Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Bee Good, invite some new friends into your yard- For the country's sake...

This is slightly off topic but a couple of recent events got me thinking. I hope it might encourage anyone who keeps horses to let a little extra wildlife into their yards for positive effect.

Last week I tweeted a news article about the decline of the UK Honey Bee Population and the significant impact this could have on the economy, particularly the rural economy. I won't regurgitate that article but the gist is that we rely on bees to pollenate UK crops, and the bee population is dwindling. So, as a bit of an amateur bee keeper, I'd encourage anyone who owns a few acres to assist by letting bee keepers house a few hives. Obviously you would not want to have bees within 30 metres of stables or where horses could knock over a hive, but otherwise bees pose no risk to horses, and if you cut your own hay or have plenty of clover in your fields then it's actually beneficial to have bees around. And just to lay a common myth to rest, bees pose less of a risk (almost none) whilst swarming than at any other time and only swarm during May/June.

I'm not suggesting you all take up bee keeping, although they can be fascinating creatures, but having bees around has a load of benefits. Oddly enough, London has a thriving bee keeping population.

Another creature you wouldn't normally associate with stables that is very good to have around is the stoat. Last year we moved into a new house that is surrounded by game cover making it the perfect base for rats. After several attempts to get rid of them, our friendly neighbourhood stoats moved in and got rid of the lot. We've not seen a rat at all for some time. So apart from the obvious benefits of getting rid of rats, Stoats will also rid you of rabbits - no more rabbit holes for your horses to put their feet in! Stoats will happily live in and around your barns (our's live in an old shed full of junk), so if you do spot them, don't discourage them - they're the best ratters you can find!

Now, whilst I'm on the subject of being an environmental warrior, spare a thought for the increasing rare hedgehog, particularly the one's in my garden! We have 2 or 3 hedgehogs visit or live in our garden, and at least once a fortnight they make the mistake of going too near the dog kennel - the dog barks - the hedgehog rolls up - the dog continues to bark - the hedghog doesn't move - the dog continues to bark - the hedgehog gets a headache - I rescue the hedgehog with a shovel at 3am!  I can't tell you they are going to do wonders for your stable yard, but they do eat lots of slugs, so if you're a keen gardener, the hedgehog is your friend. Leave a pile of leaves or hay near a hedgerow or a quite corner somewhere and they'll nest.

Greenpeace moment over, back to the main topic!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Getting Fit Again - Part 2: Great Progress, but not without frustration

I'm now into week five of "Getting fit again for eventing", and I have to say the progress has been very rewarding if a little frustrating at times. So far I've managed to keep the horse's weight down so that I not fighting fatness as well as fitness. The 'cold back' seems to be getting warmer  as his top line comes back and he builds more muscle, the patience and time spent on the lunge is really paying off.  My own weight has gone back to normal too (lost half a stone in two weeks, and now fit into my jeans again!).

We're still mostly lungeing with 10 minutes or so mounted afterwards just to help bring a few things together, and the occasional hack around the schooling field (and through the water!) or up and down the lane just to break up the monotony of the indoor school. I'm finding lunge work quite rewarding especially if we work outside. Although I am looking forward to getting some canter work done and being able to work on grass a little more often.

To helps things along I made two investments, the first being to get our local equine physio to give the horse a good full body massage. It has not been all plain sailing though - the poor horse has been almost drained dry by horse flies, despite a fly sheet, fly spray and a summer turnout rug at night, thankfully none on his saddle or girth areas, but nonetheless irritating for him. His front feet, bless him, have never been perfect, he spreads a little if left too long between shoeings, and having spent four months out in the field with no front shoes he'll take another trim up to get his feet into reasonable shape ready for canter work, and provide better posture. We're suffering a little from loose shoe syndrome, but I put that down to his first shoeing in a while and the dry weather.

Now city tech stock analysts would probably class me an an 'early adopter', just what every tech company loves, as I buy useful tech as soon as it's available, but where my horse is concerned I'm a little more cautious, however my second investment was a Micklem Multi Bridle. When it comes to new gadgets for the horse I always prefer ones that have been thoroughly road tested and have some form of science behind them. I've never used anything other than a simple snaffle bit to ride my horses, including the stallion I once owned, and don't like going with the latest fad.

Here's where this post might become a bit of a product review, apologies. I only came across this bridle in the last few weeks even though it's been out on the market for a few years, and 'in the making' for the last ten years. The general gist of this bridle is it has been designed to put less pressure on the sensitive areas of the horse's head and can be safely used to lunge and ride with (just what I was looking for). Here's a video from the designer explaining it.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Top Marks to Luhmuhlen for a great event and TV Coverage.

