The Hard Part

This is going to be one of my non horsey posts. So apologies.

Last night we had the toughest evening of our grown up lives. Probably our whole lives because we’ve both been privileged enough not to endure any hardships.

I had gone to bed, in an attempt to catch up on some sleep before the 3am wake up kicks, when the doorbell went. It was a neighbour, to tell us that a man had just been to his door to tell him that a black cat had just been hit on the road.

Knowing our black ones, particularly Willow who quite often invited herself into his house through their dog flap, he came straight round to us.

Matt came and woke me up, garbling about Willow. After all, it couldn’t be Penny because she was already tucked up in her bed. I followed him downstairs and waited an agonising five minutes (pretty sure it was closer to five hours), shaking with nerves or the cold air until I saw Matt coming back, cradling a lifeless body in his arms.

“Is she …?” I asked, letting him in.

“I don’t know. I think so.” He sobbed. One look and I could see that our beautiful, energetic, cheeky black cat was gone.

I wanted to cry, but tears weren’t ready to come. So as he stood in the kitchen, holding her like a baby as we’d always done, and being the emotional one, I found a cardboard box and instructed him to put her in there. Penny had gotten up to see what was going on, so I let her peer in to see her half sister. Then at least Penny could grieve too.

We put the box in the garage, and I said we’d bury her tomorrow. Under the apple tree or somewhere.

Practicalities done, the floodgates opened. It’s awful, feeling so sad, shocked, and unable to explain why the world would be so cruel to take away that bundle of energy. Whilst also logistically thinking, that it was quick and painless. And she was off adventuring, which she loved to do. In truth, I’ve always worried about her. She’s like Judy from Seven Little Australians (read it – it’s an Aussie classic).

Eventually we went to bed. Matt took it hardest I think. She was more his cat, while Penny has always preferred me. And this is his first pet to lose. The first is always the worst. It never gets easier, you always grieve, but the mind can analyse and process things better. You can tell yourself you gave them the best life possible.

Probably one of my first memories is when, aged three, we returned home after visiting family to find a note from our lodger to say that Henry, our black and white cat, had been run over. I just remember Mum crying as she read the note.

We were looking forward to becoming a household of five, and I could see Willow being very good with the baby. Letting it tug her tail and all of that. Now, it will be all down to Penny to teach our baby to love and respect animals.

While I was lying awake last night… this morning… whenever it was, I began to worry. I can’t even find the right words to comfort my grieving husband, how am I going to explain death or comfort my child? They will have worries, scares, and questions about the bad guys in this world. How do I make them feel safe? How can I protect them from hurt? Or even just ease the heartache?

Perhaps regardless of how difficult it is, having pets will enrich their life. They’ll learn to love and care for another being, and see the full circle of life. And when we get to that bridge, I’ll somehow find the words to explain why.

I won’t bore you with anecdotes of her too-short life. We’ll talk together about how she terrorised the vet at ten weeks old, or sat on our shoulders purring in our ears, or would devour any human food going in particular chilli con carne, when we’re ready and the pain will ease.

Being a parent though, it’s not going to be easy. Our biggest challenge yet. In the meantime, rest in peace Willow, our crazy chilli-eating cat.

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Increasing Knowledge

I remember reading an article by a BHS instructor which said that teaching Riding Club members was often more rewarding to teach than professionals because they are more receptive to different views and are well read in their areas of interest: be it dressage, a past injury of their horse, or join up.

When I was younger I remember we followed our instructor and yard owner’s instructions blindly. Probably mostly to do with the fact that we were kids. But if she told us to increase our hard feeds, or that our pony needed the farrier next week, or that we should put a martingale on, then we did it. She was usually right, but it didn’t lead to a huge amount of understanding. For example, why did she think our pony needed more feed? Or that they needed a martingale.

Now however, amateur horse owners keep their horses on a far more individual basis. They organise field maintenance, decide when to bring their horses in for the winter (all our ponies had to be living in by the first weekend of December but the ones which started to drop weight started living in earlier), and feed rations. As well as organising the farrier and dentist themselves – we had a farrier who came weekly and our ponies were done when we were told they needed doing.

