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In defence of dressage?

During the 2012 Olympics I wrote an article for the Guardian online defending dressage as a sport and Britain’s dressage team in particular. Four years later the British team came a respectable second to Germany and Dujardin retained her individual title. Dujardin’s freestyle test was an incredible performance from both horse and rider and for many people, myself included, a beautiful display of teamwork. However, questions remain over the future of dressage. Those questions are being asked both inside and outside the equestrian world.

From the outside we have the perspective of bloggers such as Patrick Redford who argued that the Olympics are for humans and are about human endeavour, not equine endeavour. It’s not difficult to counteract this. Horses have been there since the beginning, with the original Greek games including chariot races. The equestrian competitions have always been a part of the modern Olympics. It’s not as if someone woke up in 1988 and randomly decided to add horses into the mix. They may not fit with what Redford wants to see, but he’s not a one-man decision making body, as much as he might like to be.

The Olympics are diverse and we can all pick the bits we prefer. Redford could just avoid watching horses. The BBC had about a dozen channels covering the event. It’s easy just not to watch dressage, show jumping and eventing. I don’t watch any number of ball sports, not because I’m denying their sporting nature or saying they don’t belong or trying to turn others against them but just because I personally don’t find them interesting.

In terms of whether or not they’re athletic, riders do not need the prowess of say Usain Bolt or Jessica Ennis-Hill. However, riding is intensely physical. To ask my horse for shoulder-in I have to be aware of how his feet are falling, feel what his hind legs are doing, ask his shoulders to take a different track from his hind legs and co-ordinate my efforts and his. Look at the riders on the medal podium – many are older, but how many strike you as un-athletic? If I ban riding from the Olympics on fitness grounds I’m also going to have to ditch golf and shooting which require many skills, but not the kind of cardiovascular recovery rates needed for a marathon.

Horses do much of the work, yes. You need a good horse at Olympic level but you cannot just stick any rider on them and expect them to succeed – there is a considerable human element. Much of the criticism I have seen doesn’t really register the skill level involved and then just resorts to petty insults along the lines of “It looks silly” and “what have I watched, I don’t understand?” Concepts of silliness are highly subjective. I think badminton looks silly. And throwing yourself backwards over a bar doesn’t really strike me as the action of someone rational but I’m happy for it to be in the Olympics. The specialist attire required for riding is generally practical although I think the dressage riders could ditch the top hats and tails for helmets and show jumping-style jackets. As for not understanding it, it would take me quite a while to work out what the hell is going on with the keirin and I like cycling. I don’t think my lack of understanding is a reason to ban something.

From inside the equestrian community there are more serious points about the welfare of competition horses which are much more difficult to counteract. Dressage has long been dogged by controversies over rollkur, a training method in which the horse’s nose is forced behind the vertical and the head and neck carriage are brought so short that the horse has difficulty breathing. If you look at the photo below of my horse Charlie grazing, you can see that his head and neck are stretched out. The horse has evolved to put its head down and eat forage at ground level (most of the time, some of their ancestors were browsers and modern horses will still eat trees and shrubs). The horse’s windpipe and gullet are almost in a straight line in this position, allowing easy breathing and swallowing.

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Contrast that with the picture here of Parzival competing. His nose is behind the vertical (a no-no in dressage that you cannot get away with unless you’re famous and compete internationally). Parzival’s windpipe is jammed into the space you can see just above the white padding on his noseband. Take a hosepipe and flex it to around 30 degrees to get an idea of just how narrow this is. It’s why quite often when you watch dressage you can hear a horse’s breathing. Done correctly, the horse’s nose should be further from its chest, the angle is less extreme and the restriction in breathing is far less marked. However, movements such as the extended walk are included partly as a way for the horse to get its breath back.

When we ride a horse we ask it to carry an increasing amount of weight on its hind legs. In the photo of Charlie grazing he’s carrying around 60% of his weight on his front legs. Even when he raises his head and neck, he’s still likely to be “on the forehand” i.e. carrying more weight on his front legs than his hind legs. It makes him difficult to control, hard to manoeuvre and a bit uncomfortable to ride. If I ask him to carry more weight on his hind legs and to lift his shoulders, head and neck, he becomes easier to control, more comfortable and, if it’s done correctly, it’s easier for him to carry my weight. This is the original point of dressage and schooling – it isn’t really an end in itself. It’s a preparation for any of the other things you might want to do with your horse. It’s easier for them to jump if they can power over using their hind legs as springs than if they’re trying to lift an already heavy forehand. It’s more fun cantering across the moor if your horse is less likely to trip and more able to right himself if he does. It’s easier to open a gate without dismounting if your horse can turn on its forehand. You can control an animal more easily on the road if it knows shoulder-in because you can ask it to bend its head to the right and see traffic out of its right eye so it shies to the left away from the traffic. That’s if it shies at all – the extra control schooling gives you may well mean you can anticipate the horse’s movement and prevent it from jumping sideways.

Somewhere along the way, humans got competitive about this. We couldn’t just enjoy riding, or even be content to be good at it as a means to an end. And the competition wasn’t “my horse is the healthiest and happiest” it was “I can jump higher/ go faster/ perform a better pirouette”. I wouldn’t have a problem with this if I thought the horses’ welfare was being maintained during the process but when I watch top-level competitions, it’s fairly obvious it isn’t. If it’s not Rollkur, it’s spur marks. Or nosebands cranked so tight that the horses’ jaws are damaged. Or Penelope Leprevost booting her horse for tripping. Or Andreas Helgstrand turning his horse’s tongue blue. Or Totilas being pushed to such an extent that he’s lame.

Of course there is the argument that at around 500kg, it’s nigh on impossible to make a horse do something it doesn’t want to do but that is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power. George Orwell wrote Animal Farm after watching a small boy leading a large farm horse and wondering how someone who could so easily be overcome stayed in charge. Power is a kind of trick that you play by convincing someone that doing your will is the easiest option. You can force a horse to do something it doesn’t want to do – look at the ironmongery in a dressage horse’s mouth. And don’t get me started on what show jumpers are allowed to use. A horse might find piaffe uncomfortable, so the rider ensures that not doing piaffe is even worse.

If horses really resist, if they really attempt to hospitalise us, they’re either beaten into submission, sold on repeatedly until if they’re lucky they find someone who understands them, or euthanized. And on the whole very few of them get to this stage because actually, they like us. The only reason we’ve been able to domesticate horses is because they do seem drawn to us and we’ve only bred from those who are more tractable. We don’t ride zebras (on the whole) because they’re a lot less willing, and I can’t say I really blame them. So yes, we can coerce or force horses into doing something they don’t want to do.

