Preparing for Spring

So, the days are drawing out & the occasional blue sky can be seen. Daffodils can be found in abundance along with lambs & ducklings.

After a cold, wet, muddy winter with endless dark mornings & nights (not to mention lost shoes!), do we horse people rejoice?

NOPE…….!

naughty-thelwell

Instead we can just be heard endlessly debating the best rug to put on our horse at that moment in time, interspersed with comments as to at which point the spring grass will render our horse an un-rideable nutter!

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We CAN make spring a great time though & all it takes is a little planning & common sense.
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RUGS: Just admit that you will NEVER get it right & you will save yourself a lot of angst!  Unless you sit by the gate with a car boot full of every rug your local tack shop stocks there is no way your horse will be in the perfect rug every moment of every spring day! Sitting at work worrying about the brilliant sunshine that has suddenly poked its head through the hail storm that rattled through 2 minutes earlier will not only make you miserable it  will also make your work colleagues think you are somewhat mad….

Rug

My personal opinions on rugs are thus:
A wet rug is never good. It is more likely to cause rubs & can even promote chills. No rug at all is better than a wet one (internally wet this is!).

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Spring is often the time of year when we first encounter sweaty horses again & rugging on top of sweat is not a good idea. As well as potentially causing chills, (especially if you ride in the evenings & then turn your horse out again), the abrasive  salt in the sweat increases the likelihood of rug rubs.
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Overheating is a potentially  serious health issue & should be avoided if at all possible. It is impossible for a horse to cool himself if he is swaddled under a duvet thickness winter weight rug complete with neck cover.  A HEALTHY horse on appropriately fed fiber is actually rarely cold even in the depths of winter as he will generate internal heat by the digesting of fiber (grass & hay) & can move around to keep himself warm & out of prevailing winds & rains. If in doubt, put a lighter weight rug on.
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A lightweight totally waterproof rug is the best spring option as it will act as a windcheater, will protect from the odd hail storm, wont be too hot during a sunny day & will obviously stay dry underneath on wet days (& spring  rain seems to be particularly wet rain!).  The increased quantity & nutrition of the spring grass will also help generate more than enough internal body heat to keep the horse comfortable in a cold snap.
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I personally like to remove the rug totally as soon as I can. Even the best fitting & designs of rug cause continual pressure across many parts of the horse e.g. shoulders, hips, withers. This causes at best, low grade bruising & at worse actual rub or pressure sores. In the UK many horses have to wear aniti- fly or sweet-itch rugs during the summer so spring is the only window of opportunity we have to allow the horse to go rug free.
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Evo 19
Horses love being rug free!  The constant rolling in muddy puddles is not just to make chipping off the mud a nightmare for us when preparing them to ride! Rolling acts as a muscle massage & skin mud-pack. It can help to remove parasites & is just a pleasurable thing for a horse to do. It removes dried in sweat & helps to shed the winter coat. Being rug free also allows a bit of skin exposure for Vitamin D & helps to heal any rug bruising or rubs that may have occurred & let’s face it, who doesn’t like the feel of warm sun on their skin?
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Grass: Yes, spring grass contains more sugars & yes, this can make horses ‘silly’ !
However……A well trained horse appropriately handled & fed will NOT suddenly become dangerous. If he does…… you need to look at your horses training, your own ability & your feeding regimes……
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Typical Laminitis stance
Typical Laminitis stance

The sugars in spring grass have a much more sinister effect though, which is the potential to cause laminitis. This is a devastating foot condition accompanied by horrific pain & often results in humane euthanasia on welfare grounds.

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The horse management to prevent us getting bucked off in spring is the same as that to reduce the likelihood of laminitis so good horse management is a win win solution!
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The grass will start growing when the soil temperature is a constant 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius approx) or above. As a result you can’t just say the grass will start growing on such & such a date as a harsh cold winter into a quick warm spring will result in the  grass growing sooner than after a mild winter but cold spring. Be assured though…. the grass will most definitely grow  at some point!
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With this in mind, be prepared well in advance! It is totally alright for a horse to drop a bit of weight in winter (this is NOT the same as becoming emaciated or losing muscle mass). This is natures way of preparing the horse to reproduce  safely (an overweight mare will find it hard to conceive & a fat pregnant mare may grow a foal that is too large to be safely delivered) & to cope with the influx of new growth spring grass without becoming morbidly obese or coming down with laminitis, both of which would make is easier for a predator to catch the horse in the ‘olden days’.
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If you have been giving supplementary feed to your horse over winter cut this back BEFORE the grass starts to grow. If you don’t you have given your horse a springboard to obesity & possible laminitis as well as behavioural issues. Unless your horse is working HARD a handful of food to make them feel loved is all they require. Hard work is the equivalent of hunting 2 times a week, along with the associated fittening work so don’t confuse an amble through the country lanes on the occasional sunny winters morning work of any sort let alone hard!
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Body Scoring 0 - 5
Body Scoring 0 – 5

In an ideal world you want the spring grass to change the horse from a winter body condition score of 2.5 approx to one of 3 not from a 3 to a 5…….. (This is using the 0-5 scale as opposed to the 0-10 scale equine body condition score scale).

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If we are pumping the horse full of hard food this is going to magnify the sugar effect of spring grass as instead of the grass being utilised to improve body condition it will just make them fat & naughty! If your horse has specific nutritional requirements e.g. young, old, infirm, then discuss his feeding requirements with your vet or a specialised equine nutritionist (each equine feed company will have a nutritionist & advice will be free!). The same is true if the horse is lacking certain minerals etc e.g. selenium.
Most of us, with the best of intentions, not only overfeed our horses but feed them the equivalent of lollies, ice-cream, & burgers…… all are fine once in a while but will cause serious health problems if they become the staple diet.
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Most horses in spring will do very nicely on straight forward chaff….. no ‘sprinkles’, no rocket fuel grains, no molassed products JUST CHAFF! This will help to settle the digestive tract (& as fiber is digested in the hind gut generating significant internal body heat, will keep the horse warm during cold snaps) & will go a little way to reducing the ‘silly’ effect sugar can have on some horses by keeping the digestive track functioning efficiently.
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Cutting down his grain based food is the single most important thing you can do coming in to spring to help the well being & mind of your horse.
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Suitable exercise cures many ills!
Suitable exercise cures many ills!
The final thing I am considering in this article is exercise: like naughty children & dogs…… exercise is a great cure for naughty horses!
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Start to work your horse more BEFORE the grass starts to really grow. This will fit in with lighter mornings & evenings & hopefully better weather making it pleasant for horse & rider. It will also be the start of your competition fittening campaign if you compete at all. If you are a pleasure rider, a fit horse & fit rider will enjoy themselves far more & stay sound longer, so whatever your horse aspirations, spring is a good time to up the anti!
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A horse in regular work that is not overfed will be happier in himself, safer to handle & ride & usually you wont even notice the ‘spring grass effect’ in a negative way. You will just have a happy, smiley horse who is enjoying his life in the warmer weather as much as you are.

Happy (Southern hemisphere!) spring & enjoy your horses!

 

The problem with horses is……. we try to ride them!

Thel catch

I have huge respect for whoever it was that first decided it was a good idea to ride horses & we have been suffering for this bravery ever since!

