Dogs at Equestrian Events

As horse owners we tend to be animal lovers. I don’t know the actual statistics on how many horse owners also have dogs (or indeed any other animal), but in my experience it is quite a high proportion of us. I’m sure that we’ve all had the dream of hacking out with our faithful canine happily trotting alongside, but sadly the reality often is that horses and dogs aren’t always the best of friends. According to the British Horse Society, there has been a great increase in reports of dog attacks on horses recently and I have definitely noticed increased controversy around our canine companions attending equestrian events. I attended both Withington Manor Horse Trials and Gatcombe Festival of Eventing as a spectator this year and at both events there was chaos at least once when a loose dog chased a combination on the cross country phase. This has resulted in a few calls for dogs to be banned from attending equestrian events for everyone’s safety. Olivia Wilmot talked to Horse and Hound about her anger after being chased by a dog at Gatcombe last year, she may not have been hurt but it is hardly optimum competing conditions. Others argue that a few incidents like this shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it for the hundreds of well behaved dogs and their responsible owners who attend these events safely every year. Luckily, I didn’t see anyone actually get hurt, but even one accident would be one too many!

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From personal experience, as the owner of a rescued Jack Russell Terrier, I’ve been working hard to teach my dog about responsible behaviour around horses. I still wouldn’t trust him off the lead around them, but he’s basically fine now on the yard and when he sees them hacking while we’re walking. Poor, tolerant Ginge has been brilliant during the desensitisation process. He has come with us on walks and I’ve hacked round the field with my partner leading the dog nearby – we’ve done a fairly good job at convincing him that horses are extremely boring and not worth barking at.

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I still prefer not taking him to equestrian events though and generally speaking I just don’t do it. I was talked into giving him a try at attending Gatcombe this year, I had tickets for my birthday and everyone we would normally have left him with was away. His best doggy friend, Barney, was coming along too and we hoped they would just be quiet together. Honestly, I won’t be taking him again. I’m not sure it was an enjoyable outing for either of us. It turns out, despite all our hard work and training there are two things that are just too much for my tiny dog to cope with: clapping and horses galloping. You can expect both of these things at an event and he handled it as many terriers would – with a lot of barking. As a result, I spent the whole day consoling or attempting to discipline the dog (neither worked) and did a lot of laps of the car park or shopping areas to steer clear of the horses and riders. I saw very little eventing and came home exhausted with a headache. Not an experience I plan on repeating.

There were plenty of dogs there, including terriers, who behaved perfectly all day of course. I may be banning my own dog from attending equestrian events, but I don’t think this needs to apply to all dogs. It just needs us as dog owners to act responsibly and decide the best course of action as individuals to make sure everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience. As much as we love to have them with us everywhere, sometimes the best choice for everyone is to leave them behind with a responsible adult. I was disappointed to miss out on the action at Gatcombe to retreat to a safe place with the dog, but I was more comfortable leaving and missing out than stressing him out and taking the risk of causing an accident on the course. I think we’ll be sticking to our quiet country walks in future – I hope other people make responsible choices about what suits their pooches too.

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Review: How to get your leg over (Diary of a Wimpy Eventer) by Victoria Brant

Over the last few months, I have been sporadically entering “retweet and follow” Twitter competitions. I never really expected to win anything, but it is worth a shot, right? Well, no one was more surprised than me that I ACTUALLY WON when Haynet offered the chance to win a copy of the Wimpy Eventer’s brand new book. Sometimes these things happen for a reason and I think this book found its way into my life at exactly the right time.

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Have you ever found yourself having a crisis of confidence? Doubted your abilities, even over something you used to be able to do with your eyes shut? The Wimpy Eventer has, and she has opened up about her decision to look fear right in the eye in honest, humorous and heartfelt fashion. It’s difficult not to fall a little bit in love with Vic, and her superstar pony Pat, after she lays her soul out on the table for her readers. The journey to regaining your confidence and trying to jump in with both feet when you’re paralysed with fear is not an easy one – and this book doesn’t pretend it is. You find yourself rooting for its author every step of the way, laughing along with her and celebrating her successes (both large and small).

Somehow, by the end, you find yourself believing in yourself a bit more. I have a number of books written by professional dressage riders that were supposed to motivate and inspire me. Sadly they have primarily left me feeling a bit inadequate and apologising to the ginger one for failing him as a trainer. This book is different. Its author is an every day rider who works several jobs to fund her expensive horse addiction, has zero transport to facilitate competition entry and is often convinced that she just is not good enough. Yet she is getting out there and smashing it. And she makes you believe that you probably can, too.

