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.

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Non-Athletic Careers

Most of us have horses for the purpose of riding; be it hacking, jumping, eventing, dressage, racing, playing polo or mounted games. Driving is another area we use them for. It’s a very athletic lifestyle, but unfortunately there are a large number of horses who aren’t able to have athletic careers. Maybe they’ve been neglected so are too weak to take a rider, or their conformation means they are limited, or they’ve picked up an injury during their lives. Or perhaps they just don’t have a particularly trainable brain.

This led me to wondering what non-athletic jobs a horse could have. After all, there must be something!

The first non-athletic reason that springs to mind is of course, companionship. Many older horses, or outgrown ponies are kept on by their owners to provide company for their younger/bigger/faster replacements. These horses often live a very happy, contended lifestyle, living out most of the time but being stabled during the worst of the weather, supplied with hay and rugged when necessary, visited by the dentist, farrier and vet as and when needed. Another aspect of this companionship is when competition horses suffer from separation anxiety and need their companion (often a Shetland) to accompany them to competitions. Obviously this is a far more exciting life than just staying in the field, but often these companions make all the difference to the competition horse’s performance.

There’s been a big move recently, and a lot of research done, into the positive effects of autistic children being around animals. The Riding For the Disabled charity has been around for years and hundreds of people have seen and felt the psychological and physical benefits of being with horses. One recent piece of research found an improvement in the social behaviour of autistic children who rode or handled horses on a weekly basis.

Obviously Riding for the Disabled involves riding, but there’s been a recent move towards Therapy Centres. These are for disabled people, or those suffering from depression, loss, or other psychological problems. Sessions involve grooming, and bonding with a horse or pony, leading them around, or being around the horses in their stable and field. After all, how many of us feel better after a tough day just by going and having a cuddle with your horse?

So a kind, gentle natured horse who cannot be ridden for whatever reason, could have a very fulfilling life at a Therapy Centre, letting troubled people spend time with them and heal. I had a quick look online and there are a few small businesses who have herds of horses and specialise in unridden sessions to help clients overcome their problems and rebuild their confidence.

I then got a bit stumped for other ideas, but I heard of a lady’s horse who had various ailments and after lengthy investigation and treatment needed to be retired, so she gifted him to an equine hospital as a blood donor. When you think about it, it’s logical really, for hospitals to have small herds of horses, usually geldings, on site so that in an emergency they can be caught (one criteria is that the horses are easy to catch) and blood taken from them and given directly to the patient. I guess this would appeal to many owners in that difficult situation of having a healthy, unrideable horse. The donor herds live out except for very bad weather, and are under the close eye of a team of vets, so are going to be well looked after.

That’s a very useful non-athletic job for geldings. But what about mares? Well a lot of people say “oh I can always breed from her”. Well, not really because the UK doesn’t need to increase the equine population and if a mare has an untrainable character then it’s unwise to breed from her anyway. Some injuries/illnesses or conformational faults can be inherited or make carrying a foal hazardous to the mare. For example, if a mare has chronic forelimb lameness (perhaps only two tenths lame so doesn’t prevent her from being retired) then this will be exacerbated when she is carrying a foal and heavier, therefore it’s not very ethical to put her through that. Some maternal mares could be used as “nannies” and could help orphaned foals, or they could help keep herds of weanlings or youngsters in check until they are taken to be backed. After all, recent studies have shown that it is very much the dominant mare which leads a wild herd to water, grazing, shelter.

Horses who can’t be ridden definitely become limited in the purpose that they can be kept for: which can make it difficult for some people to justify keeping them, but if they’re happy living out in a herd, and comfortable in whatever ails them, then there are huge numbers of retirement establishments around the UK, but it’s equally interesting to see what other options are available for them, be it helping improve the quality of life of troubled humans such as therapy horses, or assisting in the care of other equines, such as being a blood donor.

Tackling Steps Cross Country

At a recent cross country lesson I did we had some fun going up and down some steps at the water’s edge, so I thought it was a good topic for discussion.

Steps are always seen at the higher level competitions, but increasingly are being seen in miniature form at grassroots and training venues.

Usually there’s either one or two steps, and they can either be a step up onto a mound, where there’s another jump and a gentle decline, or vice Verda, or they are set into the side of a hill, so making use of the terrain.

Firstly, let’s take a look at going up steps, because it’s easier for both horse and rider, and usually the first direction tried.

The horse needs to approach with plenty of energy, after all they are going uphill, but the canter (or trot if it’s a green horse and small step) needs to be heading towards collected, so that the weight is off the forehand and the hindquarters are engaged, ready to push the body up the step. The rider wants to be sat up, so that they are looking up the steps and their weight is off the horse’s shoulders. As they jump up the steps, the body should fold forwards, without collapsing onto the neck, hands forward to give the horse plenty of rein because they will need to stretch their neck out to balance. If the heels are down and the weight is in the foot then the rider won’t load the shoulders. A common problem when going up steps is gripping with the knee, so as they fold into their jumping position the lower leg swings back and the rider’s weight tips onto the horse’s withers, so unbalancing the horse and making his job difficult. I always find that you need to stay forward longer than you think over steps, because if you sit up too quickly the hindlegs will find it harder to mount the step.

