Sunday, 18 December 2011

Garth jumping....

Was having fun tonight making a video of us riding the horses in the frost today and thought I'd post this other You tube video of Garth and I in action last year at Howe Country Centre in Fife. So you can all see my lovely horse who is the subject of many a blog post. He jumped really well in this class but rider error meant we got four faults at the last fence. I am going to try and make some more videos for this blog - hoping to get a video camera in my stocking so here's hoping Father Christmas is listening!

Fooling around with the horses...

As some of the country lies under a blanket of snow - here at home we have been visited by Jack Frost every night so everything is frozen solid. The arena resembles a concrete car park. This weekend the weather was so gorgeous that Julie and I were not to be foiled and we headed up to one of my fields that has such a good grass covering that it was brilliant to ride on. There followed a great fun workout which finished with us popping a little cross country jump for fun. My horse Garth and Julie's horse Jerry, were fresh as winter daisies as they hadn't been ridden for a week and we got the feeling they enjoyed the ride as much as we did. This was the first time Jerry has jumped a natural fence since he left the racetrack - looks like he and Julie will be heading for the spring hunter trials!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Drawing the story...

I can't remember how young I was when I first became aware of horses. My parents were completely non horsey, although my dad had ridden once as young lad, my lovely mum, although she was bought up in rural Wales, had never had anything to do with them and to this day remains nervous of them. I, on the other hand to their slight bewilderment, became obsessed with them at the age of 6. I had no chance of having a pony back then and it was long before we had computers and instant images, so, as a voracious reader, I took to devouring any horse or pony book I could get my hands on. I was entranced with the fictional lives of the characters in all the Pullein-Thompson sisters' books, who were probably the most prolific and famous horsey authors of the day when I was very young. Although even then, their world of hunting, baggy jodphurs, endless picnics and jolly japes was fast being consigned to history, I still wanted to be one of these children, living their idyllic, adventurous lives but most of all I wanted their ponies. I also knew off by heart back then all the instructions in my 'Manual of Horsemanship', although I had yet to set a  foot in a stirrup.

Sisters Josephine, Christine and Diana Pullein- Thompson, their books enriched my childhood.
Then I moved onto the Jinny at Finmory stories by Patricia Leitch - anyone of the same vintage as me will remember these stirring stories about a red-headed girl who lived in a huge old house in the north of Scotland and into whose life, through a circus lorry crashing (you'll have to read the book), came an arab called Shantih. I had not long moved to Scotland myself and was about the same age as the fictional Jinny when I first read these stories and they enthralled me. Her parents were seeking a new life in the north like mine were but they sounded way cooler because they let a wild, rough lad called Ken come and stay and he sounded pretty exciting too!

As much as I enjoyed reading the stories I also loved looking at the illustrations in all these books. There were some fabulous illustrators at work back then. Back then in the days before desktop publishing, photographs were still very expensive to use and print and illustrators were very important. Many of the books I was given dated back to just after World War II and although some might have a grainy photograph on the frontispiece, most were illustrated with glorious drawings and prints.
I grew to love the wonderful work of the likes of Stanley Lloyd who illustrated books like Primrose Cummings' 'The Chestnut Filly', 'Silver Snaffles' and Betty Cavanna's 'Spurs for Suzanna' and Harold Eldridge whose wonderful drawings illustrated Walter Farley's 'Black Stallion' books.

A Stanley Lloyd illustration from my copy of 'The Chestnut Filly' by Primrose Cumming
At about the age of 8, I had been given a fantastic little book first published in 1941, which I still have to this day, by the superb artist John Skeaping RA called 'How to Draw Horses'. Skeaping was a sculptor and artist who was married to fellow sculptor Barbara Hepworth. I loved his drawings in this book, I adored the way he could convey in a few simple lines, a horse's power, grace and more importantly bring alive its movement. I started practising drawing horses and soon covered every available surface with my early attempts and when I was lucky enough to get my own pony, (see earlier blog), I used to lie in the grass and sketch him in his field.

A Skeaping illustration from his book - 'How to draw horses'

One of my earliest masterpieces, in the style of a Skeaping!
As I got older and started scornfully discarding those book I considered beneath me as a sophisticated  teenager, I did keep some of my most treasured horsey books and to this day they are the pretty much the only childhood books I have. I also started actively collecting antique books that contained beautiful or humorous equine illustrations. I have always been a very visual person and indeed now work as a designer on a magazine dealing with images and photographs every day. Back then though, as a schoolgirl I enjoyed art and although I am not particularly talented and I never cracked drawing the human figure (that still bugs me today), I really enjoyed trying to capture the structure and liquid movement of horses.

