Stick or Treat?

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Stick?

Or Treat? …….

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Excuse the simplistic title, but I couldn’t resist the Hallowe’en pun!

How often have you heard, “Don’t give horses treats, it’ll make them bite”?

I’m not a complete anarchist, but I don’t like rules without reasons.

As a small child, if I caught sight of a horse in a field, I’d be lured to the fence, grabbing a handful of the lushest grass in view to try to entice the horse to come over.  (If I was lucky there might have been some of those packets of sugar lumps in my pocket, carefully saved from a café.)  Most good-natured horses, bored and browsing would come over, ever optimistic….

”Oh…just a handful of grass then…..s’pose I may as well hang out while you’re handing me that richer stuff over the fence for free….”

It seemed basic sense to me.  I like the look of you.  Let’s make friends.  You come, I reward.

However, I soon came to realise that wasn’t always how it worked.  Travelling over the Yorkshire Moors with my parents, we stopped at a horse sanctuary, where, for the entry fee, you were given a small paper bag of the sort they used to sell loose sweets in, filled with horse “nuts” to give the farm’s residents.

Holding the treats in the flat palms of our hands, as we were instructed, we distributed largesse among the retired pit ponies and their aged friends.  Then the treats ran out and the pony I’d fed my last handful to bared its big yellow teeth and took a lump out of my pre-teen chest.  It was so painful that my parents took me to the nearest hospital to be examined by an unknown doctor.  As you can imagine it was beyond embarrassing at that age and the memory hasn’t faded.

So I have very good reason to believe that giving horses treats encourages them to bite.

If you raise them yourself, you learn their characters and how to handle them from foals.

Many of us acquire horses who already have some history.  Other than professional riders who have known a wealth of horses, and horses who have been used to passing from rider to rider as (potential) athletes, most new, amateur horse/rider teams go through some testing times before achieving a working partnership.

Some don’t get there, so yet another ”for sale” ad appears and there’s no blame or shame in acknowledging a mismatch ………. it’s a very valuable experience.

But if you feel there’s too much potential to pass up, how do you settle a stranger into the fold and make that horse your willing partner?

As you spend at least the first few weeks, even months wriggling in to a comfortable routine, horse will push with his nose, stick it in the air, not stand still for a minute if you need him to.  Fidget and fuss when any kind of care, grooming, blanketing or tacking up are attemped.

He may try to barge whilst being led, nip at girth tightening, flinch at stirrups being brought down, samba like he’s auditioning for ”Strictly” anywhere near the mounting block and take off at rocket launch speed before you’ve settled both feet in the stirrups …. all these evasions make it plain the horse has yet to trust us or take pleasure in our company or our riding.

You may have the experience and patience to get through this stage quickly or even nip it in the bud depending on the nature of the horse and your own abilities.  Or you may find you have a horse who comes with with saddlebags full of bad behaviour or attitude, innate or from ill-treatment.

You may even come to the end of your patience, lose your temper and use your crop.  Shout and swear a bit.  Feel thoroughly ashamed and at wit’s end after.  Your horse may be intimidated into obedience, but he will fear, not trust.

Why wouldn’t you use treats to gain his trust rather than getting more forceful?

It is said that because a lower ranking herd member cedes grazing or food to his superior, giving food to your horse makes him think less of you.

However, herd leaders lead to food!

In any case, I remain sceptical about horses mistaking us for other horses and taking mimicry of their behaviours too literally!!

I’m glad that clicker training, horse agility and ground work have brought the terms positive and negative reinforcement into more usual usage.  These concepts help us understand the whys and wherefores of motivating our horses and gives them scientific respectability.

And if more validation is needed, a study by researchers at the University of Rennes (information from Cheval Pratique magazine) found that a group of young horses who received edible treats as recompense, bit or kicked 5 to 6 times less than the control group who didn’t.

A further study showed another test group of horses to be more motivated to perform an action on command when they received food as a recompense than those who received massaging or scratching of the withers.  Some didn’t even recognise the scratching as a recompense.  Apparently this was unsurprising as, although older studies had shown scratching of the withers by a human lowered horses’ heart rates, horses spend 65% of their time eating as against 1% mutual grooming.

All domesticated animals have to learn to accept that feeding and touch from human hands are pleasant, rewarding experiences – positive reinforcement – which is described as adding something to training.   And is as important as learning negative reinforcement, something which is taken away when answered.  The pressure of your aids;  pressure on the mouth or flanks, the tap of a dressage or swish of a lungeing whip…..

Secondary positive reinforcement is the addition of vocal praise and caresses to the titbit and comes to replace it where offering food is impractical and the good behaviour is acquired.  As does the clicker, which has the advantage – with practised dexterity – of marking the exact moment of behaviour which deserves a treat.  And the horse has to make progress in his learning to get the reward over time.

Without the science, and before I’d read more about ”click and treat” or positive reinforcement, my gut instinct was to use food, responsibly and with care, as a reward for my horses, and it has nearly always worked well.

I don’t have problems with calling them to come or catching them, bitting, saddling, grooming, rugging or medicating under normal circumstances.  My greatest challenge was taming the savage in Pom, who turned out to be a serious biter when I first got him home.

“Whatever you do, don’t spoil him…” his previous owner dead-panned.  (She explained that after an accident with the owner before her, he had been on box confinement for a long period at a stables where when people had tried to pat him or give him treats over the door and he’d grown more and more sour, frustrated and angry.)

But that was exactly what he needed in the long run; to feel safe, secure and rewarded for the things he did right, though neither he nor I was sure it was that simple at the beginning.

He got lots of treats and grooming, treatment for his sweet-itch, scratching and praise and as much attention as I could give him besides the other two, Aly and Pie.

(“You called?”)

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(“I’m There”)

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There was a lot of training to make up.  At eight, he had the training level of a barely schooled four-year old, and though I thought my experience was up to handling him, he was an extreme challenge.  He tried to bite all the time when you handled him, on the ground or in his stable.  He would even charge with his teeth bared in the field.  He would grab any stick or whip with his teeth.  He was equally aggressive with the other horses.  But hey, he didn’t kick (or buck under saddle) – great advantages in my book, and when we were on the same page in our riding, he was like no other horse I’d ever ridden, generally in a positive way!

The only way I could figure out how to get past the aggession was carefully judged bribery.  At least it gave him something to chew on rather than me or my husband.  Apart from a twice daily feed, low in grain high in apples, carrots or seasonal fruit, he would be rewarded for just showing up and and doing anything safely around us.  I mostly feed treats, carrot or fruit slices by hand, but from a clear plastic container, the kind they sell vegetables in, so that when it’s empty the treats are, visibly, “All Gone”.  Sugar lumps, very greedily received are reserved for very special rewards.   And commercial biscuits are very handy for clicker training, easy to carry and quick to deploy and not quite so distractingly delicious as sugar!

(Pom helping himself to apples.)

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All I can say is: it worked.  Pom is a very emotional horse, wears his heart on his sleeve and is more affectionate than any other horse I’ve had dealings with, not just my own.  He’s greedy and intelligent, so a quick learner.

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(And again…)

I loved my old Aly dearly, but he didn’t much like fuss and, as his breath on my skin brought me out in a rash I didn’t want to be in his face. But gently invading Pom’s space and progressively being in close proximity, forced him to accept my trust and give his in return.  We have had disagreements, as happened over lunging earlier in the year, but I’m glad to say that was a temporary blip and our partnership has, if anything, been reinforced since.

So, the fishing net in the Stick picture?  I’ve used the usual desensitising methods to get Pom used to whips and crops, but our tool of choice for ground work and clicker targeting is our bright green shrimp-net on a bamboo stick 🙂

Posted in equitation, Horses, Riding, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Brunehilde’s Terrible Fate … drawing inspiration from disaster

“La Vie du Château”

Aah …. the good life, in French.

And here’s a rather gorgeous, distant view of a pair of châteaux which crown a rocky outcrop above the Gorges d’Aveyron, an hour or so’s drive from here.  (You wouldn’t believe how sadly decrepit they were inside, tragically dilapidated.)  There are two, side by side, because – well it was due to a complicated family quarrel which wouldn’t have been out of place in a modern TV “soap”.

