A good team

We talk a lot about the importance of having a good team around us for our horses, a good farrier, a good vet, a good physio, a good trainer, a horsey friend who will come and help hold a horse, or put the jumps up for you, or simply go for a hack, but in fact it applies to so much more. I was reminded of this recently when I changed the vets I use for my dogs.

The old vet was fine, I didn’t have an issue or a problem, but I felt that they simply looked the dog over, vaccinated it and gave me a bill. There was no chat, no discussion about the best ways to do things. So I changed. The new vet spent 45 minutes talking to me about different points of care, and things that may work better for my dog. The level of communication was impeccable and I left feeling much more reassured that the care I had chosen for my dog was correct.

The same applies to us. We need a team of professionals just as much as our horses. I was once told to pick a few people to turn to for advice, and use them. Don’t ask everyone, as that gets confusing, and don’t just ask anybody, as their advice might be rubbish! So choose your people wisely and go to them when you need to talk things through.

So remember we all need a team of trusted professionals, not just your horse, not just your dog, but you as well. For if you are not well, happy and functioning to the best of your abilities, the chances are no one else will be either! So take a moment to look at your teams of people, starting with your own. And if you don’t have one, find one!

When being kind isn’t enough…

Being kind is important, vey important. But kindness alone isn’t necessarily enough. Trying to be kind to our horses is often at the forefront of our mind, but sometimes the decisions that we make may have to be wise rather than kind. Imagine your horse is lame and needs to be on box rest. But he doesn’t like box rest. To recover from the injury, he will need to be temporarily unhappy in order to achieve long term happiness. As humans we can understand this, but the horse with no concept of acting now to achieve something in the future will just be unhappy.

This dilemma is summed up beautifully by a story from the Dalai Lama. A student came to him with this story:

“My cat had a flea. But I didn’t want to kill the flea, so I didn’t. Then the cat got more fleas. Then the cat had a reaction to the fleas. So, I took the cat to the vet, and the vet had to treat the cat, and kill all the fleas. What should I have done?”

The Dalai Lama replied: “You were trying to be kind, but you forgot to be wise. To be wise, you should have killed the one flea. By trying to be kind, you caused more pain.”

The same applies with our horses. In some cases, the short-term kindness won’t lead to long-term happiness. Sometimes keeping your horse on box rest even though he is unhappy is worth it for the long-term benefit. The combination of wisdom and kindness means that we retain clarity of our long-term goals, without falling into the trap of seeking short term happiness.

The best we can when we are forced to put our horses in situations that aren’t ideal for them, is to make the best of the situation. So, if your horse is on box rest, find him something to do in his stable. If he is turned out by himself, to stop him racing around the paddock, see if you can find him a horse to go in the next-door field. Make sure you look beyond the short-term kindness to the long-term benefits.

Socks and bags…how comfy are yours?

I read an interesting article recently and discussed it in an online study group. The writer drew an analogy between correctly fitting walking boots and correctly fitting saddles. There followed a discussion about the role of numnahs and socks, and whether they should be thick or thin. The learning point from this was that if your saddle/walking boots have been fitted with thin socks/numnahs don’t them wear them with thick ones! A useful point to remember, and one I could have done with learning before I gave myself blisters through not following that advice.

The other point that came out of the analogy for me, was the use of footwear as the analogy. We all know understand that a good farrier is worth is weight in gold. Indeed, a story from a William Fox-Pitt lecture tells of a horse his mother bought that had failed the vetting, “what did it fail on?” came a question from the floor. “Navicular” he replied. There was a pause, after which he added, “we had a very good farrier. He was sound and eventing till 16 years old.” Need one say more?

But in fact, in my mind the comparison to the saddle is the backpack that you choose to carry when walking. Now, this is something that people don’t think about, or they buy the cheapest, or the brand they know, or the pink one…However, walking any distance with an ill-fitting backpack will reduce your back to a seething mass of painful muscles, and that is only carrying the fraction of the weight that a rider represents to a horse.

The problem with pain is that we can’t see it. We can feel our own pain, but not that of others. But anyone who has had to walk any distance with blisters will remember how very sore it is. There is no point buying the most expensive walking boots, if you then carry everything in a poorly fitting backpack. You must see the whole picture. Yet how many people are guilty of ensuring their horse’s feet are well-maintained and then riding it in a saddle that does not fit. It is our responsibility as horse owners to ensure that we provide good care for our horses and all the areas this encompasses.

So, the next time you are wondering whether it is worth getting the saddler out, put a cheap backpack on your back, fill it and go for a long walk….

The final chapter

Life is comprised of an endless circle. We are born, we live and then we die. In families there is a constant movement, as children are born and the elderly die. With our horses and dogs the same is also true though the cycles are generally much quicker. The problem is always that the young are cuter.

