Why do I blog?

I guess this is a question almost every blogger must have asked themselves at some point.  Why do we do it, why do we sit behind the computer in our spare time and stare at an empty screen, trying to gather our thoughts and make the effort of painstakingly putting them into words? Why do we press publish at the end to launch these thoughts into cyberspace? What do we expect to get out of it?

The answer to that will be different for everyone. When I started this blog I wrote for myself. Trying to paint pictures in words. I wouldn’t describe myself as a verbal kind of person. In fact, words don’t come easy to me. I think in images. A lot of artists keep extensive sketch books with ideas and the preliminaries for their works of art. It doesn’t work like that for me. Ideas form as images in my mind and when they are ready, I put them into stone, or onto paper. I have never felt the need for sketch books. It’s much harder to put my thoughts into words, but I do enjoy it. Anyway, I wanted to keep a journal about my horses and I wanted it to incorporate photo’s and so I came to blogging. Initially, I wrote in a kind of vacuum. My blog was out there, but I had no readers and I hadn’t really worked up the courage to leave comments on other people’s blogs, so I wasn’t attracting attention. I wrote to release, to remember, and to try and make myself laugh at the trials and tribulations of life with horses and my blog was just a private bubble. When I first noticed that people were reading my blog, I was surprised.

This has always been a small blog, but it still grew to become something more than just a journal; it became a place to connect, to share and discuss. It became part of a community of horse lovers who are interested to share their experiences. Over the years, I have enjoyed the contact with like-minded people all over the world, and I have had wonderful comments on my blog. Support when I needed it. Advice, especially appreciated when I just started out transitioning to barefoot. I have learned things that you won’t find in books. Sometimes I got comments that made me laugh out loud (and that’ll teach you not to sneak some blogging time in during work hours!). Always, I enjoyed the stories of what I came to regard as my blogging friends.

In spite of all that, I was ready to give it all up. Because unfortunately, I have one reader who is definitely not my friend. I have had really unpleasant comments from this person, and it has taken the joy of blogging away from me. I felt that this person was reading over my shoulder every time I started a new post, ready with another snarky comment, and the words just dried up.

I have no problem with critical comments. I am always interested in other people’s point of view and I’ve had discussions here about topics like bits versus bitless and barefoot and hoofboots, but in the end it is obvious that everyone is always looking for the option that suits their horse and their particular situation best and these discussions have taken place in a respectful dialogue. Unfortunately, there is always the risk of running into the person that seeks to ridicule and crush ideas and when it is about the one thing that matters most to me, the relationship with my horses, I found that I am vulnerable.

You can moderate unwanted comments, but you cannot stop a person from reading your blog.  I thought about stopping blogging altogether, and then I considered changing the settings to make this a private blog, but I realised that I don’t want to lose what I have enjoyed so much over the past few years. And it’s not the writing, it’s being part of the horse loving blogging community. So I have decided to start a new blog, under a different name. If you’re interested, please leave a comment below, and I’ll let you know as soon as my first post is up.

Thanks

Persistence pays

One of the things I really love about having my horses at home is being close to their private lives and I’ve learned a lot from just watching them. So when Ben came three weeks ago, I was interested to see how they would get on, because the last time Ben was here he was the only gelding with three mares – and life was easy. Now, Arrow is here and that was bound to change the dynamic. Over the past three weeks I have spent a lot of time out in the field, watching the horses as they grouped and re-grouped as a herd. It has been fascinating.


Ben chased Arrow off as soon as he saw him, and aggressively proclaimed his territory and his willingness to defend it. He wanted Arrow out of his sight and Arrow ended up on his own in the next field. Not for long though.

The first thing I noticed about Arrow when he came here was that he was very pushy. I put it down to bad manners due to never having been handled properly. After all, a horse can’t learn any social skills if he was kept on his own and tied to a stake since he was weaned. I have done quite a bit of ground work with him since, and Arrow is very clever and he learns quickly, but you have to be on top of him all the time; give him an inch and he will take the proverbial mile and more. Perhaps pushy is not the right word, but Arrow certainly doesn’t take “no” for an answer just because you say so.