As a result, horse owners now need to be more well read, and know how frequently to check teeth or shoes, and signs to look for that means the feed ration is too much or too little. This gives them more control over their horse’s lifestyle though.

However, information is more available to horse owners. Magazines, social media, the internet, books, webinars and DVDs all mean that information is at our finger tips. We are also more likely to see new products earlier, which can lead to owners following the fads.

It’s understandable that horse owners want to learn, because they have a vested interest in equines, and this is their hobby. And I like that attitude, it makes these people easier to teach. The ability for amateur horse owners to research new products, ring up feed companies for advice, and read reviews or celebrity interviews means that by the time an instructor is asked their opinion, the owner has already decided on the answer.

I have some clients who do some research, and then ask me for my opinion. Whilst others are more confident in their convictions. I think there’s a balance: horses haven’t read the textbook so whilst on paper it would appear that (A) is the answer, in actual fact (B) is a better option. And your instructor or yard owner may have experience of similar horses or have some “outside the box” suggestions which may work. So it’s useful to keep your instructor or yard manager on board with your horse’s management. Additionally, an experienced horse person may notice the earlier signs of weight loss, lameness, behaviour problems, or illness than a one horse owner will, so it’s important for them to feel that they can approach you with a concern if they’ve noticed a change in your horse.

From an instructor’s point of view, the fact that your clients are more knowledgeable and keen to learn puts a bit of pressure on you to continually enhance your own knowledge and continue to learn. Which ultimately can only be good for the industry because instructors strive to improve their performance and quality of lessons. Last week a client of mine had the physio to her mare, and was advised to use either a bungee or a chambon. So she asked me what my opinions were on either of the two gadgets and if I could help her fit and use one. Now, I’ve not used either gadget frequently, but I had to double check my knowledge so I could formulate a balanced, knowledgeable answer for this client.

Teaching is not just a test of your knowledge of schooling and riding, but you are invariably asked about all aspects of horse care, and I do like the challenge involved with advising owners on all sorts of topics, and also being kept on my toes with new developments within the sport.

Preparation is the Key

I’ve been revisiting these three exercises recently. In particular, I’ve used exercise two with a horse who tends to drift out on a canter transition.
I cantered the 20m circle, making the trot transition just before the centre line and trotting the 10m circle on the opposite rein. This meant that as I rejoined the 20m circle she was in counter flexion. As I straightened her into the 20m circle I asked for canter. The strike off was much better because she had to push straight forwards with the hindlegs, whereas before as the inside hind came under she drifted diagonally out. The fact is just changed the bend also meant that I had a really supportive outside rein, which almost blocked her drifting out through that shoulder.
We did end up doing the whole exercise in canter, with trot changes of lead over the centre line which sharpened her up to the aids and tested her balance because she had to keep her weight fairly evenly over each leg in order to change her bend and sequence of legs quickly and easily.
I’ve got exercise three in mind for another horse I’m riding to do this week, and will probably spiral in on that circle in canter to improve her suppleness.

The Rubber Curry Comb

I`ve been doing some research and reading, and have got some new schoolwork exercises to play around with in my lessons – so watch out everyone!

I`ll list the exercises here briefly, but the main point I want to make in this post is the importance of preparation.

Exercise 1 – Stay on a twenty metre circle. Ride a ten metre circle within the bigger circle, so that the larger circle acts as a tangent to the smaller circle. The exercise becomes harder when small circles are ridden more frequently, and you can also ride a downwards transition immediately before the small circle, and an upwards transition upon finishing.

Exercise 2 – Stay on a twenty metre circle in the centre of the school. As you cross the centre line, ride a ten metre circle in the opposite direction before rejoining the large circle. To make this exercise harder, ride…

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Head Injuries

I had a nice head injury this week to first aid. Not mine – one of the horses.

I went to get him in and he mooched over as normal, but as I slipped his head collar on I noticed a wound on his forehead.

So I took him up to the yard and rang his owner to find out where her first aid kit was and then had a closer inspection.

