It’s a Chance of a Spill that gives Horse Riders the Thrill!

 

Excitement and fear are intrinsically linked and those butterflies fluttering in our stomachs can indicate either emotion. My favourite experience on horseback was both exciting and petrifying at the same time. 

It began on a wintery Mos-l300nday morning about four years ago; one of those really cold days when you actually look forward to mucking so you can warm up. I was employed as a working student at Newton Hall Riding Centre, and it was our job to exercise and look after the horses there. The previous week, a few new horses had arrived, one of them being Bluebell, a 5 year old piebald cob. I loved her immediately, greeting her the first moment I could, with a little piece of carrot, a symbol of friendship that I’d nicked from the feed room. So, when I was asked to take her out for her first hack, I was ecstatic, I’d been waiting impatiently for the chance to ride her for days. Bluebell had been ridden in the school a few times by the senior instructors and apparently seemed a bit highly strung but on the whole, she went pretty well.

Off we went, accompanied by two other horses and their riders, plodding down a little road towards the hacking fields. I felt comfortable but a little nervous, a familiar feeling when riding a strange horse for the first time, as you never really know what to expect. As we turned into the first field I felt Bluebell lurch forwards in excitement as the open space beckoned her to enjoy its expansive beauty and freedom. I stiffened but gently asked her back and she complied with a brisk walk, her head bobbing up and down happily. Everything was fine until my friend asked, “Shall we have a little trot up the hill?” Before I could reply, Bluebell was off, not at a trot like the others but at a flat-out gallop.

There was nothing I could do to slow her down as disastrous scenarios ran equally as fast through my mind, “what if I fall off… I could die… I might never be able to ride again…”. I felt the icy wind cut past my stinging cheeks, heard the repetitive thud of hooves against the hard, semi frozen mud. I pulled firmly on the reins, leaning back, pushing my feet forward into the stirrups, trying my best to win this tug of war. Of course, it was useless. Bluebell was possessed, ignoring my requests to slow down as we thundered across the field. My heart beat fast and hard in my chest, I gulped down air, slightly choking on snips of mud churned up from the hooves of my now uncontrollable steed. I helplessly looked to my left, faintly hearing the low drone of the huge combine harvester in the neighbouring field. Then Bluebell threw her body to the right and everything went blurry.

I saw the distorted ground rush closer as I began to fall but somehow I managed to hold on, my arms wrapped around Bluebells thick neck, one leg scooped around the top of the saddle. She slowed slightly, cantering through the middle of the field away from the big monstrous machine. I heaved myself back into the saddle, gathering the reins, I gave one last pull and sat there limp and shaky, grateful for the relatively slower pace of a brisk trot.  I have no Idea how I stayed in the saddle that day. My hacking buddies finally reached us as I was nervously trotting Bluebell round in a small circle, thanking God that we were both unscathed, and slightly calmer now. We then continued the hack at a very sedate pace, with a few excitable bursts of energy from Bluebell, in the form of a little buck or two. Amazingly, we managed to get home in one piece and when I dismounted, honestly, I nearly fell to the yard floor. My legs were like jelly.

I’m sure we’ve all had one of those moments- your heart skips a beat and the adrenaline pumps around your body as you glance at the ground and realise just how fast you’re going. For me the excitement of moments like these are intrinsically linked with the frisson of fear, and that’s what makes riding so exhilarating. Let’s face it, it’s the chance of a spill that gives you that thrill!.It’s rather like when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff or tall building and you just have to look down when you know it’s only going to scare you.  You have to do it!

 

 

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Are horses silently suffering in Olympic Dressage?

 

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This year’s Rio Olympics has been brilliant to watch, us equestrian lot cosied up on the sofa with a cup of tea, delighting in our Great British Olympians riding to success in Dressage, Show jumping and Cross-country events. However, there has been negative whispers about the Dressage in particular, and the ‘unnecessary’ use of double bridles and the ‘distressing’ application of certain nose-bands which apparently cause our horses pain. No, perhaps the over-arched necks and foamy mouths of the competing horses are not signals of contentment, but are we being cruel or is this another over-inflated rant from misguided animal welfare activists?

Recently, researchers at the University of Sydney have claimed that certain equipment most commonly used in Dressage; double bridles and crank nose-bands especially, actually prevent horses from conveying signals of stress, removing the horse’s rights to perform natural behaviours, such as yawning, licking, chewing and potentially swallowing. In Dressage, the competitor is marked down if the horse opens its mouth, which essentially displays discomfort and a lack of sympathy and skill on the rider’s part. Through the use of the restrictive crank nose-band, the horse’s mouth is practically bound shut, and so the rider seems more skilled than they actually are… This can’t be right… can it?

Paul McGreevy, professor of animal behaviour and animal welfare science at the University of Sydney along with a team of researchers conducted a study to ascertain whether or not the use of restrictive and commonplace riding equipment was harming our horses. Even with the 2 finger gap between the crank nose-band and the nose, the horses in the study showed signs of stress; and this is WITHOUT rein tension. They measured stress levels using eye temperature and heart rate, and in all cases as the tightness of the nosebands increased, so did the heart rates and temperatures, which are recognised signals of pain and stress. In high level training and competition like the Olympics, the use of the crank nose-band is commonplace and is often tightened beyond the advised 2 finger gap. The tighter the nose-band, the tighter the connection between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth, giving the rider more effective control. The evident discomfort through the use of the crank nose-band is intensified with the addition of the double bridle, which serves as a further mechanism for heightened tension and control.