This book arrived in my life at just the right time. After 5 weeks off riding due to injury, I was definitely having my own crisis of confidence. What if all our hard work recently has been forgotten and we are back to square one? Post reading this book I have done two things that terrified me: interviewed for a part time groom job at a professional event yard (still convinced they’ll throw me off the yard as a fraud any moment) and got back on my horse. Do something you are afraid of every day. There will almost certainly be non-death to celebrate at the end of it and, you never know, you could come home with more success than you ever dreamed of. It works for the Wimpy Eventer after all!

Variety is the spice of life!

With the arrival of some summer weather (finally), ginger pony and I have been very busy lately trying his hoof at any and every opportunity that has come our way. Dressage will always be my true equestrian love, but having a go at bits and pieces of other disciplines has great benefits for any partnership. In the same way as human athletes benefit from cross-training in other sports to train different muscle groups and increase flexibility, our horses benefit from a bit of variety in their lives.

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Flatwork schooling is our main focus, but if I try to school more than twice in a week Ginge is very quick to make his boredom clear. A bored ginger pony does not make for a productive session, so I’m keen to avoid this where possible. An easy way to engage his brain is to get out the coloured poles – a technique that our instructor often uses when it looks like he’s about to start throwing his toys out of the pram. Polework (even just with poles on the ground) has a number of benefits for us: firstly, it encourages Ginge to engage his brain and really think about where he puts his feet; slightly raising the poles gets him to pick up his feet, use his core and work properly over his back; and, on days when we have our brave pants on, the tiny fences we jump have helped muscle up his hindquarters. Specific to Ginge, being a trotter, is also the fact that polework has helped teach him to canter in an arena – the poles give him something else to focus on and he often naturally transitions to canter instead of getting worked up about it as he has in the past during a simple flatwork session. All these things help improve our dressage scores as they have helped develop muscle and balance (for both of us), which in turn improve straightness and accuracy, and help with transitions within the pace as we have improved our control over stride length.

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Another common boredom buster is hacking out. There’s nothing better than spending a couple of hours exploring the countryside with good friends. It is a great chance to relax (and catch up on a bit of yard gossip), but it definitely isn’t a day off! Hacking is a great way to build fitness, especially if you’ve got plenty of hills and off road stretches for a bit of speed work! It is also a great way to teach your horse to cope with the unexpected: walkers, dogs, cyclists, vehicles, all kinds of terrifying wildlife and horse eating inanimate objects (not to mention different coloured bits of road – the horror!) could pop up at any moment. Once your horse gets used to all these hazards, it can make attending competitions a bit less of a dramatic experience. Flower pots, white boards and arena mirrors are nothing when you’ve already handled inflatable Christmas decorations and summer fete bunting! It also teaches your horse to trust and look to you in scary situations, which can only improve their focus in the arena.

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Combining both of these: the fun ride – possibly one of the maddest events of the equestrian summer calendar, but also a lot of fun. Miles of off-road riding, in a location you may not usually have access to, with jumps and photographers everywhere. Fun rides are not for the fainthearted though! They can be very busy and unfortunately not everyone is particularly considerate when it comes to passing slower, young or more nervous horses out on the ride. We arrived early to get round before most of the crowds as we were accompanying a friend with a youngster. This paid off, but there were still plenty over-taking us at speed and we saw a few falls and one very dramatic loose horse, bridle free, galloping for home. Our boys were very sensible and we’ve returned home with rosettes, great photos (courtesy of XC Photos), happy memories and, let’s be honest, the confidence to handle any dressage warm-up arena with ease!

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Perhaps more unusually, Ginge recently tried his hoof at some Working Equitation obstacles. Originating from Portugal, WE is frequented by Lusitano and PRE owners, so I heard of it as our yard owner competes on her stunning stallion. The obstacles are a real test of horsemanship and team work. It means dealing with “scary” obstacles and tests control and accuracy of commands with tests of lateral work, control of paces, obedience and balance. I started by showing Ginge all the obstacles from the ground and explaining what was expected of us. Examples include: gymkhana style weaving, a rope “gate”, walking into a corridor to ring a bell before reversing out and crossing a “bridge” (which in our case was just a wooden board, but still makes the “scary” noises). We then tackled all these things mounted, varying the paces when he gained confidence. A great test of our partnership and my ability to explain how to tackle obstacles! I think Ginge even enjoyed himself.

