Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: Touch of Gold

I had the pleasure of answering a few questions by e-mail from author Vivien Gorham earlier this year, so I was very interested to read and review her first novel after it was published this fall.

Touch of Gold tells the story of Jamie, a thirteen year-old girl who, following her parents' divorce, has moved with her mother from Halifax to a small Nova Scotian town. There she discovers a palomino mare in a field by the road who appears to need a friend as much as Jamie does. Just as Jamie befriends the horse's widowed owner and begins to bond with the mare, she learns that "Peach" will soon be sold to the formidable owner and trainer of Tamarack Stables, a nearby show barn. Will Jamie, new to the horse world, be allowed to maintain contact with her equine friend? Could the more experienced riders around Jamie's age at Tamarack Stables accept her presence there and even become her friends?

Upon receiving my copy of Touch of Gold, I was struck by the beautiful cover and layout. The overall length and short chapters will appeal to the pre-teen demographic who won't feel overwhelmed by the book. The main character is the type of independent, goal-oriented teen who will resonate with readers even if she doesn't always make the wisest decisions.

The story is accessibly written to appeal to a wide range of readers while maintaining enough twists to keep things interesting. I would have liked to see a few of the secondary characters fleshed out more but given the ending of the novel, I wonder if we'll be reading more about some of them in a future novel.

Overall, Vivien Gorham does a very good job of expressing on the page the relationship between a horse and rider or handler, as well as the comfort that horses can provide for us. Each horse has a distinct personality, and many of the different human personalities often present in the horse world are included in the story.

More experienced show riders will notice a few minor horse show mistakes such as a rider wearing white breeches and white gloves for a hunt seat equitation class (beige breeches and dark gloves, please!), or a rider being awarded four faults for a refusal in a hunter class, but these small details don't detract from the story and can easily be remedied in future novels by some more exposure to the hunter/jumper world.

I believe that many young readers would be delighted to receive a copy of Touch of Gold and delve into Jamie and Peach's story.

Touch of Gold, written by Vivien Gorham, is available in Canada from bookstores, Nimbus PublishingChapters/Indigo and American and international readers may pre-order online from bookstores, Amazon and Book Depository; release date February 2016.

Disclosure: I have received no financial compensation for writing this review aside from a sample or copy of the product to be reviewed. My reviews are always my honest opinion and experience. Readers who use reviewed products do so at their own risk.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Equine Nutrition Interview, Part 2

This is the second part of our equine nutrition interview with Meredith Kahn, courtesy of O3 Animal Health, makers of Equine Omega Complete. Part one can be read here.

SRR: Do horse owners tend to over-feed or under-feed supplements?

MK: While forage alone does not meet the energy demands of a working horse, supplementing on top of added grain depends on the horse in question. What is their work level? What is their medical history? Although additional supplementation can be necessary, horse owners, in general, tend to over-supplement. In fact, over-supplementing is becoming a more frequent and costly problem. Concentrate feeds and fats supply additional energy for equine athletes on top of high quality forage. Commercial feeds designed for working horses typically supply a balance of the appropriate vitamins and minerals and often include pro and prebiotics for added digestive support. Additional supplementation varies from horse to horse. In order to avoid to doing more harm than good, veterinarians and equine nutritionists should be consulted before any extra supplements are added to your horse’s dietary regimen.

SRR: What should owners look for in a supplementation program?

MK: With the help of a veterinarian or an equine nutritionist, owners should design a supplementation program that fits their horse’s specific needs. While horses in general do not require much additional supplementation, this is an area that can be shaped specifically around an individual horse’s requirements. For example, putting weight on a highly stressed or geriatric horse. After investigating for a possible pathogenic condition, you can increase the caloric density of the diet by offering a high quality forage and concentrates with added fat. This option does not make sense for all horses. For example, increasing the dietary fat content of an overweight horse or a horse in ideal condition would cause more harm than good. In the case of the “hard keeper,” an explicit dietary regimen that includes added fat is designed specifically for that horse to help promote weight gain.

SRR: Is there such thing as feeding too much fat to a horse?

MK: Horses cannot really overdose on fat. In fact, the upper limit of fat inclusion in the equine diet has not been established for all sources of fat. Nevertheless, there is a point where fat will no longer absorb efficiently or horses will no longer accept it based on palatability and texture preferences. The truth is, there is no set limit for horses in general, as every horse is different. Some horses tolerate rice bran or flaxseed over fat in an oil form. Others will develop loose, greasy feces with low levels of fat added to the diet, while some can tolerate high quantities of fat without any apparent digestive complication. Despite there being no set limit for fat inclusion in the equine diet, a general consensus of rations below 230 g fat/kg dry matter is considered acceptable.

SRR: How do good fats differ from bad fats in their effect on the horse?

MK: The effect of different fat types begins at the cellular level. While both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are required in the diet, horses are naturally adapted to a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids compared to omega-6 fatty acids. Every cell in the body is surrounded by fat. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids compete for incorporation into the cell membrane. In fact, the composition of the cell membrane is a direct reflection of the fatty acid content of the diet. With more omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, and, thus, the cell membrane, the membrane increases in flexibility, fluidity and permeability. Increased flexibility and fluidity of red blood cell membranes promotes more efficient blood flow and oxygen delivery, while cells with a more permeable cell membrane are better able to regulate the exchange of nutrients and waste products.

Once inside the body, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids have hormone-like properties. Essential fatty acids are cleaved from the cell membrane and act as precursors to biological mediators known as eicosanoids. Omega-6’s are precursors to eicosanoids that promote blood clotting, inflammation and immune system responses, however if these processes get carried away, they can actually become more harmful than helpful. The diet must therefore contain the correct proportion of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in order to keep these processes under control.

SRR: Is there any other nutritional information that you wish more horse people were aware of?

