth? Yes, this is a trick question – and there are several answers, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

The nicest is the one you hear from an owner whose horse is part of the family and regarded as priceless. These owners tend to be women, and they often have a T-shirt that proclaims: “He said it was me or the horse. We miss him”. Hands up, I’m one of them – although my husband bought me the T-shirt.

Another answer comes from a dealer friend. She reckons that a horse is worth whatever she can persuade someone to pay for him – and there is a logic to that, whether you’re talking about a horse to hack or a top class competition animal.

But however you assess market value, there’s an accepted tenet that most “ordinary” horses reach their prime market value when they are between seven and 10 years old. The reasoning is that by the time they get to seven, they’ve built up some experience and after that, accumulated wear and tear means they’re less likely to stay sound.

You can shoot holes in that argument remarkably easily. Younger horses can be just as prone to injury and its after-effects, while experience is only valuable if it’s good experience.

So why do so many riders still think that a horse in its teens isn’t worth considering? They could be missing a great opportunity.

One of my horses is 15 this year. Some readers will say that hardly counts as middle-aged and advances in nutrition and veterinary science back that up. His favourite hacking companion is an 18-year-old, ex-Grade A showjumper whom a friend bought as her first horse.

Hands up, I thought my friend was taking a huge risk. The vet who carried out a pre-purchase check found signs of an old injury, but thought the mare was suitable for low level Riding Club activities.

No one has told this lovely 17hh warmblood that she should be taking life more sedately. Watch her turn herself inside out when she’s loose-schooled, prick up her ears when she sees a jump and lengthen her stride out hacking and you’d take her for a horse half her age.

She still performs great flying changes and if you press the right buttons, you get the right results. For the first time in years – perhaps the first time ever – she’s hacking out, being treated like the princess she is and enjoying a varied lifestyle.

Treat older horses as individuals, rather than numbers, and you may be surprised at what they can offer and what you can achieve with them. There is a downside, of course, and that’s the fact that the older a horse is, the more likely it is that you will have to make difficult decisions at some stage.

The hardest decision of all is deciding when it’s time to do the last thing you can for his welfare. Retirement isn’t always an option for horses, owners, or both and old horses rarely die in their sleep. If you care about him, you’ll find the courage to do the right thing.

In the meantime, remember that with horses – and certainly with ponies, many of whom lead active lives well into their 20s – age is just a number, and can add up to many years of fun.

The perils of buying ponies.

Buying a horse for yourself is difficult enough, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. But when a friend asks you to help them find the ideal partner for their child, the challenge level shoots off the scale.

After negotiations between mother and 12-year-old daughter, we struck a compromise. It was a bit like the arguments you negotiate when buying school shoes; Mum wanted something safe, sensible and reasonably priced and daughter wanted something pretty, forward going and preferably palomino.


Once we’d compromised on coat colour and established that the potential rider’s idea of forward going was a pony that she didn’t have to kick, finding candidates should have been easy.

Unfortunately, there are sellers who either have no idea of their ponies’ temperament or stage of schooling or are simply dishonest. First, there was the one whose current young owner mysteriously wasn’t there to ride it. When we refused to let my friend’s daughter get on until we’d seen it ridden, the seller’s older daughter was roped in.

We watched what we had been assured was a paragon of virtue buck every time it was asked to canter, and realised that perhaps they had been hoping the extra weight would weigh the pony down.

Then there was the pony who went beautifully all the way down the arena, then spun and galloped back to the gate as fast as his 13.2hh legs would carry him. “Oh dear,” said his owner. “He’s never done that before.”

Perhaps not, but he wasn’t going to get the chance to do it again. We also discounted the pony who “only needed front shoes”, possibly because when you tried to pick up his hindleg, he tried to kick you.

Finally, we found a formidable-sounding lady with a New Forest pony for sale.  I grilled her and then she grilled me with equal determination.  When we met, it was like negotiating a treaty.

It worked. The pony was everything she said he was: a happy, cheerful chap who had nice balanced paces and reasonable conformation and popped willingly over small jumps.

The owner insisted that his potential new owner should groom him and tack him up, which was great, and he went nicely when ridden by her daughter. My friend’s daughter and the pony hit it off straight away and  a few days later, after a satisfactory pre-purchase vetting report, the deal was done.

I’m pleased we found her a pony she loves – bay with a white star is now infinitely superior to palomino – but depressed that there are sellers out there prepared to tell lies and risk the safety of a child.  These weren’t dodgy dealers, they were private sellers with children of their own.

Maybe they were prepared to put up with problems while the ponies were in their ownership, although I’m pretty sure the kicker and the one who napped in the school were being sold because of them. But while there’s no such thing as a bombproof pony, they were asked before we went to see them if their ponies had any problems or quirks.

Since when did it become acceptable to risk the safety of someone else’s child? If you can’t solve a problem, get help from someone who can.