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Midi
A long way from grazing in a field!
What were originally beasts of burden, work & war were fortunate to find a modern day life as a recreational pursuit otherwise they would now only be seen in zoos & wildlife parks (or the meat section in our supermarkets…….).
However, this change of status has come with some issues. Whereas horses used to be worked long & hard, albeit usually at slow paces, we now want them to become top class athletes demonstrating on a daily basis the Olympic motto of Higher, Faster, Stronger.
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This is fine except that the poor average horse does not have 24/7 access to a team coach, sports psychologist, physiotherapist, team doctor (or state sponsored medication programme!)  yard manager, saddle fitter, remedial farrier, state of the art equipment manufacturer & so on.
Instead….. they just have us!
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Now before you all jump up & down chanting that you don’t compete & never (intentionally!) gallop your horse I can assure you than whenever we climb onto their backs we are indeed asking them to go significantly Higher, Faster & Stronger than their planned day which was to eat forage for about 18 hours with a few snoozes along the way!
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With this in mind it is not at all surprising that the riding of horses can often present us with a bumpy ride (pardon the pun!).
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Thel buck
The Buck!
All horse people are familiar with the words: bucking, napping, rearing, spinning, spooking, shying, jibbing, bolting etc & each ‘vice’ is a degree subject in its own right. However, some basic common sense can help us all to survive the company of our horses whilst riding them,  as well as also allowing the horse to enjoy our company!
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If we are ‘over horsed’ our natural (& extremely sensible) anxiety will make him anxious as well. We are supposed to be the horses ‘rock’ & protector from harm & daffying around the horse in a tense nervous state is never going to end well!
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Taking lessons to help US to communicate better is the way forward.  Don’t confuse this with training the horse. By this I mean that it is not a long term fix to send the horse away for schooling as the old issues will return the second we are reunited as we ourselves have not learnt how to better communicate in the language of ‘horse’.
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Private lesson
Training session
There are dozens of different ways to effectively communicate (train) our horses & my advice is to find someone you personally trust that is also local enough to be a regular (& if necessary, ongoing) sounding board & mentor. As you & your horses’ needs progress this person may well change.
Once we have eliminated ourselves from the equation if our horse still presents us with issues whilst being ridden we need to look for other possible reasons.
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PAIN is the biggie…… As horses are prey animals they are very stoic in their approach to pain & don’t make a habit of pointing with a hoof at their sore back or hock joint.
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It is unlikely to be an obvious injury the horse is suffering from as most of us will instantly recognise a lame horse or an open wound & will call the vet & take appropriate action. No, it is much more likely to be an ongoing ‘niggle’.
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Think how much a tiny grain of grit hurts when it gets into our shoe. If we can’t stop immediately to get it out, we alter our gait (limp) to protect our foot but whilst doing so, we put extra stresses onto numerous others parts of our anatomy. If we tried to do a half marathon in this compromised state, we would have an awful lot more than a sore foot to contend with at the end.
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This is the same for a horse. A tiny grass seed trapped under a shoe or in a hoof boot. A bit that is slightly too fat or wide or narrow. A girth that is too loose or tight or too wide in the elbow area. The obvious saddle fit issues. The less obvious ill fitting rug (which is on for significantly longer each day than a saddle….). A bridle browband that is too short, a headpiece too thick, a noseband too high or low (& the obvious abusively fitted crank noseband). Martingales & breastplates, brushing boots & over-reach boots can all cause a low grade discomfort that results in a compromised gait leading to long term pain responses.
Those who ride bareback & bitless are not immune from causing pain. Ill fitting bitless bridles can put pressure onto the enormously sensitive  facial nerves & not all horse conformations can carry a rider comfortably bareback.
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VetPhysio.co.nz
VetPhysio.co.nz
As any physio will tell you, pain or damage in one part of the body often presents as an issue in another part of the body that is seemingly unrelated.
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When working for the UK equine charity we ALWAYS started with the premise that any behavioural issues were pain related & worked back from there (we had a great team of staff so could eliminate rider or handling issues as we could usually find the perfect person to communicate appropriately with the horse- Cath & Boston  🙂  ). We also had the expertise readily to hand to do everything from bute trials to scintigraphy to help diagnose or eliminate pain as a root cause.
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If pain has been categorically eliminated then the MEMORY of pain (which also means fear) could be the issue.  Chat to any 100m sprinter who has suffered a serious hamstring injury whilst racing & they will tell you that the psychological memory of the pain lasts way longer than the actual pain & most will require sports psychology just as much as physio to get back racing again.
Cartoon horse running
Take that thought with you when current pain has been eliminated even if your horse is not called Usain or Bolt!
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Finally, for this piece, remember horses are just that, HORSES! They are wild, beautiful free spirited creatures that have conquered continents, ploughed millions of acres to feed humanity & have achieved the Olympic motto a thousand times over of HIGHER, FASTER, STRONGER .
Why then do we expect riding them to be easy & hassle free… ?
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We will look at specific problems another time 🙂
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CIMG0567
Give horses the respect, love & care they deserve & always remember… it is for us to learn their language & needs. It is not for them to learn ours.
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Quality of Life

 ‘Is my horses Quality of Life acceptable?’ is a question that only animal owners have to ask on a regular basis. Hopefully, some of the criteria we adopted at the equine rescue & rehabilitation yard I managed in the UK may help those of you who are asking this question or who know it may arise at some point in the future.
If you are already asking this question, your horse is telling you something that you have picked up consciously or deep in your heart…..
If you are thinking ahead, then you know that owning any animal comes with a huge burden of responsibility as we come towards the inevitable end.

There are no hard & fast rules as each horse & circumstance are individual. What is NEVER acceptable though is for your horse to be in constant or regular pain. If this is the case you must seek veterinary advice as to how to not just manage but alleviate this pain. As your vet will explain, long term pain relief comes with serious side effects (usually to the internal organs) so it is important you understand this ‘trade off’  & work alongside your vet to monitor your horses overall well being.

Facial expression of a pain free, relaxed and attentive horse (Ill. Andrea Klintbjer). (b) Facial expression of a horse in pain, comprising all features of the pain face including asymmetrical ears (Ill. Andrea Klintbjer). (c) Facial expression of a horse in pain, comprising all features of the pain face including low ears (Ill. Andrea Klintbjer).
(a) not in pain, (b) in pain, (c) in pain, ears back

 

How do I know my horse is in pain? Unfortunately, like most prey animals, horses are extremely good at masking pain. In the wild, the moment they show discomfort let alone pain they will be targeted by their predators as the ‘easy’ next meal so it is in their best interests to be stoic when confronted by pain. It is up to us, their carers, to know the subtle tell tale signs that all is not well. A dull eye, sunken haws (the natural slight dip above the eyes becomes pronounced), dull &  harsh coat, sunken flanks, weight & muscle loss, grumpy or even aggressive temperament & then the obvious lameness & stiffness, reluctance to lie down, difficulty in getting up & so on.

As a rough guide, your horse should be in compliance with the FIVE FREEDOMS which are the global criteria by which animal welfare organisations assess if an animal is being humanely looked after.

  • freedom from hunger or thirst
  • freedom from environmental or physical discomfort (has appropriate shelter from the elements, is not wearing an ill fitting rug etc.)
  • freedom from pain, injury and disease
  • freedom from fear and distress
  • freedom to indulge in normal behaviour patterns (happily & confidently engages within their herd or paddock arrangement, gets appropriate time in a field with others, to play, roll, exercise etc.)
Bullying can be very distressing for the horse
Bullying can be very distressing for the horse

If your older (or young)  horse is being relentlessly bullied preventing him from accessing the water troughs or hay piles this is also causing fear & distress not just hunger & thirst. This could be solved by  simply moving your horse out of  a herd environment. Maybe your slightly arthritic horse is struggling with hilly or rocky terrain & again, something as simple as moving to level pastures could radically improve his quality of life.

Emaciated elderly horses
Emaciated elderly horses

It is NOT acceptable for an elderly horse to be seriously underweight. This is not an inevitable symptom of old age. It is a sign that all is not well e.g. teeth issues, organ failure (digestive tract through to the kidneys & liver), a tumour,  inappropriate feeding and so on. Veterinary advice must be sought.

 

Old horses after
The same horses 2 years later after appropriate care

A healthy, pain free elderly horse on appropriate nutrition should look as stunning (if less muscled) as his young counterpart.

 

 

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The horses actual age is not a criteria. I have met many wonderfully happy, healthy & working 30 year olds and, sadly, many desperately distressed 6 month old equines (the downside of working in the UK’s largest equine rescue & rehabilitation yard….).

Trouble
Orphaned foal

This little fellow was only a few days old when he arrived having been found orphaned. He was desperately poorly but we had the expertise, resources & funds to be able to give him the 24 hour intensive care he needed (he is on a drip in this picture). He went on to make a full recovery & was released back into his wild herd of Konik ponies used to graze areas of Norfolk, UK 🙂 

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As your horse enters their twilight years it can be helpful to take a photo of them mid summer and mid winter, just in a headcollar with a plain background & date this photo. You can then compare as the months go by to see if there are any subtle changes you are not noticing on a daily basis. An honest knowledgeable friend who does not see the horse each day can also be a good ‘sounding board’.