Thankfully it was only a superficial wound; the hair had come off in a round patch, but the skin hadn’t broken. So I cleaned the graze and surrounding hair with hibiscrub and cotton wool to make sure there wasn’t any mud or grime to get into it, and also to make sure I hadn’t missed a deeper wound under the hair. All seemed well, so I put some purple spray on the area and left it for nature to take it’s course.

Everyone has different thoughts on first aid – do you dry out the wound, smear it in cream, leave it to breathe, or cover it up? I think at some point you’re told to do any one of those things, and it all depends on the type of wound. I prefer the letting it breathe and dry out if possible, but obviously if it’s going to get muddy or dirty then best to try to prevent an infection entering.

I think the cleaning stage is pretty much the same for everyone. Dilute hibiscrub in warm water is the most popular way. But did you know that hibiscrub actually destroys skin tissue so needs to be very dilute – so the water is barely tinged pink. Many people use too strong a mixture. For this reason too, I also don’t like over cleaning with hibiscrub. The other options are salt water or saline solution. What I like about salt water and hibiscrub solution is that you can make up as much or as little as you need, whereas saline solution often has to be used within a certain amount of time of opening.

Once a wound is cleaned there are a couple more options. Wound powder, which is an antibacterial fine powder is mostly known to help a wound dry out. Which I guess is best with wounds with a lot of fluid, perhaps where blood is involved. However, wound powder can be tricky to apply because it blows around in any wind and doesn’t always stick to a wound, especially if it’s on the side or facing the ground. The other problem I’ve seen is that the nozzle or container gets damp which I’d imagine would reduce the effectiveness of the powder, as well as making it difficult to apply. With this head wound, I didn’t feel wound powder would stick to the site of injury and I was also concerned about it blowing into his eyes as I applied it, and shaking a bottle around his head.

Sudocrem, or the equivalent equine versions, are often the go to ointment. Ointments get a bad name because whilst they seal the injury and prevent bacteria entering, they also don’t allow them to breathe which hinders the healing process. But then if an injury is likely to get dirty (during turn out perhaps) it is better to put some form of ointment plus bandage over it. If I needed to use ointment on a wound I’d ensure it was scrupulously cleaned, but also that it had some time to dry and air between cleaning and applying the cream, or between applications of the cream to ensure the healing process isn’t hindered. You can also get gels, such as Aloe Vera which have soothing properties. I find this really useful on bites or stings which horses will then scratch. I’ve actually just put some on Otis’s neck where he’s rubbed a fly bite.

Purple spray, or iodine spray, is the other main contestant for treating a wound. It’s an antibacterial solution and has the benefit that you can spray it upside down (for any sarcoids around the sheath) and it doesn’t form a seal on the wound like ointment, so allows it to breathe. You just need to be aware that some horses don’t like the hiss of the spray. Personally, purple spray tends to be my go to for minor scrapes or grazes.

Do horse’s get concussion? That was one of my thoughts when I was treating this horse. It depends on how they get a head wound, whether it’s by banging their head on a hard object or not. I’m fairly sure this horse rubbed his forehead on something abrasive in the field, as opposed to a direct hit. Their skulls are harder than ours, which you’d know if you’ve ever banged heads with a horse – but that’s another story – which I’d have thought would mean they’d be less likely to get concussion. I remember hearing about a horse who was being difficult to load and reared and fell over backwards, hitting her head. She starting fitting like she was epileptic, but when the vet came to treat her various injuries her withers had gone down inside her barrel, which must’ve impacted the spinal cord, and the injury to her head showed if not the skull, done grey matter too. Which I guess goes to show that they can get some form of concussion or headache from an injury. So if your horse comes in with a wound on his head it’s worth giving him a few hours of quiet time to let them recover from any headache they may have. Unfortunately they can’t tell us if it hurts, so it comes down to knowing your horse and when he’s withdrawn in himself.

An Otis Update

As promised, here is the Otis update.

He’s had a happy summer in a huge field of good quality grass. The vet came out at the beginning of September to see how he’s progressing. In walk, Otis looked really good but there was still a limp in trot, which didn’t please the vet.