MK: When in doubt, ask a professional. Every horse is different. The diet should be designed around each horse’s specific needs. It is important to start with a good base: high quality forage and water. Then depending on your horse’s work load/condition you can begin to increase the caloric density of the diet by adding in a concentrate feed. Again, this should be tailored to your horse’s specific requirements. Always consult an equine nutritionist or your veterinarian before adding in a new supplement or changing your horse’s feeding program. The horse has a unique system, specifically designed for processing forages in the hindgut. While their systems can tolerate a variety of other feedstuffs, it is important to carefully evaluate your horse’s diet in order to avoid any unnecessary nutritional complications.

Thank you very much to Meredith Kahn and O3 Animal Health for making this interview possible!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Equine Nutrition Interview, Part 1

Our friends at O3 Animal Health, makers of Equine Omega Complete, have generously offered the services of their equine nutrition consultant, Meredith Kahn, for this equine nutrition interview.

Meredith Kahn is highly qualified to offer guidance on equine nutrition, having received her B.Sc. in biology from the University of San Francisco followed by a master's degree in animal science from Texas A&M working under Dr. Josie Coverdale. She completed her thesis project on the investigation of inflammation and cartilage turnover in Quarter Horses of varying ages.

SRR: We all know that quality hay should form the basis of any good equine diet. Is there anything in particular that we should look out for in choosing a type of hay to feed a hunter or a jumper?

MK: With forage selection, it is important to look at your horse’s specific needs. When choosing hay for your hunter jumper there are some key things to take into consideration. Maturity is a direct reflection of quality. Immature, nutrient dense forage contains decreased amounts of structural carbohydrates: cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. As forage matures, the amount of fiber increases to structurally support the plant. Lignin is an organic substance that comprises cell walls and gives rigidity to plants. It also directly interferes with the digestion of cellulose and hemicellulose. Therefore, as concentrations increase with maturity, overall digestibility of the forage decreases. More mature forages are also likely to have decreased energy and protein levels. The average horse can thrive on a forage of mid-maturity, however, easy keepers do well on more mature forages, while hard keepers require a more nutrient dense, immature forage.

When baled at a similar level of maturity, legumes typically produce forages of higher quality that are more palatable and digestible than grasses. In addition, legumes will generally have higher energy, protein and mineral levels. While legumes are a great option for working horses, it is important to consider the level of maturity, as immature legumes can often exceed your horse’s nutrient requirements. A more mature legume is therefore favored over a less mature one.
There is no one hay in particular that we should be feeding our hunter jumpers. Choosing a hay to offer is really based on the individual horse. Are they an easy keeper or a hard keeper? How old are they? Where are they located? Do they have access to fresh pasture? Forage is the basis to any equine diet. As such, by selecting a hay of specific maturity and plant species, you will fulfill your horse’s individual nutrient requirements, allowing them to grow and develop into the best athlete possible.

SRR: How much grain does the average hunter or jumper really need each day?

MK: High-quality forage intake is the foundation of any equine diet. When considering the diet of exercising horses, energy is our primary concern. The truth is that forage alone cannot typically meet the energy demands of a working horse. As the workload increases, the concentrate to roughage ratio increases, although, removing roughage completely from the diet is not an option. The minimum roughage intake is around 0.75 to 1% body weight on a dry matter basis. The average hunter jumper is considered to be working at the level of “moderate work” according to the 2007 NRC. These horses primarily make use of aerobic metabolism with spurts of anaerobic metabolism and should be receiving a diet composed of 60% concentrate and 40% forage. For example, a 1,200 lb. horse that has a daily dry matter intake of 2% body weight (BW) will eat about 24 lbs. of feed per day. For a moderately working horse this is 14.4 lbs. of concentrate daily (60% of the diet/1.2% BW) and 9.6 lbs. of forage (40% of the diet/0.8% BW). Keep in mind that grain at this percentage should be split into at least two meals per day to avoid and digestive complications.

SRR: What is the ideal body condition for a hunter or a jumper?

MK: According to the Henneke body condition scoring system, the ideal body condition for a hunter jumper is a five. Ideal body condition depends on the use of the animal. This system was originally designed to monitor broodmares, as there is an influence of body condition score on reproductive efficiency. The system is particularly useful if body weight cannot be measured. It is a fast and inexpensive way to evaluate your horse’s body condition. The scoring system ranges from one to nine, one being poor and nine being extremely fat. It is based on visual and tactile appraisal of six areas of the body, which include the ribs, behind the shoulder, along the neck, the withers, the crease down the back and the tail head. For a body condition score of five, the ribs are not visually distinguishable, but can be felt, the fat around the tail head feels soft and spongy, the withers are rounded and the neck and shoulders blend smoothly into the body.

SRR: What is the best way to put weight on a competition horse?

MK: Along with increased access to good quality, nutritious forage, adding an oil like Equine Omega Complete to the diet is an easy and effective way to add calories and put weight on your horse. Fat has 2.25 times the energy by weight as carbohydrate. Fat is a source of calm calories that provides increased caloric density without an increase in volume. It does not make your horse hot or overwhelm their system. All oils are essentially equal in energy content, however, it is important to look at the chemical composition to be sure that you are providing a source of good, beneficial fat. Essential omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are required in the diet, as they cannot be made inside the body. Omega-6’s promote blood clotting, inflammation and immune system responses, however if these processes get carried away, they can actually become more harmful than helpful. The diet must therefore contain the correct proportion of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in order to keep these processes under control. Equine Omega Complete is made from all natural, GMO-free, mechanically expelled soybean oil with added human grade, deep water, wild caught fish oil. It has a very tight ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, mimicking the fatty acid content of fresh pasture grass that many domesticated horses are lacking.

SRR: How do good fats benefit the horse?