I've just been watching the cross country from Luhmuhlen CCI**** courtesy of Germany's NDR TV (see link below). This event is what most would probably class as the entry level 4 star and I have to say looks to be one of the nicest 4 star tracks to ride. There seems to be plenty of opportunity to keep a nice even pace throughout the course whatever type of horse you have, only the coffin about half way round seems to be forcing a break of stride. You can find a full set of photos of the course on the Luhmuhlen website. There also seems to be plenty of undulation to the course to test the horses fitness and riders' control. 

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The 3 Day Event - Let's Save The Best 'til Last (and save the horses' legs)

I've thinking a lot recently (perhaps I should stop) about the current short format and how the sport has evolved through the decades, and I still keep coming back to the same conclusion - we should mix up the format a little to crescendo rather than peak early!

When the short format was introduced in the early naughties I remember being surprised at how much resistance there was to this change. If you look at how the sport started (in the 1912 Olympics) it has gradually changed since then for the better and I for one think the removal of roads & tracks and steeplechase was long over due. You only need to see the difference in pre-second horse inspection preparations in the stable yards to see the benefits. Prior to short format there was so much more pressure in the stables at the end of cross country day to get horses sound for the second trot-up. Training and preparation for 3 day events has not needed to change at all really since the introduction of the short format, so horses have benefited.

And so to my master plan! And it's undoubtedly not a new idea. I think we should run the 3 day format to finish on cross country, rather than showjumping. I have 2 key reasons for suggesting this, 1) It would be better for the horses, 2) Cross Country is the highlight of any 3 day so it makes sense to finish on a high note, and here's why:

9-11 minutes of cross country saps a hell of a lot of energy out of horse and asking it to then show jump the following day with sore shins, burning tendons, stiff joints (remember a lot of the top horses are older) and muscle fatigue just seems unnecessary. Here are my arguments for the change:

The sport evolved out of the need to train and test  cavalry horses for the rigours of military service:

Obedience, Discipline and Accuracy in the Dressage
Speed, Stamina and Athleticism in the Cross Country
Speed, Accuracy and Agility in the Show Jumping

We haven't sent horses into battle for some time now (phased out in WWI and almost gone by WWII), so given this is purely a sport these days it would seem needless to test a horse's agility after their Cross Country.

Our one day format, generally, runs in my preferred order and whilst these do only run 6 or 7 minutes, they're still testing enough on horses. You'll also find a number of horses that perform well in the one day format and not in the current 3 day format.

Now whilst I'm on the subject of changing the 3-day format.....

Horse Trials has always fallen between the cracks in sporting terms really. It's not a race, it's not an adversarial game or match and it's not about jumping higher or longer, etc, like most other sports are, and there's no 'freestyle' element, like say gymnastics.  It's a test, set by the event organiser/course designers, with a rather complicated set of scoring matrix's that require an 'ology just to work out the scores. I've not thoroughly researched all olympic disciplines but I can't think of one that is so "complete this test" or "entirely built around penalty points".

I really would like to see a change to the scoring concept of penalty points, and this 'lowest score' wins, because I think this system has two very negative impacts:

  1. Its seriously tricky for the non-horsey spectator to get to grips with when we start talking about things like co-efficients.
  2. There are too many negative connotations for this type of penalty system. You don't gain the lead, someone else loses it.
Here's the tricky bit, how do you change this and still provide all the right level of influence in each phase.

Dressage: Let's just use the good marks, and forget the co-efficient. If we can't devise a test that has the right level of influence without using a co-efficient then it shouldn't be part of the competition. I would go even as far as making the dressage freestyle with a number of required  and optional bonus 'movements' being available to competitors, and hey, let's set it to music too.

Cross Country: award points for each fence that is jumped at the first attempt. The number of points would need to be set to exert the correct influence. Deduct point(s) for each second over the allowed time.
Showjumping: Here I'd make things a little more interesting too, and borrow a concept from pure showjumping. Award points for each fence jumped. Build a fixed course (as we do now) but add a number of bonus fences that allow competitors to gain extra points.  Bonus fences would have varying degrees of difficulty and points attainable, and rules like you can only jump the same fence x number of times, and ofcourse maintain an allowed time.

The upshot of all of this is we would have a very exciting showjumping day as competitors push themselves to build up points before the rigours of Cross Country Day. Dressage would become far more exciting to watch, demanding much more skill as riders will need to work on evermore elaborate routines to get in the top slot. Cross Country, the best bit, will become the crescendo as riders head round the course with everthing to play for, as only clear inside the time provides any guarantees.   

Most importantly of all, horses will thank us for making the it easier on them physically and more interesting mentally.  

Undoubtedly there will be a number of event organisers who foresee issues but I think these will just be logistical ones rather than show stoppers. And perhaps this whole idea should just be saved for the 4* events. 

