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.

Rug Wear

WordPress won’t let me reblog a post more than once … so I’m going to direct you to one of my earliest posts, which I think is important to bear in mind.

Whilst rug designs have come on in leaps and bound, so there is far less of a problem of badly fitting rugs causing rubs, horses are wearing rugs much, much more.

They used to wear rugs in the winter, then go without from spring through to autumn. Nowadays, horses wear rugs of varying weights autumn through to spring, then wear fly rugs or rain sheets throughout the summer.

Which of course is absolutely fine, and often a necessity for convenience, or to protect horses who are particularly irritated by flies. But wearing rugs constantly, however well fitting, can cause patches of hair or mane to disappear and the skin to become sore.

I recently noticed that one of the horses that I ride had the slightest pink patch on his withers, so we immediately removed his lightweight rug, and have left him naked for a week, despite rain forecast and despite flies coming out of the woodwork. I was really pleased today to see that his wither looks completely normal again, and hopefully a few more days with no pressure on that area and he’ll be fine.

And now, you can go and peruse my original post about fistulous withers !

Juggling Babies and Horses

I’ve survived my first winter juggling horses and babies, and it is possible! So I thought I’d share a few hints and tips for anyone about to undergo this challenge.

I have two major tips.

Firstly, get a baby carrier. We started with the Baby Bjorn and now have a Little Life on loan. It makes things so easy, plus lugging a toddler round burns off some serious calories! With them in a carrier you can catch or turn out, groom the body (nothing below the elbow else you risk toppling over), feed, muck out, poo pick, lunge. Rugs are tricky though. This means that when they’re clingy or the pushchair isn’t cutting it, you can still do a few chores. And get some you time. This is often how I get her to sleep too, so it’s a useful strategy to have.

Secondly, get a great support team! I honestly feel so lucky with who I have supporting me. The girls on my yard are very good at keeping an eye on the pushchair for me whilst I turn out, or muck out, so that she’s never unattended. If I’m riding in the school and she’s fussing, someone usually comes along to borrow her, and entertains her on the yard watching the farrier, watching the guinea fowl or stroking the dogs. Plus I’m always having much appreciated offers to babysit so I can hack. The other week we had a bad night, just falling asleep as my alarm was about to go. After cancelling my alarm, I sent a message to the yard Facebook group pleading for someone to turn out for me, and instantly I had messages of “of course, now get some rest” which I was very grateful for.

Then of course is my chauffeur slash babysitter, who manages to multitask (he is a man, remember!) and looks after her, whilst mucking out for me! I’m so lucky! It does mean less video footage of lessons, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice.

In terms of managing chores and routine, sharing catch and turn out duties with a friend makes life so much simpler. I usually do the mornings because evenings are a race against the clock to get home for tea.

I’ve used wood pellets for bedding, as I’ve used previously for Otis and Matt, which means that if we’re having a bad day, or a clingy one, I can skip out. Then on a child free day, I can put in the new bedding and do a thorough job. Phoenix is very clean, which means her bed is dustier than I’d like, and she’d probably be better suited to shavings. But as I never muck out with her in there I’m not too worried.

A hay bar means it’s quick and easy to give her forage – again helpful on those clingy mornings. Mixing dinner and breakfast and leaving them in her stable and ready for the morning round respectively, and having one feed of fibre and balancer means less faffing with measurements.

I think it’s also important to have a flexible routine. Plan when you hack, because that requires childcare, but if you’re planning to ride and baby isn’t playing ball, don’t beat yourself up that you haven’t ridden, just lunge. Or if you suddenly have some time to yourself, jump on board. Even if today was supposed to be a non riding day. Or if you’re having a bad day and the baby’s tired, jump in the car, do a bit of rocking in the pushchair at the yard, and use this nap time to ride. I still feel very smug if I’ve managed to time my ride to coincide with a nap. It’s a longer, more peaceful schooling session and I feel like I’ve had a break. And if you haven’t managed any saddle time this week, guilt trip the other parent into babysitting.

A few times over the winter I got up at 5am and went to ride under the lights. In the summer I’m hoping to squeeze in an evening ride or two in the week. This is only really an option with a yard that’s nice and close to home so you don’t waste precious baby free time in the car.

I also take a few snacks and toys to the yard, after all you know what a time warp yards can be. And you don’t want your chat, or ride, cut short because of hunger or boredom!

Yes, horses and babies can both be done, but be prepared to relax your mucking out standards, bend your routine, and get yourself some amazing, supportive friends!