Anyway, Arrow was on his own, and he probably thought that it was best to give Ben some time to forget about him and since the prospect of spending the night on his own didn’t daunt him he stayed out of sight. The next morning, he was back. Ben went for him the moment he noticed him, so Arrow beat a hasty retreat, but he didn’t go far. After a few more lunges, he had figured out the edge of Ben’s tolerance and that is where he stayed. Close enough that Ben kept throwing him dirty looks, but too far away for Ben to actually feel the need to chase him off. Gradually, with an almost professional use of the concept of “approach and retreat” and the least amount of effort he could get away with, Arrow began to move back into the herd. Ben found that no matter what he did, he couldn’t get rid of this irritating little interloper, so he decided to ignore him. For a few days they all grazed together in a group, with equal distances between them.
Then they began to pair off, with Ben and Minnie on one side of the field and Arrow on the other side with Cassie. I would have loved to see how that happened, but I imagine Ben decided to drive Minnie away, but he can’t drive Cassie and so Arrow ended up with a mare by default.

Ben went home this evening. It will be interesting to see if this experience has changed how they interact with each other now Ben is gone. Arrow has shown that size doesn’t matter; he may be small, but he is full of attitude. And he learned that it really pays to be persistent!

Ben and Rosie

Every summer for the last three years, Ben and Rosie have come to stay with us for the summer holidays. Now, Rosie is gone and Ben arrived on his own.

On the morning of Rosie’s last day, my horses came to the gate together and stood there, silently waiting. The day was muggy and oppressive,  the damp ground was steaming,  and the air was thrumming with the buzzing of insects, but instead of moving to higher ground and trying to find relief, my horses ignored it all and kept their vigil. They were still there, standing at the gate, waiting, when Máire arrived with Ben.

How do horses know these things? Because they do know. There is no doubt in my mind that my horses knew Rosie was leaving. The time these horses have spent together over the last few years has bonded them as a herd and it seems to me that they are connected in ways far deeper than we can understand. Ben and Rosie live 20 miles from here, but that distance meant nothing. I can’t put into words the feelings they invoked in me when I watched them, but I was deeply moved.

In the evening, I go out into the fields to find the horses and I watch them as they graze. Ben is with Minnie and Cassie and they stay closely together, concentrating on the serious business of finding the choicest grasses and the best herbs in the hedgerow. It is good for Ben to be here, in the company of my horses, his herd.

Good bye sweet Rosie, we will miss you.

Release

Cassie has been sick. It began with little things. Swellings on her face and body. Hives, I thought, a reaction to fly spray, except that they all burst open and scabbed over and then the hair started coming off her face. Then she started coughing. A summer cold, I thought, and I started her on a course of anti-biotic powders in her feed. It didn’t make any difference, instead she slowly got worse, and I watched her anxiously as her energy disappeared and she shuffled about like an old, old horse with dull eyes and no interest in anything. I could feel how depressed she was. Then her glands started swelling up, and I got the vet out, terrified her throat would swell shut, my own throat aching in sympathy.

The vet blamed the bad weather and for sure the relentless rain and the cold of this poor excuse of a summer we’re having would make anyone sick. Arrow started coughing too, but he had no other symptoms and, even though it took a long time for the cough to disappear, he remained his cheerful self. Whatever was wrong with Cassie, it had completely compromised her immune system, and even when she started to improve a bit physically, she still seemed depressed.

She spent long periods of time in her stable, standing in the back. In the evenings, I would go and sit with her to keep her company. Not wanting to impose myself upon her, I’d sit on the opposite side from her, leaning back against the stable wall with my eyes closed, trying to empty my mind and just focus on my breathing. In…. Out…. Slowly. It is not that easy to empty your mind and it is interesting to see what thoughts come up uninvited. Thoughts about lost time and lack of achievement. Of plans unfulfilled. I started wondering why these things came up. I am not ambitious, I don’t care about competing in any kind of discipline, so why do I feel under pressure to make some form of progress? I don’t need to do anything with my horse, but it feels like I should. Because you get asked, what do you do with your horse, do you hunt? Jump? Dressage then maybe? No. I don’t even ride. I just sit with my horse and breathe.

I sit with Cassie and I listen to her breathing. I can’t hear her breathe in, I can only hear her exhale, but if I breathe slowly enough she’ll synchronise with me. Cassie comes up to me and stands over me. I don’t touch her, I just sit quietly with my eyes closed, but with every breath I can feel Cassie’s head lowering until her head is resting on mine. We stay like that for a while. Then she lifts her head, yawns, and she rubs her face against mine. When she starts grooming my back, I scratch her chest. I wait for her to move away to doze in the back of the stable. Then I leave.

