Last week was pretty tough as we had to say goodbye to Dodge, our wonderful Collie dog.
Penny and I bought him when we first moved in together back in 2002 and he has been by my side ever since. Dodge’s favourite thing in the world was to run up and down the side of the arena “rounding up” the horses. Not only did all the horses that came on training become very desensitised to dogs, but Dodge kept himself fit, happy and healthy in the process! At the age of thirteen and with a number of ailments, he had a brilliant innings and will be very hard to replace.
A lot is said about animal intuition and over the years Dodge’s instincts about horses became so honed that he was almost like an extra pair of hands on the yard.
As soon as a horse arrived or it got led out of its stable in the morning, Dodge would react in one of two ways. He would either stay lying down or he would get excited and run to his position at the side of the arena. If the latter happened, the horse without fail would either be fresh or tricky, even if to the human eye it looked perfectly calm and relaxed. Dodge’s instincts were so reliable, that if a client came to ride their horse, I would get on first if Dodge showed me the signs!
When working with horses, we have to remember that they also have strong instincts, although they have the instinct of a prey animal, rather than those of dogs, which are predatory.
Horses will see changes in their environment that are overlooked by the human eye, hence they will seemingly spook at nothing. Although most established horses will put up with changes in your actions and mood, sensitive, young or unhandled horses will instantly pick up on your body language, which is why it is so important to leave your worries at the gate and remain calm, consistent and decisive in all your interaction with them.
I used to believe that I could train a horse for anyone to go on with, but I have had horses come to me as remedial cases that have done well but reverted to their difficult behavior as soon as their owners have arrived on the yard, demonstrating that horses do make associations with individuals. In these cases it’s down to me to try and change the owner’s habits and body language in order to develop a better relationship with their horse.
On the yard at the moment, I have the usual mix of young horses in for starting and some remedial cases, including a very spooky mare. Her behavior caused her rider to lose confidence in her, which has led to a downward spiral in their partnership.
I am tackling the problem by going through a programme that I use on similar horses, which teaches the horse to face its fears, think and be rational about situations.
Once I feel that there is a significant improvement, it will then be a case of teaching the owner how to handle the mare and hopefully their partnership will go from strength to strength.
On the polocrosse front, the UK team had their last tournament together before we head out to South Africa on Thursday.
I was thrilled with how my new young horse, Sea Breeze, went; she has the potential to be the best horse I have ever had. She was bred by Alan Kent, a former England polo player, and he realised early on that she was a little too “busy” for polo, so she came to me.
This type of horse does not suit everyone but the balance, athleticism and power that she possesses is very exciting, even though it requires some careful handling while she learns the game.
The team is very positive and we can’t wait to get out there and draw our pool of horses. Our first game is on 3 July against Australia, when I will play against my brother-in-law, Will Weston. Hopefully we’ll still be on good terms afterwards!