Sharers

I was asked the other day on my opinion on sharers, which is becoming a more and more popular option for horse owners. So here are my thoughts.

I’ve seen sharing arrangements which work really well for all parties, and I’ve also seen it go horribly wrong with the sharer fleeing at the first cold wind of winter or the first sign of lameness and the horse owner picking up the pieces.

For the horse owner, having a sharer can help reduce the workload of horse ownership; a sharer can make a financial contribution, help keep your horse exercised and fit, and help out with yard chores. Which can give you a lie in, or a day off from horses. It can help you maintain a healthy horse-family-work balance.

For the sharer, it’s an opportunity to forge a strong bond with a horse which you can’t do in a riding school environment, usually at a fraction of the cost. You get the horse ownership experience without the full time or financial commitment, which can work really well for those with young families or students.

Unfortunately though, I repeatedly see adverts on social media of young people who are basically looking for free rides in return for mucking out. Yes, I understand that financially they may not be able to afford riding lessons, but I worry that their naivety of riding unsupervised, plus the fact privately owned horses often have more get-up-and-go than riding school horses, poses a huge risk to the horse owner.

I still think that sharing arrangements can be a good solution for horse owners, it needs to be entered into carefully and with both eyes open.

Firstly, you need to decide why you want or need a sharer. Is it to help you exercise your horse as they can be too fizzy for you? Is it to give you a horse free day a couple of times a week? Is it to help cover your livery bill? Some share arrangements exchange riding for money whilst others exchange riding for chores. When advertising for a share you need to be very clear with what you expect in return.

Regardless of your sharing currency, there are a few hoops to jump through to help set up a successful share.

Firstly, insurance. You will have your own insurance, but you need to check that your horse is covered with other riders, or that other riders are covered. A good option is to get a sharer to take out BHS Gold membership as this will cover both them and your horse on the ground and in the saddle.

Assess their riding. Have them ride your horse under your supervision a few times, and doing all that they will want to do. So watch them school, pop a fence, and hack. They don’t need to be brilliant, but your horse shouldn’t be offended by their riding. Find out their riding goals, as it is really beneficial to have complementary aims. For example, if you like hacking and the sharer wants to do dressage this can provide variety for your horse. If you don’t like jumping then a sharer who does can be beneficial to your horse’s mental well being and fitness. However, regardless of what you both want to do, you need to have a similar approach to riding. For example, you don’t want to spend your days working your horse in a long and low frame to get them working over their back and relaxed, only for your sharer to undo all hard your work by pinning their heads in or galloping wildly round the countryside. I would strongly encourage sharers to have regular lessons, ideally with the same coach as the horse’s owner so that you can be sure you’re both singing off the same sheet, even if it’s at different levels.

The horse owner should watch how the potential sharer acts on the ground, whether they’re confident around horses and know their hoof pick from their body brush. Even if they’re straight out of a riding school and know very little, they can still learn. It’s worth the owner spending a few sessions with the sharer to help them build confidence on the ground and to set the owner’s mind at rest that their horse will be well cared for. Again, from an owner’s perspective, make sure you’re happy with the standard that the chores are done to when assessing the sharer. They can have room to learn, but you don’t want them doing a poor job and then you playing catch up the following day. It is also worth checking that the sharer is happy with any other horses they may have to deal with. For example, if your horse is in a field with one other then the sharer may well have to feed or hay both horses on their days, so they need to be happy with this, and the owner’s of the other horse does too.

I would also be careful of sharers who are fresh from the riding school as they often don’t foresee how time consuming the looking after aspect of horse care is, especially when they’re fumbling with tools or buckles, so can either shirk their duties and just chuck the tack on with a careless glance over the horse, or lose interest after a week. As an owner, your horse is your first priority and you want them to feel as loved by their sharer as they do by you. It’s definitely worth investing the time in training up a sharer so that they’re happy, your horse is happy, and you can then enjoy your horse free time without worrying.