So where does this leave dressage? Some people take the view that we shouldn’t ride horses at all; that any time we do ride them we bully them into a state of learned helplessness. Others think we can but it should be with very minimal tack, excluding even bits. I don’t go that far but I have found over the years that it’s wise to pick your trainer carefully. I will no longer use any trainer who thinks that draw reins and tight flash nosebands are the answer to a horse resisting when the answer for me is to assess why the horse is exhibiting that level of discomfort, not to say pain. If Charlie wants to open his mouth he can do – it’s my job to find out why, not just to mask his symptoms of pain.

But at the higher levels of dressage, and all other equestrian disciplines, there is a greater perceived need to push horses into doing something they don’t necessarily want to do. Once someone is trying to make a living riding horses, they don’t really have the option to say “oh OK today is a bad day for this, spend it in the field, I’ll do something else”. Owners push riders to get results and if the riders don’t achieve these quickly enough, owners move the horse onto another rider who will push the horse. I don’t think high-level competitions necessarily have to include cruelty but we do need a major rethink and a huge effort to ensure that horses are not abused. They’ve evolved to be cooperative herd animals and these immensely powerful, graceful and generous animals should be celebrated, not tortured into submission.

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A tale of two horses

… and why I will not be watching Warhorse

 My grandfather was meant to be a jockey. It was in his build – small, wiry, with slim hips and a lightweight frame that belied its strength. And it was in his blood. His father and his father’s father were ostlers – stablemen who tended horses at inns in the days when horses were the cars, trains and busses of the day. Granddad told me that he was too scared to be a jockey, though his chosen career was perhaps only slightly less risky for he was an electrician who went on to wire spitfires in World War II. Granddad almost died when the site he worked at was bombed. And, showing the courage that I think would have made him a good jockey, he told his superiors that he needed to work on the landing problems with spitfires just as much as their takeoff. The War Office might not have worried about surviving pilots landing their planes, but my grandfather did.

As horses became less important to the economy, so my family stopped earning their keep from them. But horses have a way of staying in the blood. My mother rode a little as a teenager but circumstances prevented her continuing. Horses were always there though and, since my first ride on a Dartmoor pony at the age of three all I wanted to do was to be around horses. (That was my age, not his, the pony was considerably older and was called Lucky, because he had escaped from the slaughter house). Living in suburban London on a limited income, the only way to do this was for me to work for rides. And work I did, for very little riding. But to be around horses, around their sense, their warmth, their power and their kindness, fed a deep-seated need from which I don’t think I will ever escape. To do so would be to cut out a part of me.

Horses are a part of what makes us human. I feel sorry for those animal rights activists who argue that we should have no relationship with other animals for I cannot see how I would know me as me, without that contact with another species. We have eaten them, hunted them and hunted with them, consumed their milk and their blood and lived from their labour for thousands of generations. In areas without tameable equine species, human civilisation proceeded at a slower pace. They are a part of us and we of them for just as they made us, it seems we saved them from extinction. And so I cannot escape that feeling that the world is only really right and meaningful, when I am somewhere near a horse.

Just before Christmas, pondering possible presents in a bookshop, I picked up a copy of War Horse. Quickly I put it back down, turned from it, tried to find a way to stop myself from sobbing openly in public. Nine months after losing my dearest (equine) friend and I couldn’t even cope with the book’s dust jacket, let alone the film itself. I know that Spielberg, master of manipulation, will either leave me annoyed at his manipulation of my emotions or will be successful in making me cry, or, the most likely outcome, both.

For after years of wanting a horse, at the age of 32 I managed to acquire one. He found me and I found him and we saved each other. He is gone now, and at my own hand, for I had to decide that we had both had enough of fighting his injuries. But he will always be my dearest friend and equine soulmate, the one who knew me best. And I will always know that his death was my doing, even though ultimately it was the kindest end and the best thing to do for him. And so I cannot put myself through the turmoil of War Horse. And if we’re honest, it is better not to put other cinema goers through the turmoil of watching me ball my eyes out. It’s not pretty.

There is hope though, in all of this, for months after losing Derby I have met another horse, a very different animal, but one that might in his own way, save me once again. The two, Derby the glamorous chestnut and Charlie the sensible bay, are very, very different. Where Derby was stunning, beautiful and temperamental, Charlie is ‘smart’. It is the word most often used by passers-by to describe him. ‘Smart horse, that’. And he is, not just to look at, but in his head. Charlie is not exactly temperamental, but he is nobody’s fool. He is not sensitive in the way that Derby was but nonetheless he knows when he is being well-handled and he responds in kind.

When I lost Derby I knew that for my own mental health I would have to find another horse. But emotionally, and then financially, I was not ready. However I harboured a dream of rehabilitating an ex-racehorse. There are plenty around, they are offered for ‘hook’ money, and I have always loved blood horses. Harbouring this dream, I have fallen for the polar opposite. Charlie was not what I was expecting. He is not hot blood, he is cold blood. Charlie is at least half draught horse, possibly more. One hundred years ago, every farmer would have had a Charlie, or would have wanted one. He would have ploughed a field, taken the family to church, hunted all day, carted produce to market. He was the tractor, the family car, the 4×4. Bless his little ermine-marked socks but he is not, and never will be a Ferrari, and he is all the better for it.

In Charlie, it is as if my knight in shining armour turned up to rescue me from the turmoil of the last four years – the relationship breakdown, redundancy, workplace bullying, clinical depression and worst of all the loss of my best friend and equine soulmate – and instead of riding off into the sunset with the knight, I just nicked his charger. For Charlie is, if we’re honest, built like the side of a shed. This is not a small beast. He is bred to carry weight, not my slight frame. The first time I rode him he laughed at me. Until I glued my legs to his sides, locked my core muscles and pushed him up to his bridle, at which point he decided that I knew what I was doing and behaving himself was, for the time being at least, the easiest option.

I loved Derby to bits, but he was a card-carrying member of the Awkward Squad. Whilst, when the chips were down, you could trust him with your life, when the chips weren’t down he was your basic maniac. He viewed going into the school as a battle of wits, and he loved it as such. Essentially he would rather have had a cuddle. Or several cuddles. His attitude to dressage was that it was just so much running around in circles and if I liked it so much, I could do it myself. As far as Derby was concerned, work was for other people.

Charlie, on the other hand, is a worker. Both horses are given to mickey-taking if they are not told what to do. And for the same reason, since horses like the security of firm leadership. But Derby’s reaction to being told what to do was to throw all his toys out of the pram, put the RSPCA on speed dial and scream ‘Help, help, she’s bullying me again’. Charlie’s reaction to being pressured is more ‘yeah, bring it on, bring it on, yeah’. I was never quite sure where I was with Derby and continually had to react to the moment. With Charlie, I tell him what to do and he does it. He makes things seem simple and whilst I love Derby’s complexities, I am beginning to appreciate a horse who does what I ask. Sadly, Charlie thinks cuddles are a bit meh, and would rather I didn’t bother with all that stuff, but it seems a worthwhile price to pay for a horse who will work his heart out when asked to do so.

