Friday, April 24, 2009

Harry has found his calling - Musical poles

I have to miss the Riding Club gymkhana – it’s my hubby’s birthday, and I suppose he has to be the priority sometimes! Last year Harry and I went to the gymkhana, with Jane and Red. Our fortunes were mixed.

Because we do lots of different things with our horses, we thought that gymkhana games would be a cinch. Faced with the club’s ‘A Day at the Seaside’ gymkhana theme, Harry and Red disagreed.

In one race, you had to pull plastic balls out of a paddling pool full of water with a fishing net on a long pole. I couldn’t even get hold of it without Harry throwing a wobbly, cantering sideways and leaping forwards with melodramatic snorts. Hanging wooden fish on a frame for another game gave him palpitations, too. There I was, leaning forward to hang the fish up, and there was Harry backing away from it in horror!

He was unperturbed by the dressing up game, standing patiently as I struggled to pull a pair of rather small beach shorts on over my breeches. We might have done better if I hadn’t been rendered helpless with laughter at the sight of the one male member of our Riding Club thundering down the field wearing a pretty flowery dress over his riding gear, plus snorkle and googles crammed over his moustache.

Harry excelled at one game, musical poles. You ride a circuit around a cluster of poles, and when the music stops, you turn in, make for a pole, grab it and hang on. One pole is removed after each go, and whoever is left holding the last pole is the winner.

Well, as a bit of a barger, Harry was a natural at this. When our opponents saw him making purposefully for our chosen pole, feathers flailing , a determined glint in his eye, they kept clear – there’s no riding Harry off.

One poor little girl fell off when her pony shied at the sight of Harry ‘on a mission.’ We were on a roll, and only beaten by an amazingly nippy pony who snatched victory from under our noses.

Never mind, it was a blue ribbon and my first gymkhana rosette for 40 years!

The eternal tourist

I squeeze in an early hack, and I’m so glad I bothered. The weather is cool and cloudy, but still and quite bright. The common is blissfully deserted; Harry and I have it to ourselves.

He’s in a great mood: calm but eager, perfect equine company. The eternal tourist, he looks at everything with intense curiosity. He draws my attention to things I would never usually see: a couple of tiny muntjak deer grazing unconcernedly near the path; a distant dog walker with two bounding red setters, a white house on the horizon. He whinnies at that – perhaps he thinks it’s his field companion, Snoopy, who’s a little white pony!

At times like this I love to ride Harry on a really loose rein. It’s such fun cantering him ‘on the buckle’, feeling like a cowboy, seeing him turning his head this way and that as things catch his eye. Even when he’s startled by something his reaction is moderate, he recovers quickly and carries on. Being allowed to behave naturally must be less stressful than being checked and ‘ridden’ all the time. I make a mental note to allow as much rein as I can when Harry is tense.

Heading for home, we gallop up and over the brow of a hill, with half of Hampshire spread out beneath us. This is the kind of thing I dreamed of when I was a little girl. I thank my lucky stars that now I have my own lovely horse and can live my dream –though I’m not a little girl any more, by any stretch of the imagination!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I’ll kick off by introducing myself and my horse, Harry.

My name is Alison Bridge and I’m the Editor-in-Chief of Horse&Rider and a fifty-something riding returner. I rode from age seven until I went to University and then only occasionally up until three years ago, when I caught the horse bug again. My horse bug resulted in the purchase of Harry, an eight year old, 14.3hh skewbald cob.

Harry is like no other horse I have ever ridden, more like a chunky, overgrown pony with attitude. It took me a while to get used to him (and vice versa), but now I absolutely adore him. He’s cute, clever, cheeky and brave – he’s had a bash (literally, sometimes!) at everything I’ve asked him to do so far, from sponsored rides to dressage.

Harry lives out 24/7 with his pony friend, Snoopy, and I ride him two to three times a week, or more if I can. Recently I’ve kept it to short hacks in the rain – I hate getting wet right through to my pants! And of course I spend lots of time poo-picking his field, not a lot of fun in the rain, either.