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Last Friday was our wedding anniversary, so I got out the old Michelin green guides and tried to find somewhere different we could do in a day without too much driving.  And so we visited Bruniquel, an almost deserted village with two extant and two ruined castles on the border between the Tarn and Garonne and the Tarn departments.

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(Forgive me if you already know – I didn’t, until I came to live in France – that the French “départements” – an administrative area between a county and a state in size – were redesignated in the Napoleonic era and named for the rivers that flow through them.  It’s very practical to remember, once you’ve got the hang of it!)

Bruniquel (a mellifluous name to my ear) belongs to the designated tourist category of “One of the Most Beautiful Villages in France”.   In other words, it is hanging on to life as a picturesque fragment of architectural history, but hardly anyone wants to live there, as there is precious little work around except to serve a 2 month tourist season.   And the houses were built by tiny, undernourished, medieval-sized people who used their livestock as central heating.   It’s now just a notch above village-as-museum.

Legend has it that Bruniquel owes its name to Brunehilde or Brunehaut, a 6th century Visigoth princess (not to be confused with the legendary Valkyrie) who married Sigebert 1st of the Francs.   After his death she ruled, as regent, over parts of France, in bitter rivalry with her in-laws, especially Frédégonde, (the woman she believed responsible for the murder of her sister Galswinthe) the mistress who then married Brunehilde’s brother-in-law Chilpéric.

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Queen Brunehaut …..

The Valkyrie Brünhilde …

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Though she outlived most of her enemies, and was regent for her son and grandson, in her eighties Brunehilde met a terrible, vengeful fate.   Cornered, at last, by rival forces she was tied her by her hair, one arm and one leg to the tail of an unbroken horse, which they then loosed and whipped on to do its worst.

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How brutal!  I expect all of you riders shuddered at the savagery and carnage of Brunehilde’s martyrdom.

And were any of you, like me, reminded of times when you’ve been carted, or thrown, or even avoided coming to grief by a hairsbreadth?   And afterwards found fear sitting on your shoulder like an evil imp………

The downside of riding and that addictive relationship with our horses is fear of the inevitability of falls, knockdowns and the risk of very serious injury.  We’ve now, mostly, succumbed to the sense of wearing helmets when riding, yet most riding injuries are to limbs and ribs, which have little protection.   And possibly more of us are injured on the ground, especially in banal circumstances where we least expect it and would feel ridiculous wearing protection.

I had a broken jaw and skull fractures just from tripping backwards when letting the horses in for the night (my recently fractured tibia was still too weak to support me properly) and I’m still not sure whether my head met up with a stone wall or a shod hoof!

Anyway, because we can never be immune from accidents, the best and most obvious way to protect ourselves (besides the physical protections) is the confidence and horsemanship we build between ourselves and our horses.

When you’re very young and rubber-coated by your imagined immortality, you expect to fall and remount, maybe break bones and mend;  you are always on an upward trajectory.  Confidence is largely untried and sky-high in bold youngsters.

But, alas, what goes up must come down.   Just getting older and knowing your bones are more brittle;   having an accident or a fall, having work or parenting responsibilities you can’t afford weeks off from;   all sorts of life’s “what-if’s” make you more risk-averse and less gung-ho (I love the old-fashioned term!).

Fear is as much a necessary part of our psychological make-up as it is to the equine mind-set.   In balance with curiosity, it teaches us how to temper adventure with caution.   And when that balance is upset, it is quite hard to retrieve your equilibrium.   But the ideal balance between bravado and fear gives us preparation, forethought, good sense, achievable ambition …. we just have to recognise where the bubble on the spirit level lies.

My own example is from this week’s riding.   As regular readers know, I have a lively (euphemism!) Spanish horse and a fairly recent history of bone breakages and other hindrances to regular riding.   I always seem to be just getting back into a regular routine with Pom when some anarchic twist of fate sneaks up to interrupt us.   Well me really.   I’m the unlucky half of the partnership – but then he’s young and vibrant and I’m …. less young.

Once again, we’ve just got back into “proper” work after a summer of heat and flies.   We’ve been doing a mix of hacking out and home schooling to get a bit fitter and our success has been varied.

Last Sunday the weather was too perfect to ignore;  azure skies with a breath of fresh breeze and humidity from recent rain made a hack out irresistible.   This climate combo also signals perfect mushrooming conditions and the woods were full of folk appearing suddenly from behind trees, cars parked everywhere and even surging suddenly into view driving on woodland tracks.

I wasn’t fearful as such, but quite uptight because I didn’t want Pom to rush off and slip on the greasy, clay tracks.   However, every time he tried to rush, I tried to keep him moving through circles and lateral movements, half halts – all the moves which allow him to keep moving as slowly as possible, movement being the antidote to stress I was thinking, without gathering speed on soft, skiddy going I considered unsafe.  This blurry photo is the best I could manage but gives an impression of how unsteady we both were…

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There were so many slippery paths and surprises among the trees, even bold-boy Pom got ever more stressed;  jogging and pulling and I felt less and less safe ….. and then, amazing coincidence, I came to a crossroads at the same moment as my old friend Patrick, on his lovely Lusitano, Athos, that I used to ride (his quarter horse Onyx needed shoeing and he had scraped an hour of liberty, ad hoc, after a family lunch).   Pom was far more reassured by safety in numbers, but his blood was up and, even with company, the rest of the ride was a bit of a fight for me to keep control of our speed.

The following two days we concentrated on schooling.

Pom moves forward beautifully and can collect quite nicely, but we still had trouble coming to a motionless halt or dropping down a pace at the place requested and I’m pretty sure it was because I was still trying too hard to be in control and demanding changes of pace very precisely to test that control.

On the fourth day, another glorious bright but fresh day we went for a different hack and I replaced our usual full-cheek snaffle with Pom’s old (previous owner’s) bit, a Spanish D-ring “Goyo” with a curb chain.

But I didn’t want to do any more than ride on the buckle or take the lightest contact except in emergency.   And before resorting to taking up the reins, I used another method I’ve found works like a side-pull.   Like many trekkers, I usually put Pom’s bridle over his headcollar and loop the lead rein round his neck into a non-slip knot when we go out on a hack.   In this way I have something to tie him with in emergency, likewise something to grab on to rather than the reins, like a balancing rein.   I can also bring the knot round and take hold of the lead rope and apply gentle pressure to the noseband of the headcollar and this has worked better than pressure on the snaffle bit in the past.

Conditions were quieter, though we had to cross some week-day traffic.   I made a really big effort to hold off and keep out of Pom’s face.   When he got a little joggy, I sat as still as I could and drew deep breaths with his hoof-beats.   In-two-three-four, out-two-three-four (with a bit of a snort on the out-breath – aren’t you glad I don’t do videos!).   I didn’t do any of the circling or turning, and mostly the jogging fizzled out and when we came to the places we decided to trot and canter, it felt far more rhythmic, and we could both agree when to bring the pace down.

I took a very light contact on the bit at the faster paces, but it’s a long time since he’s worn that bit and he seemed quite responsive to and comfortable with it.

Yet again, we had to pass some testing challenges.   As we rode into a neighbouring village, coming up to a bridge over a small stream, (not a fave obstacle) chugging towards us was a cherry-picker lorry with flashing lights and a “men at work” sign on top of the cab.   Then in a field to our left up thundered three, heavy Comtois mares (I went back later to take a pic and only one was visible!!).

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Bless him, Pom was tense, but strolled on through, to unexpected compliments from the men in the truck!

The rest of the ride went enjoyably.   I dropped in on some friends and had to ring a loud bell by their doorway to raise them.   I didn’t really want to dismount, so it meant ringing the bell close to Pom’s head.   After lining him up I “dinged” it softly a couple of times, which he accepted, before giving it a good clang.   He might as well have been born in a belfry!

Overall, I was so pleased to find that by being less tense and controlling,  I felt safer in the end.