And your vet is the most  important person to involve. Their job is not to tell you you need to be making some hard decisions but if you ask the right questions they will give honest answers. My favourites are :

-If he was your horse what would you do? 
-In your opinion is my horse suffering?
-If money were no object what can I do to keep him 100% comfortable?

These questions help the vet to open up to a frank & honest dialogue which it is often difficult for them to instigate.

Quality of Life is a HUGE topic & don’t ever feel it is something you need to deal with alone. Surround yourself with knowledgeable, pragmatic friends, your vet, your trainer etc . As horses rarely pass away in their sleep it is an inevitable consequence of owning horses that you will at some point need to make the ultimate decision…….. Horses are also extremely large & expensive animals to care for & can become a huge financial drain at any time let alone towards the end.  If you can’t afford to give your elderly or chronically unwell horse the time, facilities, resources & medication needed to fulfil the 5 Freedoms, this is also a totally acceptable reason to be considering the ultimate decision. It is  100% kinder than offloading your elderly horse to an uncertain ‘retirement’ future that you have no control over.

Please note: Everything above is personal to me. It is not the definitive narrative on this topic & there will always be exceptions. Making the decision to put any animal to sleep is monumental & for info, it does not get easier….  as indeed, it should not.
Below are some publications that deal with the care of older horses:

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Amazon.com have a horse book sale on!

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How to stay motivated to ride in the winter!

Winter wheelbarrow
Remind me what too hot feels like again?
Keeping motivated during the cold wet winter months is not easy. Indeed, motivation is probably what distinguishes a world champion from the rest of us. The rain is just as wet, the night just as dark, the cold just as freezing yet some people can put all that aside & continue as if everything was perfect for riding & caring for horses.
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I have a couple of weather related sayings (gleaned by surviving 5 decades of UK weather!) & these are: 1. ‘If you wait for the weather you will do nothing‘ & 2. ‘There is no such thing as bad weather if you are wearing the right clothes‘!
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With regards to the first, if we let a bit of cold or rain put us off what is next?  Too windy, too hot, too dusty, too hard, too wet, arena is too busy….  our excuses just flow more & more easily until there is NEVER a good time to ride.
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The second one is more true than at first you realise. If you are at all cold or wet whilst riding or caring for your horse you are indeed wearing the wrong clothes! Commercial fishermen keep dry & warm (ish!) trawling Arctic seas… just saying!
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DON’T buy your winter survival clothes from a saddlery shop. They will be 4 x the price they should be as the word ‘horse’ is involved & they  would fail any trade description dispute as they are never waterproof & rarely warm below 10 Celsius!
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If you are happy to buy  new, try farm merchants, angling or ex military outlets & companies who supply commercial outdoor workers / councils etc. These may look at bit workmanlike but will be fit for purpose.
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My mom is cold
What happened to you? My mum is cold!
A much cheaper way to go, (remembering one winter usually trashes our horse related clothing),  is to visit charity shops. Avoid boutique towns (unless you are looking for your strappy cocktail dress!) & aim for more rural areas. Not only will items be cheaper but there will be a good supply of coats for all weathers & at a price where you can keep a dry spare in your car  for emergencies. The price will be such that you won’t cry at the ceremonial dumping of your disgustingly dirty ripped coat come spring time! Cheap gloves from a $ store or similar compliment your winter wardrobe!

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It seems more logical to wear thicker jodphurs or breeches in the winter but these actually soak up the rain & take ages to dry. It is far better to buy a really lightweight pair & wear waterproof over trousers on top if raining or especially cold. Rubber riding boots, though waterproof, do make your feet very cold. A pair of cheap wellies for the muddy & wet work & then a more insulated synthetic riding boot to ride in is the best way to go. Leather riding boots are by far the best…. but most of us can’t afford a new pair after each winter!
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Once you are no longer feeling wet or cold it will help you to get motivated!
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We (or somebody reliable) MUST check our field kept horse at least once a day on welfare grounds. In the winter supplementary hay & / or hard feed may also be needed. If you are going to all this trouble & expense why not ride / train/ handle your horse at the same time? You are already outside in the elements!
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Bumpy in the middle
Sitting trot takes a lot of practice!
Set goals. This winter I am going to: improve my riding position / learn to sit to the trot or canter/ work without stirrups / teach my horse to bow / teach my horse Spanish Walk / work on carrot stretches or rehab in hand pole work /teach my horse to stretch on the lunge & under saddle / teach my horse to work in a softer bit or without gadgets such as martingales / improve my horses fitness or paces or top line and so on.
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Riding to  music can be wonderfully inspirational so tie that ghetto blaster to the fence & get dancing (it will also help to prepare your horse for your Olympic Gold Medal winning lap of honour as well as improving your ability to stay on in the ghetto blaster corner! ).
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You WILL ride today!
You WILL ride today!
Booking a monthly lesson with a coach that will set goals & who is scary enough to make you work between lessons can be a great motivator (my son’s best guitar teacher was also the British cage fighting champion….. for some reason he never missed a days guitar practice!).
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Aim for an early spring competition date even if just a fun ribbon day. If you are not into competing, look at a sponsored ride or book a horse holiday somewhere where your own horse is welcome. Even just arranging a beach or forest ride can help you to want to keep yourself or horse riding fit.
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riding with friends
Riding with like minded friends is fun
Ride with friends as often  as you can so you can motivate each other.
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Anything that helps you through that extra tough day!
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To help you work towards your goals give yourself rewards : when you can work without stirrups for 20 minutes,  have a glass of wine or some chocolate or buy that wonderful new pair of riding boots!
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A wall calendar strategically placed somewhere you can’t avoid that you tick each time you ride is a good motivator. Your handbag diary or google calendar is too easy to ignore! You could colour code it e.g. red means you rode without stirrups, green means you hacked, blue means you worked over poles or jumps etc.
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Muddy horse
What mud?
Ask your work colleagues to quiz you each day as to what you did with your horse the previous day….. they will delight in being harsh critics if you did nothing! Get them interested in your passion. Show them photos of what is involved in caring & riding a horse. They will be blown away as to how much hard work is involved especially when you show them the 100% covered in wet mud horse photo!
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Azzura & Ana
Remember, there are a lot of people out there who would give anything to be able to own & ride a horse so we are HUGELY privileged & should try to enjoy every special moment we have with our amazing 4 legged companions.
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PS A confession…… it took me two weeks of excuses before I could make myself write this article…..
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Again, many thanks to the wonderful Normal Thelwell & his pictures. His books were my first ‘horse’ books …… which probably explains a lot  🙂
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Suggested related reading:
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Search : From Leading to Liberty in the box below for some great training ideas to keep you busy this winter!

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The Problem with horses is…….

The problem with horses is……. well actually there are too many problems to mention in one post!  This is not really surprising as horses are the largest animal humans regularly interact with.

Scared pony

If you look at how few humans can control a 10kg dog (& I don’t even dare to mention a 3kg cat….!) why do we expect it to be any easier when handling 700kgs of horse?  This is made worse by the fact the horse is a prey animal which makes the species even more reactive to external stimuli than predator animals such as dogs.

 

 

 

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Horses can hurt us. Horses can hurt us really badly without even meaning to. If they kick out at a fly & catch us….. well it hurts to put it mildly! ‘Just’ having your foot stomped on can result in a seriously broken foot complete with the most amazing shades of blue & purple. And yes, I speak from experience!

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Squashed foot

(On a side note, if you do get your foot badly trodden on by a horse get your boot off as quickly as you can. Your foot will swell extremely quickly & a boot will restrict blood flow. If you are wearing a long leather boot it will become impossible to remove it without cutting it off. IF your million dollar leather riding boots do ever need cutting off…. cut the stitching along the back (or any) seam as the boot can then be repaired by a good cobbler. Remember to mention this to the paramedic as well…. those extremely sharp scissors will be for your boots…! )
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Staying with foot squashing for a moment more, if you elect to wear steel toe capped work boots around horses they need to be to farrier or army grade. If not there is a real danger the actual steel toe cap will be crushed INTO your foot causing even worse injury & the boot will also be extremely difficult to remove. Low grade steel toe caps have occasionally severed toes in this situation.

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Horses also bite (we all know the saying ‘horses are dangerous at both ends & uncomfortable in the middle’!). Going back to our 10kg dog… if that bite  can hospitalise you, think what a horse can do.

