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Lance, Sword, Revolver

Yesterday we went to Windsor Horse Show, and for the second time watched a really fun, lighthearted equine competition that even the non horsey can enjoy. Yep, I’m talking about the long suffering husbands. But they’ll enjoy watching this because it involves weapons!

I’ve only ever seen Lance, Sword, Revolver competitions at Windsor, but I’m sure there must be others around the country.

Run by the British Tentpegging Association (I’ll move onto tent pegging later), this competition is a course where competitors are marked for each element and then receive a style mark, and the highest score wins. I’m not sure of the exact scoring details, but that is the main gist.

Each competitor goes one at a time, starting with the sword section. They have to jump a small brush fence, attack a dummy on their right with the sword, striking as close to the red circle (heart) as possible. Then jump a second brush and attack another dummy, this time on their left and leaving the sword embedded in the dummy.

Next, they draw their revolver and jump a brush on the other side of the arena, firing at a balloon attached to the right of the jump. Then they have to pop a balloon on the ground, before jumping the fourth brush and popping the balloon to the left of the fence.

Once the gun is holstered (I’m using the husband’s terminology here so I assume it’s correct, based on his xbox weapons experience) correctly, the competitors pick up a lance and collect two rings from a pair of gallows (the diameter of the rings is a couple of inches) before picking up a peg from the ground.

Sounds easy, but don’t forget these riders perform the whole course in canter or gallop.

Here’s a video demonstration from YouTube to help my explanation.

Obviously the sword, lance, revolver competition has roots in the cavalry, but the tent pegging association has made the competition accessible to civilians, and they compete against the military. Yesterday, the top three places were held by civilians. What I really liked about the competition yesterday was that it is open to any horse. The winner was an Appaloosa who had quite an erratic jump and was very quick. There was also an ex polo pony, chosen I guess for his ability to neck rein and agility. Then there was also an Irish draught, and the military competitors had ex racers, thoroughbreds and warmbloods.

In the arena afterwards was the tentpegging competition, of which the lance, sword, revolver competitors had also entered. In this riders have the lance and try to pick up the peg from the ground. I know at one point the peg became narrower, but other than that I’m not sure how they judged it.

Anyway, spurred on by this interest, I did some research online about this unusual discipline. The British Tentpegging Association was formed in the 1990s, so is relatively immature in the competitive sphere, but there are hopes that it will soon be recognised by the FEI. The association looks after both civilians and officers, and Great Britain is the only country in which officers have to compete in uniform.

In a nutshell, tentpegging originated 2500 years ago in Asian armies, where lancers used tent pegs as make shift targets in camp to demonstrate and practice their expertise. Tentpegging as a competition and public entertainment first appeared in the Victorian era, with competition rules becoming well established by the First World War, and the Sword, Lance, Revolver competition was also developed. Then as the number of mounted units in the forces has decreased since the Second World War, civilians were encouraged to participate and compete, which led to the founding of the Association.

I’ve found an in-depth article about the history of tentpegging, which you can peruse here. I also did some reading on the British Tentpegging Association website.

I’d like to see more of this sport, as everyone can appreciate it and there’s a definite skill involved. I can also see it appealing to a number of riders, and it might also encourage more boys to continue riding into their teenage years and adulthood.

Hooves and Soft Ground

This winter and spring have been incredibly wet, and the farriers plagued by lost shoes (I imagine metal detectorists will be getting very excited thinking that they’ve struck gold!) and abscesses.

Soft ground equals soft hooves, which has caused abscesses and horses who usually cope well barefoot becoming footsore.

Thankfully the ground is drying out and hooves are becoming harder – watch out for cracks now as the hooves change rapidly.

I’m going to go against the general consensus and say that the soft ground has actually been beneficial to Otis.

My farrier came out to trim his feet a couple of weeks ago (blame my two legged project for the delay in blogging) and found that the soft ground had allowed Otis’s heels to expand far more than usual, so his hooves are actually much better balanced and a good shape. Which should mean that he’s more comfortable in the side bone area, although I still don’t think he’ll come sound, but being more comfortable is always good!

You can compare this image to previous ones that I’ve taken over the last six months here. I feel that they’ve definitely improved, which makes me more determined to keep Phoenix barefoot as long as possible, and if she starts becoming uncomfortable I’m more inclined to investigate the hoof boot route first.

To conclude, I thought I’d share a photo of Otis meeting mini me, and being as gentle and loving as I expected.