It may be another ten or twenty years before we see some changes like this, but I firmly believe we do need to see some changes to make the sport more accessible to the general sporting public, more interesting and demanding, and better for the horses.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Getting Fit Again...

On a slightly different track to the usual posts I wanted to write a little something about getting a horse fit for eventing after some time off - as this is exactly what I'm currently doing.

After about 4 or 5 months in the field through no fault of his own, my horse, now 15, was getting bored stiff and grumpy. He's never really been a big fan of other horses and always preferred people and being in work. Six weeks off over the winter is about his limit usually. 

So as our new baby (now 3 months old) was settled and to save the horse from dying of boredom I thought we may as well get stuck in and have another season or two. Now he's a pretty low mileage horse with more quirks than you can shake a stick at, so I was a little uncertain how best to get him up to fitness again without it taking an age. 

You quite often come across this theory that you need to walk your horse around for a month before doing anything else. I could never understand how this would be sensible, and given my horse is very cold backed this wasn't going to work. 

One of the biggest challenges I've always found with this type of situation, is balancing work and feed so that you only fight fitness not fat. It's easier to build fitness and muscle than it is to turn around a fat horse, and one that has been fit before is typically easier to get going again. With some muscle tone now regained I have cut his feed down marginally to ensure I'm only feeding for the work he has done, not what he's going to do, and as soon as he's doing more cardiovascular work I'll up his feed again to the normal levels. 

This grey is 17hh and has quite a big frame (part Irish Draught), so he struggles to make Intermediate time although he can jump Intermediate and probably beyond quite happily, but never really competitive at anything above novice, hence I've never tried. 7 years ago he had a wind op and it's only been in the last year that this has really begun to bear fruit, so this season I thought we'd see if we could get fit enough to make intermediate time. 

I rediscovered my horsey bookcase last week too and on it a very good book by William Micklem - The Manual of Horse Riding that is perfect for reminding you of some basics, I then found his blog. By the way there's an interesting comment by him on using 'rising trot' in warm up and freeing up backs. As I don't have a large string of horses with differing needs I often find I need to go out in search of inspiration for new variety in my training programmes, and so other than rifling through my bookcase or surfing the web will also spend time analysing what others do (and a Camcorder comes in very handy here). Videoing as much of my riding as possible I find allows me to be very critical of what I need to change or improve, hugely helpful especially if you don't have an army of trainers/teachers to assist. 20+ years of competitive & professional riding, a handful of qualifications and I'm still learning new things every day. ("Old Dogs - New Tricks")

Anyway, enough background, back to the job in hand. Walking a horse around for month doesn't make sense. Probably the most crucial part of the horse to strengthen is its back (it connects everything else and is a long flexible sets of bones hooked up to several muscles), and a horse is generally more balanced when working on a circle or bend, so sticking two sacks of potatoes on his back walking up and down the field or roads didn't seem remotely sensible. So I starting lunging lightly for the first week along with a few good grooming sessions to get the circulation flowing and the difference day on day was noticeable, not only in muscle tone but also his attitude. I also put a bit back in his mouth straight away so that he had a chance to acclimatise before I held any reins, and this just helps to avoid any soreness.

In week two I put a saddle on his back and a couple of days later tentatively took up the stirrups. Ten days after dragging him in from the field looking like an oversized moorland pony (or polar bear just out of hibernation) and  he is already starting to look like an eventer again (see video). A further 3 days in the saddle and I'm starting to feel that suppleness comeback, and rather than spend 30 minutes or so on board, I'm spending 15-20 minutes on the lunge with a little of that time in side reins just to ensure I have acceptance and spending less than 10 minutes in the saddle just to piece things together.

If the truth be know I was also becoming bored by having little or no equine contact, and having built a very special relationship (I sound like a UK politician now!) with this horse, who had been 'tyre kicked' for nearly a year before I bought him, I have to admit I was itching to get him back into the old routine. I suppose anyone reading this will understand the therapeutic value that all of this brings, and it's very good for the soul.  I've not had an emotional bond with every horse I've owned, in fact there have been one or two I was quite happy to see the back of, but this one is worth every penny I've turned down over the years. 

It's only two and a half weeks into the master plan but so far it's working. A few more weeks and I should be able to start a little light jumping and some cardiovascular work to start burning some calories (He & I). I know we're ready for an event when he can do 5 mins of canter at half pace without blowing and I can do it stood out of the saddle without my legs burning up completely, hopefully by the first week of August we'll have reached that goal. It's the stages in between I find prove trickier to judge. 

Here's the first stage: getting fit enough to ride with purpose

filmed on an iPhone so a little shaky even after stablisation.