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Biting

Horses have 36 to 42 very LARGE teeth with several hundred kilos of animal behind them. Ouch! Now most horses don’t automatically attack humans. If they did we would have used them as a food source rather than riding & pack animals as they would be far too dangerous for most of humanity to handle. Horses do nip (feels pretty much like a bite when they get you!) & bite each other in the wild as part of their herd communication. A mare will nip her foal very firmly if it bites her teat when suckling or if it misbehaves in any way. A young horse that has no boundaries will be more likely to be attacked by the lead stallion & other senior herd members so mum is telling the foal what is & what is not acceptable behaviour.  A stallion or dominant mare will often be seen snaking its head & neck whilst nipping at the hind legs of its herd to ‘hurry’ them along or out of danger.  When stallions fight (which is one of the most ferocious fights in the animal kingdom) the teeth are a huge part of this. So yes, horses do bite!

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The most likely causes of being bitten by a domesticated horse include just being in the way e.g. horse turning around to bite at a fly or another horse & getting you  instead.  Girthing up is another time that often provokes the bite response (more on this another time  🙂  ) as can grooming ticklish areas.  Always be aware of this & take sensible precautions e.g. tie them up when grooming or tacking up. Even a saint of a horse will react if you scrub a dandy brush over a new sore or wound you were unaware of so don’t take liberties. It is unfair to punish a horse for something that was totally avoidable with a bit of foresight.

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Feed time is another opportunity to get kicked or bitten! Feeding a GROUP of horses hard feed (mixes, pellets , straight grains etc) all together in a field is a very dangerous occupation & should be avoided if at all possible.  Obviously feeding one or two friendly horses together is a much safer option but even then, be on your guard.

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Feeding several horses together will almost always eventually end in tears with either yourself or a horse getting kicked or badly bitten. If you HAVE to do this e.g. you can’t catch the horses & tie them up somewhere safe, it may work to have mangers that are spaced along the fence line so you yourself don’t have to enter the field with buckets of food. The spacing must be wide enough that if both horses swung their quarters towards each other & both kicked out at the same time they would not make contact.

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Group feeding of horses in a field is not only dangerous but actually causes the horses considerable stress. Some will be bullied & may not actually get any food. This anxiety & bullying will start way before the feed is due (assuming you feed at the same time each day, which you should be doing…. But more about that another time!) as they anticipate their meal. A lot of horses are injured by feeding hard food this way, not just people.

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Another injury we can get that is scarily common when in a field with horses is to our knees.  You don’t need to ski to trash every ligament & cartilage your knee possesses! This is most common in wet muddy conditions & usually occurs when you turn quickly (or even slowly)  to get out of the way. Your foot stays trapped in the mud but your upper leg turns… ripping the knee. I personally know at least three people that have done this, all whilst feeding or catching horses & all three were seriously hurt & required surgery… The rest of the time we step out of our wellies which though funny to watch does obviously put us in a vulnerable position!

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Draining or packing gateways with lime stone or similar & not feeding multiple horses in the field help prevent this sort of situation arising.

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Being pinned is another horse injury. (It also happens to cattle farmers.) Pinning is where the horse squashes us against a solid object e.g. a wall, fence, post or whilst in a trailer or lorry etc.

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Pinning
Now usually a sensible horse has just moved by accident & the moment it feels us it moves away again. We have probably all had this on numerous occasions.

Being pinned properly is terrifying, dangerous & can actually be fatal.Crush injuries will involve internal organs not just bones.

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A ‘normal’ horse pins us due to fear e.g. rushing away from a real or perceived danger or through ignorance e.g. no manners or understanding of moving away from us & the importance of personal space. Believe it or not….some horses pin us on purpose.  A horse that does it deliberately is a very dangerous animal indeed & its handling is beyond the scope of my posts. I have met it once (she would trap you in the stable & then pin you to the wall) but in her defense, humans had treated her pretty abysmally up until the time I knew her..  🙁

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Cross ties

Being pinned often happens whilst grooming & tacking up especially if the horse is a wriggler! Using cross ties virtually eliminates this from happening which is why stalls with cross ties are so common on professional yards (this is where a tie rope is placed BOTH sides of the horses head). They also make it virtually impossible for a horse to turn round to nip you as well! My first experience of them was at the age of 16  on a national hunt racing yard & they pretty much saved my (ignorant) life! (As with all things, don’t cross tie them for any longer than essential as it does limit their ability to move, which is sort of the point!).
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Now for the good news! Though EVERY horse is quite capable of all the above, with a LITTLE bit of common sense & HUGE respect for our horse, we can virtually eliminate being bitten, kicked or pinned!

Having said that, as we are all human, just letting your guard down for a moment (which is often very early in the morning, late at night or when in a hurry!)  the horse will take great delight in reminding us just how insignificant we are compared to them & how privileged we are that they respect us enough to look out for our well being most of the time….

Cuddling pony

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Next time we will look at some riding problems but in the meantime…..   safe horsing!

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A MASSIVE thank you to Normal Thelwell for his pictures. His incredible insight into  animals & people is as relevant now as it ever was  🙂

Discovery Horse Tours, Costa Rica

Nestled in the jungle near the Pacific coast town of Jaco, Andrea & Chris have set up the most wonderful horse riding experience.

From initial contact (a personal email back by return advising me on the best holiday to book for my needs) through to Andrea & her husband Chris helping me with travel arrangements on departure, nothing was too much trouble. This vacation is seriously understated on their website as it is so much more than ‘just’ a riding holiday!  This is a total Costa Rican experience with two people who look upon you as a new friend.
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You ride some VERY nice horses who are fit, well, sound & at peace with themselves & their life. Pretty impressive as most are ‘rescues’. The tack fits & the strict weight limit ensures that the horses are comfortable in their work & it is immediately apparent that the welfare of the horses comes first, second & third!

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Cee Cee & Amadora. What lovely backsides!
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First thing each day you are taken to a local restaurant or cafe for breakfast where you choose from extensive menus. You then ride a wonderful trail in the relative cool of the mornings  where you are virtually guaranteed to see an amazing array of animals & birds. You are then treated to lunch at yet another local eatery (you will not go hungry on this holiday!) where the afternoons activity will be arranged. These include off the beaten track rain & cloud forests complete with canopy hanging bridges through to  waterfall pools to cool off in.

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Hanging canopy bridges at Rainmaker Cloud & Rain forest.

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View from Rainmaker forest.

 

 

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You are taken on an extraordinary crocodile excursion where you will get extremely up close & personal to many crocodiles in their natural habitat. You will almost certainly meet Obama, Raul Castro, Miley Cyrus, Pretty Eye (was Pretty EyeS until an accident …..) to name but a few…. This gives you an idea as to the humour with which this tour is delivered 🙂

You can also choose between yoga/ surfing/ zip-lining/ massage experiences to while away one hot afternoon.
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Then there is the Tropical Spar ride. This must be totally unique to Discovery Horse Tours. Where else could you ride a beautiful & happy horse through the jungle, dodging White Face Monkeys & Toucans before arriving at a secret waterfall pool? It does not stop here. You then cover yourself in the most amazing mineral mud for a once in a lifetime totally natural mud spar.  With your skin still tingling it is time to float leisurely in the pristine pool, gazing up at the rain forest tree canopy whilst being watched by Jesus Christ lizards, monkeys & the most amazing array of birds & butterflies….  Sounds pretty unique to me?!
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Just to make you feel even more special, you are then taken to watch the sun go down over the Pacific ocean in the specially designed sunset amphitheatre located in a 5 star mountain resort which also has the most extensive cocktail list I have ever seen!
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Oh yes, I forgot to mention the very comfortable Pacific Beach front hotel you stay in where the sand meets their pool & Scarlet Macaws & Iguanas watch you curiously…. A truly magical experience.

 

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Andrea has a special love for liberty work & bridleless riding & has used her stunning location to entice a very impressive list of natural horsemanship & liberty trainers to Costa Rica. It appears to be much easier to encourage busy people to visit paradise!
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Andrea & Emma

Andrea runs regular clinics so do check out their website for more information (details under ‘Recommendations’ page).
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Emma Massingale  & Andrea (with the hat!).

