Monday, 26 May 2008

Coed y Wenallt horse trail

It has been a holiday weekend here in Wales and so of course we have had a lot of rain! Everywhere is so beautifully lush and green - it's worth a few days of rain to enjoy the beauty of Wales. However two years ago it started to rain at about this time of year and then rained nearly every day until September. I cannot help hoping that it will not be another summer like that one. I try to always appreciate whatever my environment provides and dwell in the moment as it is - rather than missing the present moment through wishing it were different. However continual rain throughout the summer, and then going straight into winter, can make life with horses rather hard work. If continual rain is the way it's going to be, then I shall have to encourage appreciation of squelching through mud, delight in the steam rising from wet horses in the stable, and continue to enjoy the verdant foliage.

One of our students is staying with us for a solitary retreat in our retreat hut this week, but before she went into retreat she came for a ride with me. I rode Red as I have not ridden him for a while now that 'ö-Dzin rides him several times a week. The horses were most reluctant to go out because they knew it was about to start raining. We had to really encourage them to walk along the track out of the livery yard. Once it had actually started to rain - and we were clearly carrying on with the ride - they relaxed and were quite happy to go out. This made me wonder. Did they think that we did not realise it was about to rain? Did they think that we probably would not want to be out in the rain and were trying to let us know? Or is this too intellectual an interpretation of their behaviour? We did get rather wet but still had an enjoyable ride. Much as I love to ride Dee, it was good to ride Red for a change.

There is only one part of the Coed y Wenallt horse trail that is easily accessible for a short evening ride. The whole circular trail, going in a clockwise direction, takes a little over an hour of which the last 20 minutes or so is a steep descent down a narrow road. So when we only have time for a short ride in the evening we generally do only some of the first part of the trail. This is mostly pretty level and there are a few places where we can have a canter. Equestrians are only allowed on this one trail through the wood, whereas walkers are allowed on all the many trails through the wood. It can therefore be a little frustrating when it becomes impossible to do more than a walk for practically the whole ride because of meeting so many walkers with their dogs. The dogs are often running loose and Dee can find this quite unnerving - especially if she can hear them but not see them in the undergrowth. On Friday a jogger ran right up behind Dee. She was very good and did not react, but if she had been frightened by him running so close up behind her he could have got kicked. I wonder why so many walkers and joggers use the horse trail when there are so many other paths available to them and not to us? I have heard walkers complain that they were frightened by horses racing through the woods - but if you walk on the horse trail then you are going to meet horses.

'ö-Dzin usually takes the horses out to the field after their feed while I muck out the stables. On the evening that the above photograph was taken, Red did not seem to want to leave him. He stood by 'ö-Dzin after he had taken off his halter and followed him when he walked back to the gate. Every time 'ö-Dzin moved, Red followed, whereas usually he trots straight off up to the top field to join the other geldings. In the end 'ö-Dzin walked up to the top field and Red walked quietly beside him at his shoulder. He did not leave 'ö-Dzin until he saw the other geldings. Red has not done this again since, but 'ö-Dzin found it a heart warming and touching experience.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Formation riding

We rode in the arena together last night for the first time. My memories of the arena at Wyndham are not all happy ones - Dee could be quite crazy in there and has thrown me a few times. However I felt sure that Red would give her confidence, and she is generally a much calmer horse since she's been back in a herd.

Being careful to relax and think positively about the arena, I took Dee in and we rode them around for a while to warm them up. Dee tensed up, looking at the motorway - which is much more clearly visible from the arena - but I talked to her quietly, telling her that Red was with her and that it would all be fine, and she settled down.

This is the first time we've had access to an arena since we had two horses, and we decided to have some fun, rather than ask the horses to really work. We played some riding in formation games - sometimes having the horses beside each other, sometimes pacing each other at opposite sides of the arena, and making patterns with our path around the arena. As Dee is quite a bit smaller than Red, their paces are not the same, so it was a challenge to keep them in line with each other. We didn't succeed a lot of the time; but what did it matter - we were enjoying ourselves. Red liked having Dee there, and Dee was quite happy to ride beside him. It is extraordinary to think that this sort of riding would have been completely impossible with Dee a couple of years ago - she was just too aggressive.