Not necessarily “feel the fear and do it anyway” – more, recognise what the fear is there to teach you, then adapt what you do accordingly!   Catchy – maybe not, but a useful way to go for me and Pom.

Posted in equitation, Horses, Living in France, Musings, Riding, Rural Living, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Do you like wild mushrooms?

So that’s it then.

I’ve slung the flip-flops to the back of the wardrobe, put away the sun-loungers and washed the last pair of shorts.

I love this time of year.

The leaves are still green on the trees, there’s a fresh, succulent growth of grass, some roses are having a last-minute flush and the Michaelmas daisies cheerfully clash with the last of the rudbeckia.  It’s the “bel arrière-saison” –  the beautiful back-end of summer, to put it less elegantly in English!

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s harvest time and this year’s torrential spring and late summer have given us bumper butternut squashes, apples, pears and raspberries, but grapes have been dismal and 2013’s Vin de Cahors may not be a classic vintage.

The figs never fail us, white and red, and we have so many of them we can’t keep up with the harvest.  Picking them becomes a dodge-the-hornet exercise and so many drop to the ground and quickly ferment that the lingering, vinegary smell of over-ripe fig hangs in the air.

The horses benefit willingly from this bounty.  They get very little “hard”, pelleted or grain feed, just enough to carry their biotin and linseed supplements, but their buckets are fairly liberally topped up with apples and carrots and, in season, stoned plums, peaches, pears and figs as and when our trees produce.

Don’t worry, we’ve been doing this (in moderation) for many years with no ill-effect and until you’ve seen the expression of ecstasy on the face of a horse enjoying slices of juicy pear, or a ripe fig you have not seen a happier horse.  (I must do a post about treats – or “positive reinforcement”;  a controversial subject, but I think you can guess  my approach …!)

The downside – of course there is always a downside! – is that now the hunting season has kicked in, the populations of deer and wild boar, abundant in these parts, are frequently on the move and take not a blind bit of notice of our mains-fed, reinforced electric fencing.

Yesterday I was out inspecting the grazing to see where to move the horses next, when I saw that the “sanglier” had turned over many more patches of grazing than were obvious from the fence.

To one side of the house is my favourite paddock, we euphemistically call it the “orchard”.  It used to have quite a few old fruit trees, but now only half a dozen are left

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Most of these, left to their own devices, shed a hail of small, juicy, bite-sized apples which attract the piggies in particular

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You can just about make out the light green windfalls in the grass – I can’t keep up with collecting them!  So whilst the wild boar help themselves, they also go worm and insect hunting and turn over huge divots of turf in their search.

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I was trudging round treading in the worst of the damage when I came across a few wild mushrooms, chanterelles, almost hidden in the moss at the bottom end of the field.  As soon as I kneel to pick a mushroom, I usually find I spot the next clump, and so I found more …. and more ….. so many more I had to fetch a knife and more containers

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They were so caught up in moss, grass and leaves, it’s taken about three times as long to clean as to pick them.  Still, I’m delighted with the haul.  Once cooked down to take off the excess liquid they freeze well and go wonderfully in all sorts of dishes.  I know cèpes are more prized, but unless you pick them very, very fresh they are usually full of creepy- crawly inhabitants who have already worked a series of galleries in the stems and spores.

However, plenty of people love the things and, when conditions are right, there will usually be a couple of cars parked in the woods.  Sometimes we get a bit fed up when we see the same cars, day after day for hours.  We pay high local taxes to be surrounded by our 25 acres of land, most of which is woodland, and while we don’t begrudge locals picking enough to eat and store themselves – share and share alike – seeing people depart with a boot-full to sell feels a bit like taking advantage.

While I was outdoors with the camera I wanted to capture some of the last displays in the garden and this combination of a deep indigo salvia with a pink gaura, a chocolate-leaved eupatorium in flower, purple sage and some barely visible echinacea caught my eye

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………… just before I noticed that the box hedging had developed box blight in patches.

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Urggh,  I had hoped that wouldn’t happen, as that part of the garden is open and sunny but some of the patches which have been shaded by other vegetation or get less sun seem to have succumbed to the fungal infection.  Now I’ve spotted it in the early stages let’s hope it can be kept in check!

Last job of the day was to haul lots of choking weed out of the pebble pond …. well I suppose there are some things in the garden I prefer not to be green!

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Hope you are enjoying the fruits of early autumn in your garden … or in the shops!

Posted in Gardening, Horses, Living in France, Musings, Rural Living, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Just a Perfect Day….

At Last!

After a rain-drenched weekend the temperatures have subsided, the horseflies have retreated, there’s a sigh of misty freshness in the morning and a tangible dewfall in the evening.

It’s finally perfect weather for riding.

I had a wonderful, life-affirming ride today and while I’m still on a horse-high (if they could really synthesise this feeling, there would be a cure for all the world’s ills!) I want to write a really positive post, a paean to my horse who, I am pretty certain, enjoyed himself every bit as much as I did.

Over summer we’ve spent time on ground work, short sessions on the school and brief hacks.  This was the first time in a long while we’ve been able to go for a longer hack and let rip.

And Pom is a horse in his prime with energy to spare.

The afternoon started promisingly.  I called the boys, Pom and the Pie, and they raced up from the field and were waiting behind the barn before I got there.  I groomed and tacked Pom up in his box while he nibbled a haynet and he was on best behaviour, definitely in a co-operative mood.

I mounted in the yard and, again, I was encouraged that he stood stoically as I got on and settled into the saddle.

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With Pom, the riding conversation usually begins,

Me:  “How about we set off at a nice, easy walk, get some stretching in and warm up gradually?”

Pom:  “Stuff that!  I’m hot to trot and as soon as I can get away with it I want to prove that I could win the Derby if only they weren’t prejudiced against letting Spaniards have a go!”

Pie (marooned in his box):   “Don’t leave me home aloooone ………”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo that sort of sets the tone for the ride.  Me trying to change the gears down and Pom revving up to go.  Once he’s stretched his legs and worked off the initial excess it evens out more, but there are few places we can let off steam early on in the ride, as, to start out, it’s either a steep, unmade track downhill to the main road, or asphalt up through the woods then past a few houses with dogs, cats and small children and their toys using the lane as a playpen.

Although our house is quite isolated, deep in the woods where the tarmac runs out, whatever direction we take we have to cross a road used by churning, rattling quarry lorries as well as other traffic and it does, occasionally, get busy.  Whilst my old horse, Aly, never got to be entirely happy on the road, Pom doesn’t deign to notice motors.  Cars, lorries and a huge, clanking tractor pulling a juddering trailer passed us by – and on the main road, they don’t even slow down, some dimwits even klaxon as they pass.  So I don’t feel that sense of trepidation I would with most horses when a big, bright, blue, gravel truck bears down on us.

I can only assume Pom was born beside a motorway!

(For two brilliant, recent posts about what scares horses see “The Things Horses Fear” on “Through the Bridle Lightly” and “Getting There” and “Take Three” on “Cowgirl Up”, both in the list of blogs I follow.)

Having negotiated a short stretch of main road, we then turned off and passed through our local village.  I knew Pom was on the QV as he preferred to hurry his way through.  We could hear the children hooting and shrieking in the playground, so I by-passed the school and we re-joined the “main street” farther on (this village has maybe 100 people living in it, at most) only to find that some bright spark had improvised a traffic calming (or truck-baffling) scheme, with large red and white plastic barriers taking half moon bites out of the already narrow road.  And a woman was running a spluttering lawnmower right beside the first barrier we came to.

A typical horse-trap, you might think.

I know Pom well now.  He hesitated and looked around.  I sat still and let him take it all in. It was something neither of us had seen before, so we needed to make a calm assessment of the situation.

The lady with the lawnmower cut the motor and waved and I signalled thanks;  a kind and sensible person.

I judged my moment, nudged gently and Pom walked coolly round both semicircles of barriers.

Once we were clear of the village and the clamour of some son of Thor hammering hell out of some metallic object with a dogged vengeance, I gave Pom his reward and we trotted on down an empty lane.