But a couple of days ago, finally the clouds parted and I had a wonderful riding lesson. My trainer Fiona is an event rider, and a great confidence giver, which is just what my training buddy, Jane, and I needed. We’d both had falls jumping, but Fiona has been brilliant, getting us happily tackling poles, grids and jumps again. This week she put up a couple of new grids. The first was a jump with a placing pole either side to trot over.

Harry was a bit puzzled at first – "is it a very high trotting pole?" I could almost hear him thinking – so he didn’t so much jump as scramble! He soon got the idea, but found it quite an effort: although he is quite powerful, he’s not a natural athlete.

Then we did a combination of two jumps, four long, or five short strides apart. I tried for the long strides first, legging him on in between the fences, and nearly got them.

Then Harry put in a fast short stride just before the second jump and shot straight up like a helicopter - cue my first shriek of the day!

We managed four strides on our next attempt, with Harry barrelling towards and over the second jump with gusto, then getting his head down and giving a few little humps – his version of a few cheery bucks – which my companions found hilarious!

Now Harry was really on a roll and thought he knew what he was doing, so when Fiona asked us to jump the combination in five strides, I had to take quite a vigorous check between fences. It worked, and we did a few more variations.

We ended our session by doing a spread, then a single fence on four long strides again, which he absolutely flew over without touching a pole. More humping from Harry, more shrieks from me, more laughter from my unsympathetic colleagues!

I was knackered – our session went on for an hour and twenty minutes – and I had minor whiplash, but I haven’t had so much fun for ages.

Roll on my next ride!

DIY clipping goes wrong

Harry is looking a bit rough at the moment. Back in autumn he had a ‘go-faster’ clip (otherwise known as a chaser clip – my husband says it reminds him of Starsky’s car).

Now he’s growing his new summer coat and casting his old winter one, and between times has really long cat hairs all over his once-clipped areas, plus what looks like an outgrown beard. He also sports massive feathers harbouring goodness knows what, and a lot of girly, curly mane. However, his tail is a bit thin, thanks (or no thanks) to vigorous and frequent scratching on the stile in the field.

Time for a trim – well, that’s what I thought.

Harry is usually clipped by our friend Nicky with her ancient but quiet batter-powered clippers. I try to do it myself with Ali’s new ones, which seem noisier and more vibrant – or should that be vibrational? Whatever, they’re different, I’m not the world’s most dextrous clipper, and Harry doesn’t like it. I get most of his body hair off, although he waggles his hindlegs, pulls faces and swishes his tail. I even get the hair off his cheeks, but he hates his chin being clipped at the best of times. “With those new, buzzy clippers, by this amateur – no way!” Harry breaks the baler twine his lead rope is attached to as if it was cotton, and departs post haste, taking a little canter around the paddock and ending up climbing the muck heap.

We catch him and try again. No way, again. So I cut my losses and take Harry out hacking before I run out of time. At least he’s cooler – less fluff on his undersides, and a cute, goatee beard.

Getting the wind up

I ride Harry out on the most blustery day of the year. The wind is roaring like a jet plane, but he holds it together for a while, until we approach a salt box on the side of the road that he’s always suspicious of. I encourage him to walk close by, and just as we pass, a plastic bag flies up behind it. EEEK! Harry startles violently, then minces on, eyes on stalks.

We reach his friend Red’s yard and Harry breathes an audible sigh of relief. We proceed on our hack, trying to keep to sheltered areas, but both boys are bothered in their particular horsey way. Red, mostly Thoroughbred, tends to spook and swerve; Harry, the cob, tends to stop and stare, and then let Red take the lead. So we make our jerky, nervy way around the common, and breath a sigh of relief when we’re home.

I lead Harry out to his field, and he spots another plastic bag in the fence line. Gradually I coax him to approach. Snorting like a stallion, he gives it one evil eye, then the other. He finally touches it, and YIKES, a massive gust blows it into the air – it’s happened again! He scoots a few yards away, then looks at me aggrievedly: “How could you?”