Derby was given to making spectacular leaps that must have looked amazing but were actually fairly easy to sit because he kept his shoulders and head up and whilst he did sometimes spin, he kept his shoulders straight. Charlie’s trick is a nonchalant swing to one side that probably looks like nothing in particular but there’s little warning, it’s quick, and he drops a shoulder. The first time he did it I very nearly fell straight out the side door. I came nearer to falling off than I had done in years of riding Derby. Since then both Charlie and I seem to have adapted our behaviour. I pick up on the warning signs and sit it better, and he may have toned it down a bit so that I can sit it. Neither horse wanted or wants me on the floor – they are both playing, and modifying the game so that I can play it.

More than this, Charlie makes me feel right. When I spoke about losing Derby, I said that the world felt right when I was on his back. Charlie gives me a similar sense. Trotting along the lanes on him last Sunday morning, it seemed that I had a place in the world again. Though it’s true we had a slightly odd conversation at the time. ‘The sheep, the sheep, there are SHEEP’ ‘Yes, I know dear. You have hunted in three counties. You have seen sheep before’. ‘Have I, are you sure? LOOK SHEEP DANGER SHEEP, SHEEP, oh look, a plastic bag’. When I lost Derby I carried on riding other horses. Locals commented and asked where my horse was, and I told them, often more tearfully than I intended. But they never asked about whichever horse I was riding. They knew it wasn’t mine. But on Sunday, another rider I see around sometimes said ‘Oh, you’ve got a new one. He’s smart.’ We must have started to give off some kind of signal of being each others’, even though legally we are a long way off that point and may never get there.

Charlie is for sale through no fault of his own. Owners are giving away perfectly good horses who a few years ago would have fetched thousands of pounds. Horses, ever given to reflecting human society, are now victims of our economic mess. The very rich can still afford their 30 grand horses and the relatively poorer will buy theirs for a few hundred. But the middle of the market has disappeared, leaving Charlie and thousands like him potentially homeless. For now I have him on loan but I am not sure if I can keep him. I move from one temporary contract to another and my living is precarious. We are up shit creek, and the Tories have run away with the paddle. Charlie is a victim of economics and of ageism – at 14 he is middle-aged for a horse. I confess it put me off at first because, having just lost an 18 year-old horse, I cannot face the prospect of shortly losing another. But against this, he is a known quantity. I know I can ride him past bonfires, and bikes, and running children, and dogs. I can use him as a physical shield when other people’s horses are frightened. If he is older, so be it. Age brings some advantages.

But he is also for sale because, whatever I might say about him, he is not a paragon of virtue. At one home he was sent to he ran off with his riders in walk. I supposed technically he walked off with them. Personally, I wouldn’t really notice him doing this. You can still steer him and I’m just grateful that he walks out. He does this with such aplomb that he reminds of Poirot, a police horse I used to know who would walk off with his rider whilst on guard duty outside Buckingham Palace. If Poirot got bored standing by one gate, he would simply walk along to the next, with his patrol rider pretending that it was his idea really.

At another home, Charlie was taken hunting and told to jump a stone wall. Being a sensible chap, he put in a big jump because, well, who wants to smack their legs against stone? Unfortunately Hunting Bloke fell off. Remounting, he put Charlie at another wall and Charlie said ‘err, no thanks. You fall off over those things so I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.’ Sadly, it was not all the same to Hunting Bloke and he phoned up Charlie’s owner to say that he didn’t want the horse, because he didn’t jump walls. This isn’t, when you think about it, true. Charlie does jump walls, it’s just that he makes executive decisions not to do so if he thinks his rider will fall off. Personally I like this in a horse, as it significantly ups my chances of staying on board. But every person, every horse, every relationship is different, and Charlie and Hunting Bloke were never going to get along. So he came back to the stables at which I ride, to Derby’s old home, and I couldn’t help but think that fate was giving me a tremendous shove. Which is odd, because I try not to believe in her.

In the evenings, after work and after exercising Charlie, I cycle home in the pitch black on a cycle path beside unlit dual carriageway. Initially this scared the hell out of me because I could not see where I was going and risked ending up on the road, or on the floor, or in the canal. I tried to adopt what I thought might be a Zen Buddhist approach to this, which was to focus on the spot of light provided by my bike light, relax, and allow the path to come to me instead of fretting about the way ahead. I decided that this could be a metaphor for my life, since I tend to worry about the future and not concentrate on what is actually happening, when what is actually happening is generally all right. I confess though that eventually I decided that my own cod Zen Buddhism was scant protection against the lorries on the A38, should my one true path have taken me in front of them. So I bought better batteries. Now I can see further ahead and feel much safer. Literally it is easy to find better ways to light my path. Metaphorically, I cannot see that far ahead and do not know if I will be able to secure my future, or Charlie’s.

Charlie is not the ex-racehorse I planned a future with. He is representative of the motive power that enabled Britain’s industrial might. He is the unsung hero who ploughed the land to feed generations of humans. Every horse has their place and I wonder if it is time for the Charlie Horses of this world to move into the limelight. Then again, I’m not sure he’d like that. But when my work is done for the day, I ride him under floodlights, watch his perfect shadow, feel the exact sureness of his rhythm and think that maybe this spotlighting is enough. I am not sure what will happen with Charlie and I.  But whatever happens, in my mind I will be in a bright spot with him, the dark all around us, kept at bay by this smart horse.

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Healing tendons: Some common questions

Rather than continue the longer account of Derby’s tendon injury, which I find rather difficult to write at the moment, I thought I would sum up a few things I learned whilst looking after him. People seem to come across this blog searching on particular queries about tendon injuries in horses, which has given me an idea of the questions to which people want answers.

The key thing, as soon as you suspect a tendon injury, is to get your vet involved. Yes, this is expensive but a tendon injury can easily end a horse’s working life. If it is a tendon injury, you will need frequent visits and preferably repeat scans. If your horse is not currently insured for vet’s fees then think very seriously about it.

I should make very clear that I am not a vet. This is a personal account of what I learned which might provide food for thought. But it bears repeating: call your vet and act on their advice. This is what is best for your horse and ultimately what is best for you. If the worst does come to the worst, knowing you did everything possible helps. A little.

How can I tell if my horse has a tendon injury?

The surprising, and unfortunate, problem with tendon injuries is that what you can see on the outside often gives little indication of what is going on with the tendon itself. When I finally made the decision to have Derby put down, the ‘good’ foreleg looked much more suspect on the outside than did the injured leg. In fact I had to point out to the vet that he was inspecting the wrong leg. Though in all honesty by that stage, the good leg had had to take so much extra strain that it was quite swollen and it was the knock-on effects as much as the injury itself that pointed me towards the decision I made.