The Girl on the Dancing Horse – a Book Review

One Monday evening in March my Mum and a friend had booked tickets to go to a book signing by Charlotte Dujardin, to promote her new autobiography “The Girl On The Dancing Horse”. Unfortunately for my Mum, her granddaughter decided to arrive the day before so she never got to go.

This week I’ve had the chance to read the book, so thought I’d share my thoughts.

The first thing that struck me about the book is that it’s very readable. You can pick it up and read two pages, or you can settle down for an hour and just as easily read a few chapters.

It’s very much written as the words come out of Charlotte’s mouth. Or how I would imagine they’d come out of her mouth as you chat over a cup of tea and slice of cake.

The first couple of chapters set the scene of Charlotte’s childhood in enough detail, without telling you about her third cousin once removed. It’s all relevant; talking about her ponies and showing days with a couple of anecdotes added for good measure.

The book is very honest. Charlotte is quite critical of showing and it’s politics, which I’m fully aware of and was why I never fully enjoyed it as a teenager, despite the educational benefits of it for young horses and riders. However it’s good to see her voicing this opinion and being honest.

The book spends a lot of time explaining how Charlotte transitioned from showing into dressage and started with Carl Hester. Quite a few big names are dropped, but not in a bad way, they just make the story clearer. If you knew nothing about dressage then the names could start to get confusing. But then again, if you knew nothing about dressage would you pick up this book? Most probably not!

Dressage terms are used frequently, so if you aren’t au fait with dressage movements, levels or terms then you may need to put the book aside and consult Google. The good thing being that, as I said earlier, the book is easy to pick up and put down.

Probably the main reason people will choose this book off a bookshelf is to learn more about Valegro himself. And there’s a lot of the book devoted to his and Charlotte’s career together. This section is very matter of fact; it must be hard to find the balance between accepting compliments and acknowledging world records without coming across as egotistical or arrogant. I think Charlotte has managed this really well. She describes her experiences and emotions simply, and uses the facts and figures to illustrate their successes.

There’s also a side of the book which brings up criticisms of herself, by her trainers and herself, which highlights why she is successful – because she is so driven to achieve perfection – and also doesn’t make light of the negative effects of suddenly being thrown into the media spotlight and the pressure of being at the top, pressure to prove she’s not just a one trick pony (excuse the pun), as well as competition nerves and how to deal with them. Which is important for us “normals” to know, I think. That being a top professional rider has both its highs and lows.

The Girl On The Dancing Horse is definitely one of the best biographical books I’ve read, as it balances professional life with childhood and personal experiences whilst keeping relevant to the reason we equestrians picked the book up in the first place – to discover the Charlotte and Valegro story.

Phoenix’s Progress

Time flies. I’ve just realised that it’s been almost three weeks since I last updated you on Phoenix and her ridden education.

She’s been hacking out alone weekly, and behaving brilliantly. I’ve her into the riding field to cool off after a schooling session and when the ground is a bit drier I’ll do some schooling out there with her, but she’s very relaxed in the open space which is great. I also need to take her on some faster hacks so I’m planning on going to a nearby cross country field in the next couple of weeks to have a play over some logs and see how she is after a couple of canters. Then I’ll have an idea of how she’ll find a sponsored ride and what preparations I need to make to give her an enjoyable experience on her first one.

Her flatwork is coming along nicely. She’s feeling more balanced in the trot and I was really pleased last week when she stretched and gave a lovely swing over her back in the trot at the end. It was the first time I’d felt such a release with her. She’s still running a bit into canter but I feel it’s partly my fault as I sometimes feel we’re talking two different languages. I think she prefers inside leg into canter whereas Otis liked a combination of both legs, but definitely the outside one behind the girth so I need to retrain myself a bit to help Phoenix.

The lunging sessions I’ve done have mainly focused on canter to help her find her balance without me to contend with, and she’s getting quite a little jump into canter now, so it’s time and practice to be able to replicate this under saddle. I did some jumping with her on the lunge a couple of weeks ago, getting it up to 90-95cm. She looked twice, but did it easily.

Then I followed this up the next weekend by jumping under saddle. She was great: we only did a few cross poles, working on approaching straight and rhythmically. She took me into the fences without being strong, and cleanly jumped all of them.

Then this week we progressed to a related distance. One pole was on the floor and four canter strides away was an upright – 80cm perhaps. I didn’t end up raising the pole to make two jumps because she was just getting to grips with negotiating the exercise without loosing her canter or wobbling off our line.

