Falling in love…

For various reasons (all of which are within the Government guidelines for what you are allowed to do during this time) my 8 year old daughter has spent some of the latter part of the lockdown on a dressage yard with the wonderful Leonie Brown of Daneswood Dressage learning about horses from mucking out, grooming to riding. Okay, so maybe we haven’t done much formal learning, but how many other lessons has she learnt during this time? This is her description of this time…

“Because I have ridden for a little every day, sometimes more than once a day, I have got better much quicker than just riding occasionally. I have ridden Tom and Nelson, I have hacked Nelson and I have been practicing a dressage test with Tom and Nelson. I used to be scared of trotting but now I am not.

I have learnt to tack up, put their saddles on, and their rugs on. I can put a headcollar on. I take the Shetlands for lead rein hacks and run so that they can trot.I helped Leonie do flag work with her horse Quince.

I comb them and brush them. I gave Tom a bath, this was my first time. I liked it. I can fetch all the horses in from the field. I can poo pick. We have electric fencing so the horses can’t get out. I have to wake up really early to go to the yard, I get really sleepy! I am getting much fitter, my muscles are getting stronger.

I am now in love with horses, but my two favorite are Tom and Nelson. I would like to run a yard when I am older, because I like being with horses. I went on my first hack in this lockdown and this is my favorite thing to do with horses.”

Here is a video of Amy’s first hack – click here!

Children are remarkable, they will remember the good parts of the lockdown, they will remember the things they learnt, the experiences they might not have had, they won’t see what we see. You are all doing an amazing job!

Spring…it’s coming!

I just love Spring, and its nearly here! You can feel it in the air, despite the cold, that the sun is just starting to peep around the corner, the days are rapidly lengthening, galloping forwards into summer. It is wonderful!

But before you go out and saddle up and ride over the mountains for hours, leaving both you your horse aching and limping the next day, take a moment. Over the winter we spend more time indoors, sat down, wrapped up in layers of clothes. We don’t stretch (other to reach for more chocolate or the television remote) we huddle. We curl our shoulders against the wind as we haul sodden rugs across badly lit yards. We shrink our heads downwards to try and cradle some tiny remnant of warmth in our bodies. Then out comes the sun, and ta-dah! We throw our arms out wide, stretch and wonder why everything hurts…

Take it slowly, unfurl yourself from your winter ball, begin doing some stretches every day. This is for both you and your horse, there is no use one of you being all fit and supple is the other is creaky and stiff. Simple stretching exercises will help to get your muscles working again.

Build up your exercise gradually. Don’t suddenly go out for hours, I know it is tempting in the sun to savour every last moment but injuring either yourself or your horse will be far more frustrating than limiting yourself to one canter up that glorious sunny field.

Get your horse checked over by a trusted professional. The winter can be hard on horses, alternating between wet slippery fields and standing in stables, it is all too easy for them to slip or twist. Having your horse checked over before you start increasing their work load will help to prevent problems from manifesting. Likewise make sure that their saddle has been checked, their teeth have been checked. Ensure your worming and vaccinations are all up to date, so that you know that you are all good to go!

Spending some time taking it slowly in the early Spring, will help to keep you and your horse healthy and well, and make sure that you can enjoy all that the summer has to offer. Don’t go mad! Build everything slowly and steadily and you will have a wonderful time this year with your horse!

Asking the right people

Asking for advice is a very sensible step, but it can go wrong. If you ask the wrong questions you will get the wrong advice, but also if you ask the wrong people you will get the wrong advice. Well, not necessarily wrong, but not the right advice for you.

So, a head teacher that I know was looking for a new computer system. He had not found out what systems the schools near him were using, he had gone to the best schools in the area and found out what they were using. It wasn’t the most expensive system, but it certainly was the best. His logic was that a great school would have a great system and the same applies to yards.

If you want to know which physio to use, ask the people who are doing well. If you want to know which trainer to go to, ask the people who ride beautifully or horses look so happy. People like being asked, they like giving advice. Just make sure that it is the right advice for you.

If you aren’t even sure where to start, look around, listen, and find people who seem to be having a nice time with their horses. That lady smiling as she hacks down the lane. That lady beaming as she trots down the centre line of her dressage test. After all it is meant to be fun! Or look for people with a similar type of horse. If you have a gorgeous stocky cob, ask other people with gorgeous stocky cobs, rather than flighty arabs. Advice needs to be for you and your needs, so spend time not only working out what question to ask, but also who to ask. Then you stand a reasonable chance of the advice that you are given, being useful for you.

Stepping outside the box

It is very easy to simply do the same thing that we have always done. Whether it be the same exercises in the school or following the same route out hacking. It is all too easy to become entrenched in our habits. Stepping outside the box can give you fresh insight and a different perspective into your riding and your relationship with your horse.

Do you always work your horse in the school through the same set of exercises and through the same paces in the same order? For examples, lots of us begin in walk before progressing through trot work, and then finally to canter. Why not try working the canter before the trot? It can have the effect of opening the trot up and can be beneficial.