Essentially your horse might not be very lame even with a severe injury. Until the last 48 hours of his life, Derby was always pretty much sound in walk. He was probably never really more than 4/10 lame in trot, and then only for about a week. Heat and swelling around the tendon are obvious indicators that you need to get in touch with your vet. My vet palpated the tendon and got a pain response when it was injured – personally I don’t feel that I know enough to do this myself.

The only way you will really know is if your vet performs an ultrasound scan (USS).

What does a USS entail?

A big vet’s bill, mainly. More seriously, it’s precisely the same technology used to scan pregnancies. No really. The machine has different settings and one of them is for pregnancy.

Essentially it’s a way of seeing inside the leg. It’s a little like taking an x-ray picture except instead of using x-rays it uses ultrasound – sound outside of the range of normal human hearing. It’s technical but basically the different structures in the horse’s leg absorb that sound to differing degrees. This enables a picture of the inside of the leg to be taken.

It’s not painful and the machine is fairly small and quite portable. The vet will shave the site of the injury, put gel on it, run the scanning widget up and down the horse’s leg, just like the obstetrician does in very different circumstances. He or she will squint, peer at it, hum and haw a bit and generally wind you up before telling you what they think is going on. It depends on you as to how technical they are in their explanations. I quite liked learning about anomalies and the different sound absorbencies but then I’m odd like that and to be honest, I valued the distraction.

It isn’t an exact science but the ultrasound picture will give a good idea of the size of the tendon and the extent and nature of any damage to it. What looks minor on the outside can unfortunately turn out to be a bloody great tear in the tendon. Though the flipside is I suspect also true – the injury that looked awful on the outside might turn out to be relatively minor.

How can I get the tendon better?

Sheer bloody mindedness and a lot of hard work. Make no mistake about it – you are probably there for the long haul. And the longer and slower you take it, the more likely the recovery will last. Another problem with tendon injuries, perhaps in some ways the worst, is that the horse will run up sound in trot long before the tendon is really ready to return to full work. In fact the horse should not be back being ridden before it is sound, but once you can start riding you still have months to go.

There are various new treatments now about which I’m afraid I know very little. I think for many horse owners things like stem cell treatments are probably beyond the range of the practical. Again, discuss this with your vet.

Those things aside, you have two basic choices: turn the horse away for several months or a quiet, controlled exercise plan. Which you choose will depend on your horse, time, budget and veterinary advice. Turning away is obviously cheaper and if your horse is happy living out all year round might be better for you and them. The horse will make the injury seem worse initially but as it moves around on the leg over a period of months, it should get better. I opted not to do this for two reasons: Derby would never have wintered out and also the tendon may not heal quite so well. According to my vet when a horse is turned away the tendon may heal in a less organised fashion so that tendon fibres are bunched together, lumpy and less elastic. This will mean it is more likely to be re-injured. Again, talk to your vet about yours and your horse’s circumstances so you can decide what is likely to work best.

Slow and steady work is expensive and more time consuming – which brings me to my next point.

What are the recovery stages?

I was initially given a 6-month recovery plan. You start with box rest, move on to walking out in hand, then riding in walk on the roads, riding in walk and trot on the roads and finally a gradual introduction to school work and other surfaces before turning them out. You shift between stages according to the stage of the injury. The advantage with this is that it is more likely that the tendon will heal as an organised structure and so may well be stronger than if you had turned the horse away.

How long should I box rest for?

ASK YOUR VET, NOT SOME INTERNET HALF WIT. I was told that box rest was necessary throughout the time that there was heat, swelling and lameness in walk. When a horse first injures a tendon the damage might actually be quite minor. However, due to that initial damage, the tendon swells and becomes hot. Since the tendon itself is encased in the tendon sheath, which has a degree of rigidity, this swelling causes further damage. Think about how much a bad bruise can swell when it isn’t restricted – but the tendon is restricted. So the tendon structure can start to break down. This is why cold hosing is so important at this stage. If you keep the horse on box rest you limit the increase in damage. Cold hose until the pair of you are bored and want to wee. 10-20 minutes three times a day with a minimum of two hours in between sessions is ideal.

Consult with your vet as to how long you continue the box rest and the cold hosing. Once the tendon is healed and you are strengthening it the cold hosing might not be necessary. However, the second time Derby injured his tendon I kept cold treatment going as a preventative measure. He might have done some micro-damage and the cold treatment helped stopped this from turning into something more. And whilst he did eventually injure the tendon for a third and final time, I’m convinced that the frequent cold treatment both got him over a tear that the vet said wouldn’t heal, and kept it healed for longer than by rights it should have been.

Are there alternatives to cold hosing?

Personally I didn’t mind the cold hosing but then you could sit and read whilst cold hosing Derby and he would occasionally chew your hair or give your knee an experimental nibble. Other people would sit on a stool cold hosing him and smoking a rollie, not something I recommend in stables but at least there was plenty of water around if they set light to anything. In the event of extreme boredom I could lasso the nearest available child and make them hold the hose. Other horses are less inclined to stand still and a lot less safe with children. God how I miss that horse.

You can buy boots that you plug a hose into, in theory leaving the horse tied up and being cold hosed whilst you get on with other things. In practice you plug the hose in and return 15 minutes later to find it unplugged and your horse looking at you as if to say ‘And? Your problem is?’ Your problem being that you have no idea whether the horse has spent 15 minutes being cold hosed and has only just unhooked itself or whether it unhooked itself 2 minutes in and you’ve poured water straight down the drain for the other 13.

Eventually, given the length of time the injury went on for, I invested in a pair of hot and cold therapy boots from Premier Equine. These were wonderful and personally I’m convinced they helped a great deal in healing the tendon the second time Derby injured it. They included ice packs which I would leave on for about 10 minutes and gel pads which were soaked in water and which could be left on for up to 3 hours. These seemed to provide intensive physiotherapy for the leg.

Again, ask your vet – mine said that anything that cooled the leg was an acceptable substitute for cold hosing but yours might have other ideas. Also, be careful about the horse’s leg continually being wet. In the end, the ice packs were wonderful as they cooled Derby’s leg whilst also allowing me to keep it dry.

When can I start trotting?

Ask your vet. I would also, personally, insist on a scan before moving up to the next stage. I trotted when the vet said so. Basically the initial plan I was given was 4-6 weeks walk in hand, 4-6 weeks ridden walk and then a build up of trot work.

The second time Derby injured his leg I built the trot work up over a period of 8 weeks. It was annoying for both of us to take this time, but it did work. Or at least it worked in that the leg did heal, against the vet’s expectations, and stayed healed for a good 6 months. I knew the build up needed to be gradual but wasn’t sure how to measure the length of trot work. I couldn’t time it since I didn’t have a nice big, digital eventing watch and trying to read the second hand on my watch whilst discussing with Derby the fact that we were trotting was not really a viable option. You can’t measure the distance of trot work and increase it gradually unless you always trot in the same place, a sure-fire recipe for disaster. So I counted his strides. Heck, it worked. Weeks 1-2 we did 2 dozen trot strides. I added one dozen strides per week. Derby being a clever chap, he liked to count along. It kept him occupied and meant he anticipated stopping after 4 dozen (or whatever) strides. This is handy if you have a crazy horse on restricted exercise.