For anyone who is dealing with an elderly relative slowly deteriorating towards death I can highly recommend Marika Cobbold’s wonderful novel Guppies for Tea . Animals are different to humans in that you can choose when is the right time to call it the end. It is so hard watching our animals suffer, that we can decide when enough is enough.

It is all too easy to keep our animals going for too long, because of our own emotions around the topic. As we slip out of the summer, this is often the time of year that we realise quite how old our animals are, as there joints feel the first nip of winter in the air.

It is so hard, and it never gets easier, no matter how many horses or dogs you have during your life, each and everyone of them leaves a gap. Remember all the good times, remember all the amazing rides, or walks, or priceless small moments that make up our lives.

And remember in the end that grief is the price we pay for love. And think how very cold and lonely the world would be if we never loved, people, dogs, horses, endless other pets. I once had a goose that I adored and was heartbroken when it died. And I know that despite all my tears my life has been better and richer for all the things I have loved, and I wouldn’t change any of it.

Never forget about the possibility of hope…

Hope is probably the most important thing, because the opposite of hope is despair, and that never leads you to a happy place.

Hope tells us that things can get better, that things can improve. It is hope that drives us on, and hope that supports us when times are tough. Without hope we are truly lost.

Hope is a bit like confidence, it is one of those elusive things that slips away as we look at it. But it is vital.

When something bad happens (and, sadly, they do) remind yourself that there is always hope. That however bad thing may be right now, they can get better. You can help yourself to hope, you can list all the things that could happen as a result of the bad thing.

Maybe you lose your job. But imagine what could happen, regard it as an opening of doors of possibility, things that would never have happened had you stayed in that job, suddenly could happen.

Your horse goes lame. Maybe could you learn to massage as a result of not being able to ride. Maybe someone else lets you ride their horse, and you meet new people and explore a whole new world.

Maybe your are forced to move to the other end of the country. But think of all the experiences you can have, the parts of yourself you might be able to access that you couldn’t before.

Change is always scary, but with change and hope comes the possibility for new beginnings. New things that can arise as a result of the change. It’s okay to be scared, and fearful, we are human after all. But remember the other side of change is possibility and the other side of despair is hope.

5 things we love to do in the Autumn

Summer has slipped away and left behind a trail of golden leaves as we move into Autumn. As with all seasons, there are both good and bad points to this part of the year. Here are our top five things to do with your horse in the autumn.

1 – Look back at this year and look forward to the next one. We are so busy doing and being, and paying bills, and working, and riding and, and, and that we forget to take a moment to pause and reflect. Autumn is a great time to just take a moment and think about your achievements throughout the year, and maybe to consider some goals that you have for the forthcoming year.

2 – Learning. As the evening begin to draw in, and daylight hours start to slip away, it becomes harder and harder to spend hours in the saddle. However, it does become much easier to sit inside and read a book or watch a DVD! Take some time to improve your knowledge, not even necessarily about horses, expanding your knowledge is fantastic for your brain and yourself in general. “Understanding Horse Performance Brain, Pain, or Training?” is our highly recommended book and DVD.

3 – Massaging your horse. One of our favourite things to do with our horses when we cannot ride them. Massage is enjoyable for both horse and owner, and can really help improve your bond with your horse. Horse Massage for Horse Owners is a great place to start.

4 – Enjoy the Autumn colours. We love Autumn, the changing leaves and landscape can be startlingly beautiful. Make some time to get out in it and enjoy it. If you can’t ride, take your horse for a walk with you.

5 – Carrot or baited stretches. Another lovely way to spend time with your horse, both improving your bond, and helping him to stay flexible and mobile. Check out the brilliant book and DVD “Activate your horse’s core.” Remember carrot stretches are not appropriate for all horses, and stay safe.

Enjoy Autumn with your horses!

Little things…

Some problems seem so huge, so insurmountable that we can’t begin to work out where to start. Take climate change. What do we do? Where do we even begin? With little steps. Everything we do has an effect. Every action has an opposite and equal reaction – this is a fundamental law of physics (Newton’s Third Law). Every single action. If we all make small changes that overall effect will add up.

It is the same with our horses. You can’t change your hairy un-backed four year-old into a gleaming rosette machine overnight. But you can start with teaching him to stand nicely, and to be groomed. Then gradually teach him to accept a numnah and then a saddle. Little by little and over the years, you can create a massive transformation.

And sometimes we will make mistakes, sometimes we will go too fast, or down the wrong path, and that too is okay. It is okay to make mistakes, it is okay to fail, we are humans not robots. You might rush teaching your horse to canter, because the trot felt so good. You might be tired and grab a plastic coated ready meal. It’s okay, because tomorrow you can take your time and establish the trot before you canter. And tomorrow you can make a homemade meal.