Last week Phoenix had the second of her massages as a case study for my friend. We found a very tight spot on the left side of her wither, which we think is because the saddle is a little on the narrow side – if you remember my saddler didn’t have the widest gullet so suggested I started riding and see how we got on as Phoenix will change shape anyway. As a result of the massage I’ve spoken to the saddler to organise refitting the saddles, and to perhaps fit my jumping saddle onto her.

Phoenix’s hamstrings and brachiocephalic were a bit tight too, but that’s due to an increase in work and is very typical rather than anything else, so she just enjoyed being loosened up. I was pleased that my friend noticed a big difference in the muscle of Phoenix’s neck; she’s developed quite a topline, and interestingly showed no sign of soreness in the top third, which is often tight with horses who “cheat” in the dressage arena and fix their heads in without working over their backs. Proof that Phoenix is working correctly!

This week she had her teeth rasped. I wasn’t sure when she was last done, but I decided to leave it until after the baby was born to give her chance to get to know me and for me to be fit enough to hold her if she fidgeted. She did fidget, but my dentist is very patient and just reassured her whilst following her around. They kept the session short and sweet, and we’ll rebook for six months time when they’ll spend a bit longer on her molars to perfect them as hopefully she’ll remember the positive experience she had this time round.

I’m really pleased with her weight as although not thin by any stretch of the imagination she has toned up nicely and her hindquarters are becoming more muscular and her tummy toned. She looks really well.

Next week we’ve got a dressage lesson booked, which will give Phoenix an experience of being ridden away from home, and then I’m hoping to plan a couple more trips out. Perhaps to a local dressage competition or to a jumping clinic to test her in a group environment.

9 Steps to Happy Travelling

Taking your horse out and about, be it to competitions or sponsored rides, can be daunting. Especially if you’re going on your own. I’m helping a friend get out and about with her mare, so I’ve devised this program to get them out and about confidently.

  1. Get confident with the empty box or trailer. If you passed your driving test after 1997 you’ll need to take the trailer test to tow a horse trailer and ensure you have the correct license for the weight lorry you’ll be driving. Practice hitching up the trailer and reversing it in particular, but it’s a good idea to have a couple of dry runs with the empty vehicle.
  2. Introduce your horse to their mode of transport. I’m not a huge fan of endlessly practising loading, but having a trial load, especially with a young or unknown horse can be useful so that you’re best prepared to load them when you want to venture off the yard. It may be that you need to leave ample time, or it may be that you need to adopt a particular technique or approach to ensure a smooth loading process. You’ll also need to introduce travel boots so that your horse is happy to walk in them.
  3. With a friend who is familiar to your horse and knowledgeable about travelling horses. for moral support, find and book a local venue. For my friend, we found a quiet yard five miles from her yard with an arena she could hire. She was familiar with the route and the journey was short and straightforward. Once you arrive at the venue, have a ride in the arena. Depending on your confidence as a rider, it might be better to book a lesson so that your instructor can help create a calm environment and dispel any worries. Don’t feel that the lesson or ride has to be earth shatteringly good; you’re not looking for your best performance, you’re looking for you and your horse to be relaxed and listening to each other. It’s also a valuable time to get to know how your horse behaves away from home – is he more forward going? Is he tense? Is he spooking? Or is he taking it all in his stride? Then after your ride, load up and go home.
  4. Fairly soon after, perhaps a week later so you keep building your momentum and confidence, do exactly the same outing. Keep repeating this with your friend and/or instructor until you’re confident and feel competent.
  5. The next step, is to travel without your friend. Load up yourself and arrange to meet them there, or for them to follow you in their car if you’d rather. Once at the venue, you still have their support and help.
  6. Next, instead of having a lesson, just ride on your own. Again, you’re slowly taking away the support of people on the ground and becoming more independent. You have to think for yourself about the new environment and potential hazards, and instil confidence in your horse. Depending on the venue, you could ride in another arena, or use one of their on site hacking routes.
  7. Next, go without your friend. So you travel, ride, and travel back solo. I’d do it at a time when my friend could be on standby – at the end of the phone and ready to drive over in case of a confidence wobble or loading issue.
  8. Go to a different venue. Do research the route thoroughly so you don’t need to worry about getting lost as well as towing or driving the horsebox, and you’ll need to check for any low bridges or weight limits. You may need to take a step back and go to the new venue with a friend, especially if the journey is longer and involves the motorway or busy junctions, but continue going to a variety of venues until you’re confident about how your horse will react, and confident about riding in different places, and most importantly confident about driving there and back.
  9. Reward yourself by entering a competition or sponsored ride. Go with a riding partner for company, and most importantly have fun!