An extra strong mint once we’re back in the field means we’re friends again, but we agree we don’t like wind…not any kind!

The bottom line

Most horses I know, if they get injured, it’s in a vaguely glamorous, sporty way. Harry so far has had two injuries: one to his willy, one to his bum, and both were self-inflicted.

He’s a really itchy cob, especially when he’s moulting. The vet reckoned he managed to actually get a hoof inside his sheath to cause the first injury, which turned out to be a minor scratch, but we were both impressed by his dexterity.

The second injury must have been caused by scratching his backside too hard. He has a powerful, agile bottom, and has been known to open gates with it – our website Editor Kelly says he has ‘opposable bums!’

So Ali and I have had the pleasant task of cleaning and applying soothing gel to Harry sore spot, which he really doesn’t like at all. Let’s hope his nappy rash clears up soon!

Angelic Harry Story Number 2

To the Riding Club for a Mini-Prix – a course that combines show jumps and cross country. I’m quite nervous. This time last year we were eliminated – twice!

The weather is perfect: warm and still. Both Harry and Red load reasonably well, with a bit of token protest from each. We’ve left the time a bit tight, so mount quickly and warm up, and I try to work out the course – I haven’t had time to walk it! It looks good, solid and inviting and just a bit challenging.

I go fairly quickly, before I can get us both into a state. Harry is a star, staying calm and focused so that I relax quite soon and ride with commitment ie without clutching at the reins, and actually breathing occasionally, which is handy on a longish 19-jump course. We clear everything including a tiger trap over a ditch (from trot, Harry wanted a good look!), a treble with the course bogey – plastic bags laid out on the ground between poles – and a wall that last year Harry refused, pushed over and then jumped. All too soon our round is over and we’ve had just one show jump down – hurrah!

Jane does a lovely clear, even though Red was quite lively, so we’re both delighted. Even more so when Jane gets equal second in the class, and first Riding Club member – and I get a pink rosette as sixth-placed Riding Club member. Harry doesn’t seem to object as he poses for a photo in his girly ribbon, and we head for home. What a great confidence boost – I love jumping again, roll on the sponsored ride!

Angelic Harry Story Number 1

Today I really appreciate Harry, and I never even sat on him!

My nephew’s wife has asked if she could come for a ride. She’s a seriously horsey lady, disguised as a married lawyer with an 18-month-old son who’s admittedly adorable, but she needed an equine fix. She rides Harry, I ride a friend’s horse, another skewbald cob, and what a difference!

Harry is quite jolly, his friend is quite manic, insisting on staying in front, then spooking and refusing to go forward. He bucks if Harry gets too close, every time we go into canter, and part-way through canters, too! His saddle is much too small for me and a dressage one, which of course is not his fault, but I am acutely uncomfortable for most of the ride. Tiki sits back on my great big, squidgy GP and enjoys the scenery. “I’m so glad I’m riding Harry,” she comments as my borrowed cob throws in another buck.

We stop at the pub to greet the family, and Harry stands patiently while various kids climb on and off him. Occasionally he moves, but very slowly and gently, like a tanker turning, and everybody goes ‘whoah’ and hangs on to their drinks. As we lead the cobs home, Harry behaving beautifully with a teenager who used to be terrified of horses, I bless him for being such a steady Eddie.

Rain stopped play

Sunday afternoon, and we are scheduled to have a mini one-day-event with our trainer, Fiona. Frankly, I’m sceptical about my chances, as Fiona has ridden around Blenheim, my friend Jane and her horse Red jumped everything clear last week, whilst Harry and I knocked up a cricket score - he discovered the jumps were plastic pretty quickly and treated them with appropriate contempt.

The yard where Fiona is working has amazing facilities, and the plan is to hire them for the afternoon and have a ‘play’, doing a dressage test, show jumping and cross country course. However, rain and wind stop play – the show jumps are flat on the ground and trees sway menacingly.