 

 

 

 

 

Pony Trekking in Costa Rica!

I went for three tourist pony treks whilst in Costa Rica & met three pretty typical local horses. They were small (maximum height of about 15hh) lightly built (heavily muscled types would not cope well with the hot humid conditions) very tough horses with hard feet & forward going temperaments. All three were bitless using variations of a Bosal type bridle (more on this another time!) & wore lightweight western style saddles which were very comfortable to ride in.

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I joined in with walk treks around the local countryside & actually, for general tourist ponies, they were surprisingly responsive to the aids & all knew their jobs. They all seemed to have a dash of Spanish blood in them which is typical of the area & all three quickly enjoyed my company probably because I am less heavy than most tourists?!

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Yes, I could throw in some negatives the main one being an ill fitting Bosal bridle but the horses were sound, willing, happy around humans & to be honest I was pleasantly surprised by how nice they were to ride.

My favourite was Loco (means Crazy  but I actually think the chap made his name up on the spot as he took a lot longer to tell us his name than the names of the other horses!). Whatever, he was a lovely little spotted horse that HAD to be in front & I would quite happily have taken him home  🙂

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What I learned in Costa Rica: Ganadera AG

WOW is all I can say about this stud!

Again about 60 horses, all very very well bred PRE’s. Firstly I was so lucky to be allowed to visit. I am not in a financial position to buy any of their horses & yet I was treated like Royalty (you have travelled all the way from New Zealand & we feel very honored to show you our horses…).

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Fabrice, the owners son, gave me about a 2 hour tour & his fluency in English allowed me to learn so much. He is a very accomplished horseman himself (was a FEI ranked international show jumper at one stage & now plays polo at a high standard) & his obvious interest in the PRE’s made for a wonderful afternoon.

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I met each stallion & individually stabled horse personally as well as those in covered pens accommodating one or two horses & in the paddocks.

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All the stallions bar one (who has an injury) get turned out each day & most are also ridden.

 

 

 

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The mares & foals run in bands of about 4 in long thin paddocks that run up a fairly steep hill. The water is at one end & the food at the other to encourage the horses to work up & down the incline over the day. This helps with balance & muscle development & makes good use of a pasture area that could well be overlooked in some yards. As it was the end of the dry season (& thanks to El Nino the longest, hottest & driest dry season on record…) there was not much actual grass but very good home grown hay was being fed ad lib (available 24/7).

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Many of the horses were being prepared for the national PRE show of Costa Rica (& one of the main PRE shows in The Americas) which was taking place about 6 days later. That Fabrice & his team would spare the time with me at such a busy time for them was hugely appreciated.

The stud manager even insisted in letting me watch some of the fillies have a play in their indoor arena. All were entered for Bonanza (the PRE show) & most won their sections! In fact Ganadera AG pretty much cleaned up at this event!

We discussed the fact that Ganadera AG’s horses did not have the drooping, floppy crests that many many PRE’s now demonstrate. Fabrice explained that this is a genetic breed fault so no horses that show this trait are ever bred from. It was completely eradicated from this stud many years ago by correct breeding protocols.

Some breeders have resorted to botox injections to firm up the crests… talk about treating the symptom not the cause.

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As well as stunning stables they have a very impressive indoor arena (which did have automatic doors so when riding you just pressed a button to let yourself out BUT the mares & fillies quickly learned how to press the buttons to let THEMSELVES out! ) as well as an Olympic size outdoor arena. Cleverly, between the two there is a covered open plan luxurious lounge area complete with bar & trophy cabinet. The furniture was covered up whilst I was there (they obviously DID believe that I had no money  🙂  ) but it was still a wonderful area. If you looked one way you could see the indoor arena. Look the other way & you could see the outdoor arena!

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There was also a covered horsewalker (when it rains in Costa Rica … IT RAINS!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This was an amazing insight into how the other half live….. & how much would I love to live next door to a stud of this calibre?!

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What I learned in Costa Rica: Rancho San Miguel

Firstly I do seriously appreciate the fact that I am currently in a position to be able to travel. A huge factor in this is having a boss who not only understands the importance of a good work / life balance but actively encourages it. Thank You!

I chose Costa Rica for this trip for its fauna,  flora and Spanish horses! The correct name for pure breed Spanish horses is the PRE which stands for Pura Raza Espanol. This translates as pure race Spanish. They are often termed as Andalusian horses but if you used this term in Spain (where the region of Andalusia is) it would refer to any and all horses from this vast area in southern Spain. This could include a Shetland pony so beware! If you want a pure bred Spanish horse you need a PRE!

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Costa Rica has a few seriously good PRE studs breeding horses that are sold around the world. They also maintain good links with Spain often importing top end blood lines back into Costa Rica. All this, alongside volcanoes, rain and cloud forests and some of the most diverse and plentiful animals and birds in the world made it a ‘must’ visit bucket list destination!

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A baby sloth

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I started off in the capital city, San Jose and started by visiting a 60+ horse PRE stud called Rancho San Miguel. This had a wonderful indoor arena that almost felt baroque. It was just missing a chandelier!

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This was complimented by an Olympic sized outdoor arena , extensive stabling, mare and foal pens, numerous paddocks, wash down bays and an amazing gallery overlooking the indoor arena that included a large function room. Pretty impressive for a private stud.

 

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Some of the colts stabling.

 

 

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Mare & foal night time pens.

 

 

 

 

 

A yard is only as good as it’s people though….and San Miguel must have good people as it was clean, organized and all the horses I met from stallions to foals were friendly, curious, gentle but with spark and in good condition. The owner is very passionate about his horses and San Miguel is his life and legacy. His main aim is to breed chestnut PRE’s  as this colour has only recently been accepted by the breed society so is very sought after.

Lisa, who kept a good eye on me whilst I was lucky enough to ride a couple of their horses, follows natural horsemanship techniques with a big dash of classical horsemanship.

As is typical in Latin America (& Spain), the PRE scene (& horse scene in general) is pretty testosterone driven  🙂  By introducing a more gentle & empathetic approach to the handling & riding of the horses Lisa should be able to produce some pretty impressive results.

All in all it was a great place to end up & I felt very fortunate to have been allowed to visit as a guest.

 

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Hay time! That is a seriously big wheel barrow!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ridden mares had tails like this. It keeps them cooler, helps to prevent fungal infections (36+ degrees with up to 100% humidity typical temperatures) & shows off their hind  quarters. This is also pretty common in Spain as well. The mares manes are hogged for similar reasons but a lot of it is just traditional. Only the mature stallions have full manes & tails  (told you it is a testosterone driven horse scene  🙂  ).

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Young stallion being washed down at the end of a riding session.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing a Trainer

Why are you paying for riding lessons? I thought you could already ride?
 
I am sure many of you have heard this comment from non horsey family & friends!  In the UK it is the culture for many that if you can rise to the trot & stay on most of the time in canter you can call yourself a ‘rider’! Conversely, riders in many European countries would never dream of sitting on a horse without a ‘pair of eyes on the ground’.
In real terms good lessons on a regular basis whether weekly, monthly or every 3 months or so help to inspire,  motivate & enthuse us into becoming better more knowledgeable & skilled riders. Remember: the better we ride the less we mentally & physically harm our horses, so it is a win win situation.

If you own or loan / borrow a horse you will be looking for a trainer or riding instructor to help you as opposed to a riding school (though the instructor / trainer may well be based at or even own a riding school).

