What will Santa bring your horse this year? Here's our guide to the perfect Christmas gifts that your horse will definitely love... and benefit from!
What will Santa bring your horse this year? Here's our guide to the perfect Christmas gifts that your horse will definitely love... and benefit from!
Read the incredible story of Spike; a starved, neglected yearling, infested with lice and worms, who has transformed in to a successful dressage star with a superb personality!
As we head into winter, many owners will change their horses’ regime – some by choice, and some by necessity. Either way, it’s easy to turn into a worrier.
Before you end up so stressed you’re doing the human equivalent of weaving, the Feedmark team has picked out some common misconceptions to avoid...
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In an Alice in Wonderland sort of way, measures aimed at keeping riders safe sometimes make it more difficult for them to become competent and balanced. Just before the survey results were announced, Olympic eventing gold medallist Jane Holderness-Roddam told a conference that insurance, liability and health and safety measures made teaching riding more challenging than ever, and that “health and safety” could sometimes be a restriction.
In the olden days, when I learned to ride at a fabulous riding school run by two sisters, we all longed for the privilege of being able to muck out and clean tack all day in return for the privilege of riding the ponies bareback to their field at the end of the day. On lessons, we did exercises such as “round the world” and “scissors” and would often finish by wriggling back off the saddle and sliding down the pony’s quarters to land on our feet.
Once you’d learned to mount and dismount, our instructors made sure we could do it from both sides. I’m rather proud that even though I always use a mounting block to protect my horses’ backs and saddles, I can still get on and off from either side.
When we learned to jump, we did so via a jumping lane of small fences, learning balance by crossing our arms and quitting our stirrups. These days, I know plenty of riders who are scared to ride in an arena without stirrups, let alone jump.
Was it risky? Of course, although the ponies were quiet and used to this and much more, so the risk was minimal. Did it help? You bet.
John Whitaker, one of the most gifted showjumpers you could wish to see, told me that when he and his siblings were young they only had one saddle between them. If it wasn’t your turn, you rode bareback.
Stickability doesn’t come from gripping with your knees or wearing sticky-bum breeches. It comes from balance. The beautiful knock-on effect is that balance allows you to move in harmony with your horse and influence his movement without putting him off balance; by default, you’re more secure.
Of course riding is a risk sport and of course we need to be sensible and aware. But how have we reached the stage when most riding school proprietors – that is, the ones that can still afford to keep going despite insurance and other costs – daren’t use horses who aren’t push-button safe once pupils are competent to take on more of a challenge? As for jumping without reins and stirrups…
My competitive career peaked when I tackled my one and only Grade B showjumping competition and realised I’d reached my limit. But if I hadn’t had the chance to have fun, ride ponies who were cleverer than me and develop a reasonable balance, I wouldn’t even have got that far.
Several years down the line, I probably wouldn’t get over the first fence in a Grade B course. But thanks to all the instructors who said “You can do it” even when I thought I couldn’t, I’m not frightened of riding in the open, competing for fun and schooling youngsters.
Let’s encourage riders, not hold them back. Balance is all, and that means striking a balance between taking sensible precautions and wrapping young people in cotton wool.
There’s nothing nicer than hearing people enthuse about their horses – not in terms of how much they’ve won, but in how much they enrich their lives. Talking to a woman who had just bought her first horse after ten years of sharing other people’s was a delight.
She wasn’t particularly ambitious and had looked for a horse which was reliable to hack and generally laid-back about life. A quiet cob, she’d thought, or a been there, done it native or native cross.
Instead, she found a five-year-old ex-racehorse. When she announced this all her friends said it would be a disaster, that if he was as quiet as she said, he must have been doped when she tried him.
In fact, he couldn’t gallop fast enough to keep himself warm and had spent a few months being re-educated by a trainer who understood what his life in racing stables would have been like, and how to take him through the transition to “ordinary” life.
Six months after she bought him, she said, he was so laid back he was horizontal. He gave leads out hacking to other horses on the livery yard and when they went for their first beach ride, he lobbed along in canter while the “quiet cobs” performed hoofstands.
This woman isn’t idealistic and she definitely isn’t naïve. As a recently retired solicitor specialising in criminal cases, she had heard enough people giving their versions of what they regarded as the truth to know how to make up her own mind. Horses, she reckoned, were as individual as people.