He had a look at Otis’s feet, and whilst he’s been shod very well with the eggbar shoes, his heels haven’t grown out as much as anticipated. When his contracted heels grow out there should be less pressure around the sidebone, which hopefully means he’ll become sound. Obviously, hooves take a long time to grow so it’s a matter of patience, and best supporting them.

The vet recommended a type of shoes called Flip Flops, which are half metal and half plastic. They don’t provide support to the heel like the egg bar shoes, but the plastic heels mimic the ground and encourage more blood flow to the hoof because the frog and heel are expanding and contracting with each stride.

So I rang my ever patient farrier and asked him for advice and further information. He said, which had already sprung to my mind, that if the flip flop shoe is mimicking the ground, why not put Otis on the actual ground and take his shoes off? Then the ground , which is no longer rock hard, will cause the expansion and contraction of his feet thus increasing blood flow and hopefully the heels to grow out.

I agreed wholeheartedly. I think the flip flop shoes would benefit a horse who has poor horn quality so can’t go barefoot, but as Otis has strong hooves and the time of year is right, why not just go barefoot. When he saw the farrier this morning, the farrier told me that Otis’s hind feet are looking a better shape for being barefoot all summer. He also has plenty of hoof growth so must be on a healthy diet too, which is always reassuring. We took photos of his front feet with rulers, so we can measure the (hopeful) improvement in his heels.

In other news, Otis decided last week that fly season was over and he didn’t need his fly rug on. Which has allowed his coat to get even thicker, so he has a good winter coat and fat covering going into the winter. I’d like him to stay rugless if possible, but obviously he’s used to being rugged in previous years so if he needs a rug I’ll put it on.

I had thought that if he needed to be brought back into work around now then I would, but obviously he can’t but looking at him, I think he’d be too wide for me at the moment with my stretchy pelvic ligaments, so he’s got until April to sort his feet out and then we’ll go from there.

Riding the Outside Shoulder Around

I’ve done some work with several clients this week about riding the outside shoulder around turns.

If a rider, like many novices and children, uses the inside rein to turn their horse then the horse will give too much bend through their neck, which opens up the outside shoulder. So when the inside hind leg comes under, instead of acting on the centre of the horse’s body and propelling them forwards, the inside hindleg works across the horse’s body, throwing their weight diagonally, out through the outside shoulder. This means that the horse moves less efficiently and has less power because energy isn’t flowing through the horse’s body back to front.

To the untrained eye, a horse giving an exaggerated neck bend can seem to be more supple than a horse who is slightly straighter through the body but engaging his hindquarters, yet the latter is working more efficiently and correctly.

Often, I believe, this trait comes from riders over using their inside rein, and horses being asked to ride too small a circle or too tight a turn before they are physically strong and balanced enough, so in order to negotiate the turn they fall through the outside shoulder as they go round.

Firstly, let’s look at how to prevent a horse falling out on turns and circles. The aids are the outside leg pushing the barrel around, and the outside rein maintaining the contact and preventing the neck from flexing. For a horse who is inclined to fall out, this rein has to be prepared to support the shoulder as the horse tries to fall out, then tries to work out how he should be moving. Often, this is where it goes wrong because the rider is not convinced enough in their application of the aids or strong enough in their core, that when the horse gets heavy in the outside hand they lengthen the arm to relieve the pressure. Which means the horse continues to fall through the outside shoulder. The inside rein on the turn opens, to tell the horse where they should be going. Think of this rein as an indicator, not an instigator. It is only suggesting to the horse which direction they need to go, not causing the movement itself. The inside leg prevents the horse falling in and also acts as the accelerator, keeping the impulsion of the gait. The rider’s body turns in the direction of movement, being careful not to throw the outside hand forward. The inside seat bone is loaded fractionally, and the outside shoulder and hip go forward.

So that’s how you should ride a turn. Be honest, do you always abide by these aids, or do you sometimes panic and think you aren’t going to make the turn so grab the inside rein? Or do you forget about the outside of your body? It’s very easily done, particularly when a horse tries to fall through the outside shoulder due to habit/old injury/previous poor schooling/evasion.