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Instructor or Trainer?
The old fashioned definition of a horse riding teacher is ‘Instructor’ because in the olden days 🙂  you really were INSTRUCTED to do something, no questions asked!  Ask any person of a certain age what their first riding instructors were like & you will hear some pretty scary stories!
In all fairness, it was a different era & this didactic method of ‘do as I say not as I do’  (or can’t do…!)  did produce some very good riders that were extremely well disciplined.
It also resulted in many people giving up riding all together!
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Private lesson
A trainer usually works in a more interactive way with their pupils asking for  feedback, discussing ideas & will be capable of demonstrating what they are asking of their pupils. This more practical & interactive way of teaching has been proven to produce better learning & understanding from the recipients so I would personally be striving to become a better trainer than instructor (though I can still shout quite loud enough when circumstances dictate!).
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You probably won’t find riding trainers in the local phone book & even an internet search may produce very little. As most trainers are freelance they rely on word of mouth as the best and cheapest way of advertising their services. Online horse directories may come up with some ideas in your area but the best place to start is closer to home.
Do any trainers visit your yard or riding club? Do you admire the way someone rides or handles their horse? If so, do they actually train riders themselves & if not, who do they have lessons with? Your local riding centre with good indoor & /or outdoor arena facilities will invariably have regular visiting trainers to help generate income.
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Be clear on what you are looking for & need. There is little point spending money on wonderful lessons from a top show jump trainer if your love & competitive discipline is to be dressage. If you are less experienced or recently returned to riding  spending top dollar on an Olympic gold medal winning rider will be more likely to depress you than inspire you (& them…..) !
Also, some trainers are better with some specific types of horse….. some get great results from TB’s fresh out of a racing yard & others from a lazier warm blood type.
Some trainers are superb at helping nervous riders regardless of their level & some better at getting that dressage score of a 6 or 7 into a 9 or 10.
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Until you have had a lesson you won’t know whether they are right for you & your horse but if at all possible do watch them teach before you commit. If you like their manner & the way the horses & riders respond that is a good starting point. Also, you will get to watch their personal approach & the common exercises they use so it doesn’t come as a surprise to you in your first lesson. It will also allow you to gain more from your first session as you will understand what they are asking of you more quickly. You can also have a practice before your first lesson with them!
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Don’t get too bogged down regarding qualifications. I am NOT underestimating the various qualification systems that are about & anyone who has gained these has committed a lot of time & money & effort which is admirable. Equally though, not everyone has the time & money to go through rigorous training & examination systems & it has to be said that very few if any Olympic riders have any formal equine qualifications as they are too busy DOING it!
The other side of the coin though is that naturally gifted riders often make lousy trainers (phew, life is not so unfair after all!). This is because they find every aspect so easy they can’t grasp why the rest of us find it so hard! As teaching can be very lucrative to a top rider this inability to actually implant knowledge won’t stop them taking your money! There can be a certain kudos in saying ‘so & so teaches me’  but it is a waste of time & money if you are not actually improving.
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Do’s & Don’t’s
Once you have found someone make sure you are well prepared, on time & your horse is sound, clean & wearing clean & well fitting tack. You too should be neat & tidy with clean (not to be confused with new!) clothes & footwear. This helps to project the good impression that you appreciate & respect the trainers time & knowledge.
Your chosen trainer should also present themselves in a neat & tidy way & even if not dressed to ride  should be dressed in such a way they can run after your horse should you be decanted at any point!
My real pet hate is a trainer that natters on their mobile during a lesson. You are paying some serious money more likely than not & for your trainer to be selling a horse, booking in other lessons etc in your time at your cost is NOT professional or acceptable.
Make a joke of it at booking in e.g. ‘Your’e not one of those trainers that sit on the phone all lesson are you?!’.  You will get your point across BEFORE it becomes an issue.
If it happens during a lesson a) halt your horse until they finish the call. This will get your point across in a subtle non confrontational way,  b) don’t book them again – vote with your feet & money!
You can adopt the same tactics if the trainer starts to natter to someone on the sidelines.
I can’t believe I am having to mention this but it comes from bitter (& expensive) experience!
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How do I know my lesson was money well spent?
If at the end of your lesson you feel inspired, motivated, can’t wait to ride again, have plenty of homework & a happy horse it is probably a good sign to rebook!
Different riders / horses / circumstances respond to different approaches so ‘one size’ does not fit all. If YOU & YOUR HORSE are happy that is all that matters!
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Why do some riders have lots of trainers?
You can grow out of a trainer (or them from you) so it is unlikely it will become a lifetime relationship!  As you & your horse progress or if you change disciplines you may well change trainers.
It is not uncommon for experienced riders to have more than one trainer as there are many, many different roads to Rome where training horses is concerned. Initially, these differing explanations & methods can be confusing though, so best to find someone you get on with & stick with them to start with. As you become more experienced and hungry for more knowledge you can then look to other trainers & methods to help fill up your ‘ tool box’ of training exercises.
Regular lessons with someone you get on with will produce much better results than one off lessons with a top level rider. Even Carl Hester (multi time Olympic dressage rider & team gold medal winner) says he is not going to tell you anything your regular trainer isn’t already!
There is no magic wand, just hard work & consistency!
I have learned more from watching top trainers train others than from having lessons from them myself as I am able to ingest their methods better in a more relaxed ‘arm chair’ environment.
I do check out the guinea pig riders though as any I really like could well become my next, local regular trainer!
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Are Private or Shared lessons best?
 
Assuming finances allow, private lessons do obviously provide a total ‘one on one’ training situation. They usually last for 45 minutes & lessons can be very intense. This might not suit all riders & horses though but you will find most top level trainers will ONLY do private lessons so you have no choice. If your horse & yourself are fit enough physically & mentally, private lessons will be money well spent.
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Class lesson
Shared or group lessons (when  possible) will usually last an hour (or 1.5 hours if a group jump lesson). There will be more opportunity to have a breather whilst watching another combination being put through their paces. If all horses & riders are at a similar level, shared & group lessons are not only more cost effective but can add an element of fun which private lessons tend not to have. The opportunity to watch others doing similar exercises & with similar problems to yourself can be a wonderful learning tool as well.
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Whoever you choose as your trainer they should be adding training ‘tools’ to your knowledge ‘tool box’. This way, when your trainer is not about you have plenty of ideas & training tips to fall back on to hopefully prevent the wheels totally falling off before your next lesson! They should also be consistent in what they ask of you but with an open enough mind and enough experience to tweak things to suit you and your horses needs at that moment in time. The best trainers work WITH you and your horse to coax the best out of you both. They should not just shout louder whilst repeating the same exercise over and over again! A good trainer will still be hungry for knowledge as they will be wanting to increase their own ‘ tool box’ of training ideas.
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Enjoy your lessons & appreciate a good trainer….. they can be quite hard to find. 🙂
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Finally, REMEMBER:  You should look forward to your lesson, not be relieved you have survived! 

Getting to know your new horse.

Your new horse is safely home & reasonably settled into his new environment. It is now time to start having some fun together!

