Your hunter is fit and raring to go, but what to do now we’re in lockdown? H&H investigates… *H&H Plus*

  • There’s no hunting, yet many of us have fit, clipped horses. Let’s find ways still to enjoy them, says Catherine Austen

    Talk about all dressed up and nowhere to go. Nearly every hunting person in the country has a horse that’s fit and primed for the good spell of sport that so often follows Christmas. However, we’re in lockdown.

    There’s no point trying to second-guess; we don’t know when we might be able to get going again, but let’s stay positive.

    Certainly if there is any chance of a few more days’ hunting, we want our horses to be ready to be able to make the most of them. And it’s January, it’s freezing cold and there’s no grass. Everybody’s set-up is different, but just chucking your horses out doesn’t seem fair or kind.

    Event rider and Beaufort field master Beanie Sturgis says, “I always think of [former Heythrop hunt secretary] Guy Avis quoting a poem called The Ten Commandments of Fox-hunting, which describes various ‘hunting sins’ as ‘abominations’, like ‘He that shall say that the day will be a bad-scenting one, or in any manner endeavour to prophesy evil, is an abomination’. Throwing clipped, fit, rugged-up horses out at the moment is, to my eyes, an abomination.”

    So, what are we going to do with our hunters?

    The answer, of course, for those who are lucky enough still to be able to do so, is ride them. While lots of us only tolerate hacking as essential to getting horses fit enough to go hunting and keeping them fit, it’s a lot more enjoyable when your other outside entertainment options are severely limited. And your horse isn’t the grass-bellied slug you plonked around the roads on during the summer; he or she is fit and on it, and more fun to ride.

    By the way, H&H is not endorsing trespassing – for God’s sake, ask the landowner’s permission before you go “off-roading” or you will find yourself very unpopular (and it won’t help your local hunt’s cause with him or her either).

    Craig Anderson, eventing coach and master of the West Percy, suggests that when you are hacking, stop for a few minutes and then continue.

    “It’s a good way to teach horses that standing still while being exercised is normal; it teaches them patience and means they stand still better when you are out hunting, rather than fidgeting,” he says.

    Improve your riding

    But what apart from happy hacking can you do to occupy you and your hunter’s brains and bodies without putting just the sort of strain on the NHS we need to avoid? That means probably saving that high-jump record attempt until the summer, unless you put out gym mats or something…

    While many (most?) hunting people recoil at the idea of “dressage”, if you call it flatwork and think about making your horse into a nicer ride during a day’s hunting, it becomes far more appealing. A more supple, more balanced horse will be more comfortable to ride, will go better and last longer. What’s not to like?

    Be realistic, though. You are unlikely to achieve Carl Hester-worthy flying changes – useful when going round sharp corners at speed out hunting, though – on day one, so be patient, consistent and do your schooling in short, regular sessions.

    Trotting round and round the arena or field, hoping your horse will magically morph into Valegro just because you want it, to won’t work.

    Do lots of transitions and changes of direction. Ride circles – that are actually circle-shaped – of different sizes. Remember that you have two legs, two hands and a seat, so use them all. Ask your horse to bend his body in either direction. Do transitions within the pace – cover more, or less, ground with his stride, but without losing his forwardness and activity.

    And, as hunting people of a certain vintage – the writer’s mother – insist, a turn on the forehand is only useful when opening a gate, after all. So do turns on the forehand, practise them and do them well. You will no longer get your martingale entangled with the gate-fastening and break it, you will swear less and your obligatory gate-shutting day will be a breeze rather than torture.

    Consult the Pony Club’s The Manual of Horsemanship as to how to do a turn on the forehand – surely you have a copy somewhere on a dusty shelf – or Google it.

    Rein-back is similarly useful for opening gates – and backing out of the way when huntsman and hounds are coming past.

    If you’ve got to jump off the road, it is far safer to walk, turn to your obstacle and go straight from walk into canter than having to wing round the corner and risk slipping, so good, crisp walk to canter transitions are worth perfecting.

    “A brilliant exercise”

    There are lots of things to do with jumping that you can practise at home without risking life and limb.