Draw up a contract. This may seem formal, but it’s a useful reference point if anything goes wrong. The contract doesn’t have to be complicated but should contain the following subjects:

  • Insurance
  • Number of days and which days the sharer has use of the horse. The arrangement for flexibility or additional days (such as school holidays). How much warning needs to be given for changing days.
  • The chores or payment the sharer needs to provide in return for riding, and how often. Some sharers pay weekly, others monthly, some in advance and others in arrears. Some sharers have to do the chores for the entire day that they are riding the horse on, so for example turn out and muck out in the morning, and bringing in in the evening. Others just the jobs when they’re there to ride.
  • What the sharer can and cannot do with the horse. It may be that the horse has physical limitations (for example, an old injury which means they can’t be jumped too high or more than once a week) or that the owner doesn’t feel the sharer is competent enough to hack alone. However, there may be a clause that the sharer can compete or attend clinics with the approval of the owner.
  • What happens in the event of the horse going lame. Unfortunately I’ve seen many sharers up and go when the horse is injured and needs a period of box rest, leaving the owner high and dry. It may be that the sharer has such a bond with the horse that they want to continue caring for them without the benefit of riding, or the owner may have another horse the sharer can ride.
  • The notice period for terminating the contract. This may be a natural end because of the sharer outgrowing the horse, or changing jobs or moving house (or yard) but in order to end on a good note, it is more respectful to forewarn the owner.
  • Who is responsible for livery services? If for example, the sharer has to have the horse turned out on one their days, who foots the bill at the end of the month? Who is responsible for cleaning or repairing tack?

Of course, creating a sharing agreement is far more complicated than it initially seems, but having a good starting point for discussion helps both the horse owner and sharer work out what they want from, and what they can bring to, a sharing arrangement which will then hopefully have the horse’s welfare at its heart and makes for a lasting friendship between owner and sharer.

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The Rules of Feeding

It crossed my mind the other day how much feeding horses has changed even over the relatively short time I have been working with horses. Does this mean that the rules of feeding we learn so diligently by rote need modernising, or have they stood the test of time?

Let’s go through them one at a time.

  1. Feed according to size, age, body weight, type, temperament, time of year, level of work, level of rider. With all the modern complete feeds on the market I think it is easier to choose, and trial, a feed that will suit your horse and then feed it in the correct quantity. For example, you can buy feeds specifically designed for laminitics, veterans, excitable horses, endurance, stud, and any other factor you can think of. However, there is still a huge (excuse the pun) problem of horses being overfed. I feel this is more due to the quantity they are given, their grazing being too rich, and owners being unable to distinguish between healthy and overweight animals rather than the type of feed being unsuitable for them though.
  1. Feed little and often. This rule comes from wise observations of horses in their natural state, and as the digestive tract of a horse has not changed in the last century we can be sure that this rule is as relevant today as it was when the rules were first drawn up.
  2. Always feed good quality food. Just the same that we wouldn’t eat poor quality food, feeding poor quality food can lead to respiratory or digestive disorders as well as being a false economy as the horse will drop weight and under perform. Since the early 2000s the EU has passed many regulations on the quality of equine feeds, which I think makes it far harder to purchase low quality food.
  3. Feed plenty of bulk. This rule is based on the observation of a horse’s natural diet, and as I said before they haven’t changed physiologically in recent years we should still feed plenty of bulk. The knowledge of the average leisure rider has improved vastly so whilst this rule is no less important, it is done more autonomically. Additionally, the complete feeds that you now buy instead of having to mix various straight feeds, are all based on a mainly fibrous diet.
  4. Do not make any sudden changes to the type of food being fed. Again, as this rule is based on the horse’s physiology, so is still relevant today. I think the feeds on today’s market does mean that there is less change in a horse’s diet over the course of a year though. Because the off the shelf feed bags are complete feeds within themselves, a horse’s base diet stays the same throughout the year, it may just change in volume between seasons, or it may be supplemented during competition season in order to keep the horse’s performance levels up. When I was young I can distinctly remember our ponies diets changing quite radically between winter and summer. Matt always had to have the oats removed once he started living in, and barley added from September to help keep the weight on him. Nowadays, he has the same type of feed all through the year, but the ratio is adjusted if he needs to gain weight.
  1. Always use clean utensils and bowls. We don’t eat off dirty plates so why should our horses use dirty bowls? The move towards plastic feed buckets in recent years rather than the rubber ones does mean it’s easier to keep them cleaner to a higher standard. And of course you can write names onto plastic buckets more easily, which reduces the risk of cross contamination of illnesses and medicine. I think perhaps the importance of preventing horses getting the wrong medicine, or banned substances in their feed, has increased in recently years with the FEI having more stringent rules surrounding medicines in competition, and the fact there are more non-professional riders competing at the highest levels and under rules. Also more leisure horses are fed drugs for maintenance, such as Bute or prascend, which increases the risk of competition horses being exposed to the drugs.
  2. Feed at regular times daily. Horses are creatures of habit so thrive on routine, but equally having a frequent feed routine helps to keep the digestive system flowing. This helps reduce stress, which is linked to gastric ulcers. There seems to be more cases of ulcers nowadays, but whether that’s because of better diagnostic techniques and understanding of the equine body. Or whether horses have more stressful lives – in terms of routine, competitions, environment – yes, I know that’s a can of worms! So the rule is old and still relevant, but has the reasoning behind the rule changed slightly as our demands on the horse changed?
  3. Feed something succulent every day. This rule is to provide horses with variety to the diet and to provide extra vitamins. Now that complete feeds are scientifically balanced to provide the correct quantities of vitamins and minerals are carrots, parsnips, salt licks as necessary?
  1. Water before feeding. This comes from when horses were predominantly kept in stalls not loose boxes (think of Black Beauty) so didn’t have access to water all the time. This rule has changed in the revised textbooks to “provide a clean, fresh supply of water at all times”. So yes, it has been modernised!
  2. Feed a hard feed at least an hour before exercise and longer before more demanding work. Just like we don’t swim an hour after eating to ensure blood is not diverted and away from the digestive system to working muscles leaving us with undigested food banging around our insides, it’s still not advisable to feed a horse just before riding. However, I do believe this rule needs expanding as now we are beginning to understand the importance of having a little bit of fibre (e.g. hay or chaff) in our horses stomachs when we ride to soak up excess gastric acid and help prevent the development of ulcers. Most people now give their horse a small haynet or a scoop of chaff while they are grooming for this reason.

