Sunday, 13 December 2015

Have we killed Spirit?

I like this article, all about how we have "killed" Spirit. (That's the stallion from the animated film Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron, by the way, for those of you who didn't have a daughter obsessed with it, the Bryan Adams soundtrack got a bit wearing after a while!)

I love the use of language in this post, especially right at the beginning which is mostly taken directly from a book about a certain short, hairy-footed creature that lived in a hole ;-)

For those of you who don't speak French, here's my attempt at a translation:

"We’ve killed Spirit
This post, written by a non-rider who suffers my equestrian stories on a daily basis, is committed, without a doubt, as is this blog. As well as writing a criticism of what has become normal in the horse world, he is calling for people to question this normality, no matter who we are, where we come from or what we do with our horses.
In a stable there lived a horse. Not a nasty, dirty, wet stable, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, it was a luxury stable, and that means comfort.
This horse was a noble descendant of Pegasus. He carried his head high and proud, his mane was full on his well-defined neck, his hocks were well-muscled and his coat was the colour of……..well what colour is your horse?
In the long row of immaculate boxes we find the highest quality straw and not a dropping in sight. No heavy farmyard odours either, instead we breathe in the pleasant smell of cleaning products. And in these lovely 3 metre by 4 metre spaces are superb horses straight out of the pages of a magazine, impeccably shod, shining coats, expertly plaited manes and plumed tails. These noble creatures, impassive, watch the strange brooms of the bustling grooms with a haughty eye (or is that dull-eyed, who knows?) But the horse we’re interested in is not among them. Today he is with his rider. Outside. Well, in the indoor school. Outside it’s dusty and there are too many distractions. It isn’t an appropriate environment for a horse of such standing.
His rider (could be male or female, but it’s not important for our story, let’s say she’s female) loves this horse. If he’s descended from the Prince of Horses then she too is of the line of Bellerophon who knew how to tame him.  She too would give her kingdom for her horse. She’s about your age.  Her passion for horses was born when she played with her little plastic toy horses and was captivated in front of the telly watching the powerful and noble Spirit gallop, with his fierce gaze and indomitable spirit. But in the eyes of her horse, we find nothing but resignation……..
But decked out in his shiny leather tack he shows us his proud paces. Yes, he has this narrow strap that’s painfully tight around his nose, but…’s like the warhorses from the middle ages, he has all the trappings, bandages round his legs, brushing boots over those, overreach boots protecting his hooves. On his back, a veritable throne, (not of iron this one) rubber pad, sheepskin pad, saddle blanket and of course a superb saddle, very comfortable for the rider……finishing touch, draw reins, Pelham bit and noseband that give him the head carriage so admired by the judges.
Spurs glitter, reins tighten, and it’s time for some schooling. Our rider always says practise makes perfect. So every day she makes her companion practise the exercises that all good sports horses need to master.
Circle, volte, demi volte. Nostrils pinched and brow furrowed, our athlete bravely obeys (if our horse knew the story of Sisyphus, he would be able to sympathise). A hearty slap on the neck is his reward. Then on to lengthened strides on the diagonal, transitions and shoulder in. The effort causes him to whisk his tail and grind his teeth, but he has to continue, no choice. If he trips, slows down or stops, metal heels caress his flanks. But be not afraid, o noble horse, in a few years you will no longer feel this pain, you will no longer feel the bite of leather, you will no longer feel the pressure of the bit or the weight of the rider. In truth you won’t feel anything at all. And then you’re back in your box again, that wasn’t so hard, was it and of course your rider loves you so much you know! She’s not trying to hurt you! So don’t be ungrateful, don’t fight, endure, and make the most of your straw lined prison and your beautiful gaoler.
Spirit is dead."
My daughter too played with plastic horses and watched that film countless times. Her favourite toy was a soft toy of Rain, Spirit's paint mare. But she doesn't keep her horse in a luxurious prison. He horse is hairy, muddy and unshod, lives out all the time with her herd and is ridden on a loose rein without a bit, spur or tight noseband. Sometimes in fact without any tack at all.
 More and more blogs and websites are asking people to question traditional methods of horse husbandry. The barefoot owners group on Facebook has over 10,000 members. Concordia Equestrians have started holding competitions where bitless competitors are encouraged, and any bit stronger than a snaffle is banned. Epona TV is tirelessly presenting people with videos and articles from experts in many fields presenting alternatives to long established practises. So maybe there's hope for us (and more importantly, for our horses) yet?

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Our first Western clinic......

Very interesting outing today. Went to a clinic organised by the Western Edge Riding Club, which is a monthly affair at a yard not far from here. Thought it would be good experience for Sky to do something out of her comfort zone and also decided to take Tari along for a look.

They both coped very well, considering we were in an indoor school and it was blowing a gale and chucking it down which meant all sorts of odd noises, plus some sort of clay pigeon shoot happening nearby. Sky only had one real spook, and Tari just seemed more interested in investigating the mirrors a the far end......