MK: There are many benefits to supplementing good fat, including reduced joint and tissue inflammation and the development and maintenance of healthy immune and digestive systems. However, it really starts at the cellular level. Every cell in the body is surrounded by fat and this fat is a direct reflection of what is provided in the diet. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete for incorporation into the cell membrane. When greater quantities of omega-3 fatty acids are present in the diet, they are integrated into the membrane at the expense of omega-6 fatty acids. As part of the cell membrane, omega-3 fatty acids increase fluidity, flexibility, permeability and the activity of enzymes that bind to the membrane. Omega-3 fatty acids have a key function in the formation, growth and regeneration of cells and in the transmission of cell signals throughout life. Therefore, by providing a good source of fat in the diet, we can directly influence cell development and function, and, ultimately, every system in the body.

Due to the abundance of information provided, this interview has been split into two parts. Check back next week for part two!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Cannon Crud

If you look at the hind cannon bones of many horses, you might see a patch of grey, greasy dirt centred on the front. This is commonly referred to as "cannon crud", or by the more medical name of "cannon keratosis".

While it seems not to bother most horses, it is unsightly and if it's allowed to build up over time, it can cause the hair in the affected area to fall out in clumps.

A horse affected by cannon keratosis whose symptoms are not treated on a regular basis will often have clean-looking legs after a pre-show bath, but the greasiness will reappear during warm-up when dirt sticks to the remainder of the greasy patch.

While not all agree on the cause of cannon kerotosis or on the best way to treat the underlying condition, there are easy ways to keep the build-up of "cannon crud" under control.

Step one is to loosen the crud. This can be done with your fingernails, a scrubbing brush or a rubbery curry or grooming tool. If the build-up is very hard and hair is coming out, back off and wait for the crud to soften before attempting to loosen it.

Once you've loosened the cannon crud somewhat to allow you to clean more deeply, wash the legs with soap or shampoo, applying it directly to the legs. Experiment to find what works best for your horse; an anti-dandruff shampoo could help the underlying condition or plain old dish soap could help to cut through the greasiness. If one treatment doesn't seem to be helping, try something different. While one bath isn't likely to remove the cannon crud completely, you should be able to see a difference.

After washing the legs, dry them by rubbing with a towel. This is a good habit to get into regardless of whether or not your horse has cannon crud because many conditions affecting the skin of the legs thrive in a wet environment.

With some experimentation you should be able to put your horse on a regular leg washing schedule to keep the symptoms of cannon keratosis at bay. Altering your grooming routine to keep that section of hair loosened up will make it much easier for your chosen treatment to penetrate.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

How to Attach a Lead Shank to the Bit

A leather lead shank can be a very useful tool to have at shows. Not only is it an attractive option for leading potentially unruly horses, but it can be used with either a halter or a bridle.

When leading a horse to or from the show ring, using a lead chain instead of leading by the reins means that if the horse somehow gets loose, there won't be a loop of reins hanging down that could get caught in a leg. A lead shank is also generally longer than a rein which makes it easier for a groom to move around the horse as needed.

There are lead shanks designed specifically to be used with a bit, often called a jumper lead shank or a Newmarket shank. These offer a split-chain design, with a clip on each of two short lengths of chain for each of the bit rings. When multiple lead shanks are not a priority, however, a standard lead chain can easily be used with either a halter or a bridle.

Neither of these
is ideal

The most common mistake when using a standard chain is attaching it to only one side of the bit. With this set-up, pulling on the lead will result in the horse turning in a circle towards the handler rather than slowing down or stopping, as all of the pressure is pulling the left side of the bit to the outside. It may work for some situations in which the lead needs to be removed quickly, such as when leading a difficult horse through the in-gate, but it is not ideal for general use.

Doubling the chain over will allow the handler to safely maintain a shorter feel on the lead if the chain is too long, but the same circling problem will continue to occur.

The most correct way to use a standard chain shank with a bit is what is shown in the photo above. The chain is passed up through one of the bit rings, run under the chin, back out through the other bit ring, and then it's clipped back onto itself at the base of the chain. With this set-up, pulling on the lead will exert pressure on both sides of the mouth, keeping the horse from turning into the handler instead of stopping. Turning ability still exists, and most horses will follow the direction that their handler takes anyway without requiring direction from the lead shank.

This method of attachment is especially important to use for any type of bit that might slide through the mouth if too much pressure is exerted on one side, such as a loose ring or a bit with particularly small cheek pieces.

With the reins flipped safely over the neck and out of the way, attaching the lead chain in this triangle configuration ensures consistent and predictable control, which is very important when navigating busy paths and hitching rings.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: Fortune's Fool

Following my review of The Horse is Never Wrong, I was given the chance to read the second book of the series, Fortune's Fool, written by Mary Pagones. While there are many of the same characters in both novels, each centres on a different protagonist and Fortune's Fool can easily be read on its own.

This book focuses on Simon, a talented but largely self-taught and undisciplined rider. After successfully competing on the New Jersey hunter/jumper circuit, Simon looks to challenge himself by switching to eventing. He is able to secure himself a working student position with a prominent eventing trainer based in Vermont, and just before leaving he can't help but "accidentally" purchase a talented but poorly-trained gelding named Fortune's Fool.

The novel follows a year in the life of a working student as Simon and Fortune head to Vermont, a far cry from the busy equestrian and social scene of New Jersey. Not only do both Simon and his new mount need to learn discipline, but Simon must also learn to endure his fellow working students while maintaining a romantic relationship that could be frowned upon were it to be discovered. A variety of themes are touched upon, from homosexuality, to acceptable career choices, to eating disorders, to familial pressure.

Pagones strikes a good balance in providing an idea of what a day in the life of a working student might be without getting bogged down in daily details. There is no question that the work is hard but each working student has their own reason to be there, though their work ethics do vary. Life as a working student is not romanticized and Pagones makes it clear that aspiring to be a professional rider or trainer is not an easy career choice.

Contrary to The Horse is Never Wrong, which told the story of a beginner rider, Fortune's Fool focuses on more experienced horses and riders competing at higher levels, which provides more interest for readers who are already in the horse world, either as jumpers or as eventers.

