The End of an Era

It’s been creeping up on me for a while; I’ve caught myself thinking “I want to do that with my next horse” or “I’d like a horse good at that”.

But about a month ago I watched Otis in the field and resigned myself to the fact that he won’t come sound. Maybe he’ll be a happy hacker, but really I needed to face facts. The main thing though, is that he’s happy in his field with his buddies and I can afford to keep him there indefinitely. He’s not suffering, just a bit limpy, and otherwise in good health. I then broached the subject that next year I would like to get another horse. It’s all very well riding other people’s horses, but when you’ve experienced the bond with your own, and enjoy the satisfaction of training and competing, it’s not the same. I know I’ve lost some motivation through not having my own horse or reason to improve my ability. Yes, next year we’ll have our own two-legged project, but I like to keep busy and I know that not having my own horse will cause me to go insane. Thankfully, my lovely husband readily agreed to my light at the end of the tunnel.

I allowed myself a couple of hacks to think about what I want and need from a horse. I was quite specific.

  • A native or hardy breed, or part bred.
  • Height wasn’t really an issue; I’m lucky enough that I can ride anything between 14.2hh and 16.2hh, but I’d prefer to stay below 16hh.
  • I enjoy training a horse, so I wanted something I could take further. But not a real youngster as I wouldn’t have the time to devote to backing a baby. It would also be nice to have a horse who has already been shown the basics, perhaps five or six, that I could quite quickly start taking out to clinics or little competitions.
  • They needed to be trainable. I enjoy learning and training, so need a horse who does likewise. Whether their forte is jumping or dressage, I didn’t mind.
  • Temperament is paramount now. I want something which can have a week off yet still behave. One that I can tie up on the yard, leave to check on the baby, and not worry they will cause havoc. Likewise, in the future the horse needs to be sensible so I can juggle a child with them. I know full well that horses can be unpredictable but certain temperaments are more reliable than others.
  • I want them to be reliable. My free time will be limited and I want to know I can ride and enjoy my ride, not battle hormones or a bad mood.
  • I’d like them to be sensible to hack because when we get a pony I’m going to want to ride and lead: whether my child is riding or I’m exercising the pony.

Even as I thought of my list, I knew I was setting a rather stringent criteria and would be lucky to find anything which remotely fitted the bill.

Anyway, we weren’t looking yet so I filed my list away at the back of my brain.

Only a couple of days later I came across this advert on Facebook. Let me tell you the vital stats:

  • 6 years old.
  • Chestnut.
  • Mare.
  • Welsh Section D – more to the point, a half sister to Otis.
  • 15.2hh
  • Backed as a five year old and sold to a lady who had a friend ride her lightly – mainly hacking – from June 2016 to May 2017. Since then she’s been lunged and led out on hacks a couple of times a week.
  • Being sold because of owner’s ill health, and the fact she’s currently wasted.

On face value, most of my boxes were ticked. Just six months too early. I was really intrigued, but had an argument with myself as to whether I was being sentimental with the Otis link, or whether it was worth investigating further because of the other factors. My Mum told me that I should look, because otherwise I’d always wonder “what if” and upon seeing her she may be immediately unsuitable. I did a bit of research on the internet and social media, and actually found the original advert from April 2016, which I remembered seeing at the time and commenting “oh she looks nice”.

With the one condition that I don’t ride her (the whole six nearly seven months pregnant thing) I went with a friend to see her.

The mare was nicely put together with clean, straight limbs (although the photos below make her look splay legged!), a more traditional stamp of Welsh than my Welsh Warmblood Otis, and stood quietly while I examined her. I was told that she could be quite nervous, and when her owner bought her she was difficult to catch. I wouldn’t say she was really nervous from what I saw, but she was definitely cautious of new people. She wasn’t jumpy, just intrigued by things. I was also told that she wasn’t mareish – my first important question.

We watched her being lunged. She can be a bit fresh initially, but it was nothing compared to what I’m used to. She had a lovely movement, and after ten minutes she looked very relaxed and calm, so I asked my friend if she fancied sitting on.

This was my big question. Because if I’m not allowed to ride until the spring then if she was sensible after eight months of not being ridden then there wouldn’t be a problem in April. The owner thought the mare would be fine, and my friend is more than capable.

Starting off on the lunge, my friend had a walk and trot, went over some trotting poles. The mare hasn’t really done any jumping but poles don’t cause a problem. She looked very balanced in trot, and hasn’t done much canter work. Then we took her out around the village on her own. She was perfect with the cars and cyclists, more interested in what was going on in the driveways, and she looked very relaxed. Really, we couldn’t have asked any more of her.

