A Hole In The Market

I think I’ve found a hole in the market. A gaping big hole filled with equine owners needing advice.

When I was doing GCSEs and had no idea what I wanted to do as a career my Dad organised me to have a day out with one of his customers, getting an insight to his job. I think Dad was hoping I’d be inspired to follow in his (Dad’s, not the unknown man) footsteps and do a degree in soil science.

I wasn’t. It was quite an interesting day, but I wasn’t inspired. I spent the day visiting farms, and having meetings with the farmers about their soil pH levels, appropriate fertilisers and what crops to grow where. I can’t really remember the job title of this man, but it was along the lines of soil analysis advisor.

Anyway, it’s come to my attention recently, probably stemming from my experience with the independent equine nutritionist, that a lot of horse owners need help with managing their land.

The trouble is, as I see it, that there is less rotation nowadays of horses, sheep and cattle, who all eat different types of grasses which results in stressed paddocks. The fields are usually not rested sufficiently, or people have limited acreage with relation to the number of horses.

Additionally, horse owners may take on land which hasn’t been used for horses before, or even take over very poor grazing, and without the right care these types of land never become suitable for horses.

How great would it be if you could approach a consultant of sorts. Who would run a soil analysis, look at the land, and advise how best to fertilise and care for the land?

Did you know that buttercups (which are poisonous to horses) grow in acidic soil. So if your pasture is full of buttercups you could spray them annually (and what of the environmental impact of this?) or you could slake the field, and apply limestone to raise the pH level and so deter the buttercups from growing next year. Or, if your field is full of clover and previously used as cattle grazing it will be high in nitrogen levels, so you want to apply a fertiliser which has lower levels of nitrogen.

Someone well versed in caring for soil, and have an interest and understanding of equine requirements could easily do a report for you, using the results of a soil test, photographs and maps of the land. They could tell you what to do this year, including harrowing, topping and reseeding (such as what grasses will grow best on your land and be most suited to your horse), and could tell you what action to take in the future for the long term health of your fields. Perhaps, they could also be involved in helping you ascertain how best to rotate your paddocks with regard to drainage and shelter. Or with limited acreage, help you design an effective pattern of electric fencing so that you can adequately rotate grazing. Not only would individuals with their couple of horses on their own land be interested (in my opinion), but livery yards may well be interested in having a plan drawn up for field management. After all, we work with, or own horses because we like riding and caring for the horse; caring for the land is an aside and often overlooked.

If I had my time again would I see this as an alternative career? Possibly, after all I come from a family who sit in a coffee shop and notice that the molecule of coffee painted on the wall is both incomplete and unstable, and then have a twenty minute conversation about it. But ultimately I think I’d have stuck with teaching. So maybe if you’re looking for a career, or niche in the market, you should be investigating this avenue.

Ticks

I’ve had to invest in a tick twister for my grooming box in recent weeks, as Phoenix and her stable mates have had a couple of unwanted freeloaders.

These freeloaders are brought into the horse’s paddocks by deer, of which we have plenty in the area. The ticks then attach onto the horses.

Before we look at the ins and outs of ticks, let’s see what tool I had to purchase. I bought a tick twister, which is a nifty little hook. You hook the split end under the tick, against the skin, and when the tick is “locked in” the twister you simply just twist the twister (the name gives it away, doesn’t it?) and the tick is removed whole, and the horse unharmed. Don’t forget to stamp on the tick for maximum satisfaction!

It’s very important that the whole of the tick is removed; if you use tweezers or any other tool the legs can easily be broken off and left in the skin, causing a risk of infection. Which is why I’d rather be prepared and have a tick twister to hand!

In this country, we only really see multi-host ticks, which happily live on deer or dogs, yet will catch a ride on horses too. If your fields are regularly used as deer highways then you want to keep an eye out for these bloodsuckers. They live in long grass and hedgerows, so within reason keep the grass short and hedges cut back. Horses often pick up ticks when being hacked, especially through woods. They also dislike sunlight so hopefully the upcoming summer will deter them!

Birds, especially guinea fowl, love eating ticks so they can be a helpful tick deterrent.

There’s only so much you can do to minimise ticks in your horse’s environment, especially as the ticks we see in the UK are predominately hosted by wild animals. If you have a horse particularly attractive to ticks, just like some children are prone to getting headlice, then you can use spot-on treatment or purchase fly sprays which also repel ticks.

Otherwise, just keeping an eye out for ticks when you are grooming them and remove them immediately.

Perfect Circles

Last week I had a new experience; I was videoed teaching a masterclass with two young riders for Demi Dressage.

