People always talk about ‘their journey’,it is an overused phrase these days but like a lot of horse owners, I have been on a lifelong journey of discovery.

My love of horses started as a child, where, like most of us, I was taught to ‘kick’ and use my little crop, ‘shorten those reins’ and ‘give them a big pat’ to say thank you.  The ‘show the horse who’s boss’ attitude dominated the riding school circuit and I didn’t think to question it. As I got older, although still riding at riding schools in the traditional way, at least it started to get kinder, but I still just did as I was told without questioning it.

When I moved to Spain and became a horse owner for the first time, and being lucky enough to have the horses at the bottom of my garden, I soon started to question those traditional methods.  I had accepted that horses were often kept in individual stables, without contact with other horses while churning out lessons by the hour. Tacking up tended to be rushed, with the horses tied to a stable wall with no hay to pass the time or settle their stomach before the ride. Thinking back, horses were often treated as no better than machines to be used for our enjoyment.

Once I was able to observe horse behaviour on a daily basis, I soon realised what sensitive, complex animals they are, and how living together in a herd kept them happy and healthy. Taking on the many rescues over the years opened my eyes to the effects of harsh horse management , even bullying and it has been a joy to watch shut down horses blossom with love and kindness and also to observe the difference between how they behave compared to my horses who were born here and have never known anything but kindness, never had a bit in their mouth, a whip used on them or shoes on their feet.  

To some people, our horses may look scruffy, in the winter they are left unrugged and develop thick coats to keep them warm, meaning they are not the shiny examples you often see with stable kept horses. They are also allowed to interact with each other as horses should do, which does result in the occasional small cuts and loss of hair through play.  Their feet are as hard as nails and cope amazingly with the stony terrain on our riding trails but again, they won’t always look glamorous. We are occasionally judged in a negative way, with the way our horses are kept being compared to living conditions in other countries . In the majority of Southern Spain, grass hardly grows, so traditionally horses are kept, if they are lucky, in tiny paddocks, usually on their own, but most commonly around our area, horses are tied up on long ropes in fields in the summer, without being able to touch another horse, with no shelter from the sun or water and in the winter, you are left wondering where they are, as you just don’t see them – they are mostly shut away in tiny stables, barely seeing the light of day.  

My horses have enough turn out to be able to run around, play, graze on their hay, roll and do everything a horse needs to do, with shelter if they want to use it. It is not the acres of grass that is considered necessary in other parts of Europe, but then again, our horses do not have the problem with laminitis that is becoming so common in the Uk.

Along with the journey to being bitless and barefoot which is described in the horses stories, I have also discovered new training methods over the years, which has evolved into positive reinforcement, using a clicker to train with kindness. This has been such a bonus with the scared, shut down rescue horses and I have had complete success . On this journey though, I have also come to worry about what we have to do in order to be able to afford to feed and care for the horses – namely, take people out on riding trails.  Most horse owners have the luxury of being the only people to ride their horses, and anything they do to train them is reinforced every time they ride them. I have to accept that I need to put different riders on my horses on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, and over the years it has made me realise how absolutely accepting and giving a horse is, to put up with all the different riding styles. Why should they even allow us on their back, we should take it as a privilege and treat the horse with the respect it deserves. If I witness a riding client being less than kind to my horse, kicking, pulling, slapping on the neck, (I accept that this is a common way of saying thank you and I don’t hold it against people when it is what they have been taught) I of course explain why we choose not to do this and they usually accept my explanation and have their eyes opened to the fact that there are other ways of riding, but sometimes a rider can’t be changed, and I was starting to get upset on a regular basis, watching my kind horses, some of them having recovered from sad past lives,  having to tolerate things they didn’t understand. I realised that if I could choose, I wouldn’t allow anyone else to ride my horses, but needs must and at the end of the day we have a business to run. One of the biggest problems I faced on rides was the constant call of ‘when can we have another trot’, or ‘when can we canter’ even when the horses were already sweating on a hot summer morning. It really upset me that people couldn’t see that the horses were living creatures and that they weren’t happy to just enjoy the stunning scenery and the bond with their horse, it was all about speed and rider satisfaction. I had to have eyes in the back of my head to prevent over enthusiastic children sneakily kicking their horses to try to make them trot all the time, unaware that it could be at a place where they would often canter and could lead to a dangerous situation, with all the horses taking off. (not to mention the fact that the poor horse had to put up with being kicked in the ribs at every stride). I started to think of how I could make things better for the horses, especially as they are all starting to get older, and realised that if I removed the cantering from the rides, and people knew there would not be any cantering, then it would totally change the type of client we had and mean that we only have clients who really care about the horse. I am not saying that cantering a horse means you don’t care, I love cantering as much as the next person,  but when it is all you want to do, when you treat the horse like a machine, you are not the type of client we want.