Over the next week I battled with myself as to whether this mare really ticked all the boxes, if I trusted my friend’s judgement of her under saddle. Was I being sentimental because she was related to Otis, or did I believe his lovely temperament ran in the paternal side of his family? Was the price right, and worth me keeping her over the winter. Could I justify paying more livery fees when I was about to go on maternity leave? What would I do with her over the winter – would getting to know her, doing some lunging to introduce jumping and cantering keep us both occupied? She was a mare, a chestnut one no less. My last mare was a grey called Filly when I was ten! This was unknown territory.

After doing some budgeting and working out finances, I decided to go for it. I needed a basic livery yard which ultimately provided grass livery, ad lib hay in the field, and would be able to check her when I’m otherwise occupied in March. Timing is never right in life, and it did seem like it was meant to be – as far as I can tell, she meets my criteria; the price was within budget and she was local.

Yesterday, we went to pick her up. She had never travelled in a trailer, but loaded slowly but surely, and remained very calm all the journey. We turned her out into the small herd of mares, and within ten minutes she was grazing happily.

You can see the introduction here.

Today, she was very content in the field and let me catch her after sniffing me thoroughly.

I gave her a quick groom, getting to know her and checked for any injuries from her field initiation. She was alert to the surroundings, but stood fairly still. Then I put the bridle on and took her to the arena. The surface was a bit crusty with frost but I wanted a “before video” and to introduce her to the arena. She was very good – the video for your perusal is Here – and you can see that she moves very nicely, although my lunging leaves a bit to be desired. We’ll have a look at canter next week when the ground is better and she’s more settled. You’ll see in the video on the right rein, that she stops and turns in to be. Behind, just out of shot, someone had come round the corner with a saddle which she stopped to look at. Overall, she was a bit tense and lacked focus, but given the fact she’s at a new yard and with a new owner, I don’t think she did anything wrong, and if that’s going to be the extent of her behaviour at new places then I’m more than happy.

From what I can tell so far, I think we’ll be slow to build a relationship because I still feel like I’m cheating on Otis, and she is an introvert. But I also think we’ll get on well and have lots of fun together.

Oh yes, I haven’t told you her name. She came with the name Dolly, but I’ve known lots of Dolly’s, and I didn’t really feel that it suited her. After some thought, I came up with Phoenix. For her fiery colour, and for new beginnings.

After all, it is the end of an era and the beginning of another.

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Trimming and Clipping

Along with the annual clipping season, I’ve been doing a lot of tidying up of manes and tails. It seems that when owners think about removing their horse’s hairy coat they also decide that the mane is too long, or the tail too thick.

The winter tidy up begins with clipping. How much hair you take off depends on your horses workload, how hot they get during exercise, whether they live in or out, and the rugs you have available.

I clipped a horse the other week, well did a bib clip, because her owner was concerned that the mare will drop weight if too much hair is taken off. The bib clip will help reduce how warm the mare gets when working, but won’t mean that she needs a lot of extra rugging. If her owner feels that the mare needs a bigger clip then next year she can have a low chaser clip. It’s best to take the least hair off that’s necessary because it’s hard to put condition back on a horse during winter, and to warm a cold horse back up.

Once the clip style is decided you can also choose the height of the clip: so a chaser clip can be low or high, and a blanket clip can run low near to the stifle, or higher towards the hip bone.

I’ve got three types of clipper blades: fine, which I use for most horses, especially the fine coated ones; normal, which are usually suited best for native or cob coats; the coarse blades are for hogging manes and removing feathers.

Onto the manes. I find that different horses suit different length manes, and sometimes you have to play around with them until you find the length that suits them. There are different techniques to tidying up manes though, so I thought I’d run through the tools I use.

First up, is the classic show jumper straight cut mane. They have a very blunt cut, done with scissors, and the manes look like they’ve been straightened! If I’m honest, I don’t like the blunt cut very much. But then again I don’t know that many horses with straight manes, which would suit this style.

Next up is the traditional pulling comb method. For this you need a metal pulling comb, and you comb through the mane, then back comb the shorter hairs. Wrapping the long hairs around the comb, give a quick, sharp downward tug, pulling them out at the roots. This technique leaves a natural, softer line, and also thins the mane. However, sensitive horses (like Otis!) don’t like their mane being pulled out. It’s best to pull manes after exercise, when the pores are open. Which is why the next couple of tools have been invented.