Don’t just decide to pass it on and keep your fingers crossed. It isn’t fair on the pony – and it certainly isn’t fair on the children whose safety and confidence is compromised.

Let’s look after our riding schools


Can you remember your first riding lesson? Mine was light years ago, but I can still remember every detail, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

The small riding school in Lincolnshire was run by two dedicated sisters called Daphne and June. They introduced me to a 12.2hh strawberry roan pony called Amigo and explained that I’d learn not just how to ride, but how to tack up, groom and muck out.

When my Dad told them I could draw a saddle and bridle and label every part, and knew the name of every piece of grooming equipment and what it was for, they nodded in approval.

There was so much to take in on that first lesson. At the end, Daphne told me I must pat Amigo’s neck to thank him; the poor pony must have thought he was being patted to death.

Lots of you will have similar memories of special riding school ponies. But will your children or grandchildren have the same chances?

Unless you’re born into an equestrian family and are brought up in jodhpurs, a riding school offers the only chance of getting close to horses and ponies. Yet riding schools are under threat because of massive hikes in business rates and insurance cover, the latter due to a change in the law.

What happened to all those official declarations about riding being such a valuable activity? And what happened to all those promises about the Olympic legacy?

Times change and businesses have to adapt. Many riding schools no longer take pupils on hacks because the roads around them are too busy. And whilst some of us saw graduating from a school’s safe starter ponies to feistier ones as a badge of honour, today’s riding school owners know that some clients have their solicitors on speed dial in case their children fall off – which means feisty ponies are out of a job and children miss out.

Those who run riding schools do it for love. They certainly can’t do it to get rich – you only have to look at the costs of feed, bedding and shoeing, let alone rates and insurance, to work that out.

The latest British Horse Society statistics show that there are just under 900 BHS-approved centres worldwide. Prices vary, but private lesson prices starting at about £20 for half an hour. At one legendary school, you can have a 45-minute lesson on a dressage schoolmaster, with an equally legendary instructor, for about £80.

At my local cinema, it costs £20 for an adult and one child to see a film. So how come we still hear claims that riding is an expensive, elitist sport?

Unfortunately, until the powers that be wake up to the fact that riding schools should be treasured and helped, not rated out of existence, that’s what will happen. Some schools will close and others will have to put up prices so much, a lot of families won’t be able to afford them.

I hope things change, and that the children in your family have the chance to meet their equivalent of Amigo.




First competitions of the season.

Well, our first squad assessment with horses has now been and gone.  It was, as usual, a considerable drive away for us which I guess is the penalty for living in such a wonderful and usually quiet part of the World.  This was in Milton Keynes at a riding stables and livery yard where I could stable Fantom overnight.  It was a slightly anxious drive up there as our old Shogun was beginning to tire of pulling our massive Equi-trek and started making rather unpleasant smells.  However we made it without incident and settled Fantom into his stable and went to find our hotel in Milton Keynes.

The following day was the assessment in the indoor school.  As most of the horses weren’t yet in work or had just come back into work, this was mostly in hand with a short ridden assessment just in walk and trot.  Fantom’s behaviour in hand left something to be desired.  Since his 3* qualifier last year he has been a little ‘difficult’ to handle at times: strutting around, galloping here and there in his field and inclined to leap and push when being brought in from the field.  He did, I’m afraid, demonstrate a little of this when being led up and down for the squad management team.  Since then we have been trotting up and down the road in hand, changing the side to lead him from.

Meanwhile Chiara’s final preparations for the first ride of the season were completed and consisted of some pole work in the school to gain her attention and some long slow work around the lanes.  The first ride was local to us, only half an hour away so without getting up too early, we could arrive early at the venue.  This was at the Royal Cornwall Showground, the site of Chiara’s first ever competition last year.  Last year we had problems with keeping her calm for the vetting inside the big livestock shed and her pulses were quite high.  This year, however, she stood quietly for almost the full minute of pulse taking both at the beginning and the end.  She has since then been on Steady Up Advance which seems to have made a difference.

The ride went smoothly with Chiara relaxing into a regular, rhythmic canter on the forest tracks and settling into a fairly reasonable trot where canter wasn’t possible.  All in all, a huge improvement was seen since last year and she finished the day with a grade 1.

Next up was Dilmun.  He has been prepared for his first competition of the season by beach work, lunging, even some detested schooling and trotting over poles.   Yesterday we went up to Dorset to do the Hardy’s ride.  I entered for the 43 kms distance as I felt that was the minimum we needed to do to assess whether Dilmun will be ready in 5 weeks to compete at Royal Windsor.

We were so lucky with the weather, a bright sunny day with a slight breeze.  There was no mud which pleased both of us and, although we had to take care on some stony stretches, the going was generally perfect with seemingly endless stretches of grass to canter over.  Both Dilmun and I loved it and he felt as fresh at the finish as he was at the start.  I am now happy to enter him for Windsor although there is plenty of work to be done before then.