An Irish summer

A few years ago I went to Scotland for a couple of days. They had wonderful postcards in the highlands: Winter in the Highlands, Summer in the Highlands etc. They were all the same; thick grey fog with dim outlines of a couple of sheep. We could make similar postcards for the South-West of Ireland, except it would have to be rain. Endless, interminable rain. Only the temperature might give you a hint what time of the year it is. I can’t remember the last time we had a decent summer, but this year is worse than ever. After a couple of nice days at the end of May, June has been a complete wash-out and July is off to a bad start. The land is a swamp, the rushes are growing better than ever and the mud is of a boot-sucking quality I was unprepared for, so when my wellie got stuck I got an unpleasant surprise when I shot forward to tumble headlong into a pool of muck. I was not amused, but it did provide some entertainment for my horses.  Minnie and Cassie watched with utter astonishment as I trashed around. Ah well, at least I didn’t damage my camera!

In a country where everyone is always hoping we finally might get a bit of a summer, even though we all know better, the weather is a great topic of conversation. The language is full of meteorological euphemisms. “A soft day” for instance means a day with a very fine, misty drizzle and a balmy temperature (too warm for a jacket, but if you don’t wear one you get soaked, miserable!). “Not a bad morning” means it isn’t raining…yet. And dull, gloomy overcast days often elicit exclamations of  “Isn’t is a lovely day?” Just because it isn’t raining.

Personally, when I think of a soft day, I think of blue sky with white puffy clouds sailing along in a gentle breeze. And a lovely day is definitely not one of those grey, overcast days, where the clouds are so low that they smother the hills. I yearn for days where I don’t have to wear thick fleeces and rain jackets, but it is the lack of blue sky that gets to me most. Still, even in this wet Irish summer, there is beauty to be found. You just have to see it.

From the rocky road on to the right track

A while back I went to a demonstration in an Equestrian Centre. I met a father and daughter there who had barefoot horses. The father trimmed the horses himself. I was obviously interested in their experiences and when I noticed them bringing out their horses I went over to ask if I could see their horses’ hooves. They were talking to a man who was giving them advice. I gathered that the father’s horse was a bit sore on his feet and the man was pointing out what was wrong with the trim and what needed to be done to make the horse comfortable. I had heard that the Equestrian Centre had started with one or two barefoot horses, so I thought the man must be the Equestrian Centre’s trimmer.  I was wrong. This man, who was talking all the talk, was not a barefoot trimmer at all, he was in fact about as qualified as I am; he did the same barefoot trimming clinic with Dermot McCourt that I did two years ago.

I would not call myself a barefoot trimmer anymore than I would call myself a dentist because I know how to brush my teeth. In Ireland it is illegal for anyone to shoe a horse unless they are fully qualified by an approved governing body. But anyone can set themselves up to be a barefoot trimmer, it is not a protected profession and not all qualifications are equal. I have been trimming my horses’ hooves myself for the past 2 years from necessity. I went to Dermot’s trimming clinic because I wanted to know more about barefoot and hoof care in general. When Dermot first set us up on the road to barefoot, I knew that he wouldn’t be able to maintain their hooves. A four-hour drive is just too far away, but I was hoping to find someone nearer who would trim them properly every 8 weeks or so and I was prepared to do light maintenance in between. The farrier I had used was not interested in doing the trimming, I couldn’t find a qualified barefoot trimmer and so I ended up having to trim my horses myself.

Fortunately, I was not alone. Máire and I trimmed our horses together, and we progressed from sweaty palmed insecurity and taking photographs to email to Dermot for advice to something resembling confidence. We trimmed very conservatively, and our horses stayed sound, but I always felt a bit uncomfortable. Horses’ hooves change all the time and our trimming sessions were fraught with unanswered questions while we pored over their feet and wondered if what we saw was normal, why did this lump appear on the sole, is this frog shedding normal, or is there something else going on? The more I read, the more insecure I felt, because for every opinion you can find the opposite. Trim the bars – leave them alone, trim the frog – never touch the frog, thrush is smelly and black – thrush doesn’t always smell, hooves need to be trimmed every 2 weeks – you shouldn’t really trim, it’s all down to diet and exercise, the list is endless, a morass of contradictions. The transition to barefoot was a rocky road (and I haven’t even mentioned hoof boots yet!)