I can remember using the pulling comb and scissors on some thinner manes when we were younger, but it takes some deftness to get a natural looking finish. Which is why the solo comb is much better!

The solo comb is a tough, plastic comb with a handle. You comb the mane through and back comb it to leave the longest hairs. Then you squeeze the handle and a blade cuts those longest hairs. Which gives you the same effect as the pulling comb but without thinning the mane. The horses are usually happier with this technique and stand quieter. Below is a before and after photo of a horse who’s mane was done with a solo comb.

Another tool I like to use is a rake. It’s like a comb, coming with different widths between the teeth, and the teeth are sharp and hooked. It sounds torturous, but all it means is that as you comb the mane it cuts hairs so thinning it quite dramatically. I like using the rake on very thick manes and tails. Flip the mane onto the wrong side, and brush it through with the rake to take out the thickness. Then when you right the mane the longest hairs are on top so it still lies flat. You can then reduce the length with a solo comb. Below you can see the improvement in this incredibly thick mane, which totally hid his shoulders while he was being worked – testing that you can feel your trot diagonals and canter leads!

Along with shortening the length of the mane, and thinning it out, cutting a bridle path is also really useful for helping the bridle sit comfortably. The forelock also needs trimming into a “V” shape – you’ve all seen Dwayne Dwibley from Red Dwarf. With thick fore locks I lightly rake the sides so that the forelock doesn’t look too bushy and then carefully use the comb to shape it. Thin forelocks are often harder to get right because the wrong angle with the scissors can make it look blunt and choppy.

I like tails to be left quite natural. I thin them by using the rake on the sides of the dock. The centre of the tail needs to be left long to avoid the bog-brush look. With tails that aren’t so thick I use the pulling comb and scissors to tidy up the sides of the dock. The art is in neatening to top of the tail so that it looks natural and grows out subtly. After all, you don’t want to be trimming the tail on a weekly basis! At the bottom, I cut the length of the tail at the mid-cannon bone. Then when the horse is carrying themselves the bottom of the tail is still below the hock. With natives and cob types you want to cut the tail and then use the scissors at ninety degrees so that the bottom of the tail doesn’t look bluntly cut, and more natural.

Finally, it’s the turn of the feathers. Even if a horse is keeping his feathers then the back of the knee and cannon bone can often be neatened up to highlight the contours of the leg. For those horses who don’t have feathers, they usually have tufts around the ergots, so you just use the scissors and pulling comb to tidy up the area giving soft lines, instead of the hacked look – like a child who’s cut their own fringe.

There is nothing better than the satisfaction of a horse who has been freshly clipped and trimmed up.

Tying Up Issues

One of the aspects of teaching that you aren’t warned about when you take your exams is the advice-seeking. As a BHS assistant instructor you have your Stage III care, so are qualified to teach stable management, but everyone is different. And every yard is different. On a weekly basis I find that alongside my teaching or riding of horses I talk to clients about

  • Feed – he’s put on weight/there’s too much grass in his field/how do I get him fitter?
  • Shoes – usually I observe a loose shoe, or a set that need attention 
  • Rugs – my worst nightmare – what rug should I put her in today?
  • Tack – a piece of wearing tack or something not quite fitting as it should 
  • Behaviour. This is the hardest because, unless I observe the behaviour it is very difficult to guess it’s cause, or route to solving it. 

A few weeks ago I had an email from a young client who was very distressed because she couldn’t tie up her mare anymore. The mare is an Arab – many of you will be thinking  “say no more” – and is a clever pony who knows every trick in the book.

However, I had to advise ways to sort this little problem out.

The mare has spooked at something one day, pulled back and galloped away. However, whenever she was tied up from then on she instantly pulled free.

First of all I suggested she had her poll and neck checked to make sure she hadn’t physically hurt herself.

Then came the issue of ensuring that the behaviour didn’t become learnt.