Moving home & owner is a BIG deal for a horse. As horses are creatures of habit & routine this is an extremely disruptive time for them.
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When stressed, horses will look to their regular routines & familiar faces (human, horse, dog, cat even chickens….) to provide them with safety & therefore comfort. Moving home & a new owner removes all these safety nets & security blankets so it is not surprising it can sometimes become a bit of a challenge.
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We have already mentioned the importance of keeping his diet as close to his original one as possible to start with (Introducing your new horse to his new home) & this is actually very important. The horses digestive system does not cope well with change & to add new feed types into an already stressed system is a recipe for an upset tummy at best & for colics & ulcers at worse.
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When trying out your new horse try to see how the original owner handles & rides the horse. Do they follow a very traditional BHS (British Horse Society) / Western European method or are they using a more liberal approach e.g. doing a  lot of ground work & riding  with rope halters? Ask them who they train with or what methods they use & then Youtube these trainers & methods so you get a feel for what they are about.
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Obviously you can train a horse (if you know what you are doing) to be worked in any or many styles but the first few weeks of owning a horse is not the time to start introducing totally different handing & riding techniques.
Ask the previous owner for some formal (if used to teaching)  or informal lessons e.g. how to you lead / trot up in hand /lunge the horse, what aids do you use for canter, what do you do if the horse gets overly excited in hand or when being ridden,  how do you motivate the horse if he becomes lazy, how do you deal with the horse if he refuses to pass a spooky object, in what order do you pick the feet up …. etc? It all sounds a little petty …… but the younger & less experienced to change the horse is the more relevant this ‘insider’ knowledge will be!
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We tend to think of US getting to know the horse but we should approach it as the HORSE getting to know his new owner. The bond between a horse & his handler can be quite extraordinary so we want to nurture this not destroy any chance of it developing. This is NOT to confused with supplying ad lib carrots though!
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The horse is typically a subservient animal who loves nothing better than grazing 20 hours a day in a safe environment surrounded by other similarly happy horses.
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The lead (dominant) mare that would look after the herd in the wild is replaced by a calm & effective handler who places very clear YES / NO boundaries about EVERYTHING. Horses understand BLACK & WHITE. Grey & other similar shades are not good colours to use!
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The horse must ALWAYS stand still whilst being mounted, not only when he chooses to….. The horse must ALWAYS move away from you when grooming or tacking up when you ask, not just on Mondays…..  The horse must ALWAYS pick up his foot when you ask not just when the sun is shining…..  You get the idea!  (We will look at ‘troubleshooting’ another time but prevention is so much easier than trying to solve a problem).
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If you have bought a horse within your capabilities, getting to know each other will be relatively straight forward. You will already have the relevant skills to ‘deal’ with any slight arguments which will always occur as the horse tests you out. Having said a moment ago that the horse enjoys being positively ‘told’ what to do  he does still posses a sense of humour!  Also, he will only feel safe if his best (human) friend is ‘strong’ enough to look after him when the chips are down (which is life & death in the wild) so it is to be expected that he will push the boundaries on a relatively regular basis to check your worth! As far as he is concerned, his life is in your hands…. no pressure then 🙂
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If you have bought a horse above your current capabilities getting to know each other & gaining his trust & respect is going to take more time. A horse that is perfect for you to ride may be ‘above’ your current capabilities to handle on the ground & vice versa.  In this situation you are going to need to use your brain to prevent confrontations.
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 To start with keep well within your capabilities …. If you think you will have trouble leading him along the top track but will be OK leading him along the bottom track.. LEAD HIM ALONG THE BOTTOM TRACK!   Only when you feel confident, or have knowledgeable help on hand, tackle the (perceived or genuinely) more difficult route. Pick only the ‘battles’ you KNOW you will win. This isn’t to assert your dominance. It is to make the horse think that you know what you are doing so he feels safe & confident in what you are asking him to do. The more safe & secure he feels in your company the more you will be able to ask of him.
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Assuming all is going well do remember that if you are riding in tack that is unfamiliar to the horse, however well it fits (which should be perfectly….)  it is still like getting to know a new pair of shoes for us. Don’t work him too hard until he is used to the new saddle, bridle, girth, boots,  bitting or noseband arrangements etc It is not fair to ask him to behave if he is sore or hurts anywhere.
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Don’t be in a hurry the first few weeks (or with a sensitive horse, it could be months). Taking time to get to know each other at the beginning will reap the most amazing rewards as your relationship develops. There will always be another show, or forest or beach ride opportunity & don’t be pushed into anything you are not happy to do by well meaning friends.
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This is YOUR horse & you are HIS best human friend. That is the whole point of having one! 
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Enjoy your riding & if anything is going pear shaped…. look out for the ‘Troubleshooting’ tips that will follow soon..  🙂

Memory Lane!

Now this is a blast from the past…… This programme got me up on a Saturday morning. See, bitless riding is not a new ‘phase’…  ! The theme tune is pretty amazing as well Frankie Laine was a great singer…. oh those were the days.. 🙂

 

 

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Who remembers this advert? Almost makes you want a Guinness!

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Who remembers Red Rum?

Now, I actually don’t enjoy horse racing BUT I grew up with this horse & what a special horse he was. Not only did he win jump racings most demanding race The Grand National, THREE times but what everyone forgets is that he came SECOND on the other two occasions he ran. It has never & will never be equalled as the course has been significantly modified to make it easier & safer (thank goodness) since Red Rum’s day. Another infrequently know fact is that Red Rum spells Murder backwards….. & apparently he was murder to handle in the stable so a good name choice  🙂 He raced as a 2 year old & suffered from pedalostitis which is incurable inflammation of the pedal (coffin) bone in the hoof which threatened to end his career (& probably is life).   His trainer, Ginger McCain reckoned it was working on the beach & in the sea which brought him sound & into the history books. Just watch his reaction to his jockeys voice at the end. Red Rum had just won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award which is why he is in a studio! When he passed away at the age of 30 it made front page news across the world. That is how much he touched peoples hearts……

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Now this was a TV show I loved. It ran on a week night from 8.30pm & I was actually allowed to stay up & watch it! Look how well James Drury & the others ride…. no back up riders in those days!  As a child it was the closest to a horse I ever got!

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Ah, the memories… they don’t make shows like this any more! Not great quality footage but better than the remixes as this is from the actual show. Enjoy!

 

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Hands up who remembers this wonderful song & the great TV show that it accompanied?  I think we can safely say that The White Horses  TV show started my passion for Baroque horses!

 

 

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Now this was a childhood staple! I remember Dora annoying me a little as she always seemed to be crying! Could have been jealousy though as not only was she surrounded by horses but I rather liked Steve….  🙂

 

 

To shoe or not to shoe, that is the question!

To shoe or not to shoe is a very emotive subject for me so I make no apologies for being quite opinionated. Remember though, it is just MY opinion. This does not mean it is 100% correct or the only way or that my opinion wont change one day (I used to dislike dark chocolate… but not any more!).

I write from personal experience though which includes several years in an equine rescue situation so I have seen more than my fair share of horses & ponies suffering great distress where their feet are concerned.

I owe it to these horses to try to prevent others suffering a similar fate……..

So, my hard hat is securely attached, my armour in place & I am ready to type!

My personal opinion is that no horse I have ever met personally worked more comfortably without front shoes than it did WITH front shoes.

Now let me explain how I have come to this conclusion!

Firstly, we need to define WORK. Work to me is asking a horse to perform whatever we want him to do (ridden, in-hand, driven work) on a regular ongoing basis. This to me means for 3 to 7 days a week, pretty much week in, week out. This regular work may be hacking, jumping, dressage, riding school, training yard for students, liberty, schooling,  driving for pleasure or competition, racing, eventing and so on. This work will be on a variety of surfaces & even if the end surface is good e.g. beautiful pine needle covered forest tracks, we need to take into consideration how we get there: roads, stony tracks etc.

Don’t under estimate the abrasive power of your arena. Remember, sand blasters use sand……!    In riding school situations on sand arenas, metal shoes will wear out as quickly as when doing road work. If the hoofs are not protected, they too will wear out really quickly. Arenas with plenty of fibre or rubber content are less abrasive & many school horses I worked with were fine without hind shoes & just had front shoes on these types of surface.

If we are asking our horse to work, we owe it to him on welfare, compassion & common sense grounds to make sure he is as comfortable as possible.

Secondly, why do domesticated horses need shoes when wild horses don’t?

In the wild a horse with pain in its feet will be one of the first to be eaten by its prey!  Natural selection favours horses with good, strong, healthy conformation & constitution. In the wild most of the day is spent ambling along grazing with very occasional bursts of speed to outrun an attack. This pretty much mimics a domesticated horse that lives in a field only occasionally being asked to work in any way.

There are still a few breeds & types of horse that do have really good feet e.g. many UK native ponies, American Mustangs etc but unfortunately most horses we meet nowadays have long ago succumbed to flat, wide, brittle or soft feet, with thin & often convex soles. Fortunately, it is due to good farriers & shoeing that these horses can lead active & pain free lives!

A really good foot will be almost rock hard, have a very defined hoof wall (which is where a farrier will place the shoeing nails) & a concave sole (imagine a saucer placed upside down on the floor… this is the ideal under foot conformation). Next time you pick up a horses hoof, check the sole & see whether it really is concave or the more usual flat to convex shape. It is this flatness or convex shape that allows the sole to constantly touch the floor causing discomfort & pain if not lifted up & protected by shoes.

Bruised sole
A Bruised sole found when the farrier trimmed the hoof. This horse had originally been ridden barefoot but due to foot pain the owner then shod her. At the next trimming, this deep seated bruising began to grow out. 
 It is not just the unshod feet that can suffer (concussion laminitis,cracks, bruising, abscesses,seedy toe, white line disease,  thrush, canker, pedal, pastern & navicular bony changes to name but a few) but the horse will end up with severe muscular issues as well.
The bracing the horse does whilst crawling along stony tracks in a foot sore state will completely seize up the muscles across the horses back, shoulders, neck & quarters. That is a LOT of muscle expanse to feel tight & sore… Unfortunately these seized muscles wont just disappear once shoes are put on but will need a lot of good (and expensive..) physio work alongside massage & correct schooling to gradually lengthen & soften the damaged & compromised muscles ready for them to be built up again correctly. At the rescue yard our physiotherapy bills were often higher than our farrier bills with foot abuse rehabilitation.