The severe physical reaction proven in Paul McGreevy’s study, creates a bleak picture of horses’ silently suffering in the name of sport and the desired aesthetic. However, on the other side of the coin, McGreevy’s study only focused on horses that were unconditioned to wearing such high-brow equipment, so their stress levels would of course be higher because they aren’t used to wearing such restrictive nose-bands. Competition horses are conditioned and trained to accept the use of double bridles and crank nose-bands, as they are mandatory in Dressage at Olympic level. The FEI, the international governing body of all equestrian sports demands that the welfare of our horses should be paramount at all times, specifically saying that ‘tack must be designed and fitted to avoid risk of pain or injury’. This new research however has put the FEI code of conduct into question, suggesting that the welfare of the animal is foregone to increase competitive performance. However, there is actually no hard evidence to suggest that crank nose-bands induce real injury, or long term damage, yes it seems they are far more uncomfortable than any of us perhaps realised, a bit like wearing really tight new shoes without socks, and you’re forced to walk despite your growing blisters, plastering a smile on your face so as to not show your discomfort. But let’s face it, will anything REALLY change here?

I’d love to know how you guys feel about this topic, have you used a crank nose-band or seen negative effects of this practice yourself? Perhaps you don’t think it’s all that bad, and people are making mountains out of molehills?

Donkeys- the forgotten hero’s of the equestrian world

 

Donkeys seem to be forgotten in the equestrian world, despite their lovable, sad looking faces, comical braying and gentle natures, Donkeys are still seen as the short, less impressive and disproportionate versions of our great steeds. Humans acquired the best possible four-legged ally around 6,000 years ago- the wild horse. The domestication of horses during 3000 B.C gave us the means to grow crops, plough fields, travel and earn money, but Donkeys were also domesticated around this time, ancestors of the African wild Ass, Donkey were used for travel and labour. Donkeys have helped humankind just as much as horses and here are 5 lesser known reasons why they make great four-legged friends.

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Donkeys are hardy creatures– have you ever heard the phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back”? Camels were domesticated in northern Africa and the Middle East around 2,000 years ago, but before this, Donkeys were the staple working animal in this part of the world and the original phrase was; “the straw that broke the Donkeys back”- which alludes to their great physical strength and stamina. Donkeys are capable of carrying up to 20% of their body weight, as they have wider backs and sturdier stocky legs than the average horse. In the ancient Egyptian cultures, Donkeys were considered the “beasts of burden” which essentially means creatures who are capable of carrying great loads and their smaller size is great for tackling rough and uneven terrain whilst carrying weight.

They are very intelligent- unfortunately donkeys are stereotyped, often described as stubborn, but what most of us don’t realise is that they are actually more intelligent than horses! They are much more inclined to act independently if training isn’t implemented efficiently, and they have the psychological capability to pause and actually think things through. If a donkey comes to the conclusion that the human command isn’t necessary, then it won’t happen. This trait is a form of instinctual self-preservation, harking back to their desert roots. Horses are much more prone to the “flight” reaction, living among open plains they would run at the first sight of danger. Donkeys lived in a harsher environment, unconducive to simply running from predators. This has made them able to analyse individual situations, so they react more rationally and safely when carrying cargo or a rider.

Great beginner rides for kids- the average donkey is a bit too small to accommodate an adult due to its height, but they are absolutely perfect mounts for kids. They are naturally steady, plodding creatures originally desert animals they are able to enjoy a slow, comfortable stroll, more than a rollicking gallop across the countryside. Donkeys are incredibly gentle, and less prone to spooking than horses or ponies, their temperaments are also less erratic. Unlike mares, female donkeys or “jennys” are equally as gentle and passive as the typical gelding and both sexes are typically very level-headed, perfect for young children!

Cheaper to keep- Donkeys are initially much cheaper to buy, and the upkeep of these lovely creatures is quite low. Donkeys have much sturdier hooves so don’t have to be shod, which we all know can definitely save some pennies. However, they do need to have their feet trimmed every 6-8 weeks like horses, as their hooves will grow quickly if only worked on soft ground. You can also save some money on bedding, Donkeys are perfectly comfortable on a smaller bed in comparison to horses and ponies, but they must have some form of shelter as their coats are lacking the grease present in horse hair that repels rain.

They are adorable, let’s face it- Donkeys are like sad-looking, long eared teddy bears. Like Horses and ponies, they are herd animals, more comfortable hanging out with other animals than being alone. Donkeys form strong, life long bonds called “pair bonds” with those they share pasture with and will become depressed if they are separated from friends or kept alone. Donkeys are also used as “livestock guardians” in certain parts of the world, keeping smaller animals like sheep or goats safe from harm. They are hugely protective and will alert the farmer to any form of threat like a fox or wolf.

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All in all, I think the positives concerning Donkeys should be spread, their little quirks deserve to be appreciated! I’d love to hear what you guys think on this topic- have you ever owned a Donkey? If so, has your experience been positive or negative?