The clinic was with Shane Borland who I'd never heard of before but turned out to be really good. He started off explaining that neck flexion thing the Western horses all seem to know but ours had never been asked for. Now to me it's always looked a bit extreme and really just not comfortable for the horse. But I was interested to know the reasons for doing it.

As Sky had never done anything like that before so didn't know what was being asked of her, he used her as an example. Ali had to slide her hand along one rein, then take that rein out and away from the neck then bring it back to her hip. And wait. Sky of course at first started going round in circles trying to follow her nose.
But the third time Ali did it, Sky realised that movement was not what was being asked for, so she stopped. You could really see her trying to figure it all out.

As soon as there was the slightest softness in the rein, Ali released it. And Sky lowered her head and seemed to lose all the tension in her neck. As this is one of the things we really struggle to get her to do, it's something to play around with a bit more, methinks......

Another interesting idea that he gave them to try was the concept of "throwing things away". So you start trotting the horse along and then you release your hold on the reins and slow down your rising more and more then take your legs away, relax your seat completely and see how long it takes the horse to stop once you stop micro managing. And if they're the sort of horse that speeds up, you use the neck flexion, but nothing else, to change the direction and keep changing the direction until the horse slows down.

What I especially liked about his approach was that he was getting people to look at what they were doing from the horse's point of view. He said the rider needs to perceive the horse's take on what they're being asked, as horses will never be able to see things from the rider's point of view. If you read my last blog post, you'll know why I was so happy to hear that today.

Another exercise was to hold the reins completely loosely on just one finger of each hand, and without shortening them at all, just add one finger at a time to see how little it would take to get the horse to rein back. Remarkably little, as it turned out......
He also explained how he doesn't think most people let their horse ever make a decision. He explained how he likes to let his youngsters decide what they do when he first starts riding them. So he just sits there and is a passenger, they get to go where they like for a bit, then he gently asks them to go in the direction they're already going in so he doesn't start getting into an argument with a horse from the off.

He asked the riders, one by one, to set off down the centre line from A at a trot or canter, then let go of the reins halfway along. The other horses were lined up on both sides of the school. He wanted to see what each horse would do when left to its own devices. First problem was riders cheating and not letting go completely! But when allowed to go where they liked, some horses headed for the gate and some to other horses. Sky just went straight on down towards C but Ali didn't try to grab the reins back and turn her (much to Shane's surprise!) and Sky stopped by the wall, but didn't head for Tari, which I found surprising.......

So lots of food for thought today, Ali said she really enjoyed it and would like to do another one. Tari was a star and apart from occasionally getting bored and needing distracting, was as good as gold. And I was really impressed with how Sky handled it all. Shane said that he wouldn't expect a horse to be as calm in an unfamiliar place as at home, he said you can't always know how much of your home horse is out with you on the road, which I thought was a good way of looking at things.
Oh, and we got to see some rather nice spotties :-)

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

If your horse got his own way.....

I came across this blog post today: If your horse got his own way.....

I'm sure a lot of people out there found it rather amusing. But I just found it very sad.

I find it sad that probably the majority of horse owners in this country really believe that their horse does things like kick the door or break through fences just to annoy them. I find it sad that they believe their horse would prefer his "big, comfy stable" to being outside. No stable is big to a horse. In fact, I would say keeping a horse in even the biggest stable is about the same as keeping a human in a Portaloo....yes, I hear people telling me all the time that their horses are waiting by the gate to come in at night because they love their stable. But do they really love their stable? Or have they merely associated coming in to it with getting a bucket of feed?

And then there's the feed. Yes, horses will be happy to eat oats and other hard, starchy, sugary feeds, but it's not what they've evolved to eat. I wonder how many of these horse owners know how their horse's digestive system actually works? Do they know that starch can only be digested in the small intestine and too much means that it passes into the hindgut and has a negative effect on the bacteria therein? Do they know that the horse's stomach continually produces acid (unlike the human stomach) so leaving a horse shut in a stable with nothing to eat for hours (because just how long do you think that haylage will last him? All night?) is a very good way of giving him ulcers?
Yes, of course he wants to roll in the mud. He gets itchy. If they insist on rugging him, he can't scratch his itches so well. It's like the difference between scratching an itch directly on your skin or through a really thick jumper. I know which I prefer......

Breaking through fences to be with his mates - is that just to annoy them? Or have they stopped to think for one minute that he's a prey animal that's evolved for millions of years to feel safe in a herd with a whole load of other prey animals and really isn't happy being kept on his own because they are worried about him getting hurt if he's allowed to be a horse in a field with a bunch of others....?
If I'm honest, I reckon many owners can't spot the signs that their horse is stressed and unhappy with the way he has to live and the way he is treated. Many owners aren't really interested in questioning any of the "normal" ways humans "manage" horses. Many owners have never given a thought to how a big heavy bit or a tight noseband feels to their horse. Or how being ridden with a heavy hand on the reins must feel. The list goes on.......