Now obviously you don’t have to go through every step if you don’t need to. For example if you’ve towed a trailer before you won’t need to spend very long getting your eye in, and if you’re a competent rider then you may not want a lesson at the venue, you may be more interested in using the fine to ride a course of unknown fences or run through a dressage test. However, for those of you who have never, or only infrequently travelled with your horse I hope this guide will help you tackle travelling so that you make the most of riding opportunities this summer.

Putting Their Back Up

It’s quite a common term that you’ll hear, especially around young or excitable horses – “oh they’ve got their back up today!”

It’s not a positive thing, even though a horse working correctly is lifting through their back (that engagement is a different feeling altogether). A horse who has their back up feels very tense and feels like they could buck at any moment. Some horses do this the first time that they’ve been ridden after a holiday, other’s do it in response to a badly fitting saddle. And some do it when they’re feeling fresh and excitable. Others can have the tendency to do it all the time, and this is often referred to as being cold backed. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

When you’re working with young horses, perhaps backing them, or highly strung and fit horses, you start to learn the warning signs of a horse who has their back up. When you first put the saddle on they can sometimes react by tensing, and shortening their body. You can often physically see the back lift up. Knowing the horse; whether they’ve been out of work, or if they are sensitive over the back will help you prepare them. Some horses can put their backs up in bad weather, because they’ve gotten cold and wet. The best thing here is to leave them in to warm up before you ride, and use an exercise sheet to protect their quarters, which will make them much happier and more relaxed.

Sensible safety precautions should mean that you place the saddle on, do the girth up gradually over a few minutes so that they get used to it, and then lead them round, and lunge them until they relax. When you mount, use a mounting block and have assistance so that you can put your right foot into the stirrup without sitting down onto their back and then you can gently lower yourself into the saddle over a couple of walk strides. While you’re lowering yourself into the saddle, be led, so that you don’t need to apply the leg as this could trigger an explosion of bucks; have the leader reassure the horse as you walk, while you can scratch their wither and praise them. Once you feel the horse relax you can begin to take control and the leader becomes redundant.

Let’s return to the term “cold backed”. Traditionally, this referred to a horse who was always sensitive to the saddle and mounting procedure. Usually when the saddle is put on they dip away from the pressure of the saddle, but when you mount they’re on the defensive with their back arched ready to dispose of what they perceive as a threat. Once their muscles warm up and they become accustomed to the saddle and rider they will work normally.

One of my old ponies was cold backed and we just used to put the saddle on, girth loose, for fifteen minutes before I rode, slowly tightening it a notch every couple of minutes. Then I’d just walk her across the yard before mounting and she was perfectly behaved. It was a fairly easy management accommodation to make.

Nowadays of course, we have more knowledge as to why a horse is cold backed. Some horses are cold backed because they have negative associations with the saddle and being ridden (perhaps a badly fitting saddle and heavy, unbalanced rider in the past, or they suffered from kissing spines) so only be building their trust and retraining them can you overcome this behaviour. Most others are cold backed because they have a degree of pain.

The cold backed response is due to very sensitive nerve endings around the back being stimulated. These nerves could be sensitive due to pressure from the saddle or damage to the muscles, perhaps an old injury which has left the muscles tight and immobile. An old wound may have affected the nerves in a particular area on the skin of the back, making them more sensitive in that area. A cold backed horse may have back pain, either from bad posture or from an underlying lameness.

Ultimately, a horse who puts their back up when you ride, or regularly exhibits cold backed behaviour, shouldn’t be ignored. If it’s due to excitability and freshness then it can be dangerous to the unsuspecting, and if it’s due to pain then that needs alleviating.

If a horse suddenly starts putting their back up when you ride then do an assessment of that day – was it windy or wet? Had the horse been off work for a significant period? Have they been on box rest or limited turn out? Are they being over fed? Any of these could contribute to poor one-off behaviour. If a horse I rode was normally perfectly behaved but one day had their back up when I mounted, I’d run through in my head what they’d done over the last week and today’s environment to see if there was a cause. It could be that they wind and rain blew under their rug and their muscles are physically cold and tight, or the fact they’ve had limited turn out because of the bad weather and their bucket feed not being reduced. In which I’d change the management (thicker rug, more turnout, less hard feed) and hope their behaviour returns to normal. If not, into step two.

Once you’ve established that there’s no problem from the management side of things, then begin searching for a physical problem. Have the saddle checked, have a vet assessment, book a physio session, and keep on top of any issues and get to learn your horse’s signals that he’s starting to feel uncomfortable so you can treat him early. They may need management techniques such as a massage pad used before working, or going in a solarium or horse walker if you’re lucky enough to have access to them.