In all, the rules of feeding are staying with the times and not becoming outdated, which is good news for us oldies! Are there any rules which could be added or expanded to, to make sure they’re more relevant to today’s stable management routines and the feed available on the market?

Another rule I can think of, which is fairly common sense, but still important with the numerous feeds that require soaking prior to feeding, is to follow the preparation instructions of compound feeds. The rules from the BHS textbook I looked at also did not mention about dampening feeds, which is vitally important in preventing horses bolting their food and getting choke.

I’d be interested on a nutritionist’s opinion on the original rules of feeding and their relevance to modern feeds.

How To Be a Good Groom

It happens to everyone at some point, you get asked, or you could ask someone, if you can tag along to a competition with them. It’s a high honour, but how do you become an invaluable member of their team – a good groom?

First of all, find out what time you’re leaving the yard – and don’t gasp when you hear how early it is! Make sure you arrive in plenty of time, and it’s always good to ask them if they need any help before leaving. You don’t have to be an ace plaiter, or be able to do a do a tail bandage, you can be just as useful mucking out their stable or to-ing and fro-ing to the lorry with all their bits and pieces.

Be prepared to help with directions to the venue. It might be reading aloud instructions, tapping into satnav, or keeping an eye out for signs. But when you have pre-competition nerves, have a loaded lorry to drive, every bit of help is invaluable.

At the competition, you need to be ready to do anything your friend needs so show willing and offer. They may want you to run to the secretary with their passport, or stay with their horse while they walk the course. It may be tacking up, or putting on boots. If you aren’t sure how to do something, or if you’ve done it right, ask them to double check or show you on the first leg. After all, you’re learning too, and all riders would rather double check than have a tack malfunction halfway round a course!

While they warm up park yourself in an inconspicuous place, but within shouting distance so you can easily help adjust a girth or take an exercise blanket or coat from them. This is when nerves usually kick in, even if they don’t look it, so it’s important to be positive in your conversations. Don’t say “oh doesn’t that horse look good?” Or “Wow that was an awesome round!” Instead tell them they look very smart, relaxed, working well, or whatever adjective you can think of! The last thing that they want to hear before they go in is some encouragement, so even though they aren’t looking their best, just tell them to enjoy themselves, have fun, and good luck.

Videos provide great feedback, so offer to film their test, or round. Ask them where they want you to stand if you aren’t sure of the best place.

The first thing a competitor wants to hear when they’ve finished is “well done” or “that looked great”. Even if it went disastrously wrong, by you being positive they won’t beat themselves up too much. If they are a bit upset just focus on looking after their horse, give them space to reflect, and let the emotions die down. They’ll start talking when they’re ready. For example, they may not have got the clear round they’d hoped for, but after the initial disappointment has faded, you can help them find the positives, such as the fact that they may have refused the water, but they negotiated the plank more successfully than their last competition.