Since Christmas I’ve been involved with Demi Dressage – Which you can read about here – and the theme for the Easter holiday tests is circles, so we decided to have two guinea pig riders of different abilities and record a masterclass to help teach our young competitors how to ride round circles, rather than egg shaped circles.

Considering I’m the person who hated my mentor observing my lessons while I trained for my BHS PTT exam, and she had to leave me with my clients and sneak into the gallery to watch, this was quite a big deal for me. I was fairly nervous, and even got as far as writing down my lesson plan rather than just having the vague agenda in my head.

One of my riders was five, not particularly confident and not ready for canter. The other rider, she was ten I think, was more advanced and cantering competently.

Before we got mounted, we looked at the Crafty Ponies Dressage Arena diagram (not heard of Crafty Ponies? Where have you been) they’re amazing! ) to see what a correct circle looks like in the arena and how circles are often ridden as either ovals or egg shapes. My youngest rider told me that the most important thing about the shape of the circle is that it is round. Whilst my older rider told me that the hardest part about riding circles was making them round.

Whilst the girls warmed up their ponies I got busy with setting up a perfect circle. My able assistant stood on the centre line ten metres from A, holding a lunge line. I then walked the circumference of the 20m circle, laying out small sports cones. These are my new toy; soft and flexible it doesn’t matter if they get stood on (although I do charge a fee of one Easter egg per squashed cone) but they provide a great visual aid for riders.

I used plenty of cones to help my younger rider mainly, but you can reduce the number of cones as you get less reliant on the cones. I also used yellow cones for one side of the circle and red for the other – for reasons that will become obvious later.

I ran through the aids for riding a circle with the girls: turning your head and body to look halfway round the circle, indicating with the inside rein and pushing with the outside leg. The girls then rode the circle in walk so that I could see that they were using the correct aids, and also check their level of understanding. This is more important for the younger rider really. I had gotten the older rider to ride a 20m circle at C in the warm up, with no help so that she could compare her before and after circles.

Using the perfect circle of cones, we could see where the ponies tended to lose the shape. All ponies are reluctant to leave the track and security of the fence line, and the cones made both girls more aware of this so they had to apply their aids earlier and more strongly in order to leave the track at the right place. With my older rider I could talk about the balance of her aids, and fine tune the circle, whilst with the younger one I kept it simple and focused on her looking further around the circle, which automatically applied her weight and seat aids.

The girls worked on the circle in walk and trot in both directions, and then the elder rider cantered it on both reins. The canter was more interesting as we could see the difference in her pony’s suppleness (I racked up a few Easter eggs here!) which led to an interesting conversation on the asymmetry of the canter gait.

With the girls understanding and experiencing a perfectly round circle, we then talked about how to ensure that the second half of our circles are the same size as the first half.

I got the girls to ride their circle in trot, counting their strides all the way round. This part of the session would go a little over my young rider’s head, but I felt she’d still benefit from learning to count her strides and the theory. The bigger pony got 32 strides on the whole circle, so then we tried to get sixteen strides on the yellow side of the circle and sixteen strides on the red side. With the cones to help, she pretty much nailed it first time.

With my younger rider we aimed to get twenty strides on each half of the circle, and whilst she struggled to count and get the circle round, it did help improve her understanding of the previous exercise, and she did manage it with some help from Mum counting aloud with her.

I didn’t do this exercise in canter as I felt my older rider had enough to digest, and she can apply the same theory to it another day. However, I did set her a challenge to finish the lesson. We tidied up the cones, and I asked her to ride a twenty metre circle with sixteen strides on each half.

Which she did correctly first time! And could analyse the differences between the circles she’d ridden in her warm up, and her final circles. Overall, a successful and enjoyable lesson I believe. And the videos aren’t too cringeworthy either – to my relief!

Demi Dressage

I’ve blogged about it before, but I get so frustrated with the lack of child friendly dressage tests. So many British Dressage and Pony Club tests have movements above a young rider’s comprehension. Then the judge’s feedback goes over their little heads, and I feel that they don’t really benefit in any way, shape or form. Which means, unfortunately that dressage is less popular amongst young riders (with the exception of that Scottish girl who scored 93% or something outrageous. See this week’s Horse and Hound for more details).

So when a friend approached me a few months ago with the idea of running online dressage competitions with tests written for children, and focusing on using a language that they understand and using appropriate school movements (for example, many children can canter, but are unable to canter a circle at E, or pick up canter over X). And of course, promoting fun, with feedback that they understand.

Understandably, I jumped at the chance to be involved, and so Demi Dressage was born. My involvement is fairly basic; I double check the tests as they are written, and then judge the entrants at the end of the month.