He was straining at the reins to go faster, the road was straight and clear and had a good, green verge, so I let him have his head to canter and he was a happy boy.  As we whizzed past a plastic polytunnel I caught sight of an elderly man drowsing on the tailgate of his old Renault break stunned into wakefulness to see us zoom by and squeaked, “He’s full of life today!” by way of an excuse!

We passed another hamlet with not a soul about.  The bright, slanting sunshine set every shape, every shadow into sharp relief.  The air was clean and heady with the aroma of chlorophyll.  As we left the last houses behind and came to a grassy path running up beside a small plot of vines, I gave a centimetre of rein and we were flying, up to the top of a plateau where we could look back and see home on a far hillside.

Pom’s blood was up now, but we were back on tarmac for a brief spell then down a steep track through the woods, passing close by the hunters’ cabin.  A hunting dog sprang out from the undergrowth giving us pause for thought, but his master, carrying a trug-basket full of mushrooms called the hound to heel and bid us a pleasant ride.

We just about kept to a walk down a steep, stony valley track – this is where we have to bring a repertoire of shoulder-in, leg yields, bending, backing, circling, etc. into play – any brain-teaser to divert Pom when he feels like giving in to gravity and gathering speed like a rolling stone.  At the end of the descent we took the track along a valley running parallel to our own, where we did a nice series of transitions on the flat through a tunnel of greenery.

The next right turn took us into one of our favourite paths;  nearly a kilometre of smooth, straight, dirt track rising very gently to finish sharply uphill.  We both knew what was going to happen next, so there was no point hanging around.  Yep, that horse can run.  I sit tight and thrill to the exhilarating speed.  Aly was taller and probably much faster, but you never knew whether a spot of shade or a patch of yellow leaves would inspire him to a handbrake turn.  That was unnerving (occasionally unseating) way back at the beginning, but it improved my seat-to-saddle velcro no end.

Pom stops for nothing until he hits the last rise and can, at last, be persuaded to draw breath.  There have been times when we’ve done this stretch at a stately walk, just to prove we can, but, well, why spoil such a perfect day?

The remainder of the ride took us back through the village after we’d negotiated a lonely mule lurking behind a totally inadequate combo of loose barbed wire and gappy hedging and a huge John Deere wanting to share our narrow path.

Back along the short stretch of main road, no traffic this time, and left, up the slippy, rutted track leading us home, Pie’s plaintive cries more intent as we got nearer.

Untacked and thoroughly rewarded, Pom for work, the Pie for forbearance, Eric and I took both boys up to a small lawn where we park the trailer and do our ground work, where we can shower the boys off and let them roll and graze in peace and I couldn’t help but run off a few pics as the light was low in the sky……

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(Peace at last for the Pie)

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(what  sweet itch?)

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(views from either end of the yard at the end of the day)

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That was yesterday.  Today was cloudier and cooler, so Pom and I did a little schoolwork this afternoon, with the Pie keeping an eye on us from the field.  I’m glad to report that the feelgood factor carried over and the session was lots of fun.  As well as building up our classical schooling I have a yen to work towards riding in the Spanish “Doma Vaquera” style, so we have been using a very long, sturdy bamboo pole as a “garrocha”.

pferd-garrochaAlthough we’ve introduced it gently and progressively for a couple of sessions, I think Pom had a moment of wondering if I’d picked up a really big stick to use on him as the first couple of times I planted one end to the ground for us to circle round, then under(arm) he made as if to bite it. But then he got into the rhythm and realised it wasn’t an instrument of oppression but a good game!

One of these days I’m determined to get that Tio Pepe hat …….

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My Little …. Zebra?

I apologise if my last post sounded as if I’d awoken from a long slumber and got out of bed on the wrong side.  In the period since my post about Pom recovering from his temper tantrum (Welcome Back Dr. Jekyll), we’ve been through a strange period which has changed many things….

Perhaps I ought to explain.

Sometime in the Spring – well the calendar said Spring, but the weather said Monsoon – I had to admit to myself that I’d slumped into a deep depression.  I know almost everyone goes through depression at some time;  most often as a result of life mustering all its rotten possibilities and dumping them on your head without warning.  If you’re hit by life’s big dramas – separation, divorce, ill-health, bereavement, redundancy, financial worries …. ( I humbly can’t even begin to talk about war, famine, drought, flood, pestilence…..) feeling utterly at sea sort of goes with the territory.

It’s more understandable for people to sympathise with anyone going through depression as a reaction to monstrous changes in their life.   So I found it very difficult to talk about just sliding into depression without any major reasons I wanted to talk about.

The tendency is in my genes, and, over a lifetime, I’ve often been there before.  I watched it happen to my mother from when I was a tiddler, so I kind of knew what to expect.

Maybe losing my darling old horse (though I was expecting it sometime) and a build-up of  other footling worries contributed.  But most people, looking at my life, would think I was damned lucky with my particular lot (I am) and demonstrating weakness of character to complain.  So when I’m down and dispirited I’d rather not harp on about how low I’m feeling.

Finally acknowledging I was back in an old pattern and going to seek help set me on a better course.  And when I was back to feeling more positive, I came to realise I’d been avoiding everyone.  I dropped off-line as much as I cut back with all my friends.  I’m so very sorry guys, but I know no-one likes a kill-joy.

But maybe that’s what I needed.  To get back to looking after the basics in my life, then looking upwards and outwards and letting complications pass me by.  A bit of psychological feng shui …. clearing the mental clutter so to speak.

And this is where having animals anchors you in the real world.  We don’t have any cats or dogs at the moment, but getting up every day to keep up the horses’ routine, hearing that whicker when they see you, seeing their enjoyment of their food and their everyday care drags you up into the pleasure of the moment and reminds you that your duty to them transcends whatever you feel.

Winston Churchill famously called his bouts of depression his ”black dog”, maybe mine should be my ”dark horse”.  Or not.  Because this summer, my number-one horse, who restores my joy in life has been transformed into a …. Zebra.

Picking up on a great promo from equestrian retailer, Derby House, late in the day, I found plain-coloured, reflective, fly sheets were sold out and so I ordered one zebra print and one graffiti print and now – given that I’m very happy with the fit and cover – both styles on Pom make me smile.  With his black fly mask he looks like a horse super-hero!

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Managing a horse with sweet itch is a mixed blessing.  Once you’ve come to terms with the condition being a permanent challenge and you’ve researched the best way to manage your particular horse’s itchiness, you may find buying the products, flysheets perhaps, and having the time to be nurse and carer is both expensive and time-consuming.

I’ve seen horses suffering from sweet itch without relief and all I can say is that my opinion of the horse’s owner is reduced to a level of, on a scale of ten, say, …. minus sumpty-something.  Cruelty, in my book.  You just need to imagine how bad you would feel;  desperately itchy all over and no succour.

But what a great chance it proved to be for me in forging a relationship of trust and mutual need with my ultra-itchy yet aggressive, touch-me-not Pom.

If you have to come to terms with a horse that is miserable, uncomfortable, peevish, sulky, default aggressive and taking it out on you; what an opportunity to prove a friend and refuge in being able to relieve pain, discomfort and alienation.  It’s an opening you grasp with gratitude.

My horse has finally understood that, however alien and annoying he thought I was at the outset, I can solve the itches, scratches and hurts that irritate and enervate and – hey, what do you know – I can provide fun outings and adventures too!   So maybe in being his friend, his Mum, his playmate, his nurse and partner in crime…. just someone he likes hanging out with … I’m bridging that yawning gap.

This is how we’re progressing at the moment. It’s fun. We’re playing with clicker training. We’re hoping the damn flies leave us alone sometime soon.

I look forward, every day, to the moment I get out to see the horses.

And they restore me to my best self again.

Thank you Pom and Pie.  Best therapists ever.

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If you’ve suffered from depression and are are a rider/horse-owner/horse lover, (or none of these!) I would love to know how you cope – please give me the benefit of your experience…!

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Is “Alpha” Better?

It is a credit to most assiduous, amateur horse-owners that they will try almost anything, give most new theories a chance in their quest to improve their riding and relationship with their horses.