High Winds

There’s so many topical subjects to blog about this weekend. But I’m going to steer clear of the can of worms which is equine ‘flu, and instead talk about the high winds which have been forecast for this weekend.

There was a lot of talk on an instructors forum earlier in the week about risk assessments and teaching in stormy weather. Regardless of whether you are a teacher, horse owner, or riding school client, there are things you should be aware of in windy weather.

Firstly, consider if it is actually safe to ride on a windy day. I’m a big believer in not being a fair weather rider, and getting horses used to all sorts of weather. But you have to stay safe. So it might be that you lunge instead of ride, or flat instead of jump. Or school instead of hacking. Or just do some pony pampering and ride tomorrow instead!

With my instructor hat on, I need to make sure the arena is safe. An indoor is great, but you do need to be aware of tree branches banging on the roof in stormy weather. In an outdoor arena, you want to be aware of external threats. It may be the plastic covering on the stack of hay bales near the arena is billowing around, or nearby trees are dropping branches. If the arena is big enough, you may decide to work at one end to reduce the hazards.

As much as you can, try and make the area safe. Put away jump stands so they don’t blow over in a sudden gust and spook the horse. Remove any flapping objects or weigh them down.

If you have to travel your horse to a venue, such as a clinic or competition, then you need to consider whether it’s safe to do so. Are the roads likely to be blocked by fallen trees, or flooded? Is your horse a good traveller, and are you confident towing a trailer or driving a lorry in windy weather? If you aren’t happy, then you are better off rearranging or cancelling your plans.

Each horse is individual, and every rider is individual, so as an instructor I need to talk to the rider. If the horse is young or of a spooky nature, I’d probably advise changing the lesson plan to potentially lunging or in hand work to be safe. If the rider is a novice, or nervous and I don’t think they will benefit from a lesson in the wind then I will chat to them too.

This is where riding school clients need to take note. If your lesson, on your own horse or otherwise still takes place on a windy day, then you need to be prepared, and accept a change to your lesson structure. It may be that you don’t ride your favourite horse because they are unpredictable in the wind. Or it may be that you have a lesson instead of a hack because it’s safer. If you were supposed to have a jump lesson, you may be end up doing pole work or flat work because there’s a risk the jumps may blow over. If you were hoping (yes, some riders like doing it) for a non stirrup lesson you may be working on other areas because it’s safer for you to keep your stirrups as there’s an increased chance of your horse spooking in the wind. Your instructor will do what they feel is best to keep you both safe.

Really, stormy weather doesn’t need a big panic, you just need to be careful and assess the weather forecast (it might be better to rearrange your ride from the morning to the afternoon when it’s calmer), adjust your riding plans to get the best out of you and your horse, and most importantly to stay safe. And if you really aren’t sure, chat to your instructor, even if you aren’t booked in for a lesson that day, to see what they advise as they know the pair of you and your capabilities well.

Snow Days

It’s finally hit us, the first snow of winter. Or slush really. It’s not as bad as last year’s Beast From The East, but maybe now is the time to get snow ready at the yard, and create contingency plans.

Firstly, getting some grit to the yard is paramount otherwise you’ll be taking up ice skating instead of horse riding! It’s worth discussing with all the liveries about putting it down; either to prevent it being swept away or to prevent horses or dogs snuffling it up.

Ideally, I’d have a water butt, pre-filled with either rainwater or tap water, so that even with the yard taps frozen, liveries still have access to water. This is particularly useful for the early morning risers. It might also be a good idea, if you are an early bird, to arrange with a stable neighbour who comes at a more civilised time, for them to fill your water buckets in your stable for the night.

If you don’t think your car is tough enough to negotiate the icy lanes to the yard and bad weather is forecast then it’s time to get prepared! Find out if any liveries with an AWD live near you who could give you a lift. Organise with friends so that you all only need do one journey to the yard a day, to reduce the risk of having an accident. Mix some feeds up in advance, and make up some haynets so that if you are stranded and need to call in any favours then it is far easier for friends to sort out your horse. Just be aware you May be looking after their horse while they swan off on their summer holidays! A few years ago I worked at a livery yard when heavy snow hit over lunchtime. I was inundated with calls and texts of panicked liveries trying to come up to put their horse to bed and becoming stuck on the roads. My job was made far easier by those who had prepared night nets and evening feeds when they’d been there in the morning.