There were a couple of things I suggested:

  • Move the tie up place temporarily, to the other end of the yard, so that the environment doesn’t put her on edge and trigger her to pull back.
  • Tie her up in company. If she can see others tied up quietly she should be more likely to settle. On that note, make sure she isn’t left alone on the yard, by either people or horses.
  •  Tack up quickly! When she gets better at standing she can be groomed for longer. Practice tying up when she’s tired, after exercise. 
  • Put a haynet up to encourage her to stand quietly. Unfortunately spring is not the time for feed to be the best motivator, so I suggested a lick treat as an alternative.
  • If she still isn’t tying up then have someone strong hold her, settling her with their voice, so that they can hold onto her if she does try to run away, providing some resistance on the lead rope, without causing her to jerk her neck on the string as it breaks. When she is standing quietly they can also verbally reward her. Obviously the handler needs gloves and a hat on.
  • The next step on from holding the mare is to thread the rope through the string and the handler take more of a back seat.
  • If she’s fidgeting a lot and pulling back still then this is a last resort, but I’ve seen it used effectively. Using a lunge line instead of a lead rope, thread the line through the metal ring. The handler can then stand out of reach of the fidgeting horse, who prances round, feeling some resistance against the ring. The idea of this is that the horse fights the ring on the wall and doesn’t win. Holding the lunge line means that it is safer for the handlers too, and they can release the line if the horse gets into trouble. It’s an old fashioned trick, and in theory not needed for most horses, but I think it’s worth remembering these tricks in case there’s ever a horse that it would help.
  • You can go down the route of the plastic quick release ties, but I have to say that I’m not the biggest fan. If the horse has learnt to pull back as a game, which I strongly suspect this mare had, then the plastic encourages them to pull back even more as there’s less resistance. What’s wrong with a bit of small-bale string? Also, the plastic rings get easier to undo the more times they’re opened, thus rewarding pulling back. They have a use in some situations though, but I wouldn’t choose to use them with this mare.

The biggest factor in this situation was time and patience. If we believe the mare was frightened and now associates being tied up with being frightened, then it is a long process of forgetting the incident, calmly being held in a mimic of being tied up, tied up with just the rope threaded through, rewarded for standing, and not let alone until they have built up their confidence again. Eventually they will relearn the correct behaviour.

However if, like this mare, she got spooked, pulled back and galloped off, then decided that galloping off was a good addition to the daily routine, you need to squash this new behaviour ASAP, taking a tougher line of attack so that the behaviour didn’t become ingrained.

Managing behaviours is all about knowing your horse, and what methods work best with them. Do they respond well to a shove on the hindquarters to move over, or are they more of a delicate flower and need a push from the finger? Do they respond well to your voice, or does a tap on the chest get their attention?

I know the horses I work with pretty well, but when people ask me for advice on behaviours I’ve not seen, my best approach is to list various potential reasons for the behaviour, different approaches to preventing the behaviour, and then let the client make up their own mind, knowing their horse better than I do, when they’re next in that situation. After all, they might notice something they hadn’t thought of before.

A Muddy Problem 

Over the weekend I read and interesting article about an experiment on the prevention of Mud fever – See here.

There’s no scientific basis for the experiment, but I thought about it logically. Experts have said for years that continuously washing horses legs is a contributing factor to mud fever, and it is far better to let a horse stand in and then brush off the dry mud.

But what if the horse is standing in and their legs aren’t drying properly? Or if an owner has limited time to dry the legs properly – such as a heavily feathered horse, or they only coming in during the day. People advocate the use of towels, but I wonder how towels are dried and kept clean (numerous towels and a strict laundry cycle I guess). And also, does rubbing the legs to dry them rub dirt particles against sensitive, damp skin and cause minute wounds for the bacteria to enter? 

This article repeats the importance of not over washing legs, but said if necessary then it should be done but the focus of care should be rewarming the legs. I can see the inverse correlation between warming the legs and the time taken for them to dry, but I thought the bacteria liked warm moist conditions?

Lots of questions have been thrown up, and it’s so hard to know what to do in muddy conditions. Usually I don’t worry about mud fever and Otis, but this winter is so wet that I’m beginning to wonder how much wet and mud his legs can handle. It would be interesting to see some more research done into the effects of keeping the legs warm, not just dry, perhaps using thermography. I have dug out the thermotex stable wraps I inherited a few years ago as the article did make me think that they would be helpful in drying his legs quickly, which will at least help me brush off mud and keep them cleaner so in that way the article has a valid point. 

If anyone else has seen any more recent experiments with preventing mud fever, as I think prevention of the bacteria establishing themselves is the critical factor in beating mud fever.

Girth Galls

For those of you who aren’t sure what the alliterative girth galls are, they are rubs around the girth area, usually caused by the tack.

This time of year is the prime time for horses to develop them; I’m forever noticing them when I clip horses. Horses which are clipped have no hair to protect them should a bit of skin get trapped in the girth and rub, and those who aren’t clipped get them because grains of dirt get embedded close to the skin and rub away. Also, these horses tend to have dried sweat there which can rub too.