Forgive me if, having seen more than a few fashions flare and fade – and as the riding public has grown exponentially into a formidable body of (mainly female) consumers – I take a wry, sideways glance at each new dogma or gadget reputed to lead us up the garden path to equine paradise.

Yes, I’m not insensible to a reasonably argued method of improvement in horsemanship. But if the latest guru’s theories require the purchase of certain own-branded, colour-coded paraphernalia, (do the horses note the logos or themed accessories?) or a double-figure series of expensive books and DVD’s is a pre-requisite…..?  Thankfully I don’t have enough spare cash or credulity rattling around in my pockets to fall for the most blatant sales pitches.

I read and listen.  Sift and sieve. Look and try to learn from the best –  I hope!

Since I last posted, I’ve been out and about a bit, taking Pom in the trailer to ride elsewhere and extend our range, in all senses.  (We’ve had our ups and downs, more of which anon.)  Inevitably, coming into contact with other riders, you come up against their differing theories and practices.

I’ve met nothing but good sense and kindness amongst new friends – but, here and there, I have seen occasional tendencies to follow certain systems somewhat dogmatically, which I find worrying.

Online, obviously, we all have a theory to voice or a point of view to push – otherwise why blog! – and mine is;  take the best advice, but don’t be afraid to think for yourself.

You may not always do things perfectly, but neither do the professionals – and the best always admit this and are usually open to question (i.e.  the ones in the list of blogs I follow!)

But, in recent times, there is one new ”dogma” I take issue with, the more I hear about it,  and that is the concept of the (presumably female) horse owner/rider as ”Alpha Mare”.

Think about it.  The ”Alpha” personality is a psycholanalytical concept evolved to evaluate human behaviour, most especially in a socio-political or business environment.  The CEO, leader of a country or county, opinion former, boss ….. is at the forefront;  the Alpha, the numero uno letter of the alphabet.  (And didn’t the Old Testament God claim to be the Alpha and the Omega;  the Beginning and End of everything…?)

This concept, of course, chimes with all those who think of themselves as leaders, instructors, chiefs and managers.   Alpha, yeah;  we lead from the front!  People need us to show them what’s what!

The ”Alpha Mare”,  herd manager, (”She Who Must Be Obeyed”, nod to Rider Haggard – or Rumpole of the Bailey!) is now supposed to be the horseowner’s talisman or rôle model.  The business model has now been appropriated to denote the Mother of the Herd, whose behaviour we are recommended to emulate.

You know the drill, so I won’t repeat the ways in which we are encouraged to mimic Alpha Mare behaviour to interact with our equine charges.  Yes, it’s evident ….. we should learn from the herd, but then use our human intelligence!

Although our horses retain the basic instincts of their ancestors – most pertinently (and dangerously) the fight or flight instinct – the vast majority of them will never, in their lifetimes – nor will generations of their ancestors – have run free with a herd.  And many of us own geldings – male horses trapped in an asexual adolescence that bears no relation to their ”normal” state.   Our horses are to their wild ancestors as zoo animals are to their free brethren.

So what are we horse owners?

Keepers, carers, guardians, educators, disciplinarians, providers of food and shelter, room cleaners, purveyors of security and confidence builders.  What does that sound like to you?

It sounds a lot like parents to me.

I know anthropomorphism is anathema to many biologists, trainers, animal handlers and I am in NO WAY advocating soft-centred ”spoiling”.  But I am saying there is no shame in being your horse’s ”Mum” (or ”Dad”).  And don’t pretend you haven’t ever said or thought it!

For me, being a mare-type ”Mum” is good – and not all mares are Alpha!

My view is;  bring all the things to your horsemanship that you would aspire to in being a parent.  Even if you aren’t one.

Don’t be afraid to show you love your horse.  It doesn’t mean you cede the parental rôle, but he or she will know and appreciate that bond (even if they pretend not to!).

Apologise if you get things wrong; they like to be able to forgive you.

Be straightforward, but don’t pretend to be the Almighty;  your horse knows you have feet of clay (and mucky boots from providing their ”room service”).  And with your patience, they come to understand that they must trust you to take the lead in the human world.

Mine like to help, to be consulted, to provide an answer to the sticky questions, not to be ground down and be underestimated.  Only then will they give of their best.

I have nothing to sell, nor do I expect you to buy into my opinion.  I’m just a woman, with horses, who likes to hear what they have to say.

Do you have a view?

(In the end;  Alpha, Beta …it’s all Greek to me …. ;-D  )

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And ….. at this weekend’s Chevalroi Salon at Toulouse, I salute a wonderful duo in harmony with each other and their PREs:

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Welcome Back, Dr. Jekyll

I know some of you have been concerned about the way things have been going here.

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Me too.

You never realise quite how pernicious a force anxiety can be until you find yourself deep in a worrisome hole and there seems to be no way to think yourself out.  Whichever way you turn, your own anxieties seem to be enthusiastically digging the ground out from under you.  And then there’s that feeling as if someone laced you into a Victorian corset whilst you were sleeping and you have his lump in your chest so leaden you can hardly breathe.  I think it’s called Fear.

In my last post I recounted how a session of groundwork and lungeing had gone horribly wrong and left Pom and I at teeth-grinding odds with one another.

It wasn’t something that I could mull over endlessly with the other half – there’s no way I could have paid it back in rugby analysis – and, honestly, the more I got stressed, the more I knew I was losing his sympathy as a rational, capable woman (or such is the rôle I pretend to play!).

So what did I do with my dark and shameful worry?  Blurted it out, I’m afraid.  Posted about it here, asked questions on equestrian forums, consulted with my more knowledgeable horsey friends and, generally, opened my eyes and ears to all good advice from many quarters.

But it did send me round in ever decreasing circles, because, of course, everyone has a different angle.

And as my knowledge of the possible causes for Pom’s sudden outburst of aggression increased exponentially, the more overwhelmed I felt by my own implication in the causes and doubtless inadequacy to redress the situation.   And the Fear started to bubble up repeatedly, like acid indigestion.  (This metaphor springs readily to mind as the possibility of ulcers was one of the first suggestions and lines of enquiry.)

To all of you whose advice and help I appreciate and respect, I’d like to thank you and let you know I’ve been looking into many of the avenues recommended (funds permitting) and there are still more I want to go into in the next few days and weeks.   All learning is good learning.   And if that isn’t a quote by some famous sage, I’ll claim it for my own.

But I also have a very sensible friend on the spot, who fixed me with a knowing eye and said, “He just needs riding”.

And, in a nutshell, she’s right.

We were taking up again after almost a four month layoff and the last two years has been an unfortunate series of stops and starts.  So it’s more of a wonder that I haven’t had more problems or just thrown in the towel, found Pom and the Pie a nice new home, and spent more time reclaiming the garden, finishing the gîte and planning a few foreign trips to ease me into my dotage.

But then I’m a stubborn cuss.  Maybe I’m crazy for carrying on the challenge, but then I shouldn’t baulk at the first fence.   Just because I still consider Pom and I to be a partnership, doesn’t mean he’s been longing to play all those loopy games the humans make up.   It’s been a cushy billet here after all.   Generally speaking, cantering over to the fence and whickering is all it takes to score a juicy carrot.

And it’s perilously easy to lose the work ethic;  there are so many excuses and it’s hard to know whether you’re being hard on yourself or easy on yourself when normal routines are interrupted by illness or injury.   But we all know the game is up if you let the Fear win.

So I’ve been trying to notice when the anxiety shallows my breathing.   And count slow deep breaths.   To step back out of Pom’s face.   Ask him little and reward generously.   Do things I know we both enjoy.   Ride the byways in the sunshine (when it shows its face) and laugh into the breeze.   And gallop when we can.

Loosen the reins, loosen the inhibitions, slacken that deadening, serious grip.   And enjoy.

The fitness, the schooling, the necessary hard work will come when we’re ready, I hope.

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So welcome back, Dr. Jekyll.  We’ve had a few good rides together now and we’re feeling more like a team.

I think Mr. Hyde is that turbulent temper that erupts out of nowhere when Pom loses patience with human footling.  It’s up to me to keep him sweet and keep us safe.