I doubt we will be entering an showjumping, cross-country, endurance or working equitation competitions any time soon, but we will definitely keep trying other disciplines. Having all these experiences together stops us getting stale in the school and feeds back into our dressage sessions benefiting us enormously! Happy ponies = happy owners, so get on out there and so what you can learn from the rest of the equestrian world!

Insider: Withington Manor Horse Trials

On the first May Bank Holiday weekend every year, a sleepy Cotswold village plays host to scores of International Event Riders and their rising stars for one of the highest profile One Day Events around (us locals think so anyway)! Two weeks before Badminton, it is a great opportunity for the big names to test their fitness and local fans to “celeb spot” without the big event price tag. This year, I happen to be working at the livery yard attached to the ODE ground, so I was there for the insider’s view of all the hard work and preparation that goes into an event like this and to spot the opportunities available for local equestrians to get involved.

In the lead up to the big weekend, the staff at Withington Manor work flat out on the preparations. Tractors charging to and fro are preparing the ground and delivering giant cross country fences, tents and decorations. Course designer, Eric Winter, also designed the course it Badminton, this year, so standards have to be high. Obviously, the resident horses find all the activity a combination of exciting and terrifying that makes turning out a more hair-raising experience than usual in the mornings! “Exit” signs, fir trees and even new gravel appearing has all needed a thorough investigation in case of horse-eating-monsters by the 20+ residents of the Manor. For us grooms, the deliveries instil a sense of excitement, buzzing about the soon-to-be influx of “celebs” (confirmation that Mary King seems just as lovely in person as you’d hope) and excited plans about when is best to sneak up and watch the event in action between jobs.

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The buzz of a busy lorry park!

When the big day arrives, the excitement begins with the arrival of the competitors and a spot of celeb lorry spotting. Every one arrives full of anticipation and the atmosphere is electric with last minute plaiting and preparations. For your more amateur rider, the first opportunity to be find at a local event of this scale is seeing how others warm up and get started on event day. Some people start with a hack around the grounds to help their horses relax and get used to the atmosphere; others can be seen lunging to get their horse focused and loosened up ready to go.

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Vittoria Panizzon & Chequers Play The Game in the Advanced

The dressage phase brings the next series of opportunities. Writing for the judge is a commonly cited option for the amateur rider. Of course, the quality of this opportunity varies depending on the judge. The best judges to write for are the friendly and are happy to chat through what they are looking for and give hints and pointers, there are others who are not as keen on coaching the amateur rider at the same time as focusing on judging. Obviously, try not to be too demanding of their time – judging requires focus and concentration, so you won’t be thanked for constantly interrupting with comments and questions! Another, perhaps lesser known, opportunity for the skilled amateur is the opportunity to be the guinea pig rider for the dressage phase, in order to set the judges up for the competitors. One of the liveries at our yard had the chance to take this opportunity for the 1* and jumped at the chance! After all, when else do you get the chance to ride for international standard judges and get feedback – all for free!

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Justine & Alfie guinea pig ride the 1*

Next up is the showjumping, where there’s less opportunity to get involved – unless you fancy a work out restoring fallen poles between competitors! There is always a learning opportunity though. At your local show, you are much more likely to get up close and personal with the ring and be able to analyse the different riders styles and lines. After all, where else are you likely to be almost within touching distance of the legendary Mark Todd as he handles a tricky combination!

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Mark Todd flying around the showjumping phase

Last, but definitely not least: the challenge of the cross country course. The course at Withington is challenging to say the least! Eric Winter certainly knows how to design a bold and testing course. For your local rider, there are two main opportunities: fence judging and riding the course. Fence judging is potentially a great opportunity, hopefully you get an interesting fence and you get to watch, in detail, how every single rider approaches it. You can analyse for yourself the successes and pitfalls of these approaches and maybe apply some lessons to your own riding. It is a long day and full concentration is required, so maybe not for the fainthearted!

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A section of Eric Winter’s course

A number of local events hire the course out for local people to ride for a few days after the event. A few of us took the opportunity, so I can now say I’ve ridden on an Eric Winter course! Did I jump anything? Absolutely not! This dressage diva does not have the brave pants required for that level of course. We did trot through the water, pop up and down the much shorter sides of the bank and have a good blast around the field without spooking at any of the giant fences though. For Ginge and I, it was a great chance to ride around and have a look at a world class cross country course and face his worries about water. I feel like we succeeded. For those competing at a much higher level, it is an even greater opportunity to pop a few choice fences and practice the tricky ones without the pressure of competition and a ticking clock.

So what is stopping you? Get out there and get involved at your local event!