As before, help them untack and brush off their horse, again asking if you aren’t sure what to do. Then the most important job of the day, is to eat! Offer to go to the burger van or to go get a hot drink. A lot of people can’t eat when they’re nervous and when caught up in the hustle and bustle of the day it’s easy to forget to eat and suddenly get hunger pangs on the way home. So your job is to remind them to replenish their energy. Especially after a cross country round!

Once back at the yard don’t jump into your car to go home, even though you’re tired. Make sure you offer to turn out, unload the lorry, clean it out, or any other job your friend needs to do. After all, they’re just as tired as you!

Basically, the honour of accompanying a friend to a competition means being at their beck and call for a few hours whilst cheering them on and being very supportive. However, it is a lot of fun and you do learn a lot about riding and competing from watching other riders, as well as asking your friend a multitude of questions after they’ve competed!

Calmer Bites

A few weeks ago I had a slightly psychotic Phoenix on my hands. I think it was the transition from living out 24/7 to living in at night, combined with her getting fitter. I couldn’t fault her behaviour on the ground, or out hacking, or even in the school. She wasn’t spooky or naughty, just hot – like she was on a constant adrenaline high. A good, long workout didn’t take the edge off, so I knew it wasn’t an excess of energy. But she definitely wasn’t her usual self. I did wonder if she was stressed, but channeling it internally, so it came out as anxiety as opposed to bad behaviour.

I thought about calmers, but I wasn’t convinced they were the answer because her behaviour hadn’t changed, or at least she hadn’t become spooky. But I did wonder if she had a bit of a chemical imbalance, akin to people suffering from bipolar disorder. This would explain the uptightness and that a long workout didn’t tire her out.

I couldn’t see what stress factors she had as we’d not competed recently, her diet hadn’t changed and was low in sugars, and she’d seemingly settled into the yard and field happily, which made me wonder if she’d been stressed (perhaps the first week of living in) and the chemical levels in her brain had become a bit stuck at the incorrect levels. I’m sure a psychologist could explain this far better than me, but in layman’s terms that’s what I felt was going on.

I did some more research, and a friend told me about calmer bites. They seem to be a relatively new thing on the market, but basically they contain L-Tryosine which triggers the production of serotonin, which helps stabilise moods. They say it “takes the edge off” a horse’s excitability, which is what I felt Phoenix needed.

I think the instant calmer syringes work in a similar way, but as Phoenix is not the easiest horse to worm, I thought a bite size treat would be more effective – at least she’d ingest more of it! 45-60 minutes after administration, the seratonin levels should increase, and the horse becomes calmer. The effects last for three or four hours and you can “load” a horse with several cookies over a couple of days.

Calmer bites are commonly used the day before a competition and on the morning of to help calm a horse. Or for travelling or clipping. They don’t contain any FEI banned substances so are legal for competition use.

Now, I didn’t particularly want to end up relying on calmers or anything, but I did think that the calmer bites could help reset Phoenix. I tend to think that if a horse is stressed and needs “calming” there is a problem somewhere in their management, diet or training, so by feeding calmers you are not addressing the cause, merely masking it. However, if it would get Phoenix back on track I thought it was worth a shot.

It was a bit of a gamble, as there have been mixed reviews on the calming cookies products (as with any calmer but I think that’s down to the cause as much as anything) but I fed Phoenix a calmer bite twice a day for three days as a loading dose, and definitely found that she was calmer. Probably a better explanation is that she wasn’t on high alert and over reactive to my leg aids, or as anticipative to canter and repeat canters during a schooling session, which made her much more rideable. As she had maintained her perfect manners out hacking and on the ground, I couldn’t say that they had had a positive impact, but I definitely liked her more relaxed attitude towards schooling.

Phoenix had the calmer bites for three days and since then she seems to have remained more level headed, so I think that they will have helped normalise her seratonin levels, which had dropped for whatever reason. The most likely cause I can think of is the transition from her summer routine to her winter routine. Which she seems to have accepted now, as she’s not pulling her rugs onto the floor, tossing hay from her haybar, or spilling her water in the mornings as she waits to be turned out. It will be interesting to see how she transitions next year.

For now though, I’ll keep the rest of the calmer bites and try using them when she’s next clipped to see if it keep her more relaxed, acting as a mild sedative so that she is more accepting of the clipping process.