The common complaint of horsey novels containing a fairytale-like story of a horse and rider emerging from nothing to become world beaters thankfully doesn't apply here. Simon and Fortune each have much to learn but Pagones keeps their progression to a reasonable level.

This novel uses a first person style similar to that used in The Horse is Never Wrong, but it flows better and the conversation feels more natural. Pagones keeps the plot moving forward at all times, allowing the reader to wonder what's to come.

Factually the book seems very accurate, though coming from the jumper world I cannot vouch 100% for the more eventing-themed portions.

Overall, Fortune's Fool is an interesting read for the horsey set, regardless of discipline. It feels more grown-up than The Horse is Never Wrong while still appealing to a broad age range. Pagones is an author to look out for in the future for interesting human stories set in a realistic equestrian setting.

Fortune's Fool, written by Mary Pagones, is available in both Kindle and paperback editions through, where you can also find a preview of the first chapters.

Disclosure: I have received no financial compensation for writing this review aside from a sample or copy of the product to be reviewed. My reviews are always my honest opinion and experience. Readers who use reviewed products do so at their own risk.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Coloured Jackets in the Hunter Ring

As the trend for distinctive jacket colours continues in the jumper ring, the question comes up of the suitability of these jackets for the hunter ring.

Equine Canada rules call for a "coat, shirt and tie, choker or stock, breeches or jodhpurs and boots" (Article G109 Dress), with no mention of jacket colour. An EC steward confirmed that the hunter rules do not discriminate against any jacket colour.

For equitation classes, the jacket must be conservative, so a loud or unusual colour would not be appropriate (Article G1003 Dress).

As far as I can find, USEF rules mention only formal attire, leaving the dress for less formal classes unspecified. Any readers who are aware of USEF's stance on jacket colours outside of formal (hunter classic, etc.) attire are welcome to comment with any further information.

While a jacket colour might be permitted, that does not mean that it is always a good idea. Loud or unusual colours will make your rounds or flatwork stand out, which could either work in your favour if you have a perfect round or against it by making small errors more memorable. While some judges enjoy the look of certain unusual jacket colours, others much prefer traditional colour choices and there is always a chance that this may subconsciously affect scoring.

Your turnout for more formal classes should always be on the conservative side, so save the bold colours for those classes that are not classics, derbies, or even on the more formal weekend.

As always, steer clear of the jacket colour of your country's national team, as well as from anything like local hunt colours unless you have permission to use them.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Turnout Critique #17

This week's featured horse and rider exhibit fantastic turnout that wouldn't look out of place in any hunter or equitation division at a horse show, but their turnout is even better when you consider that they're competing in the Short Stirrup division!

First off, her tack is beautifully clean and well-fitting. The saddle is small enough that the rider is not swimming in it but there still appears to be room for her to grow. The bridle is adjusted with the noseband right up under the cheek bones to complement her horse's face, and the horse is wearing the standard hunter D-ring and standing martingale (which is also correctly adjusted with enough length that it could be pulled up to the throat latch area). The saddle pad is very well-chosen to follow the outline of the saddle with an inch or two of pad showing all the way around. The rider is using a traditional stainless steel stirrup iron, suitable for any class she might wish to enter, and I appreciate that the excess stirrup leather is tucked under the flap as they are usually distractingly long for a rider of this age unless trimmed or tucked in.

The rider is correctly turned out in suitably conservative hunter attire with a black helmet, dark jacket, white show shirt, beige breeches and fitted black field boots, polished to a shine. It is more common to see short boots and jodhpurs in the Short Stirrup division because they are more easily adjusted to the growing rider, but there's nothing wrong with tall boots and I think that they suit this pair well. I like how her jacket is fitted; often jackets for smaller riders are quite boxy but hers fits her body and is a great length. The rider is wearing conservative black gloves and she has her hair up in a hairnet. Braided hair with bows would also be an option for this division, but again I believe that this pair pull off their chosen look extremely well. It looks like the hairnet might have slipped off beneath the rider's ear or snagged on an earring, but that is a very minor detail.

This horse is complemented by a beautiful braiding job. Braiding the tail is not needed for this division except at the most prestigious shows. The horse's tail is nicely brushed out but it could benefit from some more fullness at the bottom if one were to be very picky. The illusion of fullness can be achieved by trimming a small amount from the bottom of the tail (keeping most of the length as hunters generally prefer tails that are on the longer side) or by adding in a modest fake tail for showing. Depending on the cause of the thinness, bagging the tail or not brushing it too often at home could also be of benefit for keeping it thick and healthy.

The horse appears to be very clean and I suspect that he would look shiny in the sun. His hooves are nicely oiled and the small amount of white on his legs is clean. My only grooming quibbles are related to trimming. Because hunters are shown with bare legs, attention should be paid to their appearance. Trimming the little tuft of hair at the back of each fetlock would make this pair look that much sleeker and more elegant. I also noticed a little tuft of hair in front of the crown of the bridle; the mane can grow quickly so trimming the bridle path should be done frequently during the show season.

Overall, this is a polished, elegant pair who are doing a fantastic job of showing off the horse. My critiques are very minor and I am sure that when they step into the ring, the judge knows that they are there to compete.

Many thanks to this week's featured rider for submitting this photo! Readers who would like to participate in a future Turnout Critique may send any photos to

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Judges' Answers to Pony Questions

I was lucky enough to have the chance to chat with a couple of well-respected hunter judges last month, including one who has judged Pony Finals multiple times, and I took the opportunity to ask a few judging-related questions that come up quite often on this blog.

First up is the question of the bows worn in many pony riders' hair: how big is too big? Essentially, if the ribbons cover the number at all then they should be trimmed down. The judge may choose to either eliminate the rider due to the number being unreadable, or they might radio the in-gate and ask that the ribbons be trimmed before the next round. Younger riders with shorter backs will therefore usually need bows that are on the smaller side, especially if they have long hair.