So what do you think your horse would really like to do if he could plan his own day? Try thinking about everything he does from your horse's point of view rather than your own convenience. If you have gaps in your knowledge, if you merely do things because your yard owner/trainer/vet/farrier/best friend tells you that's how it's always done, why not try to find out more about alternative ways of doing things, find out how horses think, how they would act and react if allowed to display natural behaviour, find out why horses do the things they do, find out what horses really want?

Here are a few places to start:

Epona TV
Good Horsemanship
Inside Out Hoofcare
Hart's Horsemanship
Anna Blake Equestrian
Mark Rashid Horse Training

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Winter woolies

Winter weather is finally starting to arrive here and I am seeing lots of  horses bundled up in rugs and shut in stables. My horses are still out on their windswept hillside and they might look a mess but their coats keep them warm and dry.

Yes, dry.  This may look like a soggy mess......

...but if you part the hair you can see that the water doesn't actually get as far as the skin, you can see it more clearly on Gandalf's lighter coat:

The white bit is dry. The coat clumps together and the water just runs off  the end of the pointy bits. You can see it all beading on their manes too

It doesn't seem to bother them when it's windy either, we've had some pretty wild weather in the last couple of days and I was expecting to find them huddling along the treeline, but they're just out on the side of the hill grazing, as usual..... their full winter plumage ;-)

They're like the opposite of Arctic foxes, only white in the summer!

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Random pictures

Haven't had time to do a huge amount with the horses lately, but here are a few recent photos......

And even a couple of Kinna in France from last weekend :-)

Sunday, 11 October 2015

An introduction to tentpegging......

Went along to watch some more people running about brandishing weapons on horseback yesterday. For a change the weapons in question were not bows. One of my horseback archery mates also does tentpegging and was going to a local competition so we went along to watch.

Was supposed to start at 10 but as we arrived at 10.30 there was no action in progress, just a lot of people slowly getting their act together after what must have been a bit of a party last night. Quite sorry we missed that......

Eventually (after some grumbling from the judges who were getting cold standing around waiting) people started arriving on horseback along with some fairly dangerous-looking weaponry......
...and, um,  wearing some not-so-dangerous-looking onesies!
Finally the comp got going and it was fast and furious stuff, lots of over-excited horses galloping flat out whilst their riders tried to hit a small white bit of wood with a sword or lance........

Looks like a lot of fun! And as we all know, Sky is very good at galloping flat fact she'd have fitted right in! Something to add to the bucket list.....

Monday, 21 September 2015

British Horseback Archery Championships

So the long-awaited weekend finally arrived. Back in July I decided to bite the bullet and actually take my horses to a competition. Of course it just happened to be a five hour drive away in Cornwall, but that was the venue for this year's competition, so that was where we were going.

Having arranged to hire a lorry for the horses, I got an email on Monday saying it was at the garage with mechanical problems so wouldn't be available after all. Spent most of the rest of the day frantically calling round to get a replacement, and thankfully found one fairly locally.

Crisis averted, we went to fetch it on Friday and I carefully steered around some little lanes back to the yard ready to load up. Luckily there was a large storage compartment in the back since we had to fit in a lot of stuff: saddles, bows, fancy dress outfits, spare hay, the dog.....

The horses went straight in, they seem to prefer a rear-facing lorry and started attacking their hay. We got to watch them on a little monitor in the cab. When the lorry was in reverse gear the monitor changed to show the view out the back, which was just as well given my reversing skills ;-)

The trip down was pretty straightforward, mostly motorway and dual carriageway and we got there in 5 hours. Unloaded the horses, let them into a little paddock for a roll and some grass and went to check out the archery field. This just happened to be next door to the caravan park where we were staying so we checked in there too.

Then it was time to fetch the horses and show them around a bit. G of course too it all in his stride, but Sky was a lot more suspicious of the strange things dotted about.....

But there were no tantrums, so we wandered back up to the yard and turned them out for the night, whilst we retired to the pub.

Next morning we were up and organised bright and early (even got breakfast cooked by our mate Adam who chose to squat on the sofa in the caravan rather than sleep in his tent) getting G kitted out in his fancy dress for the kid's competition. There were only three of them, so we put the boys on G and made Éowyn ride Sky. Doing a few runs at the walk seemed to settle her (Sky) down a bit and she stopped worrying about the sound of the arrows hitting the target. And a fair few of Éowyn's arrows did hit, she even got a 5 on one of her runs, and she came first :-)

By the time they'd finished, some more horses had arrived and the Hungarian competition got underway. As soon as the speed increased, all Sky's calmness went out of the window and she seemed intent on trying to break the land speed record, doing some of her runs in less than 9 seconds, which meant poor Alex didn't get a chance to shoot many arrows. We persuaded Ali to give it a go on Gandalf too. I had no intention of even trying, since I can't hit a target on the ground, let alone one up in the air.......