 

 

Little example.   On our last ride out, we were cantering up a long steady incline when we found our path blocked by a fallen hazel sapling, too high to jump, too low to pass under.   Problem – and a long trek to go round another way.  So, after a bit of thought, I rode Pom right up beside it, leaned down and backed him up as we tried to drag the sapling aside, then I broke off the branches so we might be able to step over it.  It remained an obdurate obstacle, so, reluctantly, I dismounted, dragged the rest of the tree aside, led Pom round it then remounted.

It doesn’t sound like much, but when he’s agitated, standing still to mount is not a given.  With my left leg still not 100%, I’m always afeared of that split second when you’ve left the ground, but you’re not yet astride, when, if the horse decides to take off, you’re all too vulnerable.  (That was how I broke my leg in the first place.)

But he didn’t, we were fine and the boy was exceptionally pleased with himself for looking after me.   And the more experiences like that we share, the better our mutual understanding.

Thinking about his mercurial, but rare changes of temperament, it struck me that someone else very close to me had also been subject to sudden flights of temper.   Forgive the leap – my lovely but occasionally irascible father!   I thought I’d share this sudden insight with my husband.

“When Pom loses his temper, do you know who he reminds me of?” I asked.

“As it happens, I do,” he said.  “You.”

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Character Forming?

This week the rain desisted, the sun came out and so did my mini, early daffodils.

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Oh good, I thought, Spring can’t be that far off.  My grass arena and the country tracks should dry out and I can get back to work with my horse.

I found out he had other ideas.

There’s absolutely nothing I can do to alter the fact that in the last two years I’ve had three long layoffs due to accidents and operations.  And just when I was getting fitter last Autumn, a weird, inexplicable attack of vertigo meant that, for two months, I was unable to balance on my own two feet, never mind on a horse.  Then the rains came, and when it wasn’t raining, it was snowing….

So you could say our work ethic has been severely undermined!

This hasn’t stopped me spending as much time as possible with and around the horses, in their fields and in their boxes in the barn where they pass the winter nights, but the only time I ventured out on a hack with Pom this year, the going was so slippy, I decided the possiblity of yet another fun spell in hospital just wasn’t worth the risk.

There is also nothing I can do to alter my horse’s past.  If you’ve read earlier posts on this blog, you’ll know that Pom is a Pura Raza Española, or PRE, as Andalusians are now known.  Born in Tarragona in 2001, sold as a yearling, sold as a five year old, sold again nine months later and imported into France.  Thus far all his owners were male.  A year after his importation to France, he was bought by the woman who sold him to me.  She had, although she downplayed the situation, in effect ”rescued” him from a stables where he had had some kind of accident in which his rider had come off and he had been loose in a wood where his lower legs had been grazed and his left eye had been slightly damaged (there is a small cloudy spot, though he sees quite well on this side).  She had given him a good home and regular work, but her business commitments forced her to sell her two horses and move house.

Why on earth did I buy him, you might well ask?

I had been looking a long time for an Iberian horse;  a Lusitano (for several years I’d been riding a friend’s Portuguese horse after my oldie retired) or an Andalusian – and horses with ”papers”, in my (modest) price bracket and geographical area, were relatively rare, so I was prepared to give him a chance.

Long story short; I came, I saw, he conquered.  He came home a week later and in the early stages, I felt he was the Iberian horse I had been looking for – to fulfil my relatively simple requirements of pleasurable riding around the countryside and making modest progress together at dressage.

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Getting to know each other should be the most exciting part of having a new companion. Under saddle, Pom showed himself to be bold and forward-going, virtually nothing phased him.  On the ground, however, that bravado made him apt to be a challenge.  Before he was able to fully integrate with our two older horses he was visibly an unhappy, insecure horse and he soon began to be a serious problem, biting and lunging at Aly and the Pie and also at me and my husband.

In the initial weeks I wouldn’t approach him without having something to put between me and him in case of danger, be it a wheelbarrow, mucking-out fork, lead rope or even a tree. It was winter and he was 8 when he arrived.  We’d had snow, so I was bringing the horses in at night and I thought being around Pom in the stable would help our relationship, but I found myself keeping a short length of branch handy, so if he was eyeing me nastily I proferred that for him to chew on instead of parts of me and that worked quite well.  He got the message and got used to the fact I wasn’t going to go away and that, often as not, food and I arrived at the same moment.

However, leading him in hand was awful;  even with the nearest hand right under his chin he’d still try to turn and bite and even to get ahead of you and turn back on you.  I tried leading from the right in case his impaired vision was causing trouble, but it made no difference.

By the time he knocked me over, jumped over me and gashed my head with his shoe, I began to be seriously unnerved and wondered whether I ought to get help or get rid of him.  I certainly made double sure to wear a helmet when leading him in future.

But, in the way these things tend to happen, whilst I was trying to decide what to do I carried on riding him, which was a joy, and handling him and breathing calmly and evenly to keep the misgivings down and disguised, and suddenly, it was better weather, and time to leave the horses out at night and at last they seemed to have negotiated a compromise between themselves and allowed Pom to settle in.

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We appeared to have weathered the worst and over the subsequent months my worries subsided and we began to enjoy each other’s company.  Pom actually turned out to be more appreciative of stroking, scratching, rubbing and grooming (he very obviously appreciated treatments to calm his itchy mane and tail) than either Aly or the Pie.  In short, there was no more need for the chewing stick and we became a good team.

A year or so later I had a complicated leg fracture which took a long time to heal and left me much weakened, which in part was a reason for tripping backwards and breaking my jaw and fracturing my skull when around the horses, (on a stone wall or a hoof, I still can’t be sure which).  Since when I have been much more risk-averse and only fit enough to ride for relatively brief periods.  Though when I have, the Pom has scarcely been any different than pre-breakages.

And so back to this week.  I’ll make no bones (sic) about the fact that, because of our history, I have only done groundwork with Pom in very restricted situations where I felt safe and I have mainly side-stepped lungeing.

On Monday, after a dry weekend when I was otherwise occupied, I prepared Pom, mounted up by the barn and rode down to the school, where we had a ”bitty” but not entirely unsuccessful short schooling session.  One thing I absolutely love about this horse – however fresh he is – he has never bucked or tried in any way to dislodge me when under saddle.  However, getting him relaxed, balanced, even, and heeding downward transitions was never going to be a cinch.

What the heck, we needed to get back to some basics so, on Tuesday, I decided we should give lungeing another go.  It actually went better than expected, and we carried on with a few basic exercises on the ground until I saw he was getting frustrated and ”lippy”, so we finished on a good note (one rule I had imposed was respecting my space, so he is now a champion ”backer”!) and left it at that.

On Wednesday, my friend Kerri came to ride the Pie – as she has a couple of times previously – for a short hack out.  This has worked well before as there’s no separation drama for the horses (now Aly’s no longer with us to keep Pie company).  But the Pie is smaller, much older and slower than Pom, and he quickly became frustrated – not having seen the greater outdoors for a couple of months – at being restricted by his friend’s pace.

About twenty minutes into the ride, Kerri found the Pie faltering and, indeed, upon closer inspection, though his feet were clear and there was no heat or visible problem he was favouring his left fore.  A touch of arthritis in his hips and particularly in his shoulders was one reason he had been allowed to join the slightly older Aly in early retirement years ago, yet he had been sprightly and fit enough recently for the farrier and vet to give their encouragement for some light work (and Kerri’s definitely much lighter work than me).

Obviously we had to turn back for home.  Kerri dismounted to lead the Pie and I would have done the same, except the only way I could confidently control Pom was from up top. He’d sweated himself up into a state of frustrated over-excitement and it was all I could do to hold on to him.  It was not exactly the pleasant ride out we’d anticipated.

Yet by the time we got back he had calmed down and we decided to keep to the original plan which was to try loading the boys into the new (old) trailer, which I’d parked conveniently (yep, I’m slowly getting the hang of reversing!) and opened up in readiness.