The next question was at what age should the pony rider switch from jodhpurs to tall boots (which is often also the switch from bows to a hairnet if the rider is not already wearing a hairnet)? The answer was that it doesn't really matter, but that it goes along with the question of suitability. If a rider is too big to look appropriate in jodhpurs and bows, they are also probably too big to be riding a small pony, the division in which jodhpurs and bows are most often seen (in addition to the Short Stirrup division in which the rider is generally too young for suitability to be a problem). A small rider on a medium pony can also wear bows and jodhpurs.

This rider is on the large side for this pony, and
would likely look inappropriate in jodhpurs and bows
That led to the question of what are the consequences score-wise for a rider who is too big for her pony in a hunter class? One judge said that she wouldn't deduct from the score, but that if two rounds were similar with one featuring a rider who was too big for her pony, that unsuitable pairing would act as a tiebreaker with the more suitable pair taking the better ribbon.

These are the opinions of only a couple of different judges and as such they don't necessarily reflect the opinions of all judges, but they do offer some guidance as to what might be behind the decisions coming from the judge's booth.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review: The Horse is Never Wrong

I wrote in my last book review how much I appreciated getting the chance to check an equestrian-themed novel for errors, given the number of horse books in existence which seem to have been written by authors who have never actually met a real live horse, let alone attended a horse show! This time I'm reviewing The Horse is Never Wrong, written by first-time YA author Mary Pagones.

The Horse is Never Wrong centres around Heather, a fifteen year-old high school student who has been diagnosed with Asperger's (a "high functioning" autism spectrum disorder). Heather struggles with fitting in socially until she begins to take riding lessons at a local stable. While Heather might not be the most natural of new riders, she finds comfort in the horses and it develops into a common interest with other teens at the stable who share her new-found passion.

The novel is written in the first person in an almost stream-of-consciousness style. This allows the reader to understand how Heather feels about her normalcy or lack thereof, and it also provides a means to disclose her insecurities and what have been labelled as her symptoms of Asperger's, many of which readers might see in themselves. When something is quietly shared amongst many of us, at what point does it cease to be a medical symptom?

Pagones doesn't ram these questions down our throats, but The Horse is Never Wrong will get the reader thinking about them. This is an excellent read for dispelling fear of differences. Should we vilify others for nonconformity, or because they openly present traits that most keep hidden? While many young adult novels serve as a form of escape from the everyday, The Horse is Never Wrong urges readers to look inside themselves while still maintaining a compelling storyline. Though the category might be young adult, Pagones provides material that can be appreciated by all ages.

Refreshingly, Heather's first steps into the horse world aren't of the magical, teen phenomenon variety so often found in YA horse novels. She struggles to master posting the trot, as many beginner riders do. For once, the goals set are reasonable and realistically attainable! Because the protagonist herself is new to horses, the material is basic enough for the non-horse person to understand, while at the same time providing enough realistic equine interaction to satisfy the horsey set.

The dialogue can feel slightly stilted at times, occasionally lacking some of the contractions that we're used to hearing in casual conversation, but I think that some of this can be forgiven in a first novel. The chapters are very short, which keeps the story moving along. If anything, the book might have felt a little bit too concise! On the horse front, there are some minor errors that will be noticed by experienced competitors, such as local-level jumpers being fond of colourful helmet covers (which are generally favoured by eventers rather than jumpers) or an 'A' circuit hunter/jumper show holding dressage classes at the same time. These inaccuracies are few and far between, however, and none contribute more to the plot than a passing remark.

Overall, The Horse is Never Wrong is a great novel to promote empathy and introduce a different world view to teens, horse-crazy or not. It's also a nice light, albeit thought-provoking, read for adults of any age who remember what it was like to navigate the tumultuous high school years. 

The Horse is Never Wrong, written by Mary Pagones, is available in both Kindle and paperback editions through, where you can also find a preview of the first chapters.

Disclosure: I have received no financial compensation for writing this review aside from a sample or copy of the product to be reviewed. My reviews are always my honest opinion and experience. Readers who use reviewed products do so at their own risk.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Unusual Tack: The Bib Martingale

by Clément Bucco-Lechat - Own work.
Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The bib martingale looks very strange if you have never seen one before. It is essentially a running martingale in which the space between the two split straps is filled in with a triangular piece of leather.

As with many pieces of tack, there are those who use the bib martingale because of the look, rather than for any particular practical reason. For others, however, there are some legitimate reasons why a rider might choose the bib martingale over the more standard running martingale.

The construction of the bib martingale results in no loose straps. For a mouthy horse who will sometimes over-flex, this means that there are no straps that the horse could grab onto and potentially catch in the mouth. For a horse like this, the bib martingale not only protects the martingale from damage by the teeth, but it can also prevent serious accidents associated with the horse getting caught and panicking.
by Clément Bucco-Lechat - Own
work. Licenced under CC BY-SA
3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the racing world, bib martingales can also act similarly to an Irish martingale in keeping the reins from potentially flipping over the head, though that is an unlikely occurrence in the jumper world.

One downside to the bib martingale is that it prevents the rider from using an opening rein (moving the hand away from the neck in the direction of a turn without pulling back) because the reins are held close together by the bib. It's possible that in some instances the rider might find it easier to keep the horse straight due to the channeling of the reins in this manner, though steering might be negatively affected.

Because the bib martingale is essentially a modified running martingale, it should be adjusted in the same way as a running martingale (as a rough guide, it should be long enough for the rings to reach the bottom of the throat latch when the martingale is pulled up with the horse standing relaxed).

by Clément Bucco-Lechat - Own
work. Licenced under CC BY-SA
3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What is a Medal Class?

You might see the term "medal class" on a prize list and wonder what makes it different from a regular equitation class. Both are judged on the rider's equitation, so what is the difference? At its most basic, a medal class is an equitation class with additional tests.

Sometimes those additional tests are incorporated into the jumping course, while at other times there is a fairly typical jumping phase followed by a flat portion and/or ride-off, all judged as one class. The prize list or rule book governing the particular horse show should help you to determine under which format a particular medal class falls.