What exercises can be done to teach the rider to bring the outside shoulder around on turns, or to teach the horse to engage their inside hind leg through turns?

Firstly, I’ll often ask a rider to think about what’s going on underneath and behind them on circles while they warm up, this builds an awareness of the parts of the horse which are out of sight. Then they will more easily feel any improvement.

I like to use squares too, whether it’s just riding E-B or creating a square around the letter X. I’ll ask my rider to imagine that their horse is a plank of wood for a moment, and round each corner they are going to keep them as straight as possible. This stops them using so much inside rein and gets them using the outside aids. Once they are managing this and aren’t likely to fall back into old habits, we start introducing a bit of bend and softening the square into a circle. However, I get them to focus on creating a bend in the body, not the neck first – that comes naturally – so my rider thinks about the feel underneath them and uses the leg and seat to get a slight curve along the horse’s spine. Finally, I tell them to just allow the neck to bend in the direction of movement, which usually means that the horse gives just enough bend and the rider hasn’t lost the outside shoulder.

So this gets a rider feeling the difference between a uniform bend through the body, and a horse falling out through the outside shoulder. Hopefully they then apply the same aids on all circles and turns.

Now let’s look at the horse. Some horses are naturally crooked, so seem to bend easily in one direction and not so much in the other. One mare I teach sits in quarters right. We’ve done a lot of work building her rider’s awareness for the slight bend, and worked on improving the mare’s suppleness. In the trot my rider is getting more effective at using her outside aids and their circles are much improved, but the crookedness shows up most in the canter. Especially on the right rein. Both horse and rider have slight counter flexion, which added to the quarters sitting right means that circles tend to be more of an impression of a motorbike. So we’ve worked on my rider correcting her position and degree of turn, and then we asked the mare to look slightly to the outside in the canter before moving on to squarish circles, keeping the outside bend. To do this my rider had to keep her outside rein and exaggerate her outside leg. However, the mare soon started to move around the school with her outside shoulder coming round. After doing this a few times my rider could really feel the improvement in the canter – it was more active and where the mare was straighter it looked like the hindlegs were propelling her along better. Returning to usual circles in canter, my rider managed to prevent the mare curling her neck and falling through the outside shoulder whilst having a bit of inside bend. Now she was riding from her inside leg into her outside rein, which means she has much more control over the horse’s positioning through turns.

I’ve done similar work with another client, who’s cob falls out on right turns. This is more important for her with her jumping because when the cob drifts out through his left shoulder he loses power, which means he chips in or is more likely to know the fence down. As soon as his rider rode a square turn, off her outside aids and with slight counter flexion, they maintained the quality of the canter to the fence and met it on a much better stride. Next week, I’m planning on doing some more work on this right turn before fences to really establish my rider’s aids, and her horse’s technique and balance through the corner.

Other exercises I like to use with a horse who is reluctant to bring their outside shoulder around on turns are; shoulder in, shoulder in on turns, haunches out on turns, turn on the forehand. Anything really that gets them listening to the outside rein, encourages them to bring the inside hindleg under and towards the centre of their body and helps improve their general straightness.

Horse and Country TV did a useful video about the importance of bringing the outside shoulder round on turns, and you can see from my screen shots below, the difference between the first one (riding off the inside rein) and the second one (riding from the outside aids). If you can, see if you can find the full length video masterclass.

A Matt Update

I thought you were well overdue a Matt update. Particularly as I went to see him a fortnight ago. Don’t worry, Otis fans, there will be an update on him at the weekend.

Last time I updated you, in August, he had just had his second x-ray. The X-ray showed that his stifle was healing well, but the fracture was worse than initially thought so poor Matt’s box rest was extended by four weeks.

After a total of twelve weeks box rest, at the beginning of September, he had a third X-ray, which thankfully showed that the fracture has healed. Which means it’s onto phase two.

The X-ray showed that the bones were smooth, with no callouses from the healing process, but because the stifle is a very complicated joint, where numerous bones need to glide over each other, plus the fact that the new bone on the fracture site is less dense and strong than the rest of his skeleton, means that exercise needs to be introduced very slowly.