In sum: consult with your vet. Don’t be tempted to do too much too soon. And fight for your horse – whatever the ultimate outcome, they will repay you.

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Derby, 1993—2011

I’d say rest in peace, old friend, except I do not think that’s right for you. Wherever you are, if you are anywhere, may you buck, and leap, and play to your heart’s content. May you never feel stiff and old and in pain. I picture you galloping, and rearing, and flying in a way that your body had stopped allowing you to do on this earth, and the thing that makes me saddest is that I cannot be with you.

For more than seven years we shared everything we could and you never let me fall. On that final leap you made, that leap that crippled you, you made sure I was there with you. We landed together, but the leap was too much for your body to take.

It was the weekend of the supermoon and the start of spring. It was as if the seasons were taunting you and I. Sun on green grass and verdant new growth. All this new life, all this joy and you wanted to leap to the moon. But you landed lame and so on our last ride I had to lead you back. I will always know that last walk home, cheek by jowl, foot by hoof, the way we had been for so long together.

Did we both know, then, that that was our last walk? Or did we both hope for something more? I know I hoped for years more, where I belonged, on your back. That is my place, that is where the world was right. And you were always so beautiful.

The moon had not been so close to the earth since the year of your birth. Was it calling you back? Did its nearness tempt you? Can you touch it now, wherever you are? You were moulting still, caught between your winter coat and your summer finery. Will you always remain so, staged between the two? Wherever you are, may it always be spring for you. I see daffodils now and I think of you. I see their gold on green and I think of your glorious chestnut coat.

I first met you in the long, hot summer of 2003. You were thin, and poor. Your coat was dull and staring. You looked at me but almost did not look. You had hidden yourself, too afraid of what might happen. But in there somewhere, I saw you. I know what they did to you, and yet do not know. I know you could not speak of it.

I found you, and you found me. I found out that you were completely, gloriously and utterly batty. Loony. Loopy. Once I fed you, and loved you, and you became you, you became my world. And you were amazing. You would never give in. I would ask you to do something, and you would say ‘why?’ I would tell you, and you would say ‘No’. I would find myself thinking ‘that car driver isn’t very nice’ and you would threaten to kick their car.

And you would leap around so that I kept thinking I would fall off and kept thinking you wanted me to fall off. It was years before I finally realised that if you hadn’t wanted me on your back, I would not have been there. Years before I realised that as soon as you felt me wobble, you would wait, wait patiently until I regained my balance. And then throw yourself around again. But you were only playing and you knew far better than I did what a good rider I was, what a good rider you had made me.

Not long after I bought you, we moved to Devon. Everything changed for you there. We had new places to explore. One day when we were out, we encountered men with pots of boiling tar, filling in holes in the road. You did not want to pass them and so the rider we were with said her mare would go past first, to help you. Except her mare stopped near a pot of tar and refused to move. She would not go forward. Would not go back. Would not go left or right. So I told you we were going past, between the mare and the hot tar, and past you went, even though it meant getting so close to the black, boiling, lethal liquid. That day you taught me something about you, and something about life. You taught me that you would do whatever I wanted, so long as I believed that you would do it. You gave me a confidence no-one had given me before, for you believed in me.

We came to know the Devon lanes. On their single tracks, you learned that it was easier to pass traffic in passing places. I remember that first time you pulled over and stopped without my asking you to. I could see and hear no traffic and so I told you off, made you walk on, only to realise that there was a car but I had not heard it and had not listened to you. Your better ears heard cars before mine did and so I learned to listen to what you heard. You would tell me when traffic was coming and now when I ride other horses, they cannot tell me. I feel as if I have lost my ears. Those big, ginger, happy ears that were my radar into another world.

And I have lost your eyes too. Their liquid depths contained the wisdom of ages. I would look into them and sense the equine lore they held. I would begin to see the knowledge that you tried to impart to me.

And when my depression hit, you were there for me. I used to wear a long-sleeved jumper that smelled slightly of you. And if I was nervous or upset, wherever I was, I would smell the sleeves, catch at your scent. You would be there with me then,  and I would feel right. But now when I wash my clothes, your scent diminishes. The mundane things in life take me away from you.

The last thing I gave you was the last thing I wanted to give you—a good death. It was my decision. My decision, but not my choice. I think of the bullet that went through your brain and pierced my heart, and I anaesthetise myself with red wine.

You were my best friend. You were my every thing. And I must face this summer without you. And I must face every summer without you.

I see daffodils and I will think of you. For I put you in the daffodils.

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Saving Derby’s leg: A diary of a tendon injury, part 2

The vet outlined a 4-stage recovery plan for Derby, each stage to last around 6 weeks. Stage one was walk work in hand; stage two was walk work under saddle; stage three build in some trotting work; stage four, get back into the school and build up to ‘normal’ work. Stages one-three were all to take place on the roads. So we began walking him, in hand. I say ‘we’ because there were four of us on a rota. Oliver had pretty much read us the riot act on this one. No days off. Three times a day every day followed by ten minutes of cold hosing. And NO days off. Did I mention NO DAYS OFF. Also 3, THREE, count them, THREE times a day. So I drew up an Excel spreadsheet and marked off the dates and the columns, morning, lunchtime and afternoon and filled in the ones I could do, so that Clare could then organise her staff rotas around a tendon injury. Clare, myself and two of the women who worked for Clare commenced Operation Derby’s Leg. I don’t think I’m the only one who started to get a Proclaimers earworm and found myself muttering ‘And I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more’ on a frequent basis. This wasn’t too bad when I was leading Derby, but it got me some strange looks in the supermarket.

He had to walk for 20 minutes each time and here was the snag. Derby doesn’t really get walking, not ridden or in hand. He’ll slop along, scuffing his hind feet. You can get after him and make him walk but he is incredibly good at gradually, millimetre by millimetre, taking shorter and shorter steps so that you find yourself shuffling up the lane wondering why a snail has just whizzed past. Chase him up too much and he can actually go backwards. In the school this is not a problem, there are all sorts of ways of keeping him interested so that he ends up walking well without realising it, but on the roads when you are not allowed to trot, there are few options.