I would say that calmer bites are not the answer to a horse being stressed, but they could be used as an aid to training. For example, if a horse has had a bad experience travelling then they may be useful the next time they travel to help give them a good experience and overcome their fears. But a horse will only truly overcome their fears by their carer taking the steps to build their confidence during transportation.

The calmer bites I used for Phoenix are made by Equine Science, and can be found on their website.

An Open Letter

To the Riders Trotting Along That Busy Road in the Dark,

Apologies it’s taken me so long to address the situation which took my breath away on Tuesday 18th December, but in order for this letter to be free of expletives the steam had to stop coming out of my ears.

It was 7.45am, dark and dismal, and I was driving along a busy A road which links several villages to a large town. You know where you were, but I’m just filling in the picture for anybody else. It’s a 60mph limit, and a fast road. To my surprise, I could see a long line of car headlights coming towards me. Usually a queue of this proportion is caused by a tractor or cyclist. There was in excess of twenty cars. I spy a couple of floating yellow fluorescent shapes. I slam on my brakes as much as I can with cars behind me, and then see two horses and riders trotting along the road, the first one with their right arm out and closing in on the white line in the road, about to cross the road.

I’m an equestrian myself, so don’t feel that I’m pointing a finger because I’m a selfish townie. I just don’t understand why you felt the need to be riding along a fast road. In rush hour. In the dark.

We were days away from the shortest day, you’d almost made it to the day that all equestrians celebrate.

What was it that was so important you had to hack in the dark? I can take an educated guess that you were minutes away from home. Which means that you set off when it was even darker. I can’t even make your excuses that you’d gotten lost or it had got darker quicker than you thought on an afternoon’s hack.

We’re all in the same boat. We’re all fed up of the endless darkness, but really we’ve got three choices in winter:

  1. Organise our work, or use flexi-time to ride during the day.
  2. Hack at weekends, and use the ménage during the week to either lunge or school.
  3. Don’t like schooling? Either invest in some lessons so you learn to love it, pay someone to school your horse for you, or resign yourself to the fact your horse isn’t going to be exercised during the week.

However, hacking in the dark is dangerous. To you, your horse, and to other road users.

Let me just return to your attire. Hi-vis is very fashionable now, we all wear it – cyclists, joggers, horse riders alike. You had yours on. But it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t see your horses. Well I saw a flash of a stripe on their nose. What if you’d been separated from them? They could’ve been hit by a car! Secondly, I couldn’t see your right hand indicating. You can buy hi-vis gloves, light up whips, lots of gear which would mean drivers couldn’t mistake your use of arm signals.

Have you ever read the Highway Code? Or taken your Riding and Road Safety Test? When you are turning right you should continue to stay next to the kerb, not drift out towards the centre of the road. What if an impatient commuter had roared up the outside to overtake? Splat. That’s what.

I can understand that you were keen to get out of the way of the traffic and off road. But you can’t tell me the traffic caught you by surprise. It was 7.45am. The beginnings of rush hour. If you don’t want to be in that position, don’t hack out at that time of day. In daylight or darkness.

Really I think what angered me the most is that the equestrian world are striving to improve our rights on the road, and respect from other road users. The BHS has its Dead? Or Dead-Slow? campaign, we’ve made Hi-Vis more accessible, comfortable, and fashionable. We’ve reported swarms of ignorant cyclists, and British Cycling is now educating their members. We’re gaining respect, and making the roads safer. And then you come along and ride with total disregard to other road users, and with little regard to your own safety, and ultimately anger and upset the numerous commuters who had to follow you along that dark road. They’d be late to their destination. They’ll moan about “bloody horse riders causing traffic jams” to their colleagues. The next thing you know, hundreds of non-horsey road users have lost all respect and patience for us. And it takes a long time to regain that respect. They aren’t going to slow down for the next horse they see on the road. Which incidentally, is endangering another horse and rider who could be riding in the perfect visibility conditions, modelling so much hi-vis you can see them from outer space, and following the Highway Code to the letter.

You know who you are, please, please, please take a minute the next time you decide it’s a good idea to hack before sunrise on a winter’s morning. Spring and summer will return soon and you can do all the hacking you like then, but for now just leave your horse in their stable rather than put their lives at risk and upset every road user during rush hour. Please. For the rest of the equestrian world’s sake, don’t undo all our hard work at making the roads safer for us to use.

Merry Christmas!