When introducing horses and riders to steps I always like to find the smallest one and trot then canter up the single step until both are looking confident and understand the concept. With steps you can definitely feel when it has gone right, so often it’s a matter of waiting until it clicks with the rider.

Lots of training venues have a variety of steps, which are really useful for progressively building a horse and rider’s confidence and experience. Once the small step is mastered, and perhaps put into a short course, I like to add in a second step. Usually you can find a small pair of steps. With a pair of steps, the rider needs to be very flexible and balanced, to be able to fold up each step without impacting on the horse’s way of going. The horse needs to be thinking forwards, especially between the two steps so they don’t lose their momentum and end up scrabbling up the second step. As the rider feels the hindlegs climb the step, they want to close the leg to encourage a positive canter stride so they reach the second step at a suitable take off point.

Once two small steps are mastered, you can start to jump up bigger steps. This is physically quite demanding on a horse, so you’re almost better off doing smaller steps a couple more times and keep them feeling confident and not too fatigued.

Next up, is the rider scarer of jumping down steps. Again, start small, and with a single step.

Approach the step steadily, but with positive energy, allowing the horse plenty of time to look and assess the question. Don’t look down the step, drop your weight into your heels as you close the leg to encourage the horse to go down the step. The horse’s weight shifts backwards as they step off the edge, so lean back and allow the reins to slip through your fingers so the horse can lengthen his neck down the step. Lengthening the reins is important to stop the rider being jerked forwards and landing up the neck. Again, a lot of riders don’t stay back for long enough so it’s important to encourage novice riders not to rush to sit up. The secret to staying balanced down steps is keeping the weight into the heel and the lower leg forward.

Some green horses tend to be a bit over zealous and leap down the steps. I find that repetition, and making little deal of the steps usually solves the problem. Only when the horse steps calmly off the step do you want to start going down bigger steps, or multiple ones. Going down steps is a big confidence test for horses, and the rider needs to be quietly positive and stay balanced to give the horse a good experience.

The next step, excuse the pun, with steps is to incorporate them with water complexes. Firstly, stepping up out of water, and then dropping down into the water. The more steps you do, the more confident the horse and the rider become and they start treating steps like any other jump.

I was very lucky that Otis loved negotiating steps, and was very confident going up and down steps, and I loved doing sunken roads and step combinations with him. I spent a lot of time doing small steps, and each time I went cross country schooling I would warm up over small steps to build his confidence and remind him of them before incorporating them into courses so that neither of us thought twice about steps.

Gaining Control

People learn in different ways; almost like the two approaches you can take when doing a jigsaw. Either you fit all the edge pieces and get a general outline before filling in the middle to complete the picture. Or you find all the sky pieces and put them together, before putting all the grass pieces together; thus you focus on the smaller parts whilst completing the big picture.

For the former learners, it’s best to give them a fairly complex exercise and then evaluate it and focus on little bits to improve on the next time. For the latter, you want to use a series of simple exercises that each focus on one element, and after successfully negotiating them the rider will be successful in the complex exercise.

I’ve been using this second teaching technique with a young client over the holidays. We’ve done jumps on a circle exercises to practice steering over jumps: mini grids to help improve their position: a keyhole exercise to improve her reactions and recovery after jumps.

However, when we progressed to riding a course of jumps and the pony got quicker and keener, my little rider got worried. So I devised an exercise that would make my rider believe in herself and her ability to control her pony throughout a course of jumps.

While she warmed up, I laid a train track of poles going across the arena at L, and frequently asked her to turn across the school, trotting through the poles. Then she had to ride forwards to walk as her pony’s front feet went between the poles. Then a trot transition as they exited the poles. Then she rode a halt transition between the poles.

The physical presence of the poles gave my rider something to aim for, and made her try that little bit harder get that transition between the poles. This also made her believe in herself and her ability to control her pony.

Next we progressed to a pair of poles before a jump. The jump pole was on the floor to begin with, and I gradually built it up. My rider had to trot the exercise, but walk between the pairs of poles. We worked in both directions so that the poles were either before or after the jump. This meant that my rider learnt that she could dictate the speed of the approach to the jump, and subsequently learn to correct their speed after the jump.

Once they were negotiating this exercise I introduced a pair of poles on the other side of the jump. This really tested her: she had to concentrate on riding a transition before and after a jump. Which actually took her focus off the jump so she enjoyed the jumping itself more. Even when her pony resisted the transition, my rider learnt to be a bit firmer and more insistent so that she got a response from her pony. It was nice to see her getting more and more confident, and riding more positively.