Thank goodness, there is also a fabulous indoor school - and boy, do we like it! Harry whinnies as soon as he catches sight of himself in the mirror – “who’s that gorgeous cob there?” I feel less gorgeous, but love the feeling of space, the ability to check out at our performance (if that’s what it can be called) and the fact that it’s warm and dry.

We practise our lateral work, and I am taken aback to discover from our reflection that in leg-yielding Harry crosses his forelegs like a good ‘un, whilst his hindlegs meander along like he’s walking down the field. So much for strengthening the inside hind! After some some adjustments, “git overs” and vigorous leg aids, we are more or less moving sideways. Phew!

Then thank goodness it’s jumping, and Harry tackles the small grid with characteristic enthusiasm – “whee, let’s go, I know what I’m doing!” Poles crash again, the ignominy, but as Fiona puts up more demanding grids, Harry starts to jump beautifully – what a fantastic feeling! I say Harry’s paying attention because the jumps are bigger – Jane says it’s because he’s admiring himself in the mirror!

A date with Harry

Harry's generally a guy who likes to get out there and do stuff. There is one day a year however, when Harry would just prefer to stay in his field: the day for his annual flu/tetanus jabs and dental check.

It’s a wildly windy day, but he’s calm as I bring him in from his distant field, accompanied by his ancient girlfriend, Snoopy. The only mare at the place, Snoopy is received with an enthusiastic ‘phwoar’ from the geldings on the yard. To us, she might look like a pony Norah Batty - to these guys she’s Elle MacPherson!

Stuart-the-vet arrives with a roar of tyres, leaps out, accepts coffee and approaches Harry. They eye each other knowingly. “He might be bargy,” I warn Stuart. I have a bridle on him (Harry, not Stuart) but still he makes a few token breaks for freedom before he succumbs to the needle, giving a theatrical start as it hits the mark. “That was easy,” says Stuart “It’s the anticipation he hates!” There’s more. I have requested a blood test to discover whether Harry has a tendency to lamintis, so Stuart jabs him again, and this time Harry is resigned. Extra strong mints help.

Bridle off, head collar on, Harry has his mouth washed out, scattering little bits of mint and grass stored in his cheeks. Then he has his teeth rasped – strangely, he seems to like it! He even doesn’t mind the dental gag that holds his mouth open while Stuart goes at his back teeth. Job done, Harry stretches his jaw this way and that - a chap feels a bit odd after a dental check-up!

Snoopy gets the once-over from Stuart, then I lead them both back to the field, through a hailstorm, with a huge warmblood galloping in circles in the field next to us. Harry tries to drag me past the scary monster at top speed, Snoopy hardly notices it and anyway, never goes above a gentle amble. I’m being pulled apart by two not-very-wild horses! We reach their home field, and I give them a load of hay. They munch happily whilst I pooh-pick in the hail. The joy of horse ownership.

Back to square one, or more circles anyway

I took my cob, Harry, to a local show jumping show recently. He was an angel to catch, groom, load and unload - then turned into a little devil in the warm-up!

The venue was new to both of us. I thought it was lovely, a nice big open field, surrounded by trees. Harry obviously thought it harboured all manner of dangerous things, and the other horses innocently warming up were mad brutes who might go for him at any moment. He passaged around the arena (if a cob can passage), then every time I turned him for the practice fence he put his head down and charged!

Our first attempt in the ring was the opposite of the ideal show jumping round. Far from maintaining a nice, rythmic canter, we were either trotting or tanking, but amazingly we got a clear round, and a rosette! Having put in a huge effort trying to stay in control, I felt as though I was going to burst into flames - Harry hardly turned a hair.

Our next attempt was somewhat better, but we badly mistimed one fence and had it down. Then the proper competition started, over the same course, and of course Harry thought he knew what he was doing and got careless.

Again, I didn’t get the stride exactly right at two fences and had them down. But I felt more in control, and we did get a good canter for most of the round. It really was a fun evening, and we loaded up and went home happy, especially as Harry’s friend Red had come third in the class.

Back to the drawing board - or should I say, the manège!