We are not perfect, we are trying to be better. Life is a series of learnings, of opportunities, of successes and of failures, but tomorrow always bring you chance to do better. You are never too small to make a difference. No matter how small the step, a step forwards is always a step forwards. And by the very act of trying, by your very intentions in your heart you are making a difference. Keep going, keep trying, you will get there. It might be hard and it might be difficult, but it is worth it…

Exercise is great!

Science has proven what we have long suspected, that exercise is effective in lessening the risk of arthritis, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, depression, brain deterioration, and in reducing stress. Exercise is literally one of the best things that we can do for ourselves. Even just walking for 20 minutes a day can have an amazing effect on our health, both physical and mental. It is worth remembering this when we are going about our day to day life. Little thing make all the difference to increase the amount of walking we do. Park in the furthest corner of the car park, take the stairs not the lift, walk across your office to speak to a colleague rather than email them!

Research from a Boston hospital made the same link, that exercise can add 7 years to your life. Fortunately, with horses you automatically get exercise, not only in riding them, but in their day to day care. It is, however, important to ensure that you are looking after yourself while taking care of your horses. It can be all too easy to roll out of bed to the yard and spend time bending over and lifting before you are properly warmed up. Many of the tasks involved around the yard are heavy and involve bending and lifting.

The mental benefits of not spending your free time slumped in front of the television have also been researched. Exercise gives you a more positive outlook, and a longer and happier life. We sometimes moan (especially in the winter) about having to trail around in the dark, wind and rain to care for our horses, and think that we would much rather be watching television. However, that time is better spent outside than inside, the ongoing benefits are greater than we appreciate when our feet our wet, and rain has made its way inside our jackets. So, remember as you battle through the wind, this is good for you!

Joking aside, remember exercise is good for you, and now science has proven it.

What does your horse do when you do his girth up?

Is your horse happy when you do his girth up? If the answer is yes, then good, but make sure you know what to do should that no longer be the case. It is all too easy for our horses to slip, or spin in the field, or simply turn awkwardly and strain a muscle. You might not see this, you might not know, until you go to girth up your horse and he puts his ears back. Equally you might have a horse that has always put his ears back, and you have simply accepted it as part of his behaviour.

Remember your horse is only capable of communicating with you through his behaviour, it is up to us to make sure that we are listening. We always recommend that you begin with the eliminating the possibility that the horse is in pain before you begin to alter the behaviour. There is no point is challenging your horse’s behaviour till you are confident that it is not a pain response. All you are doing if you do that, is cutting off the opportunity for the horse to communicate with you.

Your horse may have always put his ears back, or started doing it recently, either way you can start to resolve this problem. Have a good professional check your horse over, so that you can rule out whether the behaviour is a pain issue. This may include a physio or osteopath, a saddle fitter, a dentist. Remember pain can be referred, so don’t assume it must be a problem with the girth.

Once you have thoroughly investigated and are confident that the horse is not in pain, then two things will happen. Either the behaviour will stop, as the horse realises he is not in pain, or it will continue, as a learnt response. The horse has learnt the association between the girth being done up and pain. Their behaviour is a response that has been learnt from the pain reaction. It is possible to re-train the horse not to respond in this way.

Begin the re-training by breaking down the process into small pieces and re-training each part of the process. Identify where the horse’s reaction begins. Does he start to fidget when you pick up the saddle, or does he only flinch when you actually do the girth up? Dependent on the severity of the reaction, it will take a proportional length of time to correct the training.

Remember to spend time on each stage of the process, rewarding the desired response with praise, or some action that your horse enjoys, such a scratch on the withers. Be wary of simply using food as a reward, as this can lead to further problems. Once each stage of the process has been broken down and worked on, you will be able to join them together and be able to saddle and girth up your horse, while he remains happy and relaxed.

Some people have all the luck…

…no really, they do!

You meet people who just seem lucky, the horse they pick wins, their raffle tickets comes up first, their card hand bristles with great cards, while yours is full of nondescript 3s and 4s.

I noticed the other day whilst playing scrabble with my grandfather that every handful of letters he picked out were consistently full of high scoring fantastic letters. Every hand, without fail. My hand had the usual mix of indifferent letters with the occasional good ones thrown in.

It’s such a great metaphor for life. Some people simply do have great luck, what they do with it is up to them. Most people have average luck. But in scrabble if you play well it is possible to beat the person with the great set of letters, not every time, but it is possible.

So when you see the lucky girl at the show, with the amazing horse and the seemingly effortless life, remember you can also do well. You can have trained harder, you can have spent more time with your horse, so that you know instinctively that they are going to struggle with the flag in the corner, so you are going to need extra bend coming into that corner to prevent a spook.

My dressage cobs could on a good day beat flighty warmbloods simply by steadily carrying out their tests and being well trained. So, we may not have all the luck, but if we do the most we can with the luck we are given, we can achieve anything!

And remember even the lucky have bad days, and every so often I can beat my grandfather at scrabble and my satisfaction is always increased by knowing that I have beaten him with a less strong hand than his hand.