Prepare yourself for your horse to have limited turn out and exercise, which may mean cutting back on their hard feeds, or utilising your yard’s walker, and being prepared for a fresh horse when the weather improves, so perhaps lunging them before you get on.

Try and make sure you have sufficient feed and bedding in stock. If the horses are staying in more you’ll use more bedding, and they’ll eat more forage in cold weather. Besides, the last thing you want to worry about is a trip to the tack shop in the snow and ice.

Give yourself more time. You don’t want to be rushing around the ice rink, or jamming on the car brakes at corners. And stay safe by turning your horses out individually instead of a pair, or getting a friend to lead one for you. This morning, for example, I knew once I was off the yard Phoenix and her giant field friend would be fine walking to the field as they’re barefoot and it’s a grass and gravel track so had some grip. However, I was concerned how I’d get Phoenix out because her neighbour was still in and he’s very grumpy in the mornings. I didn’t want him to lunge at either mare, they shoot backwards and slip over. So I asked a friend to lead Phoenix out in a big arc so that she was out of reach of Mr Grumpy. Then, I could easily take the two of them.

Keeping enough coats in your car, plus a torch, food and drink, is really useful in case you get stuck somewhere, but I’m sure the RAC recommend that anyway.

I don’t think there’s much more you can do to prepare yourself for snow days, but if everyone communicates and pulls together all the horses should be fed, watered and happy with no casualties, even if it’s just by the All Wheel Drivers. Who I’m sure will cash in their favours when the summer holidays come!

An Open Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

Feeding Breakfasts

One of the biggest logistical things I’ve noticed on DIY livery yard’s in the winter is the fact that everyone’s morning routine varies according to what time they start work. Which means that it can be quite stressful for horses waiting for breakfast or turnout.

Many yards I’ve observed have a rule that the first person on the yard feeds the entire yard. Which reduces the stress in horses when their neighbour is being fed and they aren’t. However, in order for this system to work several things need to be taken into account.

Firstly, feeding breakfasts needs to be done as quickly as possible. After all, the first person on the yard doesn’t want to spend fifteen minutes trying to feed the hungry horses, because they’ve got to go to work too. So every livery owner needs to prepare their feeds the night before and leave them dampened or soaked ready to be fed straightaway.

Secondly, feeds need to be stored so that they’re readily available for the half asleep early risers, clearly labelled, yet not left on the yard for cheeky ponies to help themselves when their small owner’s backs are turned, or left to encourage vermin.

Thirdly, everyone needs to know what time breakfast is. After all, there’s nothing worse than turning up for a quick pre-work ride only to find your horse has only just had breakfast. One way to reduce this risk is to give your horse a smaller ration in the morning, and their main hard feed in the evening if you usually ride in the mornings. And vice versa if you ride in the evening so you don’t have to wait as long in the cold and dark while they cool down and eat their tea.

Some yards leave feed buckets outside stables, covered with plastic covers. Which has the risk of attracting vermin, and being eaten by horses not tied up securely. Plus on windy days the covers blow across the yard. Other yards leave feeds in boxes outside stables, which can be time consuming opening any locks and lids.

I’ve spent a long time pondering the most effective way of implementing a “first one feeds” system and recently came across the best solution yet.

On the yard is a metal dustbin with a securely fastened lid, which is vermin and naughty pony proof. If the yard is bigger, then there is one bin per row of stables. Each horse is given a breakfast bucket, which is of a generous size to accommodate the larger feeds of the thoroughbreds, has two handles, and most importantly they are stackable. The yard provides these buckets so they can ensure that they are the correct dimensions. Each horse’s name is written on in very big, thick, black letters so the buckets can be easily identified in the half lit, early hours.

When livery owners make up feeds they fully prepare breakfast (damp or soak the feed) and put them into the bins, one on top of the other. Then when the first person arrives on the yard they go to the bin and take out the stack of buckets and then walk along the row feeding each horse. A super speedy way of satisfying hungry horses early in the morning without waking the neighbours, or on a Saturday morning when recovering from a heavy Friday night.

The only way that this system could be improved, in my opinion, is by the buckets being stacked in order; so you give the top bucket to the first horse, second to the next, and so on. However, with everyone coming at different times during the day, there would be a lot of lifting buckets in and out of the bin, and there being a high risk of a mistake being made when restacking, you’d need to check the names on the buckets as well, just in case.

What other systems do DIY yards employ to make feeding breakfasts a painless task? I’d be interested to know of a better system than this.