In less troubled times, before the tendon injury

Add into this mix the fact that Derby likes to talk. He witters away to you when you are riding him. There’s an almost constant conversation going on, in that respect he’s very like a stallion or a purebred Arab, even though he’s actually an Anglo-Arab x Hanoverian gelding. But riding him you quickly learn to tune into his voice ‘No, not the bins, mind that, mind that bracken, dear god no, I don’t go near dock leaves you KNOW what happens with dock leaves, oh look, Sarah’s ponies are out up there. COW, COW ALERT COW IN HEDGE, oops, sparrow, didn’t see that there, hang about, car coming, let’s pull over’. (In all seriousness, I ride him on single track lanes, he knows we pull over for cars, he hears them before I do and pulls into the nearest passing place for them well before I’m aware of their approach. I’ve learned to listen carefully to him). If you fail to listen to this voice he has a tendency to buck to get your attention. Not a big buck, but if I’m out with another rider and we are talking about their horse, I’ve got around a minute before he does some kind of leap or buck to ensure the conversation turns back to him. Leading him in hand made this conversation difficult because there was no immediate physical contact, reducing my ability to hear his voice. So he would grab hold of my sleeve with his mouth and wave my arm around as we walked up the road. All four of us learned to wear thick sleeves, because telling him off for this would involve him leaping backwards and the conversation quickly became ‘Help, help, get the RSPCA on speed dial, she’s trying to beat me up. AGAIN’.

We timed ourselves walking. Ten minutes out, see how far you can get in ten minutes, turn around carefully, ten minutes back. We used the passing places on the lanes as markers and tried to get a little further with him each day to improve his walk. I was approaching exhaustion but there were no other options. He was my horse, my responsibility. I was lucky to have the dedicated help with him that I got but still it was tiring. Walking, in addition to my usual cycling, made me lose weight that frankly I did not have to lose. But Derby was getting sounder. The vet had told me that I could turn him away for 6 months but he warned that if I did that, the tendon was more likely to heal as lumpy scar tissue that would not be sufficiently strong and elastic, and less likely to heal as nice, neat bundles of fibre. Steady, frequent work for short periods was what he needed. And Derby seemed fine with it. After all he was working for an hour a day, even though he wasn’t being turned out. We had no choice but to walk him up a slight incline so that gave him even more work and even if he was a little excited the first time out, by the time he got to his afternoon walk he was generally calm.

After about 4 weeks of this the vet came to see him again. Derby led up sound in walk and a little unsound in trot although that may have been his laziness and my reluctance to chase up a horse who by that stage had not been turned out for almost 3 months. Because of the lack of soundness, Oliver advised us not to ride him for another week and then only to ride him in walk. Then he said ‘And don’t put ten ton Tess on him’. Clare and I looked at him slack-jawed. Neither of us weighs more than 9 stone and at that point, with all the walking, it was probably considerably less. We were the only ones who ever rode him because one of the many things he has quite firm opinions on is Who Is Allowed On My Back. We asked Oliver how often he would need to go out once he started to be ridden. ‘Oh twice a day, like he’s doing now, like I said before’. More slack-jawedness. ‘You said 3 times a day. Three, count them THREE’. Waving, fortunately, 3 fingers in the air. Exhaustion may have frayed my temper. Oliver shuffled. ‘I always say three times a day because if I say twice a day everyone ignores me and only takes them out once a day, if that. So I say three times. Don’t worry if you have been taking him out three times a day though. You could do it four times a day if you want to’. There wasn’t much room for any more slackening, just a sort of universal shout of ‘Day jobs, we have other things to do. It’s not all Operation Derby’s Leg you know, it just feels like it’.

Turns out that people generally don’t follow the vet’s advice to the letter. It would have been OK for Derby to have been walked twice a day and for him to have one day off a week. Oliver had just not taken into account our punctiliousness in following instructions. So a week later we switched Derby to one walk in hand per day, plus one ridden walk, plus cold hosing. He remained amazingly level-headed, I think because he had got into a routine and accepted it and because he was going out so often, even if his freedom was curtailed. I took to letting him graze in hand at particular points where it was suitable, because that gave him a little more natural behaviour and because it was the right kind of gentle exercise that he needed. All in all he seemed happy.

We had a few alarm calls however. Up until his tendon injury Derby had been very healthy and had never needed to see the vet in the five years I had had him. But one evening, as I was cold hosing his leg, he started to stamp on his off hind leg as if he were irritated. As I led him out of the wash box, he had problems putting weight on it. I called Clare over. We watched, horrified, as his leg started to swell. I got him back into his stable and the swelling continued. We couldn’t bandage it as restricting the swelling could well have done more harm. By the next day the entire leg was 2-3 times its usual size and his other two good legs were also up, although the damaged one was not. We had thought it might be a foot abscess but the rapid spread of the swelling indicated something else. Blood tests showed that he probably had a viral infection. He was evidently under the weather, although he was eating alright, and for several days we went back to walking him in hand but just gently for a few minutes each time to try to boost his circulation, nothing more.

Once the swelling had settled we started to bandage his legs although we met with more firm opinions about Not Wanting My Legs Bandaged Thank You Very Much. Bandage shredding is an expensive hobby. Fortunately Clare had an unwanted pair of neon pink stable bandages she had been given as a present. We reasoned that we were on a win-win situation with them. Either Derby would accept them and not take them off, which would be good for his legs, or he would shred them as he had so many other pairs in which case we could legitimately say to the present giver ‘We’re terribly sorry, Derby wrecked your present. It’s very odd, he never does things like that’. As it happened he made one attempt on the pink bandages and succeeded in pulling them up above his knees, so he looked like a 1980s Fame reject in neon-pink legwarmers.

Towards the end of November he had another scan. The tendon had all but healed –there was a slight roughening on one edge but that might have been normal for Derby. We were allowed to commence trot work, although much of the time Derby interpreted ‘trot’ as ‘leap really high. Oh look, she’s still on board. Bit higher. I know, let’s capriole’. In the end, I don’t think this did him much good, although I tried my best to keep him calm. As I will recount next week, in February disaster struck. I had thought that if the scan showed the tendon to be OK it would remain OK but sadly this was not the case and Derby developed a hole in the same tendon. The vet was to add another 6 months on to his recovery time.

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Saving Derby’s leg: A diary of a tendon injury, part 1

It was a hot, sunny August afternoon in 2009 and I brought my horse out for a lesson, as I had on many weekends. I’m experienced enough to know that when you tack up any horse you check it over, almost without thinking, for any signs of injury. I’d seen none on Derby but he felt a little odd in walk. This is not unusual for him, he can be a bit idle and he knows that if I think he might be lame, I won’t push him as much and he’ll get away with being lazy. So sometimes he likes to pretend to be a bit lame. Moving him up to trot however everything felt horribly wrong. I called to (let’s call her) Clare, who owns and runs the yard I keep him on and who also teaches me. Clare quickly saw that he had tweaked a tendon and I cursed myself for not noticing the heat in his off fore whilst I was getting him ready.