If the horse is chronically showing cold backed symptoms and no specific cause has been found my next step would be to work to improve their posture and strengthen their muscles. Lunging and riding in a long and low frame to increase their topline muscles and improve their posture and way of going; and seeking help from an instructor to correct the rider so that they aren’t inhibiting the horse’s ability to work correctly. Then over time you’ll improve the horse’s strength and ability to carry a rider which will hopefully reduce their tendency to be defensive and put their back up when mounted.

Foal Time

Despite the lack of spring weather, foals have started to make an appearance – how cute!

Here are ten facts about foals for you to get your teeth into.

  1. The gestation period of a horse is eleven months, but they can be born up to four weeks late. Most breeders aim for foals to be born in the spring so that they benefit from the spring grass via the mare’s milk and can grow during the better weather and are strong enough to withstand the demands of winter.
  2. Foals stand, walk and trot very quickly after birth – ideally within two hours. This is because they’re prey animals so need to be able to flee predators from the beginning. Predators are attracted to the smell of the placenta so moving away from the birth site is important. Foals can gallop after twenty four hours.
  3. Foals with floppy ear tips are premature because the cartilage has not yet fully developed.
  4. Many foals are born with bowed legs, called “windswept”, particularly large foals born to smaller mares. Immature tendons and ligaments can also cause a foal’s fetlocks to touch the ground as they walk. The legs will straighten out over the first few days as they strengthen.
  5. Foals are often born at night, or in the early hours of the morning, and the birth is a quick process. Both of these factors help protect them from predators.
  6. After a week, a foal will try grass, starting to eat a little bit of hay and grass because by the time they are two months old their nutritional needs exceed the milk requirements from the mare.
  7. A foal’s legs are 90% of their final adult length when they’re born. This gives them an advantage as a prey animal, and also explains why they look so wobbly and leggy as newborns.
  8. If a foal grows to quickly, or is overweight then their joints swell with a condition called osteochondrosis. In osteochondrosis the boney foundation of joints doesn’t develop properly so the joint surface is rough and can deteriorate, causing arthritis and lameness in later life.
  9. Foals have certain juvenile characteristics which, in a similar way to human babies, elicits caregiving. The eyes are large, face is short and forehead is high.
  10. Foals are born with a deciduous hoof capsule, which is soft and rubbery to protect the birth canal from the sharp, hard hooves. The capsule wears down within minutes, enabling the foal to stand and move.

Rugs Through The Ages

Probably the biggest change in the equine world in the last forty years – since the publication of my history book I blogged about last week – are rugs.

Today you can have a rug for any occasion – in the stable, in the field, to cool them down, to dry them off, to keep flies off, to travel – in three inch increments from miniature Shetland to ginormous Clydesdale and in every weight and denier you can imagine.

I won’t bore you with what’s currently on the market, you have Google for that, but let’s reminisce on the rugs of old.

In the old days there was one rug for each job, and if more warmth was required then an ordinary blanket was layered underneath. Of course few horses were clipped so many relied on their winter coats to keep warm.

Firstly, they had the renowned jute rugs. These were basically hessian rectangles which were put on stabled horses at night. You could also get them lined with wool for extra warmth. Jute rugs had a buckle at the chest, a fillet string under the tail, and were secured by a separate surcingle. There were only three size options; pony, cob and horse and the rugs were contoured for the withers and hindquarters.

In the daytime, you had the option of a wool rug – think of the traditional Newmarket rug – and was similar in cut to the jute rug with a separate surcingle, or cotton rug, called a summer sheet. This was more commonly seen at more affluent yards on freshly groomed horses.

Next up are waterproof rugs, aka New Zealand rugs. Akin to a canvas tent after a washout camping weekend, they were flared at the bottom to allow a greater range of movement. These were fastened by a leather buckle at the chest, two leather leg straps instead of a fillet string, and a surcingle which passed through a slit in the rug by the girth to prevent the rug gathering and restricting the forelegs.

Although these rugs were padded at the wither to stop chafing there must have been a high incidence of rug rubs and fistulous withers because the materials were coarse and the sizes limited to three basic ones.

Nowadays, rugs come in three inch increments, and have benefitted from technological advances in materials and manufacturing and design techniques. There are various styles to suit all shapes and sizes of equine and rugs come in all thicknesses to accommodate all aspects of the UK weather and all hardiness of horses.