Thursday, 8 July 2010

Furry Friends - and Foes

One of the (many) things I particularly enjoy about off-road riding is spotting wildlife. Often animals are less fearful of a person on a horse than a person walking, and you can get quite close without disturbing them.

On our recent trip I had hoped very much to spot some beaver which are kept locally - although I knew it was unlikely, as they have pretty nocturnal habits and are most easily seen in the late evening. Riding past their home, then, there was sadly no sign of them, but many indications of their industry, like these downed trees with beavery teethmarks!

Some of the trees were positively huge - I'm not sure how long it would have taken them to knaw their way through some of the larger specimens.

Partner Bill has in the past done some veterinary work on this colony (they are prone to a certain kind of fluke I believe). He was called out to post-mortem one which had been found dead. 'Bloody fluke, I suppose' he grumbled as he set off - but no. In this case, the beaver had been knocked on the head by a tree which fell on it after it had bitten its way through the trunk. Very sad, but perhaps that particular animal was better out of the beaver gene pool - it sounded like a prime candidate for the Darwin Awards.

The ponies took no notice of the beaver colony: not so when we later passed a wild boar enclosure on the same estate. Lots of sniffing and snorting from them as they caught a whiff of pig! Unfortunately the undergrowth was so dense we didn't actually see any - although we have many times before - the little stripey babies are enchanting, Daddy a bit less so.

Most people who keep horses are ever on the alert for mice and rats around the feedhouse area. Since our property is bounded on three sides by running water, rats (yuk) have always been in evidence around here - although much less so recently, which I have put down to the efforts of our ratophile terriers, Oddjob and Mabel.

Although all our grain, feed etc is kept safely in an old chest freezer in our feedhouse, every so often you hear a scurrying when opening the feedhouse door, with some rat or mouse chancing their luck. My strategy is always to send the terriers in first, and let them deal with it, which they do extremely efficiently and quickly.

Hearing a tell-tale patter one morning, I sent the 'girls' in. Suddenly all hell broke loose, with yelping, yapping, and crashing going on. That didn't sound like a rat or mouse! Terrified that they might have cornered a cat which had sneaked in overnight, I rushed in to call off the dogs - to find them in the process of despatching a young male mink.

Mink are a huge problem in the rivers in this area, as in many others in the UK. They are not native - they are from North America and were brought over and bred for the fur trade. Many subsequently escaped (or were set free by well-meaning animal rights protesters).

Whilst I'm happy that the fur farms no longer function, the ones which have escaped (and bred) have murdered everything within sight of British rivers - fish, birds, voles and many other species.

Many landowners and farmers are attempting to control the population via mink rafts on rivers, which have a clay bottom where you can track mink visits - they are then trapped and humanely destroyed. We, too, are part of this scheme - needless to say, our mink rafts have never seen so much as a pawprint. Obviously this young fellow preferred the easy pickings around the feedhouse - perhaps it was him who was responsible for the recent lack of rodents around the place?

The terriers survived their experience without so much as a scratch - a miracle really, as mink are extremely aggressive when cornered and have very sharp teeth. The dogs' only complaint is that there isn't a mink in there every morning when they rush in excitedly, ready for a thrilling battle.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Riding the Angus Glens

Yeoman & I took a break from all that book typing a few weeks ago to head up the Angus Glens. For us, this is our 'backyard'. Now, we are almost certainly biased, but for sheer off-road riding pleasure, this area is hard to beat. It boasts a wide selection of routes, from low-level grassy tracks to much higher and more intrepid riding, suitable for the experienced horse and rider.
Here we have just crossed a trackless section in the Caenlochan National Nature Reserve (very fitting for Yeoman of Caenlochan). Yes, that is snow! Luckily most of it had disappeared in a piece of land famous for its bogs, or I wouldn't be typing this.

On this three-day excursion, we headed from home up Glenisla, then over the tops into Glen Doll and Glen Clova, then home via Glen Prosen, the prettiest of them all. We were accompanied by Vyv Wood-Gee on her Fell pony Micky, using it as a training ride for this summer's expedition from Skye to Smithfield in London, in the footsteps of the drovers. (They set off at the end of June).
With the exception of the section pictured, the ride offered some straightforward riding, with nothing too demanding - just perfect for a not-too-fit combination like us at the start of the season! It offered a perfect break from being hunched over the computer (for me) and non-stop eating (Yeoman and - er - me as well actually.) Stress, y'know.

Take a Bow!

Yes, you...for sticking with this blog which hasn't been updated for a while. The reason is I've been giving birth... no, not to one of those pink squally baby things, but to a new book, Discover Off-Road Riding, written in conjunction with my good friend Shonagh Steven BHSII.

The book, which has taken about ten times longer to produce than we originally thought, as is quite normal in the publishing world, aims to answer all those questions people have when they start heading off: where to ride, what to take, training your horse or pony, navigating, camping with your horse - and what to do if things go wrong. In fact, it's the book I wished I'd had when I started stravaiging the countryside on horseback, all those many years ago.