So when I was told that a barefoot trimmer had recently moved to the area, I was delighted and made an appointment. The trimmer was friendly and I liked the way my horses were handled. I was told that they all had thrush (the non-smelly variety), and that Cassie hadn’t fully transitioned yet because of it. I hadn’t noticed that (obviously because of it being non-smelly), although Cassie’s front frogs certainly looked rather ragged, but I had put it down to spring shedding. The following morning, the day I was to leave for the clinic with Alexandra Kurland, Cassie was very lame on her right fore. I was devastated, because it was obvious Cassie was not fit to go anywhere. It was when I picked up her hoof to examine it for heat that I noticed how short the trim was. She was practically walking on her soles.

When I came back from the clinic, Cassie was still lame and she has only started to improve over the last few days. There was no abscess. But even though she was improving, she was landing toe first and I was worried about thrush and frog disease. I also felt guilty, because I felt responsible for the pain she had been in. I wanted her to be seen by someone like Dermot, someone with a huge amount of experience and an approved professional qualification, who could tell me about the state of her hoof health, so I asked around and eventually I came up with the name of a master farrier. A master farrier who shoes international competition horses and with an excellent reputation for all round hoof care. I rang him and after a lengthy telephone conversation, I asked him to come and look at my horses.

I have to admit that I was really nervous and I more than half expected him to say that the only solution was to put shoes on Cassie, but he didn’t. He was modest, with a calm, quiet manner that was reassuring. He took his time looking at Cassie, checking the way she stands, and how her leg and pastern axis related, explaining what he was looking for and what he saw. He told me his views on barefoot trimming and the difference between the barefoot trim and a trim to prepare the hoof for a shoe. He was passionate about hot shoeing and making individual shoes for horses and how important it was to make sure the horse has correct break-over and a well-balanced hoof, for the shod horse as well as the barefoot horse. Then he trimmed Cassie’s frogs. Fortunately there was no underlying disease or thrush. He checked Minnie and Arrow, and trimmed frogs where needed. He had a wonderful way of helping Minnie to lift her left hind leg, which is really hard for her, and explained to me why her left fore grows the shape it does, something I had always wondered about. We have discussed a trimming schedule, where he will come and do the proper trim and I just keep things nice and smooth in between visits. It is such a relief…

Teeth on wings

We are pretty lucky in Ireland. We don’t have to deal with scorpions, malaria flies, poisonous spiders and on the whole our insects are fortunately not equipped with the exaggerated array of weapons that a lot of tropical bugs carry around. But we do have midges. Lots and lots and lots of them. Scientific research suggests that one hectare can harbour as many as 50 million midges. 50 million! The area around here is an ideal habitat for midges; we are surrounded by pine forestry and more often than not the ground is wet and marshy and covered in rushes. This year the midges are worse than ever, because we had a wet summer followed by a mild and wet winter. Usually we don’t see them until May, but this year the first ones were out in February. They hate wind, but unfortunately the wind here often dies down in early evening, just when the midges like to come out.

Today we had a fairly good breeze up here, but it didn’t last into the evening. The horses were restless, constantly swishing their tails, stamping their feet and biting their chests and they couldn’t settle down to graze, they kept moving around trying to find relief and obviously not finding any, in spite of all having been treated with midge repellent earlier. Then Cassie jumped the fence and tore off across the front field, kicking and bucking. I ran outside, was immediately attacked by a swarm myself and had to run back in to get a jacket with a hood to cover myself up as much as possible. I then calmed Minnie and Arrow down and called Cassie. To my surprise she came almost immediately and let me put a lead rope around her neck. She was absolutely covered in midges, it was horrible.

I brought her to the stable and brushed the midges off. Her neck and chest were covered in bumps and swellings, which really worried me. When I first got Cassie, she suffered from sweet-itch, which was treated initially with steroids and then with homoeopathy and I got her a sweet-itch rug. She responded really well to the homoeopathy and she hasn’t suffered from sweet-itch since. I repeat the homoeopathy every year before the midge season starts. The rug has been stored in a bag in my tackroom, but now was a good time to bring it back out. I have used every available midge repellent, but this year nothing seems to work. Garlic, tea tree oil, citronella, and neem oil don’t keep them off either. Is there anything that does work? I am going to have to keep Cassie rugged when the midges are out, it is not fair on her, she can’t cope. While I was rugging Cassie I got tormented myself and ended up with dozens of bites on my face, so now I’m covered in stinging red swellings, but at least I can go inside. No such relief for the horses.