We tried our formation patterns at the walk and at the trot. 'ö-Dzin is still a novice rider and not too sure of the proper leg aids to ask for direction, and bend, and things like that. He found it really good to have something other than his riding to concentrate upon. He found that in focusing on looking out in order to be in the right place at the right time and watching me and Dee, he relaxed in his riding and naturally asked Red for the correct direction without thinking about it. So often if we let go of ourselves as a central focus, we are able to relax and have a more open view. It is easy to forget that our bodies communicate continually to everyone and everything. Our intention manifests in our body language, tone of voice and the look in our eye. Horses are particularly sensitive to this - so if we think of where we want to go they will often oblige.

As this was such fun, we are going to work out some formations in advance for next time so that we have more of an idea of what we are going to do before we enter the arena. We might work out some music to ride to as well - I think they would enjoy that.

It is now two weeks since we moved the horses, and we are already discovering the benefits of the new yard. We rode together three times last week, and this should continue to be possible throughout the summer. This is what we had hoped for, and we are so delighted that it is working out. Red is starting to really feel like 'ö-Dzin's horse. This is great because it stops me feeling pressurised with the responsibility of two horses, and makes 'ö-Dzin feel much more involved. The horses are now something we share every day, rather than for one day at the weekend. We have fine tuned our stable management to an efficient operation so that we can sort out the horses in the evening within an hour, so there is regularly time to ride as well. It is so enjoyable seeing the horses everyday and spending this time with them together.

Red seems to have made a friend among the geldings. He clearly still likes to spend time with Dee, but it is good to know he has a chum. He is a friendly sort of chap.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Red is a good horse

Red is settling down very nicely. He has got used to going out with the geldings, and no longer calls for Dee. I think his thorough enjoyment of the lush grass in the new field has compensated for being parted from her. He no longer shows any distress at leaving her and tonight was perfectly relaxed and comfortable in the arena.

'ö-Dzin rode Red in the arena this evening - practising transitions, getting him to stop and stand, and generally asking him to listen. He behaved beautifully and 'ö-Dzin found it really useful to be able to practice these, and also trotting and cantering without needing to cope with avoiding trees and overhead branches.

It will be useful to have access to an arena again to work with Red a little. He is a good horse, and a kind horse - he just doesn't realise he is so big and strong and can be dangerous if he is not paying attention. I think he has the potential to be a really good horse because he is willing, responsive and unflappable. Nothing perturbs him when we are out on a hack. However he can be a little belligerent sometimes and lacking in manners, but we hope this will improve as we work with him more often.

I am only 5 ft 2 and have suffered a few horse-related injuries in the last couple of years, so I am not as strong and robust as I used to be around horses. My right knee and left arm are weak, so I always have to be aware of this when leading Red or Dee and coping with their unpredictability. As well as being a spooky Mare, Dee can also be quite mischievous. This is actually one of the things I like about her - she has such character. However occasionally if something has excited her, she may decide to just take off when being led, and I have learned the hard way that there is not much I can do to stop her when she does. I have a pressure halter that I use with her when she is in a naughty mood and knowing she is wearing it is usually sufficient to elicit good behaviour.

Red is a very vocal horse and always whinnies when we arrive at the yard. This seems to have caught on with Dee and she now whinnies as well. This must be one of the most delightful aspects of owning horses - the noises they make: nickering in greeting, the low, deep whinny that says they know you are about to feed them, neighing across the field, and snorting with interest or excitement.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Less is more

We had a lovely ride in Coed y Wenallt on Monday evening. The weather has been dry and sunny - most unusual for Wales - and we have been making the most of it. Over the weekend we had to mend the roof of the loggia that got badly damaged in a storm last month. This was our first free - and dry - weekend since then, so we had to prioritise this repair. Consequently riding was not possible over the weekend, just daily visits to care for the horses.

'ö-Dzin is not a very experienced rider, but he makes up for this in courage and a natural ability. However we have been having problems with saddles with Red ever since we bought him last October. He is round like a barrel and saddles just slide round him. I suffered a bad knee injury the week we bought him coming off him after a saddle slip, and 'ö-Dzin has come off twice for the same reason. We've tried all sorts of saddles and eventually found that a treeless saddle seemed to give the best fit. When all our tack was stolen in January, we decided to bite the bullet and replace our saddles with two Torsions. We bought a beautiful leather one and an almost-as-beautiful synthetic one. We had been putting the leather one on Dee and the synthetic one on Red, but 'ö-Dzin had still been feeling that the saddle was slipping a little - not so badly that he thought he would come off, but enough that it was making him nervous of cantering through the curvy track in the wood.