I have also realised over the years that  a lot of people who think they can ride , and say they can ride, are not actually balanced riders and it started to occur to me that an unbalanced rider bouncing around on my horses back in trot and canter was not kind to my horse or it’s back!  In short, I was allowing things to happen that I wouldn’t allow if I was a one horse owner, with the luxury of being that horse’s only rider.

There has to be a bit of a compromise, with 14 horses to care for, some of them do have to earn their keep, especially as half of them are retired or semi retired and will all live out their days with us.

By changing the riding business to offer ethical riding, at walking pace, enjoying the scenery and the bond with your horse, we not only make life better for our horses but we offer something a bit different for our guests too – there are a lot of people who are maybe nervous, or older and lacking the confidence they used to have, or are complete beginners, or just horse owners who enjoy happy hacking, who really welcome the type of holiday we offer and it is a great compromise all round, with happy horses and riders.  

We are now meeting so many lovely, genuine horse lovers, and with the addition of our varied riding courses, some non ridden, and often beneficial for the horses, for example equine massage or other therapies, we are finding a way forward , as our horses (and we!) get older.

Really pleased to announce our new ,updated mobile friendly website – take a look and let us know what you think!

 

6 months on

It has been nearly 6 months since the sad death of our beloved Caña. I finally feel stong enough to write about her, though I will never forget her.

Caña came to us in January 2016 along with another horse, Sierra. They had both been working at another trekking centre over the mountains from us and needed a new home. The trekking business was downsizing.

Unfortunately, Caña arrived with what we were told by her previous owners, and assumed ourselves, was thrush. It turned out to be much worse and when we removed her shoes we found the full extent of the problem. All four of Cañas feet were badly infected with canker (a disease that is next to impossible to treat and a poor prognosis for success). Her feet and heels were bleeding and oozing white puss.

Incredibly she wasn’t showing any lameness but her feet were so bad and so painful to the touch. We can only assume that as it affected all 4 feet, she couldn’t show lameness as she couldn’t limp!

We immediately called the vet and so began months of treatment. Soaking all four feet daily in special solutions, as the months went on, a new mixture of treatments were tried and tested. The transition to barefoot helped a lot but it was a constant battle to keep the infection at bay.

Caña’s feet when she arrived…

 

Helping Caña to enjoy people…

When we first took Caña on, her previous owners described her as ‘not a cuddly horse’. This was a huge under statement. Caña was so sad and shut down, she literally shuddered if you even put a finger lightly on her. With the aid of a clicker and treats we set to work to help her accept human touch more readily. After a lot of time and patience, we were gradually able to catch her, tack her up, ask her to lower her head for her bridle (relaxed) and be mounted at the mounting block without rushing off, all at liberty.

We started to ride her once her feet had started to heal; the vet assured us that movement would help her recovery. When she came to us she was neck reined with a bit. At the grand old age of 24 we transitioned her overnight to bitless with 2 reins and she was amazing! I loved riding her.

With all the months of positive reinforcement, she really responded to my voice. Though she had a huge, long stride (she was a very tall horse), I only had to say ‘stand’ for her to stop and wait for the other horses to catch up.

