BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
Darcey skipped across the yard with all the joys of a spring lamb and flicked up both heels as she jumped the narrow concrete drainage gutter. In her mind she was not a 9 year old child, nope, she was Ellen Whitaker competing on her grand 16.2 hh bay steed. The fence before her was over 4 feet high and as she got close she counted down the approach 3…2…1 and takeoff! The gutter was jumped clear, guaranteeing her a place at HOYS! Darcey threw up her hands in jubilation and waved to the cheering crowd. In this moment a high-pitched whinny quickly disintegrated her fantasy and the crowd abruptly faded away.
Darcey looked toward the small grey head of her pony peering out over the stable door. This was Badger, a 12 hh welsh pony that Darcey had been given 3 months ago on her birthday. She entered the stable and closed the door behind her, standing on tip-toes so she could slide the bolt carefully back into its catch. Badger nuzzled at her pocket, he knew there was bound to be a mint in there, probably an entire packet. Eventually Mum caught up to her cantering, jumping her somewhat smaller version of Ellen Whitaker, and peered into the gloomy stable. Mum was breathless and not just because she had attempted to keep up with Darcey riding an imaginary 16.2 hh bay steed, but because she had also carried the tack from the car. The saddle was placed gently on top of the stable door, and the bridle neatly hung from the cantle. You groom and tack up darling Mum said, I will go and make the feeds up.
Mum was good at making feeds as it was at least something she understood. Not coming from an equine background Mum rarely got involved in tacking up, there were just too many buckles and straps to negotiate. She really had no idea of the difference between a throat latch and a nose band. She’d also given up on grooming after being scolded more than once by her child, after-all how many brushes does a horse need? Curry comb, plastic curry comb, metal curry comb…and comb. Body brush, dandy brush, face brush…and not that sponge, that sponge is for his bum! Forget it, Mum could avoid feeling foolish in front of a child by hiding in the feed-room. Knowing the difference between chaff, pasture mix and oats had almost gone without a hitch. But once the yard manager had kindly written Badger in Tipex on his feed bins, the Oat-Incident had never occurred again. Mum was also now confident in knowing the difference between haylage, hay…and straw. She had attempted the task of mucking out Badger only once, and had felt proud of her attempt. She had initially stood back and marvelled at the flat bed and neat banks. Not that hard then is it? she had mused to herself. However the yard manager soon ruined this moment of confidence after the other liveries complained there was no hay. Yup, this was the day Mum found out the difference between fibre that could be eaten, and fibre that was to be pee’d on.
Saturdays and Wednesdays were the extra special days for Darcey, as these were the days she rode her pony. Saturday was a group lesson, and Wednesdays she could ride in the school either alone, or be joined by other liveries. Sometimes when the weather was nice Darcey and Badger would go for a small hack around the farm with Mum doing her best to keep up on foot. More than once Mum found herself wondering whether perhaps she should have taken her child to Disney Land instead as a present for a ninth birthday. But never-mind, these thoughts would never be uttered out loud, or the thoughts of calculating the years left before Darcey discovered boys. She had heard on the equine grape-vine this is when girls forget about horses. Of course this was of little comfort, plus it would be at least another 7 years away.
Here I close the story. I shut the book on tales of Darcey, Badger and the soon to be vino-guzzling hapless Mum that questions her life choices. But NO my readers will roar (all 42 of them) what will happen to Darcey? Will she ever find a boy and give up on Badger? Will she one day qualify for HOYS? Will Mum ever come out of the feed-room?
Let’s just turn to the facts. There are many ponies similar to Badger the world over, and thanks to inexperienced owners, horse trainers are kept in steady work. The pony is ridden twice a week so that leaves 5 days of being put in the stable every evening and provided with food within a very short time. The horse or pony has been trained to expect food once it has been led in from the paddock. More often than not a trainer is called for help because the animal has become bad mannered when in the stable. Problems can arise when the bridle is produced and the horse says no. No can mean spinning away from an approaching human, raising the head, pinning the ears, threatening to kick or bite, squashing a person against the wall, or even striking out. The trainer will ask to see the problem and request to watch the horse being tacked up. Without a doubt the trainer will attempt to educate the owner on leadership skills, equine behaviour, dominance and gaining trust.
Yet the most vital piece of information is often left out, which is, the owner has been putting the horse in the stable and walking straight to the feed-room. Imagine for 5 days out of the 7 the owner walks to the feed-room, the horse can hear the human clattering about and preparing feed and anticipates it will be fed shortly. Now leave a child in the stable attempting to tack up the same horse that is expecting a bucket of chaff, mix and carrots. The focus of the horse is not on the child, but the person who is in the feed-room. It is potentially a dangerous situation for a child or anyone in the stable.
Training isn’t just about riding, groundwork, leading or grooming. It involves every moment you are near a horse and includes everything you do. There are times when a problem can be resolved very simply. It just involves the human taking a step back and assessing the situation, and understanding why it may have developed. By all means call the vet, dentist or trainer when the horse displays behavioural problems. But also consider your own actions, look at the bigger picture, and connect those dots. Look to yourself and your own actions before thinking it’s the horse with the problem.