There are five levels, which I think covers children of all abilities, and provides them with the groundings to enter a prelim test at the top level. And yes, I have shamelessly copied the description of the levels from the website!

  • GREEN – for riders who are riding independently in walk, and starting to become confident in trot off the lead. Tests will mostly be in walk, potentially with some very very easy movements in trot, and may include some fun mounted exercises. School movements will be very simple. (Approx expected age 4-6 years – but all ages are welcome!)

  • YELLOW – for riders who are relatively competent in walk and trot but are not yet cantering on their own. Tests will be exclusively in walk and trot, they may include some fun mounted exercises or easy movements without stirrups. School movements will be simple to execute. (Approx. expected age 6-8 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome! Depending on entries Yellow tests may be run in the same class as Yellow-Plus tests, and placings will be determined by percentage score. If there are enough entries, the tests will run as two separate classes with placings and rosettes for each.)

  • YELLOW-PLUS – these are Yellow tests that are slightly longer, with more trotting, for riders who are not confident to canter but are able to ride slightly more demanding school movements in walk and trot (Approx. expected age 7-10 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome! Depending on entries Yellow-Plus tests may be run in the same class as Yellow tests, and placings will be determined by percentage score. If there are enough entries, the tests will run as two separate classes with placings and rosettes for each.)

  • BLUE – for riders who are competent in walk and trot, and learning to canter independently. Tests will predominantly be walk and trot with some very simple canter work. School movements will build on those introduced in the earlier levels, and possibly include some fun mounted exercises. (Approx expected age 7-11 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome!)

  • RED – for older or more experienced riders getting close to progressing to BD Intro and Prelim level tests. Tests will feature walk, trot and canter, possibly some mounted exercises including work without stirrups, and school movements will start to become more complicated in line with those found in BD Prelim tests. (Approx expected age 10-13 years – but younger entrants are very welcome!)

For the Christmas competition we had a two year old on the lead rein doing the yellow test! I found it lovely to see the wide array of ponies and children entering, and all seeming to have fun. Two competitors who really stood out were brother and sister on their family pony. The sister rode off the lead rein, videoed by Mum and with the test called by Dad. The brother was led by Dad, had his sister calling for the first half of the test, and Mum videoing, with the baby strapped to her chest, and calling the second half of the test when sister got bored (Mum, I salute your multi-tasking abilities!). Anyway, it was really nice to see the competition as such a family affair.

Kids love getting rosettes, regardless of colour (I certainly remember the disappointment when I came home empty handed), so Demi Dressage feels it’s important that every competitor receives a rosette. Each class has rosettes to 6th place, every other child gets a special rosette, and there are extras each month for “Best Fancy Dress” or anything else which we feel needs applauding.

We had great fun judging the videos, making sure we were fair, provided positive and constructive comments, focused on where the children were in their riding, and gave feedback which the children understood. I tried to give each child something to focus on next time, as well as saying what I was impressed with. For example, “try to ride from letter to letter to help improve your accuracy marks”, or “practice your sitting trot to help with your canter transitions”. I was really pleased to hear back from one parent that she was very impressed with the feedback her children had received as it was exactly what they were working on at the time and not “dressage jargon”.

With the focus on making dressage fun for the kids, we’ve put in movements such as Around The World and Half Scissors, going over or between poles, and in March there’s going to be a special one-off Prix Caprilli competition. It will run slightly differently, with only three classes (lead rein, walk and trot, walk,trot and canter) and be open to under sixteens, instead of the usual age limit of thirteen. Rosettes will go to tenth place, and there are prizes to be won! Then in April there will be monthly competitions which will run as an accumulator series, and a champion awarded in September. With a sash! And prizes for all the runners up!

There’s another Demi Dressage competition coming up in February, timed to coincide with the school half terms, and I’m looking forward to judging this test! A lot of kids take a break from riding in the winter, so the test is nice and short to encourage them to get back into it even if it’s just for a week, and involves some fun elements such as Around The World, and dropping carrots on the snowman’s nose. Intrigued? Well borrow a pony and get entering! I would if I could …

So if you have a child, or know of one, who would enjoy this, please introduce them to Demi Dressage and spread the word for this fantastic fledgling of a business. Their Facebook page can be found here!

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.

Yard Storage

Is spring finally here? Until tomorrow it seems anyway. The last couple of days have been sunny and warm. The mud in the field has dried so that it’s like being in quicksand and you have to pull your foot up slowly, toes curled up, so that your welly is sucked out of the mud and you aren’t left with a soggy sock.

Anyway, yesterday one of the liveries was having a spring clean. All her rugs were out as she was putting lightweight rugs onto her horses and taking the thicker ones to be repaired and cleaned.