Or if you find that your horse seems a little stale, try going around the block in the opposite direction that you usually go. Suddenly, it will seem like a whole fresh new hack. Or you could try leading your horse around your usual walk. Both of you will gain a new perspective from doing that, and work in hand will always help your ridden relationship.

It is so easy to do the same things over and over, but sometimes it is good to set yourself a challenge and step outside of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be a competition or a huge challenge, it could be taking your horse to a different venue to school him or meeting up with a friend to go for a hack. Or going for an all-day hack (check your weather forecast first!) Whatever you choose to do that is different from your everyday routine will give you a new experience.

Every time we try something new, we learn something. It may simply be that we learn not to do that again! But trying out new things is good for us and our horses. Experiences can always be put towards learning, so that our knowledge and understanding increases.

I can see the light!

It’s coming, it’s coming! Already you can see the evenings drawing out, already I have been outside after 5pm without torches, walking on the moor in Devon. Already I am assessing the cloud cover to work out how more light we are getting this evening. Already the days are lengthening, already Spring is coming…

I am like a kid at Christmas about day length. Every day I get increasingly more excited, and tell other people how excited I am as well! A little like some people do about the snow…I go round saying, “look how light it is!” as though they haven’t noticed…

But it is amazing as the days lengthen, suddenly you can see all the hours you will have, all the fun you will have, all the evening hacks, the sunny evenings sitting on fences watching ponies, the quietness at the end of a sun-drenched day. Suddenly it unfolds in front of you, stretching out into time like a promise.

The winter is forgotten in a flash. The mud, the wind, the stumbling, sliding ground under foot, suddenly it has all gone, eradicated, disappeared, wiped out from your memories.

So here’s to the lengthening hours, here’s to daylight, here’s to riding in the natural light, after work, before work, after school. Here’s to never being inside, to no more dark evenings, to no more television, to no more watching the rain hammer down your windows. Here’s to moulting ponies, and dry gateways. Here’s to tan lines, and sweaty saddlepads. Here’s to leafy tracks and gentle grassy slopes. Here’s to sore muscles and hat hair. Here’s to summer. It’s coming, you can feel it in the aching stretch of daylight, hanging tenaciously in the air. It’s coming, it nearly here, it’s just around the corner…

(Possibly a little preemptive, but even thinking about it is cheering!)

Get ready…

It’s not that long till the season kicks off. The days are already getting longer, you are starting to look ahead towards the shows, deciding on your aims, working out your goals for the year.

Getting fit for the coming season is really important. We all tend to put on weight over the winter, the weather encouraging us to eat! Our muscle tone diminishes with reduced exercise and our general fitness level decreases. Getting ourselves fit independently of our horses is important to help our riding. Try and walk more, or go jogging to help increase your general fitness. If jogging isn’t quite your style, why not try some yoga or stretching to keep improve flexibility and muscle tone.

As well as improving our own fitness, helping our horses to improve their muscles tone and carriage is part of preventing injury. It is all too tempting to try and skip groundwork to get out competing or out for that really long hack, but the injury risk becomes higher if we miss the important basics.

The Equiband System enables the horse to build good musculoskeletal strength and facilitates the horse in flexing up through the spine. It is not a shortcut or a gimmick, but as part of a sensible and structured rehabilitation or training schedule it may help to encourage your horse to work in an optimum way.

There are no shortcuts to making you and your horse fit, but it is important to make sure that you have the best year with your horse. Time spent now on both of your fitness, will pay dividends throughout the year, so get those trainers on and start jogging! Remember pain now will bring you pleasure later, so as you’re running through the rain picture a glorious sun-filled hack for miles and miles and miles!

 

January is rubbish!

Nobody likes January, so at least you don’t have to feel alone in your dislike of the worst of the winter months. Everyone is fed-up, tired, skint. The days are short and gray. The fields muddy and windswept. Horses are skittish and spooky. Everything seems like hard work. The summer seems like a distant memory or an unimaginable future.

But all is not lost! There are ways to cope! Remember, is really isn’t that long until the weather gets better, the days get longer. February can be lovely. In no time at all you will be complaining about flies!

Take the time to sort out your tackroom, you don’t want to waste a precious sunny day on doing it. Pick a cold (not raining!) day and drag everything out, sort out rugs to be repaired, or binned! Sweep out all those little corners, make sure you have everything in the most convenient place. Think about what you use the most, what would be better on that high shelf?

If the weather is too miserable to ride, why not spend time with your horse on the ground? You can spend some time grooming, or massaging him. You can teach him tricks. You could sit in your stable (safely!) and draw him. There are endless ways you can build on your relationship with your horse without having to actually ride. Take a look at our book and DVD Horse Massage for Horse Owners for help in learning to massage.

Remember the days are getting longer, Spring will come, the grass will grow, the mud will recede, the days will get longer, your horse will settle down, your toes will stop hurting with the cold, and quite soon you will be wandering along a track on your horse in the sunshine and you will have quite forgotten about the misery of the winter.