After untacking and a quick breather we brought them round and Kerri took the Pie towards the ramp.  He was taking his time, but I didn’t think we’d have problems, as the Pie is generally quite amenable to persuasion.  I did however twig that, instead of positioning Pom by the forward, exit ramp to encourage the Pie up and through towards him, it might be better with Pom not far behind Pie, that being the usual herding order. Bingo! Pie onto the ramp and in without a fuss.

Pom’s turn and he took a little sniff of the ramp and strolled in like a pro.  This is the upside of his boldness;   nothing scares him.

I was so pleased with him as, to me, this trailer represents our main hope for future progress and it’s certainly been one helluva long time coming.

On Thursday, I had to go out to a legal meeting and a miss a glorious, bright, warm day for riding, but on Friday, I hesitated between riding out on my own and risking repeating an overexcited, stressful experience, or schooling at home again, or a little more groundwork. As the previous day had left me wrung out, I opted for the latter, much to my later regret.

I started by placing a couple of obstacles in the small area of field we were using (nearer the house than our ”school”) for us to do simple exercises of walking up to, around and between them, bending, stopping, backing;  just trying to get him more lightly responsive again to forward, halt, turn and reverse in different configurations and combinations, but even so, from the start, I sensed resistance.  Suddenly the softness went from his eyes and he went back to the behaviour I thought we had long overcome; trying to bite my leading hand, trying to get round in front of me, striking out with his forelegs (damn and blast training him for Spanish Steps).  So, reckoning he was bored and not comprehending why we were doing what we were doing, I aimed to send him off into a lungeing circle, but time and again he attempted to come back in, as a challenge, not as a join-up.  At one point I fumbled the rein and whip, and, seizing the advantage, Pom charged in at me and made to bite the back of my (helmeted) head. (I didn’t see all of this as I leapt aside, but I’d asked my husband to stay close at hand and keep an eye on us in case anything went wrong.)

I’m sure at this point we had lost all coherent communication and I was now dreading another trip in the ambulance, so I did the only thing that came into my mind as a solution – bear with me and don’t laugh – lunged him round a tree!  The advantage of this being that, in keeping me, him and the tree as a triangle, with the line forming one side of the triangle away from me to the ”base” line between the tree and the horse, if he started to turn in, I could prevent him doing so by keeping the line taut between him and the tree ahead of him.  Not exactly something you’d find in any textbook, but it did, finally, enable me to get my point across in safety.

A short while was enough for me to note that his eye had softened and his jaw relaxed and thus to feel able to approach him again and re-establish contact.  I did, however, feel bitterly disappointed that I’d confused or angered him to the degree where he felt he had to make his unhappiness felt by dangerous aggression.  I’d seen the resurgence of that little devil in him I thought we had exorcised years ago.  I also hated to feel the return of the fear I’d managed to put behind me and a loss of the complicity we’d built over three years.

That was yesterday; today it’s freezing cold and, intermittently, snowing again. I felt it better for both of us to have a day off to enable us to return to routine normality.

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What conclusions to draw …..?

My gut feeling is that Pom comes from a breed honed to work cattle, fight bulls and parade their owners at the ferias.  He was bred, owned, probably broken in and worked by different men for most of his early life and (though it can be invidious to generalise) the equestrian culture of Spain is a far more machismo affair than that of Northern Europe.  He was probably treated strictly and learned to defend his corner.

He may only have been castrated at six, on entry into France, as in Spain many male horses are left entire, but French riding establishments do not welcome stallions.  He was also apparently shut in and left unexercised for a long while after his accident – which must have occurred not long after his arrival in France – becoming bored and sour.  He certaintly did not seem at all socially adept on arrival here, treating horses and humans with suspicion and sullen wariness.  Even after finding his place and feeling more secure, his tendancy is still to try and dominate.  In our very limited ”herd” situation, though he now defers to the Pie’s elder statesman status at a haynet, it doesn’t stop him herding and bullying his fieldmate.  He was also quite gratuitously aggressive towards a weakened Aly, who had been top horse before his arrival.

I knew from the beginning he would require firm but intelligent – strategic handling even, and I considered my experience and nerve sufficient to the task.  Even so, I was unprepared for the level of aggression he showed and have had to apply all my resources to upping my game and conquering his demons for both our sakes. His life is now secure, reasonably natural and content and his rules are few but clear and I suppose the hardest thing to endure yesterday was to feel that after we’d come through so much together, it felt like going back to zero.

An over-reaction, emotionally, as today he has been as good as gold to be around.  I suppose he has made his point in the only way he knows.

But I wonder what makes him so dislike being worked from the ground and lunged?

I dream of the day I might play freely with him at liberty as well as riding him ever better, but I know that until we are able to keep up a regular routine – with a trainer to advise – and put in much more work, that dream is going to remain, tantalisingly, just beyond my grasp.  But what do any of us get involved with horses for, if not to strive towards those slight but shining possibilities ……..

*****

A Postscript:

As regular readers will know, I am not usually to be found lacking a sense of humour, or, for that matter, using this blog as a soapbox, but I have had a gut-full of sick, tasteless jokes (even from friends) and ill-informed media comment about the horsemeat scandal in the UK.  I choose not to eat or buy red meat and, while everyone has the right to choose what they put in their stomachs now, it may not be the case for larger populations in the future.

For what it’s worth here’s my view.  It seems to me the present problem is twofold:

Firstly, government legislation, backed by local food inspection should have safeguarded that if you buy a product labelled “beef”, that is what you get.  The proliferation of European legislation and the monopolising tactics of the multinationals have closed local abattoirs, butchers and grocers and made the standards for farmers so exacting that the supply chain for cut-price, processed food has lengthened to the point of untraceability.  Hence illegal operations have been able to make a mockery of governments and consumers.  The only way to fight back is to buy local, demand quality and pay the price for good food even if it means making other economies and, if there’s any way you can ….. grow (at least some of) your own.

Secondly, the scandal of live transport of horses has still not been properly tackled.  And there are far higher welfare standards for farm livestock destined for the plate than for equines; old, unfit and unwanted, who end up in the food chain.  Presently, though it’s distasteful to me personally, there is a demand for cheap meat and a need to dispose of an excess of horseflesh.  The only way I can accept a justification of any consumption of any mammalian (or other) meat is for animal breeding, welfare, transport and slaughter conditions to be beyond reproach.

If you couldn’t look your food honestly in the eye …. then don’t eat it;  I’m sure we could all agree on that!

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The Winter Waltz

When most people think of the South of France – at least those that don’t live here – perhaps the first images that come to mind will be of deep red wine and brassy sunflowers

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charming, higgledy-piggledy villages basking under an azure sky and lazy lunches on shady terraces ….

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And you wouldn’t be wrong. These are just some of the many reasons why France is the most visited country in the world and why people like me have been seduced to leave their colder, greyer homelands to journey south and stay.

But, as in any attractive tourist destination, the people who live here all year round – and often survive by purveying and perpetuating the dream from one holiday season to the next – see a very different side to their area out of season.

Most places the well-off go on holiday, the less-well-off live in relative isolation and dare I say it, pleasant tedium, once they’ve gone home. Villages echo like ghost towns.  Shops, restaurants and cafés often take an extended break;  the festivals and fêtes, dances and displays pack up and hibernate once the sun has dipped in the sky and life becomes ordinary and humdrum, just like any other rural place.  And mostly, I rather like it like that.

For me, the greatest joy of living down here in the south-west was the wonderful climate, with four distinct seasons, the coldest being the shortest, and almost enjoyable for being so.  The sweetest – the ”bel arrière saison” – the beautiful late season, when a clement late summer seemed to last almost until Christmas. The garden would revive after the heat of high summer and the long, low rays bathed autumn evenings in a golden glow. Winter was usually a short, sharp blast, then spring would start early and ripen to a glorious garden riot in May. Summers were reliably sunny and hot with a rainstorm every couple of weeks to refresh the air, which was ideal for the summer lettings we used to do back then.

And, as a bonus, the climate in the nineties and early years of the twenty-first century was well suited to keeping horses.