It was launched by the British Horse Society at the Royal Highland Show (many thanks to them) and has been selling very well ever since, hooray! Just as pleasing is the feedback we have been getting which suggests people really like it. There just isn't any other way of getting all that information in one place at the moment.

It's going to be available in lots of horsy places very soon, but if you really can't wait (and indeed, why should you?) you can purchase it securely online here. Alternatively, I hold some copies here and you can send a cheque for £16.99 + £2.50 p & p (payable to K Godfrey please) for rapid despatch to:
Inverquiech, By Alyth, Blairgowrie, Perthshire PH11 8JR.
OK, that's quite enough of the selling - let's move on to...

Friday, 20 November 2009

Horses Welcome

I've been working my way through what my granny used to call 'bread and butter letters' , thanking all those who helped us, put us up, and supported us in so many ways on our trip.
It's a courtesy (although if I was as courteous as all that I would have done it before now - if YOU haven't received yours yet - it's a-coming!)
It's been a joy, actually, as I have relived all those wonderful memories of the great people we met. There are over 300 to write, so it's taking me a while. What was astonishing was that in all those miles, we didn't meet a single person who was less than friendly and hospitable.
Why was that? Most riders have tales of grumpy landowners or gratuitous rudeness, but there was no sign of any of that.
I don't have a definitive answer...but I do have some ideas about it. Firstly, where possible, I did contact people in advance. I've blogged about this before - in spite of the Land Reform Act, I do still believe that is a reasonable courtesy where horses are involved, unless the tracks are actively promoted for riding. My experience has been that, on the whole, landowners prefer to have some notice, especially if there's a gate to be unlocked!
Having said that, I didn't always do it - either because I simply couldn't find out who to speak to
or because I had to change my plans at the last minute and go a different route - usually as a result of flooding. So I did sometimes meet landowners unexpectedly but didn't have any problems, perhaps because I made an effort to be polite, including getting off my horse to explain the situation to them. (I remember reading in a newspaper article about how, during the lead up to the hunting ban, huntsmen were advised not to speak to the tv reporters etc when they were sitting on their horses - the difference in height automatically made it look as though they were looking down their noses in a superior kind of way. I think there may be a grain of truth in that, especially when speaking to the non-horsy).
Every rider's dream is probably to be able to ride along any tracks without having to ask permission - and in some places that is quite possible. For riders planning some sort of cross-country route, as I did, I don't currently believe that it is. I would also add that, for me, a huge part of the pleasure of the trip was in interacting with local people, learning about the area (and in many cases, scoring somewhere to camp or a bed for the night as a huge bonus.) In addition, it's this interaction which (hopefully) improves communication and understanding between riders and land managers.
Quite a few people have asked for my precise routes. That, to me, is a slightly difficult one - I think there is a difference between me - or anyone - riding a route (with the landowner's blessing) and then suggesting it's ok for anyone to do it - I simply don't feel I have that authority. There is an additional practical problem, in that I crossed some areas where a more novice horse could easily get into difficulties, and I wouldn't want that on my conscience either.
However, I am keen to share what I have learned with other riders! Other long distance riders were very generous to me with information. Perhaps a possible practical solution is to get together to create some sort of database to easily access who to speak to regarding access: a lot of this information is traceable on the internet, and BHS and Council Access officers and the like can be helpful, but it doesn't half take a lot of digging around: it took me a year to prepare for a three month trip. I would be very keen to hear what you think about it, and I expect this topic will resurface!
Going back to why I had so few problems, I also suspect that, because I was travelling alone, people felt more inclined to talk to me, which might not have happened had there been a group of us.
I might get some snark for this one, but I also suspect that native ponies are less threatening to the non-horsy than gleaming bay hunters - they're sort of a cross between a horse and a dog! Most people wanted to cuddle them. Really, they should have been prostrating themselves in awe and wonder - Doogs.
Today's picture is a quick watercolour sketch - I did quite a few of these on the trip, but due to the weather conditions, mostly there was a lot of 'water' and not so much in the way of 'colour'! I don't believe the boys thought that this particular tint was quite manly enough, either. And you've made me look fat - Doogs.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Herd Dynamics

In the winter months, we run our horses and ponies in the stubble fields surrounding the house.

There are many advantages to this arrangement: using the stubble fields (where there is plenty of rough grazing) rests our grass fields - good for the pasture and minimises parasite problems.

As the stubble fields are nice and close to the stables, it's also easy to get youngsters in for some handling, or geriatrics in for a few hours' respite from the rain which has been pelting down recently. This is especially valuable during these short hours of daylight.

We've been getting the foals in regularly for some handling - as they didn't get much over the summer while I was away. This helps to prepare them for weaning, which we'll do around Christmas, and also is preparing them for (shhhh!) being microchipped next week, as the law now requires.

We haven't as yet started supplementary feeding (bar a little bite of hay if something's in) as they absolutely haven't needed it: one or two mares are actually waddling! Tsk. Seriously, it's our only opportunity to get some weight off the Highlands before they face the spring grass again. The mild weather however, means that the grass in the stubbles is still actually growing - as I type this, the thermometer outside is registering 12 degrees (grass starts to grow at 6). I wonder if we'll end up like New Zealand, with year-round grass growth?