The vet instructed that Matt needs to be led out for 30-60 strides every day. He can be grazed in hand, and can be walked out twice a day so long as he remains sound.

Now there are two problems here. One, how far is 60 strides? The answer is not very far! It’s the distance from Matt’s stable to the yard gate and back again. Which means that there is very little grass for him to nibble at en route.

Secondly, leading Matt out is like leading a ticking bomb. I don’t know how suicide bombers stand the suspense. He walks quietly enough, but then jumps a mile at absolutely nothing. Or suddenly stands bolt upright. Or bucks. Which means that his walks need to be done when the yard is quiet.

Armed with his lunging bridle and stallion chain, Mum’s yard owner led him out the first time. Predictably, he wasn’t interested in grazing the meagre grass by the fence, and was more interested in the horses up the field. He did a bit of jumping around in anticipation, but the walk was over and done without a hitch.

The next day, Matt seemed a bit sore and stiff when he walked out. But whether that’s to do with the exercise and his body not being used to it, or the cavorting around, he was definitely a bit subdued.

When I was visiting Matt I was given the responsibility of walking him out, but he still didn’t seem very interested in grazing, so it was a short reprieve from his box rest. I did suggest to Mum, that to help break up his routine that she placed a bucket of dried grass (which he loves) or a lickit at the end of his walk so that he is more inclined to relax outside of his stable, and hopefully he’ll get used to the idea of spending time grazing. Then when the distance of his walk increases he’ll be quicker to settle to graze on the nicer grass.

Matt’s walks will get longer over the next couple of months, and then I guess it will be time to introduce limited turn out, once the stifle joint is functioning efficiently and the bone has matured.

In the meantime, it’s back to the stable, with his variety of treat balls, willow branches, jolly ball, and stretches using clicker training.

The Wild Horses of Kefalonia

Last week we were on holiday in Kefalonia. Now, my lovely husband decided to organise a surprise for me. However, he forgot two vital components.

1) it is impossible to keep secrets from me. I knew he was planning to propose at least a week before he actually did it. I’m also the person who took one look at all my carefully wrapped presents that he’d bought, and guessed them all instantly. Now he just tells me.

2) he’s rubbish at keeping secrets. When he was planning his proposal he kept asking me if I thought a particular place was romantic. Which may have led to point number one, if I hadn’t already guessed by the fact he spent eight hours shopping and only bought a pair of swim shorts. When he has other secrets he just dances around singing excitedly.

Anyway, I digress. In a nutshell, I had guessed the surprise before he even told me that he had a surprise.

Unfortunately, it was a bit of a mission this surprise, with a small success rate.

We were going to drive up to Kefalonia’s National Park to try and see the wild horses. Unfortunately though, the day we were going to drive up Mount Ainos was the foggiest morning, and after getting halfway up and being engulfed in cloud we decided to turn around and go back to the beach.

I did spot some horse droppings on the way home, so I had proof that they existed.

I had done some research about these wild horses, although there is very little online about them. But I thought I’d share it with you anyway.

There was a tradition amongst the locals in Kefalonia to keep there horses running free on the mountains. I guess in a similar fashion to the Exmoor or New Forest ponies. This kept keeping and feeding costs down. However, during and after the Second World War the horses were abandoned and have since become feral. The horses are hardy, very similar to the Pindos breed – which you can read up about here.

There used to be numerous herds of horses on Mount Ainos, but their numbers have decreased drastically over the last few years and now there is only one herd, of some fifteen individuals. There are concerns about the Ainos horses becoming extinct, particularly as they are believed to have evolved to become a separate breed to the Pindos pony, and may have different genetic material, which could make them invaluable for improving the quality of the recently degenerating Pindos breed. Which reminded me of the Carneddau pony, that is genetically different to the Welsh Section A.

There are plenty of accounts online by people who have hiked successfully to the monastery on Mount Ainos and spotted the wild horses, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be for us. It will be interesting to know if anything is done to help prevent the horses from becoming extinct, and if research is done to find out more about their genes, and whether they are a breed in their own right.

Meanwhile, here are another couple of shots of the stunning scenery we saw whilst touring the island.