Why we love our animals…

We love our animals, they are always so pleased to see us. Our dogs bark manically spinning in excitement and rejoicing in pleasure at seeing us again. Our horses wicker, snuffling against our cheeks, their whiskers tickling us. Some say; animals only love us because we feed them. I don’t agree. They love us in a much more straight-forward way. Our bonds with our animals is so much less complex than our bonds with people.

Relationships with people are more layered, more convoluted. Often we are related to them, some we chose for love, but our lives are clouded over by the stress of work, money, illness, so the love is pushed down, hidden over. But with our animals it doesn’t matter. Stressed? Hug a pony. Bad day at work? Hug a dog. Boss shouted at you? Stroke your cat. Works every time.

Animals are also the best outlet at Christmas. I love Christmas, I love seeing my family, but it can get a bit overwhelming, you can need a break. Popping out to walk the dog even for half an hour can give you a vital break from the festive fun. Christmas day hacks are delightful, especially in the morning when the roads can be wonderfully quiet.

Exercise is also the perfect counterpart to the endless eating and drinking that goes on over Christmas and can leave us feeling grumpy and lethargic. Even in dismal weather, wrap up warm, and get outside, you will feel better. And the best thing about animals is you have no excuses they have to be exercised, cared for, hugged, chatted to. So when the world is getting a bit much, when you long for peace and quiet and the wind in your face, rain on your back, get outside, take your dog for a walk, your horse for a hack and then when you come home again you will relish the warmth, the company and the cheer.

How to bombproof your horse…

We have all been there. Peacefully hacking along, enjoying the view, when suddenly your horse launches itself sideways, leaving your heart thumping, and your nerves trembling. Spooking is one of the main reasons why people do not hack their horses out, but it is possible to help your horse build in confidence and reduce the possibility of spooking.

First though we have to accept that horses are flight creatures. Their survival depends on their ability to flee when in danger, the problem comes that they can’t differentiate between actual danger, for example a lion, and perceived danger for example a crisp packet in a hedge. However, with training, we can help them.

Begin with working with your horse on the ground in a safe environment, such as an arena. Make sure that your horse is listening and responsive to you on the ground. There is no point in expecting him to listen to you when he is scared, if he is incapable of doing so when he feels safe! Start with something small, such a bucket, make sure that your horse will walk quietly past the object at a distance before beginning to move closer towards it. Only once he is happy with this should you begin to increase the difficulty of what you are asking of him.

If there is something in particular that your horse is fearful of on your hack, break this down into small, manageable steps. Does he spook when passing a farm? Are their flapping plastic bags and tractors? Work on each item separately. Begin with a small plastic bag, tied to the fence, again ask him to walk past at a distance. Gradually reduce the distance between the horse and the scary object, always praising him for the correct response. Once you can lead him safely past these objects, change the environment. Set up obstacles in a field and repeat the process in this different location.

Once you are feeling confident in the field, you can progress to leading him on a hack. Again, build up slowly. Don’t head straight off to the most scary hack, but rather build in stages so that you and him can grow in confidence. Only once you can do this should you progress to hacking him out.

If when hacking you become nervous or fearful of something, find somewhere safe to dismount and lead him past. The horse has not won if you dismount. In time he will become more confident, as he watches you walk calmly past, rather than feeling you getting nervous on his back.

Horses are incredibly trusting, they put their faith in us that we will protect them. If he trusts you, he will believe you when you ask him to walk past the scary plastic bag. By carefully putting the building blocks in place and helping him to overcome his fears in small, bite-sized chunks, you can turn your anxiety into enjoyment, and your fear into pleasure. While we cannot control the environment around us, we can work to give us and our horses the tools to help control our responses to whatever we come across.

Are you having a bad day?

Everyone has a bad day every so often, and then every so often you have a terrible day when you feel like you have slithered all the way down the longest snake on the snakes and ladders board, right back to the bottom…

Sounds familiar? Don’t despair! First take a few deep breaths. When we are anxious we breath more shallowly and take in less oxygen, our brains interpret this a stress and then we become more anxious. So breathe – I know its hard but it really does help, you can do it anywhere, you can do it discretely, its free and you can do it by yourself.

Once you have breathed, tell yourself it is okay to have a bad day. You are not a robot you don’t function the same from day to day, we are affected by the world around us, and our triggers. We are constantly in motion, and evolving.

Remind yourself how far you have come, don’t focus on today, imagine a graph, steadily rising, this is simply a blip, not a trend.

Reduce your expectations for today. So, you had planned with your new found confidence to go on a longer hack by yourself today, but that was going to be a challenge so today is not a good day to do that. Why not lead your horse round that hack instead? Or do some groundwork or give them a massage? This is not failure, it is adjusting to the circumstances, it is sensible.

Be kind, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t say things to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone else. Look after yourself, chocolate, hot bath, early night, good book, whatever you need.

And then tomorrow, you will wake up and the world will look different, feel different and you will wonder why yesterday seemed so tricky, and then you will carry on with your day…