This prompted me that I’ve had a blog subject on my to-do list but never gotten around to doing it. And that is, storage of all your horsey gaff.

Most people don’t have a large garage or garden shed (a vacant one at least) in which to store their numerous rugs, spare boots, travelling equipment, body protectors etc, so they need some space at least at the yard. What options are available?

Most yards allow you to have a small storage box outside your stable, which is useful for everyday bits and bobs – grooming kits, riding hat, boots and whip for example. One stable Otis had had a corner cupboard which was incredibly useful and didn’t impinge on stable space either.

Then it’s a matter of storing rugs, feed, bedding, and the other less frequently used but still essential equine equipment. One yard I go to has a row of garden sheds. Each livery owner has their own shed. Obviously this takes up a lot of room, so would only be an option for bigger yards. However, in terms of security, it’s nice to know that your gear is under lock and key so won’t go walkabouts. I have to say it’s luxurious to have this much storage space.

Another yard I visit is an old farm which has been converted into a DIY livery yard. One building is used for storage. I think it must’ve housed pigs but it’s got a central walkway and low walled stone pens on each side, which is perfect for putting storage boxes in. Two or three liveries share each pen, which means each person’s stuff is kept fairly separate yet it’s all easily accessible. The only downside is that unless you can lock your storage box, things could be borrowed. But I like to think livery owners have all the paraphernalia they need so don’t need to borrow from others.

I’ve also seen large metal lorry containers put to good use. One yard has it as their tack room, and another has divided a container into lockers. Each wooden cupboard has two shelves and a door. I think this is a really good space saving solution, but it’s only really for essential every day items. With hindsight, with which everything can be improved, I think I would have larger lockers. Liveries can individually provide locks for their cupboard, but the container itself is pretty secure.

On a similar vein, I’ve seen part of a barn divided up like stalls, with wooden partitions, and each livery has their own area. This is more spacious than the container lockers but the security isn’t as good.

It’s hard to find the right balance of space and security for liveries, without becoming the equine equivalent of the Big Yellow Self Storage Company, especially when some people have far more rugs or tack than others. And for some people it is their only storage for horsey things because either they don’t have space in the garage, or their partner doesn’t want equestrian things taking over house space. I’m lucky in that my husband doesn’t really go into the garage … so he has no idea how much equine stuff is there. Not that he’d mind, of course.

I want to know, what storage solutions other yards have and how you, my readers rate each experience you’ve had.

Seasons

Last week I brought Phoenix in after her fortnight of running feral. She was good overall, but I noticed that she was in season. She trotted over to me in the field and was a bit possessive when the other mares wandered over. Then on the yard and to lunge she just got a bit distracted by any gelding that passed – turning and pricking her ears at them. Nothing bad when you consider how hormones can affect some mares, but today (now we’re out of season) I realised that I know very little about a mare’s oestrus cycle and I’ve never blogged about it.

Of course I learnt about breeding at college – we had a lovely male lecturer who was quite effeminate (he’d call out whilst teaching us “*our name* angel, darling, petal, poppet. Will you NOT do that?” Which elicited lots of giggles from us teenage girls and vows to not repeat said behaviour) who taught us about breeding. It was so memorable because there were lots of squeals, shudders and yucky faces made at the technical terms – and for my BHS Stage IV.

Mares come into season every 19-22 days from early spring until autumn. The longer daylight hours triggers the first season and the shorter days cause their seasons to cease. In winter, they don’t have seasons (although it’s been known in mild winters for mares to have a random season), which is called an anoestrus period. This is to stop a mare foaling the following winter – the gestation period of a horse is 11 months – when it’s coldest and hardest to survive.

However, in competitive circles horses are aged from the 1st of January (1st August in the Southern Hemisphere). This means that a horse’s passport may have their birth date as 12th May 2016. But from the 1st January 2018 they will be considered a two year old. Consequently, breeders often put mares under lights to trick their bodies into thinking that the days have gotten longer so they come into season earlier in the year, which will give their offspring a competitive edge because they are born closer to the official birth date so are physically more mature than foals conceived naturally and born in May.

Fillies are sexually mature by the age of two, but they shouldn’t be bred from until the age of five or six when they are physically mature. Mares can produce foals annually until they’re in their twenties, providing that they’re healthy and well cared for, but most breeders leave them barren every few years.