At this stage there was little we could do. When a horse first injures its tendon you need to wait before you do anything, as the damage is ongoing and needs to settle before you can make any diagnosis or prognosis. We put him on box rest (i.e. kept him in his stable and did not turn him out in the field at all) for a week. Three times a day we hosed the leg with cold water for 20 minutes each time. The vet came and saw him briefly, told us to keep doing what we were doing, and said that he would return in a week to perform an ultrasound scan. At this stage, although Derby was lame, he was not in any particular discomfort when standing still and he seemed to rather enjoy his new routine. No work, and three times a day he had a captive audience as either  myself, Clare, or whoever else we could rope in, sat with him and poured cold water down his leg. Derby loves attention and having some captive pixie perched on a stool within reach of his inquiring nose was wonderful as far as he was concerned. If he ever had to list his hobbies, hair chewing would rank quite high.

For me, it was not a good week. Derby remained completely unperturbed as I tried to work out the implications of what was going on. A horse’s foreleg is a highly specialised structure. The large joint about half way down that we refer to as the knee is the anatomical equivalent of the human wrist. Below this there is no muscle in a horse’s leg—only bone, tendon and ligament lie beneath the skin. The tendon that Derby had injured was the superficial digital flexor, i.e. the tendon nearest the skin’s surface that flexed his foot. This tendon at times carries a horse weighing around 550kg at around 30 mph (greater speeds than that if Derby were a racehorse. Fortunately, although he sometimes disputes this fact, he actually isn’t). It runs down the back of the cannon bone, a bone equivalent to the metacarpals in your hand. But it does a much tougher job as a horse is essentially running around on its finger tips and they are large animals that run at high speeds. And where you have five metacarpal bones to take relatively lesser strain, the horse has one.

Tendon injuries are often very serious. As the vet was later to explain to me, the initial damage to a tendon often causes few problems. However, the body’s response to an injury is for blood to rush to the area to help heal it. The area then swells. This is not a problem if there is room for swelling. If you bash your leg, damage within the muscle will hurt but it will recover in time. However tendons are different. The tendon fibre is encased by a tendon sheath that gives strength and allows ease of movement but when a tendon is injured the sheath prevents swelling. So the injured tissue, unable to swell, breaks down further. It is this that causes the greatest damage. You can minimise this by cold hosing the leg, reducing the heat and swelling and encouraging new tissue growth, but by the time you find the injury the damage may already have been done. Prognosis varies—some horses will go on to race again or compete at the highest levels in other equestrian sports. Some will have their activities curtailed and may only be used for light hacking. Some may never be fit to be ridden again, leaving the owner wondering whether to keep the horse indefinitely in a field or whether to have it put down.

Without an ultrasound scan (USS) you cannot really tell what the situation is but there is no point in scanning until around 7-14 days after the initial injury so that the full extent of the damage can be assessed. So for a week owners must wait, wondering if their horse will be fine or if they must make one of the most heart-rending decisions of their lives. As I said, it was not a good week.

However, when (let’s call him) Oliver, the vet, came out to see Derby to scan him, things seemed to look up. I could not take time off work but Clare was there for the vet. The farrier trotted Derby up whilst the vet watched, and he was sound again. In fact he played with the farrier, speeding up and slowing down his trot as the farrier alternated between jogging and running, because he could, because he had been shut in his stable for a week and because he likes to play. Oliver said we were to ride him in walk only on the roads for four weeks, gradually building up the distance. Then we could introduce trot work and after two weeks of that we could start schooling him again. Whilst he was in walk work we were to keep cold hosing the leg 2-3 times each day. Oliver said there was no real need to scan the leg since all the heat and swelling were gone and since Derby was sound. It was great news, although as I was to realise over the course of the next year, getting a horse over a tendon injury is something of a roller coaster.

Horses have evolved over millions of years to run away from danger. They are herbivores and are preyed upon. Their teeth are adapted to eat grass. Their eyes are on the side of their skulls so that they have almost wrap around vision. The eyes are relatively high on the skull so that the horse can see more even whilst its head is down grazing. They have long legs to run faster, meaning they also have long necks to reach down to graze. They have large torsos to hold the large digestive systems needed to break down grass. At the first sign of danger, they run. All their senses are attuned to sense danger and they can go from a standstill to 40mph quicker than a racing car. True, over 40mph and the car has a bit of an advantage but this does not detract from the fact that all their instincts tell them to gallop off at the first sign of a problem. Now vets know this and yet they will persist in telling you that a horse that has been shut in a stable for a week, that has this itching, burning, unarguable desire to gallop, buck and play, must walk quietly for 60 minutes. It was an interesting few weeks persuading Derby that it was for his own good. He felt fine, the leg no longer hurt and he wanted to run and play.

It was worse when we started trotting. If he was allowed to trot, he seemed to reason, then he could canter for goodness sake. But walk and trot he must, and on hard level surfaces. Uneven ground can twist the leg, causing it more damage. Soft ground will pull and suck at the tendon, straining it rather than strengthening it. Only a few years ago the usual cure for a tendon injury was to turn a horse away in a field for 12 months, leaving nature to heal it. More drastically people would ‘fire’ the leg, using hot metal to scar and damage the leg reasoning that as the leg healed this extra damage so it would heal the tendon. The most recent thinking, Oliver explained to me, is that tendons need careful, controlled exercise on roads. All well and good, but Oliver didn’t have to translate this into language that Derby could understand, or sit the rather over-excited bucks and leaps of protest as I evidently didn’t explain it very well.

Nonetheless Derby seemed to progress. We kept cold hosing the leg and it remained cool to the touch. There was no heat or swelling as I increased the trot work, and Derby developed a new and exciting pace that I was to refer to as ‘leapy bucky things’. It was amazing how many of these he could string together although I tried my best to remain calm and keep him calm, for the sake of his leg. We started to take him back in the school, changing from the hard surface of the road to a softer, sand surface as the leg got stronger. At first all seemed well but one day in late September, around seven weeks after Derby had first gone lame, the leg started to swell again. It was not as bad as the first time and Clare and I hoped that it was just a tweak. Nonetheless we decided that he must have a USS to see what was going on.

That scan was not good. The tendon should consist of tightly bundled fibres lying smoothly next to each other. Instead the top 25% of Derby’s  tendon looked as if someone had taken a meat tenderiser to it. As I was to realise over the coming months, what is happening on the outside of a horse’s leg, the clinical signs, do not match up with what a scan will tell you. The instrument-based laboratory signs of an injury can give a very different picture. However, Oliver was relatively sanguine. He gave us a 6-month exercise plan, said that under no circumstances were we to turn Derby out but also said that there was a 70% chance that Derby would return to full work. At 16, middle-aged for a horse, his years told against him, but he had good short cannon bones meaning the tendons would be less weak. Whilst the injury was quite severe, the prognosis at that stage was good. I knew we had a long road ahead of us, but I had no inkling of quite how tough the winter of 2009/10 was going to be for me and my horse.

To be continued…

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Rubbish trucks, horseshoes and the law of unintended consequences

Travelling around Devon’s streets and country lanes at the moment one could be forgiven for thinking that there was a post-apocalyptic monster at work who, rather pissed off at waking to find itself in a world devoid of human contact, wreaked revenge by emptying the whole of humanity’s detritus over what normally looks a bit like the cover of a chocolate box. Normal streets have taken on the appearance of a landfill site as various councils have failed to collect rubbish for a period of weeks.