 

Caña’s last day ……

20 minutes into a lovely ride on a beautiful sunny September day last year, the dreaded event took place. Our lovely Caña was kicked in the leg by our old mare Capri, breaking it badly. It all happened so suddenly, one minute we were walking along, chatting and enjoying our ride, then suddenly Caña was rearing in pain. Luckily our fantastic vets came very quickly and poor Caña was put to sleep very peacefully in the olive grove where the accident happened.
After all the months working with her, we had a strong bond and I really loved her. I miss her gentleness and beauty, she was a very special horse. I console myself that her feet would never have been 100% – canker has a habit of never quite going away, and she has been spared having to tolerate the constant treatment for the rest of her life. She died when her health was at it’s peak of improvement, after a very happy summer of going on picnic rides and being loved by everyone.

She did not have to struggle through another winter, which I know would have taken it’s toll on her feet especially as she was inclined to get mud fever. Despite knowing this, I will never stop missing her.

R.I.P. our beautiful Caña.

 

Caña came to us in February 2016 along with Sierra. Both had been used by previous owners in their trail riding business. Caña was 23 when we got her and by the look of her passport was used at a polo yard for some of her life, strange to think as she is very tall!

Caña's settling in

When Caña arrived…

she had shoes on all 4 feet which had to be removed of course, in order to integrate her into our herd. When we took the shoes off we were horrified to discover that she had canker – a terrible foot infection, similar to thrush but much worse and near to impossible to get rid of. Her feet were infected with white puss and bleeding, it was so sad to see. It has been a very long and complicated journey to nurse her back to health, but after 18 months we are almost there, though the infection does come back from time to time up in her heals so we can never stop checking and treating her. The vet has recommended that being ridden is helpful as it encourages healthy growth in her feet. She has made the transition to bare foot really well, and is now being used as a lead horse, a job she is very good at.

Transition to bitless

Having been ridden with a bit all her life, it is incredible that she has accepted being ridden bitless literally over night – it was as if it was a huge relief for her. When she arrived she was incredibly head shy and would quiver all over if you even lightly touched her and move away from anyone who approached her. With the help of a clicker she is now happy to be touched and starting to develop a character instead of the shut down robot she was when she arrived. She really is the sweetest horse and has settled in happily with our two other oldies, away from the main herd so that she can have all the time she needs to eat and rest.

“He had his final party, he kicked up his heels in glee, he ran around his paddock and said thanks for letting me be me”
Our dear old Hercy died today, very suddenly, aged 25. He had a fantastic day yesterday, enjoying the sun and galloping and bucking around the sand arena, full of the joys of spring (and a few hours eating grass too smile emoticon ) We expected him to live to 35 and we are in deep shock and sadness. Hercy was one in a million he touched the hearts of all who rode him, not many horses could be relied on to take tiny children unled, or stay behind the ride in walk while everyone cantered. (or give me fantastic energetic canters when I pressed the right buttons smile emoticon ) I loved him with all my heart and I don’t know how I am going to cope without him, or seeing his cute little face every day. The rest of the herd are going to miss their good old Uncle Hercy too, he was the horse they all relied on if anything made them nervous, if they had to pass a monster or needed the confidence to go in a new direction. So glad you didn’t suffer Hercy, couldn’t wish for more really but I wish you hadn’t left me xxxx

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This afternoon it was so hot and sunny, I decided to do a bit of light riding on my 24 year old mare Capri in the arena, with the aim of trying her in a cordeo. For some reason she decided that she didn’t want me to ride her and every time I moved the mounting block, she stepped forward – I turned it into a game for a while, as she seemed to be enjoying the teasing, and I was in no hurry but then I decided to forget riding her, she was in such a playful mood, it seemed a good time to do some liberty ground work. It was amazing, and so heartwarming and enjoyable – she stuck to me like glue, making turns, trotting, halting, all to my voice commands, we have never done this together before, but i can’t wait to do more with her. Even when her friend Scarlett called her over to the fence, she had a quick sniff in passing, but then continued to follow me!

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Fern can be ridden by all abilities in walk, but only experienced riders in faster paces.