Getting better - I was a bit older when I did this one.

Today I still doodle horses on paper - if I drift off in a meeting or when I have lost interest in a phone conversation. I rarely finish a drawing off properly though as I like trying to capture their spirit - much like Skeaping, but sadly with only a minute modicum of his giant artistic talent. I will occasionally find the time to do a finished piece and for these I prefer working in mono - pen and ink or pencil in particular and I have drawn a couple of friends' horses as a present for them but I much prefer free-style doodling.

I will occasionally try a more detailed drawing
But I still prefer trying to capture movement in a few hasty strokes.

A real treat for me remains, in rare quiet moment when there is no one on the yard, to take a sketch pad into the stables and make some quick drawings of the horses. Drawing the curve of a neck or the turn of a head can give you a real feel of a horse you know well, in a completely different form than a photograph can. If I come across an old sketch I can usually tell what horse I was drawing even if it is just a few lines and the horse itself is long gone. When you try to draw a horse you feel it's weight and its peculiar physical structure but you try and capture a sense of it as a living being - and trying to translate that, however amateurishly, onto paper fascinates me.

Illustration from a lovely 1925 book on hunting 'Hullo! is that how you ride?' I wouldn't like to be the poor horse though.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Storm force...

Phew that was a storm and a half this week - wind speeds here were phenomenal. I would tell you what they were but the wind monitor on the boy's weather station blew away! You could play that kids game where you open your jacket and use it as a cape to lean into the wind in Batmanesque fashion. I had a good look around the morning after and one of the big horse sheds is missing a skylight and the bit that fixes the gable end down (no idea what the technical roofing term is) but worst hit is my little greenhouse which looks like Tracy Emin got her hands on it and turned it into a piece of artwork entitled 'Greenhouse I threw Stones At'. I can see it now in the Tate Modern. There's not much left of it at all. All in all though we came of lightly considering we live on top of a hill and I am quite relieved to see that there is no worse damage, although I think we may struggle to get a roofer as there are lots of properties far worse hit around here.

An Eric a day...
We had our last visit of the year to the yard the other day from Eric Mackechnie who comes to keep me on the straight and narrow on the flat. Eric is a great teacher who really knows his stuff, among many other things he is also a World Class Development Para Equestrian Dressage Coach. Since he started coming here a few months ago I have started working my horses far more constructively in the school as he has filled me with ideas and inspiration. In between the hard work he also makes me laugh a lot which is never a bad thing. It is so easy to get into the same old rut of a riding routine when you constantly school on your own so it is a real treat to have someone standing on the ground while I ride all three horses one after the other. I am really looking forward now to doing some dressage with all my horses in 2012. A few of my livery clients are also enjoying lessons with him including Fiona who keeps her horse Dougie with us. Eric is showing her a way forward with her horse which makes sense to both of them.

Eric and Fiona chat about the lesson, I don't think Dougie is interested anymore though :)
That's the spot mum, Dougie enjoys having his sweaty neck scrubbed after he's worked hard!

Monday, 5 December 2011

No foot no horse....

An old saying but still so true, I had my blacksmith here the other day and we were chatting about my youngster Amelie's dam, Cavalla. I had to retire her from competition at an early age when she went lame and it was attributed to incorrect shoeing. Ever since then I have taken a keen interest in the way my horses are shod. The farrier involved was, I hasten to add, not the one I use now.

Those of you who've been reading my blog may know that my first ever post was in fact about losing  Cavalla earlier this year (read it here). I bought her as a rising 5-yr-old and conformationally she was pretty good apart from slightly upright front pasterns but nothing that put me off buying her. She had good, tough feet and I had a Master Farrier shoeing her, so all was well - or was it? Over time it appeared to me that her toes were getting a bit longer but when I mentioned it my blacksmith reassured me saying that they were fine and that he wouldn't want to be taking any more off them. Not knowing as much back then I accepted his explanations - he was after all a professional.