Most of us will say we’re open-minded, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves that stereotyping horses is as dangerous as stereotyping people. Does anyone really believe that chestnut horses, particularly chestnut mares, are likely to be “hotter” than, say, bays or greys? That’s surely as illogical as the belief that everyone with ginger locks is bad-tempered.
Common sense dictates that the way a horse is educated (or not) and looked after will affect the way he behaves and performs. The quietest horse is going to behave like a numpty if he’s fed on rocket fuel and not worked accordingly and many owners of Thoroughbreds believe their horses are more sensitive than other types.
I don’t know whether that’s always the case, but I do know that some horses and ponies labelled as insensitive or even stupid can blossom when a new owner/rider takes a different approach from a previous one. It also helps to have faith in a horse you just know can do your job perfectly, even if he doesn’t look like the ideal candidate.
A quick search on social media will show you New Forest ponies competing successfully under British Eventing rules, Thoroughbreds eating up the miles in endurance competitions and cobs showing the warmbloods how to do it in dressage. They might not make British teams, but how many of us could do so even if we had Olympic-level horsepower?
So if you find an equine partner with the heart of a four-star event horse beating in the body of a 14hh native pony, or a TB who likes nothing better than the horse equivalent of a chilled-out stroll, make the most of it. And do please share your pictures, because you have every right to be proud.
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Autumn is in full swing now, the first overnight frost appeared over two weeks ago and the long, hot and amazingly dry summer is a fading memory.
I had my saddle fitter out to check Chiara’s saddle before making a decision about whether to enter the 2* at the Royalties ride in Lincolnshire. It was immediately apparent that her saddle was no longer fitting her at all and almost certainly accounted for her intermittent lameness. Wow, did I feel guilty? I feel I should have picked this up before but didn’t, having convinced myself that it was something dire going on with a ligament or tendon.
A new saddle is the next task and Chiara is now on holiday to recover from her sore back and all the little stresses and strains of a competitive season. Upon her planned return to work in December, I have arranged to have a ‘try on’ session with a number of saddles.
This was a huge disappointment to me and in hindsight could have been preventable. Chiara will be unlikely now to gain championship qualification in time for the European Championships next year. My consolation was that Fantom was all set for the Nationals and training up well.
As usual the National Championships was well-organised and everything ran like clockwork. The organisers had even arranged for perfect endurance weather; indeed perfect weather for most people. We arrived happy and relaxed in plenty of time for the Friday pre-ride vetting which ran smoothly and Fantom even got to spend some time in a corral before moving to one of the permanent showground stables. There is so much space at the Royal Welsh Showground that nothing was overcrowded, the only downside being that you had to walk such a long way to everything.
I had a plan; actually a series of plans with various contingency plans. I had ridden this same route a couple of years ago and picked up on the fact that there are some slippery stretches of road where I had been forced to walk down reducing our overall speed considerably, this time I made sure I had Fantom shoed with road nails which worked a treat.
The first day fell into a pattern with five of us breaking away from the remaining 6 and generally we rode together taking it in turns to take the lead. This was one of the most enjoyable (and relaxed) days I’ve ever spent when actually racing: perfect weather, wonderful going, good company and views to die for.
We made good time that day and speedily vetted through into the overnight hold. I had a 6 minute start on the others in the morning but made the decision to use this to take it easy up the first two major hills and then to tag along with the others when they caught me up. This way Fantom had a gentle warm up to the hills and the later company of the others kept him motivated. Overnight we lost one rider who retired as her horse had stiffened up so we were down to four of us. The second day was much harder as the horses didn’t feel so fresh and it was much colder so we had to dig deeper and work together.
We rode this way up to the last vetgate where we lost another one so then there were three of us. Tactics then gradually came into play. Unfortunately for me, whereas Fantom had presented much quicker than the other horses on the first day when it was warm, on the second day with the colder weather they were almost as quick. This meant that the three of us set off on the last leg of about 20 km together.