On Monday we decided to try swapping the saddles. Red had the leather Torsion with the Equitex numnah. I put the synthetic saddle on Dee with our other treeless saddle numnah. This numnah came with rather hard foam inserts that I have replaced with the wadding out of an old pillow, to make a lovely thick pad. 'ö-Dzin found he felt much more secure in the leather saddle and quickly relaxed into believing that it was not going to slip. Dee seemed very comfortable in the synthetic saddle, and although it did not feel as well balanced as the leather one, I did not feel insecure. Consequently we had a couple of short but enjoyable canters in the wood.

I have become a great fan of 'going treeless' from my experience with these saddles. Both horses seem more relaxed and rounded in them, and I'm sure they improve my riding position. In fact I am gradually moving towards more and more 'natural horsemanship' style tack. Dee used to resist the bit, putting her head up and becoming quite difficult to manage. Eventually I found a drop noseband (as shown in the photograph) prevented the problem, but I disliked restricting her in this way. I felt that the way she opened her mouth immediately after I undid the noseband and moved her jaw, indicated that she had felt constricted. In the spirit of 'less is more' and believing that Dee was willing but uncomfortable, I tried her in a bitless bridle, an English hackamore. She has behaved quite differently since I have used this - calmer and more responsive to the lightest of contact. We had moved on to Dr Cook's style cross-under bitless bridles, but unfortunately these were lost in the burglary as well, and we have not managed to afford to replace these as yet. I had ridden Red a couple of times in one of these bridles before their theft and think he will do well in one as well when we eventually replace them.

I think it always has to be remembered that we control our horses through their co-operation, not through our domination. I feel that tack should be as minimal and as comfortable as possible to achieve the union of horse and rider.

Sunday, 4 May 2008


I have been fortunate in being able to contact the lady who owned Dee when she was a five year old. I traced her through Dee's freeze mark. This lady owned Dee for about five years (I think) and competed on her at cross country - as shown in this photograph. (I have edited the photograph a little as it had scan marks across it.)

This previous owner is surprised and mystified about Dee's wither injury and about her bad attitude when I first had her. She remembers Dee as a horse with plenty of personality and confidence, but a well adjusted mare with none of the difficulties to groom or tack I experienced. She clearly was very fond of Dee, giving her the nickname 'Doodle', and was sorry to have to part with her. I believe Dee may have had as many as three owners since then before I bought her, so her injury, her moody habits and fears have developed in that time.

It seems such a shame that a horse that was confident enough to compete is now too nervous to leave the yard alone, although this has improved since she has been back in a herd. Dee was described as a 'schoolmistress' by her previous owner in that she was given the confidence to compete through Dee's boldness and capability. We can all get bent out of shape by the circumstances of our lives, but through time and patience, and letting go of doubt and blame we can learn to let go of our fears and unhelpful habit patterns.

On Saturday Dee and Red were separated so that Dee could go out with the mares and Red with the geldings. This is the general policy at the new yard. I don't think Dee cares, but Red misses Dee. They are now on the summer schedule: out from late afternoon to morning, and in during the day. This is to keep them cooler during the summer heat and away from the flies. Today was gloriously sunny and warm - however it has to be remembered that this is Wales, UK and it is quite possible that these few hot days in May could be our whole summer! Still it is nice for the horses to be out for longer, mucking out will be easier, and there's time to ride in the longer evenings.

I took Red into Coed y Wenallt this evening. He neighed continually all the way out and fairly frequently even on the way back. Otherwise he behaved very well and we had several short canters. He is now always happy to canter. I did not ask him for canter for the first few months that I had him, as I was accustoming him to being barefoot. He has exceptionally good hooves and has adjusted really quickly to being without metal shoes. I'm hoping that his calling for the other horses will gradually decrease as he settles into the new yard, and gets used to being apart from Dee.