When we bought our first horse here, in summer 1990, we had 25 acres of land, but only about an acre of it was fit to be called grazing. Over the long years, in our spare time, (aside from renovating our own home, restoring houses for other people for a living and letting our house to holiday visitors in the summer!) we cut back overgrown scrub and thickets to bring farmland, long abandoned to nature, back into use.

Eventually we had several acres of decent grazing and woodland fenced off for the horses and they always had enough shade or shelter. For the sharpest of cold spells I asked a friend to bring me a rug from England as there were none available locally. It was a classic, green canvas New Zealand rug with a wool lining, which Aly probably wore thirty-odd times in his life. By the time the Pie arrived, they had a polytunnel-like shelter in the woods which they occasionally used, (Aly never used the first shelter we built, probably in the wrong place!) and as the Pie grew a winter coat to resemble a flokati rug, he was fine without a blanket.

For the kind of riding I did, with no chance of, or incentive to compete, it was easy to let the horses lead a very natural life, charging up and down the wooded ”terraces” cut into the hillside by some ancient farmer to get to their various paddocks, which we changed with electric fencing to preserve grazing and keep the boys from pigging out! Accidentally not too far from the notion of ”Paddock Paradise” astutely developed by Jaime Jackson.

But now our climate has definitely changed.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn more recent years our summers have been drier and our rain has come in longer spells in spring, autumn and winter. And then we have had more and longer harsh spells in winter which seems to begin sooner and end later.

As Aly and the Pie got older, we cleared space in our lovely, old stone barn and built quite rustic loose boxes. (And that’s another story entirely – if you’ve spent much time in French ”Brocantes” you’ll have an idea of the sort of things we found and couldn’t bring ourselves to throw away!) Initially we used the boxes when Aly had bouts of colic, then with the longer and snowier spells of weather, the more we were bringing the boys in most nights in winter. A further box was added when we bought Pom, blankets were bought for extra cold days outside and extra cold nights in the barn and soon our easy, natural way of horse-keeping got a lot more complicated.  And I haven’t even got going on feeding and shoeing!

And so we do the winter dance. Blankets tonight or not? Is it going to sleet or snow? Outdoor lightweight or heavyweight blankets? Will they get too hot if the weather warms up while we’re out shopping? Shall we bring them in until the blizzard stops? Ah, there is more too-ing and fro-ing than the hokey-cokey.

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This next week’s weather forecast is another mix of snow and sub-zero temps. and warmer wet days. Frankly I’d rather be dancing to the Rites of Spring!

Meanwhile the odd treat keeps up equine morale ….

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How are you and your animals coping with winter conditions?

Posted in equitation, Horses, Living in France, Musings, Riding, Rural Living, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Home Alone

(……….Or How Two’s Company, But Three Isn’t Necessarily A Crowd.)

Today we tackled a “First” that I’ve been putting off for a while.  Taking Pom out for a hack and leaving the Pie behind ….On His Own.

The last time the Pie was left behind he ploughed through several electric fences as though they were strands of candy floss.  But that was many years ago, when he and his new best friend Aly had just moved in together.

As I’ve written before in “The Other One “, the Pie came to us entirely of his own accord.

His “family” built a new house about half a mile up our lane and no-one seemed to ride him.  They were occupied with finishing their house and moving in and a new baby was, increasingly evidently, on the way.  He seemed well fed and looked after but he was obviously a sociable type and desperate for company.

It became a regular occurrence to find the Pie standing next to my horse’s fence, content just to be near another equine.  He seemed to accept his fate with a long-suffering sigh when I slipped a headcollar over his ears and trudged him back home.  Then, a day or so later, he’d boomerang right back again.

Inevitably we got to know the family.  The pregnant woman had been a professional horsewoman and made sure we knew it.  She name-dropped the famous riders she’d worked for or rubbed shoulders with.  As she told it, she’d been the mainstay of a variety of riding establishments;  most recently at the château of a well-known, local millionaire who kept a string of horses to entertain his rich and famous friends and clients.  Florence had photos on the wall of herself with Tina Turner and Richard Gere, as well as sailing over a massive oxer at a national show-jumping competition.

The Pie, bless him, is a relatively small and not at all showy kind of horse, whose virtues are of the homely variety, so he was of no interest whatsoever as a mount for Flo.  With disparaging reference to his riding school past, she referred to him as a “transport de viandes” – a meat carrier!  He had, in fact belonged to the partner’s ex-girlfriend, a rackety sort of girl who had airily discarded both the Pie and the partner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe was now kept as a pet – maybe a possible future ride for the children.  To  catch him, the partner used to chase him round the field waving a halter, which, after he’d given up the chase, he threw at the Pie as he galloped off into the distance.  These many years later, the Pie will always move away swiftly if you suddenly raise an arm.  (Though in all other aspects, he really is good as gold – if occasionally a surprisingly canny “bear of little brain”!)

When the small field beside the new house was sold as another building plot, Flo and partner readily accepted our offer to keep the Pie with Aly for company.   Aly, who had always been quite self-sufficient, eyed the Pie with resignation and welcomed him with a bite on the bum.  The Pie squealed happily.  He was home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA while later, his owners needed the money so they decided to sell the Pie to an acquaintance who wanted a “lawnmower” for his large garden ……of course we offered to buy him, refusing to believe that the Pie had suddenly acquired a value above rubies.

Now the Pie was ours, he taught my husband to ride and was a lively mount for more experienced friends to accompany Aly and I on country rides.  On the other hand, there was no way we could go out without him:  the Pie wouldn’t let Aly out of his sight.  No fence or shelter could contain him and at that time we hadn’t built the boxes in the barn.

As Aly got older and wheezier, I rode less and less and finally he and the Pie were free to live the life of Riley, untroubled by all the bothersome saddles, bridles and paraphernalia dreamed up by us humans.

Two was good company for around ten years.  And then there were three.

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A lot of people, including Flo, felt they ought to inform us – not that we were asking anyone’s opinion – that three was bound to be difficult;  a Crowd.

But once Pom had decided to unpack his bags (and baggage) and settle down, the three geldings got on remarkably well together.   Pie took a shine to the handsome newcomer and recovered some youthful verve.  While they fooled around pretending to be colts, Aly was able to keep his own counsel and snooze in a shady corner to conserve his strength and breath.  And when I rode Pom, who was always good about going out alone, Aly and the Pie reverted to their old partnership.  Pie would holler for a while but showed no inclination to follow.

But now, Aly is gone and we are back to two again.

Before Christmas, Eric wondered out loud if he could ride the Pie again.  Our vet and farrier agreed that a little light work might do him more good than harm, so I asked Kerri, who is almost Kylie-sized, to saddle up the Pie and join Pom and I on a couple of short, gentle trial rides.  It was a treat to see his little face light up at being out and how game he was to go.  Kerri rode him very tactfully but it was obvious that he wouldn’t be capable of much greater mileage, even with “Bute” and especially not with Eric up top.

So, it had to be tackled.  Leaving the Pie  Home Alone.

Dank, mizzly, slippery weather has been the dish of the day for the last few weeks with hardly a shard of sunshine to bolster our better intentions.  So it’s been easy to procrastinate, especially since the other three of us weren’t at all keen to push the issue.

Today dawned a little brighter, so I tacked Pom up and Eric led the Pie into his box in the barn, with eye-high walls.  Short of making like a springbok or breaking through like a rhino, Pie would be a pampered prisoner with a huge hay-net and an on-hand treat dispenser – Eric.   We kept all this as cool and calm as possible, (though I cursed I’d forgotten to buy some “calmer” to put in his feed) and with a minimum of fuss, I hopped on Pom and off we went.

We took our shortest, kilometer, round-the-block ride, phone in pocket in case of trouble.  Pom was fresh and keen to race, but conditions underfoot were slippery as eels and we kept a steady pace to get back quickly and safely.

We were home within twenty minutes,  despite stopping every few minutes to listen out for neighing or frantic hoofbeats!  Pie had wailed and kicked the door, but as soon as we hove back into sight all was well.

A promising “First” for this budding year.  Next hurdle – into the trailer ……..

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