Fern was born at least a month premature in August 2005.   Her mum Alfie, unlike the rest of the mares that have foaled here, seems to like to give birth in the middle of the day, on the muck heap, surrounded by all of the other horses.  Luckily, as mentioned in Ferns older brother Spirit’s story earlier, I was in the field, about to collect her first born,  who was a year old and needed to be weaned in preparation for the new arrival.  As it turned out, I had left it too late, but was luckily there to witness the birth.  Though we had already had 4 foals born here, this was the first birth I had managed to catch in progress and I was very excited.   Things seemed to be progressing normally to begin with but after a while I became worried that Alfie was in trouble – the foal had started to appear but then everything seemed to stop.  I knew that it was best not to intervene and let nature take its course, but when the delay seemed too long, my instincts took over and I decided that I needed to help a bit.  Luckily with a gentle tug on her legs, Fern was finally born, so tiny but perfect. I now had to worry about the afterbirth and of course you remember all the advise about checking for holes etc , I just had to trust my own judgement that all seemed normal.  It was a wonderful experience but I must admit to preferring finding a nice healthy foal in the morning – much less stressful!

Knowing that Fern was so premature, I was then quite worried to see that she was taking a long time to get up and suckle.  Again, I knew that I should not try to intervene too soon, and ran up to the house to check my books and internet to find out how long a delay was acceptable for a foal to stand.  Reassured that it could take some time, I raced back down to the field to wait.  After what seemed like hours, Fern had still made no attempt to stand and I began to get worried.  I decided to try to help her to her feet and placed her in a position to suckle.  To my relief everything worked out fine and Alfie seemed delighted with her lovely, tiny new baby.  Within a few days of her birth, Fern not only had a loving Mum but also a very proud brother to look after her.  Fern and Spirit were soon inseparable and eight years later they still enjoy playing together, though Spirit does prefer his male companions and Fern has become very bonded with Lola and Blackberry.

Being so tiny at birth, Fern has remained very small; she actually looks like a miniature horse, with everything perfectly proportioned.  It was a problem when the time came for backing her as we needed competent light weight riders but she was perfect from the day she had a saddle on and over the years, due to her small size (no more than 13hh), she can go months at a time without being ridden, if we don’t have small enough riders around, yet she is so calm and well behaved, she really enjoys going out and if anything worries her she just has a good look at it but very rarely reacts to anything.  She is a little pocket rocket though, and can give the bigger horses a run for their money – it is best to have her in front when planning a canter or she will do her best to wiggle her way through to be in the lead!  As tiny as she is, she will happily take up to around 60 kilos, without even breaking into a sweat, so has become very popular with the lighter weight ladies!

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Picasso can only be ridden by experienced riders (at the moment).

Picasso is our beautiful chestnut gelding, born at the farm in 2005.  He is the son of Leo and Capri and shares a bit of both of their natures, which makes him a calm, easy , loveable horse.

He is lean, like his Mum and Dad , and just the right height  to be a useful size for clients.   We have just started riding him again after a 7 month gap over the winter, and he is amazingly well behaved, nothing seems to scare him and he is a joy to ride.

When he was a small foal he was very frightened of head collars, and would get so scared if you tried to put one on him that he would rear up and once even fell over backwards.   I did not want to force him to accept one when he was clearly so distressed so I looked for an alternative method of getting him to accept it and came across clicker training.  I had never tried it before, but from what I read it seemed like a possible solution, so armed with a new book and clicker I set to work.  I was totally amazed with the result – I started by getting him to touch a plastic bottle and clicking and rewarding every time he got it right, then within 10 minutes I had him willingly touching a head collar scrunched up in my hand.  From there it was easy, painless steps to clicking while holding against his face, and then, within 20 minutes at the most he was allowing me to put the head collar on – totally stress free, it felt like a miracle cure!   From that day he was never frightened of the head collar again and needless to say I have put the clicker to good use for numerous other small problems that any of the horses have had.     Picasso  kept the long legged coltish look until he was about 6, in fact he can still look quite gangly and coltish now.   We felt that he needed a bit longer to mature physically than our filly foals, Twiggy and Fern, and we did not introduce him to a saddle and rider until the summer he turned 5.   He accepted a rider with no problem at all, but as we were in no rush we left him until the following summer to start riding him properly and he took to it as if he had been born to be ridden, happily taking the lead on hacks and just stopping and sniffing at anything that worried him.

He is great friends with ‘Uncle’ Hercy and also his half brother Spirit and of course still loves his Mum Capri.