My own fitness at last has taken a turn for the better and my efforts are beginning to pay off.  I am doing plenty of Pilates exercises, paying attention to my legs and core and have started jogging again.

Plans for the next couple of months are still a little fluid with Dilmun planned to go to Windsor for the 1*, Fantom to Euston Park also for a 1* and Chiara’s first FEI competition at King’s Forest.  However, this could all change as this year everything has to revolve around Fantom and his chances of team selection.

Why ‘some old guy’ means so much to everyone.

Even those who don’t know one end of a horse from another have probably heard that showjumping stars Nick Skelton and Big Star are retiring, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON.

The announcement flooded across websites and social media and made mainstream TV. That’s important, just as it was when our dressage riders at the London Olympics wowed those who didn’t know a Piaffe from a pit stop, and the non-horsey world became aware of dancing horses.

It’s an irresistible story – the 58-year-old man who is lucky to be alive, let alone ride. In 2000, Nick fractured his first cervical vertebra in two places, an injury known as the hangman’s break, and was told that another fall could be fatal. In 2016, he and Big Star captured the general public’s imagination, and now they’ve done it again.

Nick Skelton and Big Star jump to Olympic Gold in the individual final at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 19th August 2016.

When asked to sum up why so many fell in love with his story, Nick was down to earth and disarming. “I think it’s the age factor,” he said. “Some old guy doing what I did ended up winning gold.”

As an afterthought, he added: “If you want something, and you fight for it, you will get it.” Many will say that’s not true, but if you’re realistic, it should be.

So let’s hope that the widely publicised retirement of Nick and Big Star will prompt a few more people to wonder if there might be something in this horse riding stuff, after all. If some of those aren’t in the first flush of youth, that’s even better.

Few people can power round huge showjumping courses when they’re Nick’s age – with apologies to John and Michael Whitaker, of course, who are slightly older. Whatever they’ve got, they should bottle it and sell it.

But just about anyone of any age can learn to ride, or pick up the reins after a long break. Don’t be worried about looking silly, because if contemporaries take notice, it will be in envy and admiration.

As for the partnership’s personal futures, there is a popular educated guess. Nick’s son, Dan, is a racehorse trainer in his fourth season and before that, spent nine years as assistant trainer to Paul Nicholls. What’s the betting that Nick will be spreading some of his expertise around his son’s already successful yard?

Big Star is set to concentrate on what stallions do. If you have a worthy mare and want to breed a Big Star baby, now could be your chance – just don’t get trampled in the rush.

Finally, there is still hope for those of us who don’t bounce as well as we used to. Nick might be hanging up his competition boots, but John Whitaker, who will be 62 in August and his  57-year-old brother, Michael, can still show younger riders how it’s done.

Andrew Nicholson at Burghley Horse Trials. Credit:

In the world of eventing, Andrew Nicholson, aged 55, is a name younger riders fear. So too is Sir Mark Todd, aged 61.

Remember what the man said. If you want it, and fight for it, you’ll get it.

The season has started!

It’s been a long time in coming, but the 2017 endurance season has officially started. I can’t tell you how good it felt to finish an 80km ride with Elayla; no matter how many amazing horses I ride, there is no better feeling to riding your own.


I think Tilford took us all by surprise this year; the persistent rain meant that the going became very difficult in places and we had to make the speed up where the ground allowed. Despite this we had great fun, and it was the perfect ride to start Layla’s season and to finish with a grade one was the icing on the cake.


The first ride of the year can also be a bit nerve-wracking because horses can change over the winter and it’s the first true test of any minor adjustments you have made over the off season. For us the biggest change was Layla’s feeding regime and I’m really pleased to say she has thrived on it, and I can only thank the team’ at Baileys and Feedmark for ensuring she has the best diet for her job. I’m really impressed with the Stamina and Endurance supplement, it is the first time I have fed it to any of my horses and it definitely ‘does what it says on the tin’ – providing slow release energy and proteins for optimum performance, and also aiding the horses’ main systems to ensure they are in the best condition.


The recovery of horses post ride, is just as important as their care pre ride and because Tilford was more difficult than I had first thought, I booked Layla in for a last minute massage two days after the ride. This was the perfect way to help her muscles recover, by ensuring she didn’t suffer from any particular muscle tightness. She also enjoyed some time out in the field, which is a great way of keeping her mind going whilst she’s not in work and also to keep her moving.


Layla has since come back into work and is looking onwards and upwards to our next competition at Kings Forest in April. Her 2017 season will be tailored towards her condition and performance for the World Endurance Championships for young riders in Verona, Italy in September. This ride will be different to anything we currently have in the UK, due to the nature of the hard, stony tracks and cobbled roads, and so its paramount that I condition the mares’ body to be able to cope with the demands of the going and the concussion that her legs will receive.