After the snow, before binpocalypse

Rubbish trucks are a distant memory of mine. As far as I can recall my rubbish was last taken away on 10th December. Now I know that at some point around 17th December someone picked up Narnia and dumped it wholesale on Devon. I know it snowed. I know this makes it difficult to take vehicles along roads. But I also know that now, approaching week 4 of smelly-bin-pocaplypse, there is an area of my courtyard where my bins live that I don’t really want to approach whilst in full possession of my sense of smell. In fact I don’t think it’s just my bins that live there – I strongly suspect that if they are left un-emptied much longer, a small ecosystem will develop by which point I will have something of a dilemma on my hands. I’m all for healthy ecosystems and I’m quite taken by the idea that there might be an evolving life form in there – but you know what? I’d quite like someone to empty my bins.

As a good, liberal, left-wing, Guardian reading, sandal wearing, weave your own lentil curry out of muesli and a raffia mat, mind the ozone layer, don’t dump that there, or there, re-use that, recycle that, and for goodness sake reduce the amount you use that, basic hippy type, I don’t throw much away. However, the stuff that I did throw away four weeks ago is now growing legs whilst not, unfortunately, showing any signs of walking itself into the nearest landfill. In fact I think my memory of rubbish trucks is starting to meld with my memory of the Winter of Discontent (I was 6, fact fans) such is the distance it is now acquiring.

 Now I’ve been reliably informed by regional BBC news that my council think this rubbish is not a problem. Sure, it’s liberally strewn all over the streets by seagulls who, I’m starting to think, will actually take over in a post-apocalyptic world, at least as long as the rubbish lasts. But it isn’t a problem, apparently. Well accept that it is, and not necessarily for the reasons that they think.

I have a horse, and the un-emptied bins affect him too. I should probably make it clear that the council responsible for my domestic refuse collection is not the same one as the council responsible for the refuse collection in the area where I ride my horse. But the problem remains the same. I ride my horse on single-track roads – there is just enough room for one car travelling one way. If traffic is to pass, it must find designated passing places which means that someone has to reverse (that’s another story in itself). If the car is a sensible size and carefully driven, and your horse is well-mannered, you can actually pass each other without one of you needing to find a passing place. However there are many larger cars and assorted farm vehicles on the roads and if I encounter these the horse and I must turn around and find somewhere to tuck ourselves in, whilst the vehicle passes. And of what are the passing places currently full? Yes, that’s right. Uncollected rubbish.

 Now various things might occur to you at this point. Could people not just keep their rubbish out of the way? Could my horse not just stand quietly beside it? First things first – no-one is quite sure when the council are going to come around and take the rubbish away since communication is rather sparse beyond ‘soon, really soon’, like a lover telling you he will leave his wife, and about as convincing. So people leave the rubbish out as an example of the triumph of hope over experience and with the thought that one day, and one day soon, the rubbish trucks might be seen again. (Though currently they are significantly rarer than whatever life form it is that’s evolving in my bin).

As to standing the horse next to the rubbish, that’s highly unlikely. It’s not that he’s particularly highly strung, but people have described him as ‘a bit of a character’ (trans, I like him, but I’m glad he’s yours, not mine) and ‘not a novice ride’ (trans, dear god, no, it’s fine, you ride him. I’ll just sit here. And watch). When the chips are down, I trust him with my life. But when the chips aren’t down he likes a laugh as much as the next person, so long as the next person thinks that leaping wildly into the air at the approach of the Attack Bracken is hilariously funny. (Seriously, you want to watch bracken, deadly stuff, according to my horse). But all in all, he is well-schooled and obedient. He will pass a landrover with a pile of mangolds in the back, a giant roll of hay on top of the mangolds and a collie dog balanced on the hay. He won’t stand next to piles of rubbish though.

Would you make the poor chap stand next to an overflowing dustbin?

In fairness to him, it’s not an unusual reaction for a horse. It does not mean he should not be on the roads. It means the rubbish shouldn’t be on the roads. Horses cannot focus particularly well. Like most animals which are preyed upon their eyes are to the side of their heads, not the front. This gives them a great range of vision but little overlap and therefore, less depth perception which means that objects probably often just look a bit odd and undefined to them. Added to that, they are flight animals. If something scares them, millions of years of evolution have hardwired them to run, run for the hills, run like you’re being chased by a lion. Run like you’re being chased by a whole pride of lions. Run, run like there’s a post-apocalyptic bin monster chasing you. Run as if the Attack Bracken is on the loose. But at all costs run now and ask questions later, if at all. So when faced with a big pile of rubbish that isn’t normally there, I can’t blame the animal for A. assuming that a predator might be lurking in it B. wanting to get away from any potential predators and C. claiming that for goodness sake woman, it stinks, I’ve got a Sensitive Nose I Do Not Want to Go Near It.

This morning this caused me, and him, a huge problem. Approaching a large pile of rubbish he and the horse we were with both spun around to get away from it. We had no choice but to go past this rubbish but my horse spun with so much force that although his foot turned, his nailed-on shoe did not. He all but wrenched the shoe off, leaving him at extreme risk of standing on a nail as his shoe was hanging off his foot with nails sticking out of it.

Now fortunately, underneath it all, he is an incredibly sensible animal. He waited until the other rider I was with had dismounted and stood quietly whilst I held both horses, whilst she removed the shoe so we could walk them both home. But I do not yet know if he is all right. He may have stood on a nail. If that did happen he could get an infected foot. This means, at best, vet and farrier bills and a large expense. At worst, I have known such injuries become infected resulting in osteomyelitis (a very serious infection) and death.

It’s also possible that he may have torn the hoof wall (yes, that is like ripping down to the quick of your nail) to the extent that the farrier cannot get a shoe on him. My horse is 18 years old. I’ve had him for seven years now and he is the love of my life. But in 2009/10 I spent 14 months nursing him through a tendon injury. He has fought his last great battle – I cannot put him through something like that again. If he has minor injuries and illnesses I will nurse him through, but I don’t think he or I have the wherewithal to recover from anything major, and not being able to shoe a working horse is a more serious problem than you might at first think. There is an old expression ‘No foot, no horse’. Since my horse cannot work without shoes (some horses can, he can’t) without shoes, he has no foot to work on.

 So for the want of a rubbish truck, the shoe was lost. I only hope that in this case the consequence is a bill for the farrier to replace the shoe, not the loss of a kingdom. I also hope that whilst this situation persists, nobody encounters any more alarming unintended consequences. And I really, really hope that Devon’s various councils get around to emptying our bins – or I’ll be leading a mounted charge against them, with my trusty newly-evolved Dustbin Lifeform as the rearguard.

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