By the time she was 9 Cavalla and I were enjoying competing regularly up to 1.20m classes. Then she started intermittently to go slightly lame on a front foot. Due to her age my first thought was that it was navicular however, further investigation led to a diagnosis of  degenerative joint disease or DJD, in the affected foot. My devastation at this news from the vet at the renowned Dick Vet hospital in Edinburgh was compounded by the fact that, in his opinion, the disease had set in due to incorrect shoeing for her conformation. To say that I was upset is to put it mildly, I had trusted my farrier to do a good job, but looking at the X-rays with the vet it was easy to see the damage that having a broken pastern/hoof axis leaving a long toe and unsupported heels, had done to the internal foot structure - poor Cavalla's pedal bone was at completely the wrong angle.

Foot balance is crucial
The vet explained that he saw quite a lot of this long toe/low heel shoeing and that it caused real damage but, he explained, some horses cope with it for a long time if they aren't working too strenuously or jumping bigger fences. My mare had been jumping fair sized fences regularly though and her favoured landing foot, which by far the worse affected, couldn't cope with taking the weight of her body plus the rider's time after time on an incorrectly angled foot. The prognosis was gloomy - although the vet explained, a lot could be done to slow further degeneration by completely rebalancing her foot.

Cavalla jumping as a 7-yr-old - she was quite extravagant over her fences.

Unfortunately this extravagance only exacerbated the damage done by landing on a badly balanced foot.

Cavalla was expertly shod at the vet school before she left - the farrier worked with her X-rays in front of him. She was fitted with special eggbar shoes to support her heels and her hooves were trimmed to be much more upright to suit the natural slope of her pasterns. In fact I was amazed at how short her toes were trimmed compared to previously. The farrier told me that for optimum results they would need to be shorter still but such major change had to be done slowly so as not to be trimming sensitive parts of the hoof and also to allow the underlying structures to resettle into the new balance. We were moving house at the time so I found myself a super new farrier and Cavalla was re-X-rayed twice over the next few months so he could see what was happening. This re-balancing was so successful that over the next year she became sound with shoes although she was never again sound without them.

What happened to Cavalla?
I retired her to the field and after a long discussion with the vet in Edinburgh I decided to breed from her as she was a talented mare with a superb, gentle temperament. Before you shout at the screen - but why would you breed from a mare with DJD? The expert vet told me that he considered the condition had been caused by incorrect shoeing and that there was, in his opinion, no reason why it would pass onto any foals. He did advise me though to check any potential stallions carefully for slightly more sloping pastern conformation. So that's what I did and Cavalla's story had a pretty happy ending - she went on to breed me a few super foals, who all inherited better pastern conformation and none of them have had any problems.

Cavalla was shod every five weeks for the rest of her life and in the end lived to the ripe old age of 21. It was only during her three years that her DJD started to bother her and this was at first eased by raising her heels on rubber riser pads between her shoe and foot and then later by a low level, daily dose of bute. When it became clear that the condition was progressing and pain relief was no longer working effectively I made the decision to have her put down. What I found most distressing at the end was that, apart from that one bad front foot, she was in rude health.
"It was a salutary lesson for me back then and one I have never forgotten. I am now incredibly fussy about the pastern/hoof angle in all my horses"

It was a salutary lesson for me back then and one I have never forgotten. I am now incredibly fussy about the pastern/hoof angle in all my horses and make sure that they are shod regularly, for their personal conformation, to ensure that they are never working on long toes, low heels. For some this means being shod as often as once a month if they have fast growing feet. I have had a super farrier now for many years and he looked after Cavalla for the last 10 years of her life, it was his care and attention that helped her remain sound for so long as an old lady.  He was also fantastic at replacing a thrown front shoe as soon as possible, as without it she was very lame and for that I am really grateful to him.

These days I like to take all my horse's back shoes off over the winter even if they are working and sometimes the fronts as well, if they have good feet, as I now believe it is important to give hooves a break from metal and nails and let the hoof structures work as nature intended. I am not evangelical about this though and there are certainly horses that need shoes to work comfortably, I have owned plenty myself over the years. I am just lucky at the moment that the horses I have, have good tough feet.

Listen to your instincts
So although there are some superb farriers out there, if you have doubts that yours isn't making as good a job of your horses feet as you would like, then don't be afraid to ask another recommended farrier to have a look - in my experience most are quite happy to give you their private opinion. I made the error once of not listening to my gut instinct with disastrous results for my horse - and that's not a mistake I will make again.

So here's to good farriers everywhere!

Friday, 2 December 2011

A livery yard owner's life for me....