Medals may be handed out according to the level of competition (for example, bronze for the winner of a qualifier, and then gold, silver and bronze for the top three of a national final), for the top three placings in an individual class, or the show might decide to use the term "medal class" outside of the literal description and simply award ribbons.

The hunter-type medal classes are often the kind judged as a single jumping round with additional tests worked into the course. The top riders might be called back by the judge to jump over a shortened course, or to demonstrate some movements on the flat (or the judge could make their final decision based on the first round alone). Typical tests on course at the most basic level are trot jumps and halting between markers at the end of the ring. Expect the course to have some rollbacks and less of a typical hunter flow.

At the higher levels, additional tests worked into the course can include counter canter, halting within a line, and hand galloping a jump. The course can include a "skinny" jump, a jump at the end of the ring, etc. The full list of additional tests is below, and includes those that can be used in a ride-off (check the Equine Canada rulebook Article G1009 for restrictions, and note that unlisted tests may be used for CET Medal classes):

a) Dismount and mount
b) Rein back
c) Individual performance
d) Figure eight at trot, demonstrating change of diagonals
e) Figure eight at canter with simple change of leads through the walk or trot
f) Gallop and stop
g) Extended trot
h) Turn on haunches through the walk
i) Trot and canter without stirrups
j) Change leads on a straight line down centre with simple change through the walk or trot
k) Counter canter
l) Demonstration of about one minute on own mount. Rider must advise the judge beforehand what he/she plans to demonstrate
m) Pull up between fences except in a combination
n) Jump low fences, at walk, trot or canter
o) Jump without stirrups (stirrups must be removed from the saddle when over fences)
p) Change of leads with flying changes

For USEF shows, the additional tests that can be used for equitation and medal classes are:

1. Halt (4 to 6 seconds) or halt and back. When riders working collectively are asked to halt and then back, they must not be penalized if they walk forward a few steps and halt after backing.
2. Hand gallop. A hand gallop may be used on the approach to a jump.
3. Figure eight at trot, demonstrating change of diagonals. At left diagonal, rider should be sitting the saddle when left front leg is on the ground; at right diagonal, rider should be sitting the saddle when right front leg is on the ground; when circling clockwise at a trot, rider should be on left diagonal; when circling counterclockwise, rider should be on the right diagonal.
4. Figure eight at canter on correct lead, demonstrating simple change of lead. This is a change whereby the horse is brought back into a walk or trot (either is acceptable unless the judge specifies) and restarted into a canter on the opposite lead. Figures to be commenced in center of two circles so that one change of lead is shown.
5. Work collectively or individually at a walk, trot and/or canter.
6. Jump low obstacles at a trot as well as at a canter. The maximum height and spread for a trot jump is 3’ for horses, 2’ for ponies in classes restricted to ponies.
7. Jump obstacles on figure eight course.
8. Question(s) regarding basic horsemanship, tack and equipment and conformation.
9. Ride without stirrups, riders must be allowed option to cross stirrups.
10. Jump low obstacles at a walk as well as at a canter. The maximum height and spread for a walk jump is 2’.
11. Dismount and mount. Individually.
12. Turn on the forehand done through the walk or the halt.
13. Figure eight at canter on correct lead demonstrating flying change of lead.
14. Execute serpentine at a trot and/or canter on correct lead demonstrating simple or flying changes of lead. (See EQ112.4 for simple change.)
15. Change leads on a line demonstrating a simple or flying change of lead. (See EQ112.4 for simple change.)
16. Change horses. (Note: this test is the equivalent of two tests.)
17. Canter on counter lead. (Note: no more than twelve horses may counter canter at one time.) A canter on the counter lead may be used on the approach to a jump.
18. Turn on the haunches from the walk.
19. Demonstration ride of approximately one minute. Rider must advise judge beforehand what ride he plans to demonstrate.

For those classes that do not incorporate specific tests into the jumping phase (often the more jumper-oriented medals, such as the CET Medal in Canada), there will be either an equitation-style or jumper-style course and a certain number, often anywhere from the top eight to the top twelve, will be called back into the ring to complete a flat phase. Ribbons are awarded for the class as a whole; neither phase is a class in itself. An elimination in the jumping phase will preempt a rider from proceeding to the flat phase, even if there are fewer riders in the class than there are spots in the call-back.

The flat phase will usually include the working walk, trot (sitting and rising) and canter, as well as lengthenings, counter canter, halting, turns on the haunches, etc., all performed as a group. The prize list or rule book should specify the weighting of the phases (for example. 60% over fences and 40% flat). Depending on the class, there may be additional testing after the flat phase, either over a shortened course over fences or with additional flatwork.

Rules vary regarding the tack allowed for each phase, and whether the tack must be kept the same for both, so be sure to read both the prize list and the rule book before you compete.

Overall, if you are entering a medal class, expect a higher level of difficulty than you would find in a typical equitation class. Practice trotting jumps and halting at various points during a course. Ensure that your flatwork includes basic lengthenings at the very minimum, and practice the counter canter if you plan to enter medals beyond the introductory level. Watch your competitors and learn how the most successful ones enter and the leave the ring, and what sort of inside turns they plan. Medal classes are a way to really test your skills and they also provide an excellent introduction to course strategy.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Review: Making the Running

My first thought when I was asked to review this novel was that an equestrian romance novel likely wouldn't fit into the theme of this blog. Upon further thought, I realized that it would be entirely appropriate because I'm sure that most of us have, at least once, struggled to read through a horse-related novel riddled with so many errors that the author couldn't possibly be a horse person. Reviewing an equestrian-themed novel on a blog devoted to the intricacies of grooming seems like a pretty good way to screen out painfully inaccurate or pseudo- horse books.