At the top of the last rather steep hill I had decided that I would make a break and trot down but to my horror just as I was about to make my move, a much smaller equine shot off leaving me to keep him in sight all the way down the hill the best I could. On reaching the bottom Fantom passed him quite smoothly and we headed along a narrow path beside the river before crossing the road into the final run up. Yep, this pony (unbeknown to me was an ex racing pony) literally flew past me in the final few metres! So, second in the Nationals: not a bad result made even better by being awarded ‘Best Condition’.
Fantom has now joined Chiara in holiday time and both have some fresh grazing in a neighbour’s field. Dilmun and Wizard have upped their work a little and schooling has commenced…
These animals prompted long-lasting initiatives that continue to help today’s equines – and sometimes, their owners. This month marks 100 years since the end of WW1 and the conclusion of Brooke’s Every Horse Remembered campaign, launched in November 2017 “to highlight the heroic struggle of working horses, donkeys and mules of the past and present, and help build better lives for future generations.”
Image credit: Brooke
While we’re remembering the men – and boys – who didn’t come home, or returned with permanent mental and physical scars, let’s also remember the way so many soldiers cared for their horses. There are many moving stories, including that of George Turner, who risked his life to ensure his horse was not left to die a slow, painful death.
And although she was not, of course, directly involved in war, let’s remember Dorothy Brooke. In 1930, she went to Egypt determined to find the surviving ex-warhorses of the British, Australian and American forces. These horses were sold into a life of hard labour in Cairo when conflict ended.
Within three years, thanks to public donations, Dorothy Brooke had bought 5,000 ex-warhorses. Most were old, exhausted and could only be given a merciful release, but she later founded the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital in Cairo, giving free veterinary care for the city’s working horses and donkeys. The Brooke Hospital for Animals was born.
In 1912, when it was called Our Dumb Friends League (ODFL), the charity now called Blue Cross provided vital veterinary care to animals during the Balkan War. It launched the Blue Cross Fund, named after the flags displaying blue crosses that flew above animal hospitals and ambulances to distinguish help for animal casualties from The Red Cross, which provided aid to wounded soldiers.
Image credit: Blue Cross
As the war played out, ODFL realised that while the British Army was relatively well-equipped with sufficient knowledge and supplies to help its horses, its European allies weren’t. Following the inarguable principle that animals have no nationality, it also helped animals with the French and Italian armies and veterinary supplies were sent to the US Veterinary Corps.
Today, Blue Cross and the charity now known simply as Brooke continue their work to help animals. Brooke’s work, like that of World Horse Welfare, extends worldwide and by helping people look after their horses better, it improves the lives of humans and animals.
The poppy has always been the symbol of remembrance, because when the conflict was over, it was one of the first plants to grow on the battlefields. Some like to adopt a purple poppy in special significance for animals lost through war; others count them in with the traditional red poppy. Either way, we should remember them all.
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Most riders do everything they can to ensure that their horses are happy and comfortable, so the announcement that British Dressage is cracking down on too-tight nosebands will be welcomed.
We’ve all seen pictures of horses whose mouths have been strapped shut so tightly they can’t relax their jaws. As a horse can’t work forward on to the bit without relaxing his jaw, that’s a no-brainer in terms of performance as well as causing distress and even pain.
But beyond this issue, which has caused heated debate, lies a wider point. It doesn’t take rocket science to prove that anything you use on or give to a horse, whether it’s a bridle or a feed supplement, can only do good if it is used for a purpose and used correctly. If it isn’t, it will be at best, ineffective and at worst, abuse.
A well-fitting browband which isn't pinching the ears.
Image credit: Dressage Deluxe.
Those of us who have owned horses for donkeys’ years or who compete at high level can’t assume that we always get it right. I recently heard a practical and thoughtful dressage trainer say that many of his clients still judge the height of a bit by how many wrinkles appear at the sides of the horse’s mouth, rather than looking inside the horse’s mouth to see where the mouthpiece lies.
First-time buyers or those trying to cut costs often respond to adverts asking if a horse or pony is being sold with tack. That can be a great way of staying within your budget, as long as the tack fits correctly to start with. If it doesn’t, you either perpetuate a problem or end up with tack you don’t want, and the expense of finding some that fits.