    Choose a line through the poles and stick to it, first in the centre and then on a tighter circle or a bigger circle – this will help to improve your accuracy and encourage your horse to take smaller or bigger steps.

    Heythrop field master and event rider Mike Jackson likes to use a slightly raised pole, cavaletti or plank and ask horses to walk over it, initially in a straight line and then in a figure of eight so that they come at it at an angle.

    Don’t worry if they knock it over to start with; they work it out and it again encourages horses to pick up their legs and think about what they are doing with their feet. The rider needs to sit still and keep an active walk – and not allow themselves to tip forward, as so many of us do.

    “You don’t need speed to jump a fence,” says Mike. “A really good exercise for horse and rider is to come at an obstacle in walk. Stay in walk until you are a stride or so out, and then let the horse pick up trot and jump the fence. Keep a contact but with a long rein, keep your leg on to indicate to the horse that you want him to jump the fence, and look up, not down at the fence, which will keep your head, shoulders and body back.”

    Quite terrifying to the average hunting person at first, who is more used to the cavalry charge of the field, it is a brilliant exercise that encourages the horse to make a good shape over the fence and think about what he is doing, and makes us think about our own body position as well.

    Beanie Sturgis adds that it is useful to imagine you are turning off a road into the obstacle and to make a turn of the appropriate width beforehand, or you will end up trotting too early and the exercise will lose its usefulness.

    “If you’ve only got a 20x40m school, put the fence on the centre line and turn in off the long side,” she says. “Hold your neck strap. It is a really good way to make you more disciplined as a rider.”

    Mike uses lots of gridwork and small bounces – they don’t need to be bigger than 2ft – as gymnastic exercises to help horses pick up their shoulders, be sharper in front and more active with their hindlegs.

    “Put the exercises together; come in canter to three small bounces, then quickly back to walk before trotting that last stride into your original fence. Then add another small fence off a turn that you again walk into. Remember to control the outside of the horse’s body as you turn, using your outside leg and outside hand,” he says.

    Craig Anderson suggests you practise coming to a halt quickly after a fence, as well.

    “There are plenty of occasions out hunting when it is useful to be able to stop sharply after a jump, and if the horse is trained to do it when you ask, it is a good skill to have,” he says. “All hunters can benefit from schooling; to ride a polite, well-mannered and responsive horse can only improve your day’s hunting.”

    We are so lucky to have horses to help keep us sane and give us ways to exercise our bodies and our minds. Keep it small and have fun.

    Feeding is, of course, entirely individual to your horse and your circumstance. However, it is likely that you will need to alter what a fit hunter is fed if it is no longer hunting.

    Spillers nutritionist Sarah Nelson says: “With a decrease in work comes a decrease in energy requirements.”

    Both she and Nicola Tyler, joint-owner and nutritional director of TopSpec, agree that this might be the situation where feed balancers come into play.

    “They give you flexibility, because balancers provide the vitamins and minerals your horse needs on a daily basis, and you can add them to blended feeds according to condition and work done. Look for one that is low in starch,” Nicola says.

    She advises that while you should take four to seven days to change or increase your horse’s feed, reducing it can be done much more quickly as long as you provide ad-lib forage.

    Sarah says: “The fibre provided by forage is essential for maintaining digestive health and provides a significant portion of daily energy (calorie) requirements for horses in light work.

    “Feeding ad-lib forage also fulfills the horse’s physiological and psychological need to chew, helping to reduce the risk of gastric ulcers and maintain mental wellbeing. Therefore, provide as much turnout as possible and if grass is limited, provide ad-lib hay or haylage in the field as well as the stable.”

    Nicola points out that while it may not be possible to allow good-doers ad-lib hay or haylage, hay that is lower in nutritional quality – but which still looks and smells good – means that there is less need to limit it.

    “If you only have very high-quality hay, soaking it in a large container of cold or lukewarm water for several hours will reduce its nutritional quality,” she says.

    Do ring an equine nutritionist from a reputable feed company for individual advice regarding feeding your horse; they will always be happy to help.

    Ref: 14 January 2021

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