Making the Running, written by Hannah Hooton, takes place in the world of jump racing. While the discipline is not something that most of us hunter/jumper riders take part in, we share a lot in common and it provides an exciting background to the human side of the story. Hooton's race descriptions are both enlightening and exciting, allowing the reader to feel as though they are anxiously watching from the sidelines alongside our protagonist Kate.

Kate Cresswell is a stable lass at Aspen Valley Racing Stables. She juggles her job and a dysfunctional family life, and things only get more complicated when she meets polar-opposite brothers Nicholas Borden, a preppy investment banker and his family's racing manager, and Ben de Jager, an amateur jump jockey with a mysterious past. Kate struggles to support her siblings while making tough choices about her horses and her love life, all in the lead-up to the famous Cheltenham Festival.

Making the Running is the fourth book in Hannah Hooton's Aspen Valley series, but it easily stands on its own as the main characters are new to the series. Having never read the previous novels, I had no trouble dropping into the Aspen Valley world, though I am sure that there are enough references to events and characters from the previous books to satisfy regular Hooton fans.  

As a horse person, it's a relief to come across a line on the very first page such as "his poor excuse for a forelock" because that is a description that only a true horse person would think to use. Despite being a romance novel, the horse world is depicted in a very real way, with no hesitation in having the equine characters slobber, head-butt and generally put themselves between the human characters. Given that there is no attempt to falsely paint every human character within the business as a devoted horse lover, Hooton has clearly been in the industry and understands the diverse cast of characters to be found.

Hooton creates characters full of depth, each with his or her own back story. The relationships between and setbacks suffered by all of the characters feel real; this is not your typical fairytale romance. Hooton deftly handles dark topics such as alcoholism without losing the light tone of the novel.

While some of the plot lines are somewhat predictable as can be expected in a romance novel, it's an enjoyable ride and Hooton even manages to sneak in a couple of surprises near the end. Although there are a couple of scenes with adult content, this book is much more about the emotional relationships between characters rather than the physical.

Overall, Making the Running is a fun, well-written book, with the reader's attention captured alternately by the fantastic race descriptions and duelling characters. It's available as an e-book (Kindle users click here), and for those wishing to start from the beginning, the first book in the Aspen Valley series, Keeping the Peace, is currently available for free in various formats through Hannah Hooton's website, where you can also learn more about her other books!

Disclosure: I have received no financial compensation for writing this review aside from a sample or copy of the product to be reviewed. My reviews are always my honest opinion and experience. Readers who use reviewed products do so at their own risk.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Unusual Tack: The Waterford Bit

The "Unusual Tack" feature aims to bring to light or describe lesser-known or frequently misunderstood pieces of tack.

The Waterford bit can be controversial, but what can't be argued is that it is a fairly popular bit in the hunter ring. To the outside observer it might appear to be an uncommon equipment choice, but D-ring cheeks can hide many a different mouthpiece!

The Waterford is a four-jointed bit, unlike the two joints of the french link or the one joint of a regular single-jointed snaffle. Because there are four joints, the bit is very flexible. This can make it a good choice for horses who tend to lean down onto the bit because there is no solid piece for the horse to hang onto.

The allegations of harshness likely have to do with the possibility for the mouthpiece to wrap around the shape of the lower jaw if too much pressure is applied without release. Any bit will become harsh if used by harsh hands, but special care should be taken with the Waterford to avoid its use by uneducated hands not because it is an inherently harsh bit, but because its construction has the potential to offer the horse no relief from pressure in the case of heavy hands. Because many horses will learn to lean on a rider's heavy hands, rider education can sometimes be a better solution than a switch to the Waterford bit.

Its popularity in the hunter ring likely lies in the typically low way of going favoured for hunters, which can occasionally transition from long and low to downright heaviness. A Waterford can provide a gentle reminder to a heavier-travelling horse to lighten its forehand when used by a considerate rider. Combined with the light contact favoured in the hunter ring, the Waterford in theory can be a gentler choice than a bit that would require more pressure, constant reminders or increased leverage.
Stubben Waterford Max Relax

For those concerned about the placement of the joints near the corners of the mouth, at least one company now makes a three-jointed version of the Waterford which provides a longer length of attachment from the joints to the bit rings.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

FAQ, Part 14

Is a Happy Mouth or Nathe bit acceptable for the hunter ring?

Yes, it is fairly common to see hunters ridden in white plastic bits. Judges are unlikely to penalize a horse for going in a soft bit, and while the colour can stand out in contrast to the horse and bridle, it is of little consequence on a well-turned-out horse. Bit material is not regulated, provided it is humane.

How can I tell which classes are in a hunter division?

The horse show's prize list should outline which classes are included in each division. Generally, a hunter division will have anywhere from two to four over fences classes as well as one under saddle (flat) class. Certain shows might offer a handy class, a model class, or a stake class as part of a division.

In the prize list or schedule, the jumping classes will usually be denoted by either "over fences" or "o/f" (the class specified as a handy or a stake is also over fences), while the under saddle could be represented by "u/s". For equitation divisions, "on the flat" or "flat" is used in place of "under saddle".

Are flexible stirrups permitted in the hunter ring?

Jointed or flexible stirrups are permitted for hunter classes. For equitation and medal classes in Canada, however, black branches are not permissible (light-coloured branches are fine), though the stirrups may still be jointed. USEF rules allow black joints for equitation classes as long as the entire stirrup iron is not black.

Can you braid just the tail for a hunter class?

Braiding the tail is usually done for especially formal classes, so it is typically done in cases when the mane is already expected to be braided. If the horse show is formal enough to braid anything, the mane should be braided. At schooling shows where braiding is not expected, some riders might practice braiding the tail for fun, but otherwise it is typical to braid either just the mane or both the mane and tail.

Which is better for a hunter, a high or a low score?