Then it was back to the yard and Cornish pasties for lunch. In the afternoon was the Aussie Triple competition, which is reserved for those at student grades (more about the grading system here), and for those who haven't even got a student badge yet 'cos they can't hit a  barn door (me). And true to form, I didn't hit a thing. But it was fun though, as you can see I was hating every minute.....
So that was day 1. Rounded off with a trip to the pub, naturally.

Day 2 began much the same (eggs for breakfast again). The morning's competition was the Korean. Given my spectacular performance in the Aussie Triple, I elected to give this a miss and gave Alex the ride on Gandalf so she might stand a chance of scoring something as he doesn't feel the need to gallop full tilt down the track. So Ali got the hooligan pony, who was a bit better, some of the time......
My favourite of the horses there was Dolly, who Adam was riding.
My sort of horsie. Big, brassy, real leg-at-each-corner type. Very opinionated.  Reminded me of a mare I used to own......anyway, she made a real impression thundering down the track. And they came 3rd in the overall competition.

More pasties for lunch, to follow the tea and biscuits some locals had kindly provided for us that morning. Then all that remained was for Ali and Sky to do the Aussie Triple as they hadn't had time the day before. By this time, Missy was getting a tad fed up with running up and down so tried to go even faster, setting off like someone had set fire to her tail, resulting in some choice swearing from Ali (in French, of course!).

She did eventually manage to get a few shots off......
....but we still have a way to go. But generally I was really pleased with the horses this weekend, they took it all in their stride and didn't stress too much about the loooooong journey, loaded perfectly and travelled quietly. It was a lot to ask, really, and they delivered.

After Ali's runs were finished, we packed up and left as I wanted to get back before midnight and in the end, apart from a bit of a queue on the M4 near Bristol, the journey home was very smooth. Nice Renault Master lorry was easy to drive and probably had a better turning circle than my car. If only I could afford one!

We left before the main prize giving, although Éowyn had got her certificate earlier.

On the way back, got a text from Alex to say even I'd got a rosette, as there weren't that many of us doing the Aussie Triple. So it was all worth it then :-)

Now to find more time to practise for the next competition.........

Monday, 7 September 2015

Went to a TREC competition.....

...but sadly without the horses, due to lack of transport. So we decided to volunteer for judging/checkpoint duties and we had an interesting day. The comp was at Horseplay Central, a centre run by a Parelli 3 star instructor, and is in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, we had to stop a local and ask directions to find it......

The Wessex TREC people were very welcoming and we were given clipboards and sent off to various PTV obstacles. Ali went off to do the maniabilité and I had the figure of eight and the rein back. It would seem that TREC GB have changed things a bit since they took over. I'm pretty sure the fig of 8 isn't on the PTV list in France. It's a fairly straightforward ride round two markers in a figure of eight pattern - but you can only have one hand on the reins, using two at any point means you score zero. The faster you do it, the more marks you get. Most people did it at the trot, some at the walk but a couple did manage it at canter.....

After that they had to do the rein back and most of them totally failed to score any marks (a foot out of the corridor means a zero score) Some horses were really unhappy and sent the poles flying all over the place! A big fluffy cob did one of the best jobs, as did a Western horse.
Once everyone had been round the PTV, we went back to the car and were assigned our checkpoint. This proved to be in a nice little spot at the end of a track from the woods. We waited a while for the first rider to arrive and predictably loads turned up at once so we had our work cut out filling in forms and sorting them out so they left at more staggered times. Unlike some French competitions we were not providing them with wine and nibbles ;-) The organisers did give us a free packed lunch for helping out though and I'd brought a flask of tea so we were well provisioned.

Scenery made for some nice photo opportunities.....more pics here if you're interested

After a while, we seemed to run out of riders but there were still 5 on my list who hadn't arrived. We passed the time idly wondering just how fast the mad tractor driver was going who seemed to be charging up and down our tiny road every ten minutes causing me to fear for the safety of my wing mirror every time he rushed past the car......Three of the missing riders eventually turned up over an hour later than expected, they'd got a bit lost in the woods!
By this time, I'd realised that our nice little checkpoint spot had no mobile phone coverage whatsoever, so leaving Ali clutching the clock and clipboard I drove up the hill to try and call about the remaining two missing riders, only to see the organiser driving down the same road coming to tell me they'd retired, their horses having lost shoes.

So we headed back up to the start field, handed in our results and managed to get home at a reasonable hour. Also met one of the ladies from our livery up there with her horse who she'd brought on his own in a double trailer, might have to see if she fancies a passenger next time......