As I said, girth galls can be caused by the delicate skin being pinched by the girth, or dirt rubbing between the girth and skin. This dirt can either be from the girth itself or stil on the horse as it hasn’t been brushed off.

To reduce the risk of girth galls developing for the former reason, many people stretch their horse’s forelegs forward once the girth is tightened and before mounting. This is also useful if your horse is quite wrinkly in the elbow area, or has a particularly fine coat. Smoothing out the skin under the girth reduces the chance of pinching. I have some clients who do this religiously before riding, so I assume that their horse is prone to developing galls. When Otis is freshly clipped I pull his legs forward for a few weeks as that’s the only time he’s ever shown signs or rubbing.

To prevent girth galls developing from dirt or sweat irritating the skin the only answer is cleanliness! Brush the girth area thoroughly, I like my plastic curry comb for getting the mud off, and remember to wash off any sweat around the girth area after. Cleaning the girth is also another useful task; since its been so muddy and wet I’ve been removing my girth after riding, then before I next ride I brush off the sand and grit. I prefer doing it when it’s dry as more is likely to come off.

Some people advocate girth sleeves, which can be beneficial for delicate skinned horses as they are softer than girths. However there are so many new materials for girths, compared to the traditional leather, string or cotton, that girths are more comfortable for the horse. Girth sleeves can be just as difficult to keep clean because grit and sweat gets buried in the sheepskin or fleece. 

For horses prone to girth galls, an old remedy is to rub the area (obviously when there’s no broken skin) with surgical spirit, to harden the skin so it is less likely to get damaged.

Hopefully everyone keeps a close eye on their horse’s girth area when they groom anyway so will notice the beginnings of a gall and treat it before the skin becomes raw or open. 

On a lighter note, I was scratching Otis’s girth and belly earlier and found his itchy spot – enjoy the video – Otis enjoying a scratch!

Idiosyncrasies 

People of the horse world are renowned for being a little strange, so let’s get Christmas off to a good start by talking about our little quirks and hang ups. What do you guys do religiously, however small, in your daily stable routine? The weirder the better!

I’ll start us off. 

An instructor I knew always insisted lead ropes were clipped so the clip was away from the chin. Something I still think of when clipping them on now!

Personally I alway hang bridles in a figure of eight and I hate seeing martingales and reins looped everywhere in a tack room. As you can imagine, Micklem bridles cause me no end of problems as I have to sacrifice the “8” shape.

I also have a thing about doing up flash straps after untacking so I don’t lose the strap, it worse still, the running keeper. Which brings me on to a common hang up – bridle straps not being in through their running keepers. I know that’s quite a common thing to niggle over.

So who’s got any idiosyncrasies to share? 

Does anyone alway adjust the saddle before mounting, even if it’s in the correct place? You just undo your girth, pick it up and put it back down again. One friend always puts her saddle on before her bridle.

Or what about always knotting something up in a certain way?

Or always removing your saddle cloth in the tack room? One client I know always has to put the excess of her stirrup leather through the keeper, even if it’s barely long enough.

What about when mucking out? Do you have a little quirk in your procedure? Do you always have to fill your bucket to the brim even if your horse never drinks more than half?

Let us know in the comments your quirks and procedures that you always do, or obsess about when looking after your horse!

Clipping Fun

I seem to have done a lot of clipping so far this year; someone told me they thought it was the worst job of all, but I have to say that it`s quite satisfying. Yes hair flying into your eyes and mouth during a whirling dervish isn`t the best feeling in the world, but the sight of a clean, clipped horse makes it all worthwhile.

Now, however, everyone`s getting a bit carried away with motifs on the hindquarters. I was asked at the beginning of November by a young child if she could have a picture on her horse. His name is “Dripping in Diamonds”. Now that`s a hint and a half …

I`ve done the basic hearts on plenty of horses, but rarely attempted anything harder.

So I got my thinking cap on and did some googling for suitable pictures to copy, and the net result is:

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I thought I`d better get a bit of practice in today, so with an ample bottomed horse I had a play. Can you work out the catchphrase?

A couple of years ago I blogged about clipping art – here – and I still don`t think that any amount of practice will enable me to clip a skull and crossbones!

I`ll just continue with my traditional clips. I`ve done loads of blanket clips this year; I`ve always liked them but all the lines make them tricky. By the time January comes I`ll have really got my eye in and be able to whizz off a blanket clip… and then the demand will cease until next September!

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