Sometimes, it’s simply a case of making sure that assumptions are accurate. Manufacturers can offer guidelines, but if you don’t know how much your horse or pony weighs and rely on guesswork, you don’t have a baseline for working out how much feed, supplement, or – when appropriate – wormer he needs. Fortunately, wormers can no longer be bought in the UK without appropriate checks being made, but there are still owners who get around them.
Fashion has a lot to answer for, too. Why do so many riders use Flash nosebands as standard on snaffle bridles? Of course they can be useful when designed and fitted correctly, but some horses go better without a drop strap and their riders never actually find out.
Next time you’re at a show, look at how many riders use Flash nosebands that are so flimsy, the whole thing is dragged down the horse’s face so the drop strap rests halfway across the horse’s mouth. The rider often attempts to rectify this by tightening the noseband, which goes back to where we came in.
It’s usually too simplistic to say that we should “always” or “never” use certain equipment and it’s always fascinating when well-known riders and trainers say why they’ve changed their approach. Full marks, too, to those who have re-designed traditional equipment to make it more comfortable for the horse. I like the Micklem bridle, designed by hugely respected trainer William Micklem, but it can only be comfortable for the horse if you follow the fitting guidelines carefully.
A Micklem bridle.
It can be difficult when we’re swamped with views and information. But if we think first, monitor our horses constantly and base what we do on knowledge rather than fashion, we and our horses will be better off.
Ask a non-horsey person what difference daylight saving time (DST) makes to them and you’ll probably get either a blank look or a mild grumble about days getting shorter. Ask a horse owner and be prepared for a long list of complaints.
For many owners, it means fewer chances to ride. For an unlucky minority, it means no riding at all or being restricted to a suitable regime at weekends coupled with appropriate strategies during the week. Even if you can juggle your schedule to ride in daylight, you’ll find yourself longing for the days to lengthen again.
If I lived in the north of Scotland, I might feel differently. But honestly, how can you take seriously a scheme first proposed in 1784 as a way of saving candles?
Whatever your views or circumstances, you need to make the most of whatever daylight you can devote to your horse and try and make any free time – even if it’s in the dark – as productive as possible. You might have to be creative, although I wouldn’t recommend some of the ways respondents to a survey on winter riding made the most of their time.
One wore a head torch and rode around her field after dark; I’m not sure whether that’s brave or mad, but it must come with a disclaimer that we don’t recommend it - and another rode bareback so she saved time on tacking up and could ride several horses in the time available. Bareback riding is great for showing you how your balance affects your horse, but there are limits…
If you’re an early bird, like a dedicated member of the Feedmark team, then at least you start your working day knowing that your horse has been exercised. She says she feels more motivated if she rides before work; however, this means she has to ride, untack, groom or wash off/dry her horse and be on her way by 7.15am.
She also has a challenge many will recognise: being restricted to an arena most of the time means finding different ways to keep your horse interested. Her mix of interval training, more intensive flatwork to focus on particular areas and work over poles could go on most riders’ menu. Poles on the ground are great for making horses and riders think; if you want some inspiration, read Schooling with Ground Poles by Claire Lilley (J A Allen).
Lungeing and long-reining can be hugely productive, as can in-hand work. Many trainers offer demos and clinics at this time of year and if you’re feeling jaded, you could pick up some ideas for improving your horse’s ridden work while you’ve both got your feet on the ground.
What if you have to ride at a different time of day after changing the clocks? Horses are surprisingly adaptable; experiments have shown that if their work schedules are shifted but kept stable at the new times, genes linked to muscle generation and repair are “switched on” just before the new exercise time.
Researchers have also found that management can affect the flow of hormones, thus minimising the effect of jet lag and seasonal changes. This applies to top end competition horses and racehorses, of course – unless your horse has booked himself a sneaky winter break in the sunshine – but one piece of advice from this research still holds.
That centres on the importance of a correct diet, ensuring that it contains adequate levels of macro- and micronutrients. In many cases, that will entail appropriate supplementation tailored to your horse and his needs.
Finally, the more preparations you can make when you have time off, or the more you can persuade/bribe one of your nearest and dearest to help, the easier you’ll find it to cope when the pressure is on. Little things like weighing up haynets at weekends might only save a few minutes, but translate those in terms of riding time and they become valuable minutes.
Here are a few survival tips from some of my horsey friends – if you can add to the list, please share them!