When numerical scoring is used in the hunter ring, it is based on an ideal score of 100, so a higher score is a better score.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Fix a Broken Halter Chin Strap

One of the most frequently-broken halter parts is the chin strap, especially on those halters that have adjustable ones. Ideally you will have either a spare halter or a spare chin strap close at hand, but your spare could be a less-than-ideal fit or material. In such cases, it's possible to fashion your own replacement chin strap, or even create one in advance to keep on hand.

I like to keep old stirrup leathers around because they can be very useful as spare stirrup leathers or as neck straps. At the right width and thickness, they are also handy for halter repairs.

Step one is to remove the old chin strap. If it is in otherwise good shape, you could keep it to be repaired professionally. Fasten the throatlatch to keep everything neat and easy to visualize.

Step two is to find an appropriate stirrup leather. Something single-ply and at most 1" wide is most likely to fit through the slots.

Step three is to thread the stirrup leather through the slots and ring. Ensure that the side facing towards the horse is the same side that you would like to show on the outside of the finished chin strap (thread it wrongly and your buckle won't be able to close). You can trim off a section of stirrup leather before threading it, but err on the side of caution so that you don't end up with too short of a chin strap at the end. The stirrup leather in these photos is "rough side out", so it is threaded with the rough side facing towards the horse's chin.

Before inserting the leather into the second slot, slide two sturdy braiding elastics onto the leather. These will serve as keepers later on to help the leather keep the desired shape.

After coming out of the second slot, loop the leather back onto itself and through the nearest elastic.

Take the buckle end and fold it back onto itself and through the other elastic, and then feed the longest end through the ring to meet the other end.

Slide a third braiding elastic over the non-buckle end. Put the halter on your horse carefully (you can trim off any obvious excess in advance to avoid spooking your horse) and shorten the chin strap until it's the desired length. Use the braiding elastic to mark the spot where you would like to make a hole.

Use a leather punch to make a hole in the marked location. If you plan on using the replacement chin strap for multiple horses, punch one or two holes on either side of the target hole to allow for adjustment.

Move the marker elastic onto the buckle end of the leather, and then buckle the chin strap, using the elastic as a keeper. You can trim off any excess leather an inch or so beyond the furthest hole. If you are using a stirrup leather with roller buckles such as this one, you might consider wrapping the roller in Vetrap to dampen any jingling.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How to Fix a Squeaky Bit

Bits with hinged cheek pieces, such as D-rings, full cheeks and eggbutts, can develop a squeak over time. While the squeakiness doesn't interfere with the action of the bit, the sound made as the horse chews the bit can be annoying, while also potentially bringing attention at shows to a horse who over-chews the bit.

Because the bit cheeks come into such close contact with the horse's mouth, especially when a lot of saliva is produced, using a lubricant that isn't food-grade is a risk. Thankfully, there is an inexpensive food-grade solution that should help in most cases, and you likely already have it in your feed room or kitchen.

The simplest solution is to place a drop of vegetable oil (I have had great success with canola oil, but other common vegetable oils such as corn oil, soybean oil, etc., should also work) on each gap in the hinge. The oil will spread quickly, so it's important to move the hinge back and forth to work each drop of oil in before it drips off the bit. Repeat this for each gap, and then hang up the bridle to allow the oil some time to spread through the entire hinge before riding.

If this method doesn't stop the squeaking, it might be necessary to leave the bit to soak in a dish of your chosen vegetable oil so that the oil can penetrate more deeply.

If your bit resumes squeaking after some time, simply repeat the oiling process as needed.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Grooming the Sensitive Horse

Some horses adore being groomed, while others would much rather be left alone. A thorough daily grooming plays a significant part in producing the deep shine that we aim for on show horses. Not only does it help you keep track of any changes on your horse's body, but it also increases circulation and distributes oil throughout the hair shaft to help produce the desired sheen. For these reasons, even those otherwise healthy horses who don't always enjoy being groomed really do benefit from a modified grooming program.

Sensitive horses often object to the curry comb because of its stiffness. Currying is important for both blood circulation and to bring dirt, dust and sweat up away from the skin. For those horses who dislike even the more jelly-like soft curries, I have found that a cactus cloth mitt can provide a suitable alternative.

Cactus (or sisal) cloth
Cactus cloth is made of natural sisal fibres woven into a textured pattern. Its texture allows it to penetrate deeply into the coat, but it is also very pliable and horses seem to enjoy being groomed with it. It is available on its own or sewn into a convenient mitt, often with fleece on the other side as an extra grooming tool. It can be used in the same circular motion as a curry comb, and horses will often tolerate it on the more sensitive parts of the body that can't be curried normally.

Cactus cloth can be used as an alternative to a curry comb, but it is also a useful grooming tool on its own for actions such as drying and removing sweat.

One downside to using cactus cloth is that it is more difficult to clean than a curry comb, and the fabric can trap dirt and sweat where it can't always be removed with a stiff brush. In addition to regular brushing, it's a good idea to clean your sisal mitt with soap or shampoo when it gets visibly dirty.

Many sensitive horses take a strong dislike to being groomed with a stiff dandy brush. I am not aware of any good alternative to the dandy brush aside from finding the softest bristles that will still do the job, so sometimes all you can do is spend extra time with the curry or cactus mitt and then move directly on to the body brush.

The brush on the left shows the longer "flicking" bristles
I have found that sensitive horses seem to prefer the lighter touch that is possible by using a long-bristled body brush. These brushes have soft bristles that are longer than average, allowing for more of a flicking motion that removes dirt and hair with more flexibility and less direct pressure. It is used with the same long, sweeping motions in the direction of hair growth as you would use with a regular body brush, but with a little bit more of a "flick" at the end of each stroke. 

Some horses might prefer natural bristles over synthetic bristles, but experimentation is required to determine whether this might be contributing to any reactiveness.

Overall, it's fine to adjust your grooming routine to meet an individual horse's needs as long as you are able to find alternatives that will accomplish the same aims. Grooming should be an enjoyable experience for the horse, and if pain or other health-related causes of sensitivity are ruled out, sometimes all that's required is a different set of tools.