Running the livery yard in the summer is fun - endless hours of daylight, happy relaxed clients enjoying spending time with their horses and each other, schooling, hacking and competing, happy horses, peacefully grazing. Everything is green and lush and clean in the endless sunshine. (Ok, I may be exaggerating about that last bit - this is Scotland after all). However winter here can be long, the horses all come in at night as we are on an exposed hill and, although some clients have been lucky this year - the mild autumn has meant their horses have only just come in at the beginning of December - they are now all in overnight. This means time is short during the week and people are rushed, especially in the mornings. This is a DIY yard so the place springs to life at about 6.30am, with various shifts of people coming and going until it goes quiet again at about 9am.

If I am working from home then I am lucky in that I can ride at one or two horses before 9am as it is only a short walk from the stables to my office in a shed in the garden and one of the pleasures of winter is riding in crisp sunshine. I'm not so keen if it's freezing, wet and windy though. If it is a day in the office in Edinburgh though I need to get up and get all my beds done, feeds ready etc so that when someone kindly brings my horses in for me in the late afternoon, everything is ready for them. We have a friendly system going here where people help one another, which means that someone will always bring in your horse or turn it out for you then you return the favour. Most of my clients don't have the luxury of being able to ride early during the week, so mornings are a flurry of rug changing and turning out.

The only residents on the yard who couldn't care less how cold it gets.

Groundhog day
When winter first sets in everyone is cheerful, there is a real sense of satisfaction in seeing your horse tucked up in a warm cosy stable, munching contentedly while the wind and rain blow outside. Then most people here are looking forward to a good break at Christmas when they can hopefully enjoy some riding. After the festive season though, as winter grinds on, a sort of grim slogging determination to get through it can set in. February is definitely the month when it seems to me that everyone on the yard seems at their lowest ebb. The winter has been long and it can be far from over, small niggles take on major significance and as the yard owner it can sometimes feel like you are experiencing your own Groundhog day!

Everyone gets tired and I am no exception - last year when I had seven horses to do there were days when the sleet was horizontal, the tractor and all the troughs were frozen and I could be spotted stomping around, muttering darkly into my scarf about selling up and moving to the Caribbean.

The one I really do feel sorry for is my lovely husband Nigel. He is the one that has to go out in all weathers and fix everything. As he used to farm in the Scottish Borders he is used to the vagaries of a Scottish winter but I am still grateful that most of the time he just rolls his eyes when I add another thing to his list of things to fix, pulls on his coat and goes out to sort it. If it is going to be a two man job then he is helped, as often as not, by our great friend Tom, who keeps Nigel's occasional tendency to the slapdash under control with a raise of an eyebrow that signifies 'I think we'd better fix it properly'. Last year our old hayshed collapsed under the sheer weight of the snow sitting on it. Nigel and Tom had to carefully dismantle the unsafe bits so that it didn't fall on anyone but we still had lots of straw in one end holding up part of the collapsed roof. For a couple of month I played a game of giant Jenga - taking bales from all around hoping that the roof wouldn't fall in on me. It has left me with a permanent tendency to duck inside the tractor when I pick up a straw bale.

Days of daffodils
Then at last March comes and the days imperceptibly begin to lengthen and the first tendrils of spring can be seen in the ground and felt in the air and magically everyone seems to chill again, the horses sense it too - they quite literally get a spring in their step on the way to the field in the morning and they stop hanging around the gates in the afternoon .

My favourite time here is when the daffodils come up along our drive - it heralds the start of the glorious long days of summer when the sun only sets for a few hours and so my dreams of a Caribbean idyll recede once again - although I'd still like a holiday home there if anyone's got one going spare!

Now in print...

Exciting news - I can now report that I am a bona fide columnist! My first one appears in the January issue of Horse & Rider, it is a magazine that I have enjoyed reading for many years now. There's nothing better than relaxing in a scalding hot bath on a winter's night with a copy - although I do emerge resembling a prune, albeit a clean and fragrant one.
When the editor Alison Bridge first asked me I wondered if people would want to read about my life as I am not a celebrity rider but she assured me that my somewhat hectic life would definitely be of interest so I have given it a go. I think there will be many readers who, like me, have to juggle life around to fit in their beloved horses. The issue is out now - if you buy a copy then flick to the back page column and let me know what you think. The one thing that was really difficult was to condense everything down into 400 words - writing a blog is completely different you can waffle on for as long as you like.