Thirdly, what do I mean by SHOEING?

The obvious is a set of metal shoes fitted by a qualified & experienced farrier (it is illegal in most European countries for anyone other than a qualified & registered farrier to shoe any horse, including their own). Nowadays shoeing to me also  includes glue on shoes & hoof boots.

 Well shod foot
Well shod front feet on a competition horse (who does not have great hoof conformation!). Note the minimum number of nails to keep the shoe in place plus they are well away from the heels allowing them to expand as the hoof hits the ground each step. This heel expansion allows the frog to make contact each step which in turn, keeps this essential structure healthy & functioning correctly. 
The feet that most need protecting are the front feet. The horse naturally, due to his conformation,  carries about 2/3rds of his body weight on his two front limbs & feet (his head, neck & shoulders & rider are at the front end where as his hind legs only have the quarters & tail to worry about!).

As the feet of a 700kgs horse are smaller than our own…. it is easy to see that is is a bit of a design fail! We then plonk a rider on top complete with a saddle AND then ask the horse to walk, trot, canter, jump, repeat numerous turns & circles etc FOR YEARS & then expect a part of his anatomy that was  a design fail to start with to cope!    Madness (in my opinion)!

I can understand why a lay person would be aghast at the thought of nails being driven into the hoof (wall…) & indeed, in unskilled hands this undoubtedly can cause extreme harm. In skilled hands it is a method that has been used for thousands of years & has yet (amazingly) to be improved upon. Indeed, in skilled hands, traditional shoeing renders many lame horses sound & changes good horses into Olympic champions.
I have been privileged to work alongside horses from many disciplines & at many levels: national hunt & flat racehorses, Olympic show jumpers, international dressage horses, international driving horses, world champion endurance horses, riding school & schoolmasters, eventers, pleasure horses, national level show ponies & horses, Paralympic gold medal winners etc & EVERY SINGLE ONE WORE TRADITIONAL SHOES, at least in front, & with no ill effects.
Every horse mentioned above was shod by good to great farriers though so the shoe was made to fit the foot (as opposed to the foot being trimmed relentlessly to fit the shoe), the nails were placed in such a way the heels could naturally expand allowing the frog to touch the ground each step & correct foot balance, relative to the horses requirement, was maintained or improved upon.
Glue on shoes have still not really made a commercial impact yet. They still require an expert farrier to trim the hoof correctly & fit the shoe. If the glue is good enough to keep the shoe in place it is obviously quite potent which dries out the hoof wall. It also requires yet another strong chemical to soften the original glue so you can remove the shoe.  Still very much work in progress!
Glue on shoes
Glue on shoes
 Boots are progressing hugely & we have come a long way from the ill fitting heavy poultice boot designs of old. I think over the next few years they will finally become a genuine substitute for for metal shoes.
 Modern hoof boots
Hoof boots
However….. the mistake people make with boots is thinking one pair will last for years…… Firstly, the hoof will grow sufficiently between farrier visits (to trim the hoof & balance the foot) to warrant at least two sizes if not more. Secondly, a boot that fits the horse well enough to not cause rubs, sores & lameness & that is lightweight enough & correctly balanced for your horse, will not be cheap.  Also, it will wear out if used as a shoe substitute just as quickly as traditional shoes so they must not be looked upon as a ‘cheap’ substitute.
The ‘Wellington’ type hoof boots have been designed to protect the foot, short term,  whilst waiting to be shod traditionally & as a result tend to flap around & move which can trip a horse up & often rub if left on or used repeatedly. They would be dangerous to  jump, canter or gallop in & they look, sound & feel as if you are schooling horses in oversized  wellies! Watch this space though as there are some seriously good boots starting to appear & if it becomes a mass market prices will drop & availability will improve.
Many of my horses worked really well with just front shoes, especially the dressage horses & some light road hacking alongside forest trails caused their bare hind feet no problems at all. As soon as their work started to wear down their hind feet or if they showed ANY discomfort, hind shoes were put on.
Some of the prosecution cases we were involved in included extreme bare foot trimming by unqualified owners & the results were extremely distressing for us & the horses concerned. There was a common mantra in these cases that if you worked the horse long enough (& many did so for YEARS……) the bare foot would suddenly become hard enough to cope with ridden work.

All work will EVER do is wear the foot down……………………

Have a look in the old shoe bin when next passing. See how worn & thin some of the shoes are.  If this light work can wear down metal like this…. well, you can see how it will affect their hooves!

If your work is minimal & your horses foot naturally hard enough & you have a good farrier who can maintain  correct foot balance you may be able to keep your horse sound & comfortable on soft surfaces until your work demands increase. This will still only be applicable to a relatively small % of worked horses though.

How do I know if my horse needs shoes or hoof protection?  

When riding (or leading) your horse look for any signs of changes in his gait.

If he slows or nods his head when on hard, rutted or stony ground, he is HURTING.
If he has a spring in his step on soft going & then starts to shuffle when on a firmer or uneven surface,he is HURTING.
If he zigzags whilst being ridden or led looking for softer going, he is HURTING.
If his back looks or feels hunched, if he is unwilling to use his shoulders & has a short shuffling stride, or he stands with his feet out in front of him whilst trying to hold his weight onto his heels, he is HURTING (this can also be a sign of laminitis so you should summon your vet as soon as possible).
Unwillingness to work forward in his paces OR rushing to ‘flee’ his pain, refusing jumps or jumping with a very high neck carriage & hollow back (in an effort to land with less weight on his front feet) are all signs that he is not comfortable ‘in front’.
Be aware that some flat footed thoroughbreds & similar can’t even stay sound & comfortable grazing in a field so factor this in when looking at horses to purchase or loan.
Farrier costs are a very large & ongoing financial factor in horse ownership. To not shoe your horse when he needs it creates  a miserable horse that is in ongoing pain. No horse lover sets out to hurt their horse but we must be careful we don’t do this by ignorance, ignoring the signs our horse is uncomfortable or due to lack of finances.
If you can’t afford to shoe your horse when he needs foot protection, at the very least DON’T WORK HIM.

Holidays & Horse Experiences

 

HR Spain

Horse Riding Spain is run by my very dear friends Giles & Miranda. I first visited their riding centre in May 2004 & have been returning ever since! This is NOT a trekking holiday….. this is an opportunity to ride stunningly responsive & well cared for horses in a beautiful part of Andalucia, Spain. Giles & Miranda are hosts without equal & their passion in all things horses is not only infectious but fascinating. Whether a solo traveller or visiting with friends you will leave exhilarated & enthused & will already be planning your return stay!  I cannot recommend this holiday highly enough & will be revisiting AGAIN myself very soon……  🙂

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DHT
Discovery Horse Tours

Discovery Horse Tours in Costa Rican is a must visit destination for any horse lover visiting this amazing central American country. Located near the pacific town of Jaco, Andrea & Chris are the most wonderful hosts &  will invite you into their magical world which is full of rescue horses & dogs. They don’t just provide an extremely good riding experience but they immerse you into all that Costa Rica has to offer. Beach front & off the beaten track cafes & bars owned by locals are your breakfast & lunch haunts. Your hotel pool quite literally mingles with the pristine sand of the quiet beach (well quiet apart from the world class pounding surf waves which are dramatic & hypnotic in equal measure) & is moments away from numerous small beach front restaurants, cafes & bars.  The riding is on happy, healthy & very well loved & cared for horses who take you exploring through jungle, river & beach rides in well fitting tack that always excludes any sort of bit! The horses seem as mesmerised by the monkeys & birds you will meet on your way as their human companions & are very happy to spend as much time watching or photographing the fauna & flora as you want. More information can be found under ‘What I Am Up To Today’!  The holiday I did was the 7 day Tropical Trail Vacation. (Click on the picture above to visit their website)

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AEBC

Andrew & Maunela Mclean are stunning trainers of horses & people. Andrew is a world leader in how the equine brain works & Maunela is a hugely gifted trainer of horses & people. She has a vast ‘tool box’ of ideas & methods & she gives you plenty of ideas to take away with you after lesson. Thoroughly recommend both of them regardless of your equine ambitions.

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