Another advantage - or perhaps not- of having them all near the house is that I can watch them from my office window. (I'm supposed to be writing, but hey...)

It is fascinating to watch closely the herd dynamics - who pals up with whom as a grazing buddy, who prefers to graze on their own on the fringe of the group. The foals and yearlings are getting bolder and more cheeky towards the older horses, until they overstep the boundaries and are sent scuttling by an exasperated adult.

It is a very settled herd, where each individual seems to know their place. I never witness kicking or biting (bar the foals, in play). The most aggression is the odd bit of face-pulling.

I know how lucky we are to be able to keep our animals in a semi-natural way, with plenty of space for all. I recently refused to sell a 2 yo to a buyer who wanted to keep him in a yard with no winter turnout at all. I know many horses are kept like that from necessity, but it's far from ideal, especially for a growing, boisterous youngster - probably for any horse, come to that.

We have bought in thoroughbreds out of training in the past who didn't know how to graze having been kept in stables all their life: they would just mooch around by the gate, not eating (food only comes in a bucket or haynet obviously) staring wistfully at their box door. It wasn't long before they got the hang of it and started to get cheeky about being caught though!

Monday, 16 November 2009

You Talking to Me???

Over the weekend Yeoman was invited to take part in an animal communication and training workshop, at a local yard.
Now, I don't know what you think about animal communicators: it's not something I have any experience of, and I really didn't know what to expect. I must say I had visions of some poor communicator squinting at Yeoman and saying 'I'm sorry, I'm not picking this up clearly...he seems to be claiming he's just been ridden for a thousand miles...!'
There were about ten equine 'guinea pigs' there, who were 'communicated with' - if that's the right terminology - by two tutors and their students in two groups.
I must say I found the day very interesting: undoubtedly they could pick up on lots of verifiable truths about each horse, including old injuries (of which there was no visible sign) and according to the owners, were also very accurate in reading the horse's personalities. They picked up on one horse's extreme grief (his old stablemate had just been put down a few days ago) and other things which they couldn't possibly have known.
Yeoman showed every sign of thoroughly enjoying the experience. Both groups 'read' him in very similar terms. According to them he has a huge spirit and has been a horse many times before - he has always worked very very hard. One communicator said that he has an infinite capacity for work - as I've blogged about before, that is certainly true - he is tireless.
Interestingly, they pointed out that he has until recently always been in the shadow of another horse, which I would also accept, since he's often been compared to Doogs (and not always favourably, I regret to say). She said that he would be a fantastic RDA horse as he has a strong desire to help - not a career I would necessarily have put number one on his list of possible jobs!
However, it did set me thinking: because he was difficult to start under saddle, I have always thought of him as a bit of a delinquent. When I really thought hard about it, though, it must be at least two years since he ever put a foot wrong - perhaps it's time I updated my view of him!
He had no physical issues at all, unlike most of the other horses, who seemed to have very long lists! According to the communicators, he is very politely spoken (so I should hope).
He is apparently also becoming much more confident in himself. One slightly spooky thing was when he got home and was turned out, he did something which he has NEVER done before, which was to (politely) round up all the mares in the field. Doogs just stood and watched - there was no altercation of any kind.
So - a bit of fun? Or perhaps a glimpse into something a bit uncanny? Jury's out, but still a most interesting day.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Ladybird Update

Followers of this blog from the start will remember how game little Ladybird stepped into the breach for the first three weeks of the trip, after Yeoman went on his self-harming jag.

She was an absolute star, taking everything calmly in her stride (in spite of literally being dragged out of the nettles with only a few days' notice.)

You might also remember that she was initially 'dumped' on us by her owner and we had to go through all the tedious legal channels to gain ownership of her so that we could decide what was going to happen to her in the long term.

Since her expedition down to the borders on the trip, she has been away being professionally schooled and is now ready to go on to a new owner, provided we can find the home she deserves. If she were a little bigger (she's 13.3) or I, alas, were a little smaller (!) I wouldn't part with her - but she needs to go somewhere where she can be used and enjoyed to the full.

She's 5, and currently has all the basics in place: walk, trot, canter and is happily hacking out on her own and with others and will go first or last. She hasn't started jumping yet, but is comfortably coping with all sorts of varied terrain out on hacks. She is of course also trained to carry packs! She has the most lovely willing nature, but due to her youth is not really suitable for a novice: ideally we are looking for a long-term home with a small adult or a confident older child who has support from a horsy family. She has lovely straight movement and excellent conformation and would show.

Her one drawback is that she sometimes cribs, probably as a result of how she was kept in an earlier life. She has been improving, especially as she has now got other things to think about, but she would be better in a home where she has full turnout. She gets on well with other horses.

She is easy to catch, box and shoe, and has the potential to be a cracking all-round pony - so if you are looking for one (or know someone who is) and would like further details, you can contact me, Kate Godfrey, 0n 01828 632463 or email me at