Some people continue to keep pregnant mares in work, particularly in the early stages, and into the latter stages when new owners don’t realise their mare is pregnant. From my own experience, I’d have thought a mare would cope better with pregnancy if they are of a healthy weight initially and have an active life. So often brood mares, particularly natives, are overweight and I suspect that reduces fertility, which means fewer foals and more time, effort and money invested into covering the mare. However, I think it can be difficult to strike the balance between lightly exercising a pregnant mare and overworking her, especially when you consider that they are carrying the extra weight of a foal as well as the tack and rider. In my humble opinion I’d have thought light hacking in the initial couple of months if they are used to that work load before a combination of long reining, lunging and ground work to keep the pregnant mare fit. I’d also ensure they are on good grazing, but over extensive land, perhaps with an incline, which will help maintain their general fitness and prevent sudden and rapid weight gain when there’s a flush of rich grass.

So how do seasons affect the behaviour of mares? It depends entirely on the mare themselves – just like some women suffer more from PMT than others. But often a mare can become cranky – sensitive when grooming, or reluctant when being exercised. Sometimes they just have more sass. Like Phoenix tossing her head and cantering on the lunge when I sent her away from me instead of her usual walk. They tend to notice geldings more, but some will just sniff or snort at them in passing whilst others will reverse up to some poor unsuspecting gelding and lift their tail flirtatiously.

Some people use herbal supplements or hormone drugs to minimise the hormone fluctuations and seasonal behaviour. I’ve had friends who favour mares over geldings because when they’re on form their performance is superior to that of the non-hormone driven geldings. I like to know what I’m getting each day so like the even keel of geldings and the less mareish mares. I’m also of the belief that ensuring your mare knows where she stands in the human-horse relationship is important in managing her hormones as she will be less likely to behave badly with you, which makes her safer to handle. This comes from consistent expectations, routine and training.

The Number One Rule of Feeding

What's the number one rule of feeding? Which one do you place the most importance on?

For me, it has to be that horses should be fed little and often. It applies to horses of all sizes and workload, and can lead to a whole host of health issues if they do not have food moving through their digestive tract.

Horses have evolved to graze for a minimum of sixteen hours a day, therefore they are trickle eaters. Having small amounts of fibre at each stage of their gut helps regulate peristalsis which reduces the likelihood of colic, prevents stomach acid splashing up the lining of their stomach acid, causing ulcers, and means that they are most efficient at digesting their food and extracting the nutrients.

Even obese or laminitis horses require almost constant access to fibre. However, they should have fibre with very little nutritional value, such as soaked hay or straw. Unfortunately, too many people starve laminitis horses, which can lead to them developing stomach ulcers.

I also feel that there is a psychological benefit to a horse or pony having a semi-full tummy all the time. You know how ratty you and I get when we're late home and dinner is subsequently late. And we can reason why we're hungry, and when our next meal will be. Horses can't, so it stands to reason that when they are hungry they are more likely to bicker between themselves, and to be less tolerant of us – nipping whilst being tacked up, fidgeting whilst being groomed, for example. I think a lot of bad behaviour on the ground stems from horses being uncomfortable in their digestive system. Sometimes they're a bit gassy and bloated, but more often than not they're hungry. If they were to develop stomach ulcers, this also leads to negative reactions when their girth area is touched, which some people believe is naughtiness.

Horses and ponies who are starved for periods of time, or had their grazing restricted with a grazing muzzle for example, have been shown to gorge themselves, managing to take in as much grass in the short time they are unrestricted than the longer period that their intake is limited. Which is why it is recommended that ponies who need a muzzle wear it in the paddock during the day, but are stabled with a quota of soaked hay overnight, to prevent the gorging behaviour.

My reason for bringing up this subject is that last week I was involved in taking a young client to Pony Club Camp, which gave me a parental insight into the week.

I was disappointed to learn that the ponies did not need a haynet during the day. They were to be tied up in the barn; ridden for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, with a two hour lunch break in between. During this week the ponies would be working far harder than in their usual day to day lives, but their anatomy is not designed for them to go without food from 9am until 4.30pm. Yes, there is a risk of bickering in the pony lines with food, but surely if every pony had a small haynet and were tied at a correct length of lead rein, far enough apart, there would be less of a problem than when they're hungry and irritable. I would have also thought that they would perform better in the afternoon session because they were happier and had more energy.

Each evening, the pony I was involved with went out into his paddock and gorged, so he was bloated the next morning. This can't be good for his digestive system!

I felt it to be quite ironic that the children are taught correct pony management, and there is both a mini and a big badge all about the rules of feeding. At some point the children are going to realise that they aren't following the rules of feeding, and will question it. This leads to a mental internal battle, and unfortunately a lack of respect for their instructors and mentors. Which is a shame.

I think it's a case of "do as I say, and not as I do", which I don't think is the right attitude for any educational environment, and one that I certainly didn't appreciate when growing up.