The following lesson, I laid out a course and we worked through the principles of the last few lessons – riding turns, steering and planning routes. As the jumps got bigger, and we repeated the exercise, the pony began to anticipate and get a bit quicker. So we pretended that there was a pair of poles before and after each jump to walk between. This focused my rider on controlling the speed, and showed her that she was in control at all times. Which meant she was far happier jumping and could then ride the course in a rhythm, ride the lines and turns that she wanted to and grow in confidence each time. Hopefully by reminding her pretend there are tramlines when her pony starts taking his own initiative, she will be proactive and effective in correcting him.

Grass Reins

What are everyone’s thoughts on grass reins? Or daisy reins, or any other pony restraints? Which are competition-legal, and how should they be fitted?

Recently I saw a blog post on the BHS APC group, discussing grass reins, which got me thinking.

A child’s safety and confidence is paramount when teaching, so within reason, ponies should have tack that prevents misbehaviour. However, the purpose of grass reins, or daisy reins, is to increase the child’s control over the pony, not to force it into an outline or hinder the pony when they are working well.

In the first session on the first day of Pony Club Camp, I’m sure it was within the first five minutes, I requested some form of grass reins for a pony. We were riding on grass, and he kept nosediving for the grass. His rider looked nervous and sat leaning forwards, so every time the pony’s head went down she was almost unseated. I felt that it was counter productive for her to be struggling to hold his head up all week, and that a gadget would be the best support for my rider. The next session, the pony was wearing a daisy rein, and didn’t even attempt to put his head down. It was almost as though the mere presence of the daisy rein was enough to deter him, and my rider gained confidence through the week.

I was surprised to see, on the equipment list of a different pony club, that grass reins were listed underneath bridle and saddle. Are they really that common, and are they seen as an essential piece of equipment?

I’m all for using grass reins or daisy reins (side reins are sometimes seen too, but I think they’re becoming less popular because they sit at ankle height for many small children so there’s a risk of them getting their foot caught in a fall) if necessary, but I do like to see them only used when necessary. Perhaps only at rallies, or in group lessons, or on grass, when the pony is more inclined to be cheeky. I also like them fitted so that they don’t interfere with the pony’s way of going when he’s behaving. For example, the grass reins are slack until the pony snatches his head, either to graze, to try to unseat the rider, or to evade the wobbly hands. I hate seeing ponies with their heads tied in, particularly show ponies, and I think that sometimes having gadgets too restrictive causes other behavioural problems, such as the pony not going forwards or shaking their head.

Can you use grass reins for jumping? This was the question posed by one instructor. It seemed the general consensus, which I agree with, is that if the reins are fitted correctly, i.e. not restricting the pony’s head then they can be used for jumping because the height that kids who require grass reins should be jumping is not much more than raised trotting poles and the ponies don’t jump as such, rather make an exaggerated stride over them. I will add, that if a child is ready to start jumping bigger then their position should be secure enough that their hands don’t cause the pony to snatch on the reins (like many do when their mouths are used for balancing on) and their upper body secure enough that it isn’t pulled forward when the pony snatches, or they are strong enough in their core to prevent a pony from putting his head down to graze. So if a child is jumping more than a few inches whilst still wearing grass reins, either the grass reins need removing or the basics revised with the rider on the flat.

Another instructor asked what form or daisy reins or grass reins were permitted in competitions. Affiliated, none except for Pony Club mounted games, where the are fitted from the D-ring, through the bit ring, over the poll, and through the bit ring to the D ring on the opposite side. I guess in unaffiliated competitions it is at the judges discretion. You won’t see any gadgets in the show ring (the warm up is a different matter!) and probably not the dressage arena, but I think if I was judging kids on grass I’d permit correctly fitted daisy reins purely for safety reasons. In the showjumping arena, again the judge may permit it in the lead rein or mini classes for the reason that the ponies aren’t really jumping, and if it keeps a child safer then it can only be a good thing. After all, you want to encourage the little riders.

When fitting grass reins, you can either fit them so that they connect each side of the bit via the poll, as in the mounted games rules, or under the chin. I think I prefer going under the chin because a pony is more likely to snatch their head downwards, and putting pressure on the poll with the grass reins will accentuate that. However, when used with a single jointed bit, the nutcracker action may become too severe for some ponies. Which is why it’s worth experimenting with different types of gadgets, because there are hundreds of variations from the classic daisy rein or webbing grass rein, and their fitting options, to make sure that they only come into effect when the pony’s behaviour is deviating from acceptable, and that the pony doesn’t react in an untoward way to their action, nor is the fitting of the rest of the tack hindered – for example, I once saw a rotund pony wearing a daisy rein and crupper. The daisy rein caused the saddle to pitch forwards, so the crupper was needed to counteract this!