Friday, 27 November 2009

Review: Susan Richards - Chosen by a Horse

Susan Richards - Chosen by a Horse
Constable: £7.99

This is yet another book that's been in the review pile for months: so long, in fact, I can't remember when I got it.

It's about a rescue horse: a Standardbred mare called Lay Me Down, and the woman who rescued her, Susan Richards. Lay Me Down was rescued when she and her companions were seized by their owner, who had neglected them so badly they were nearly at the point of starvation. At first, it wasn't even clear if Lay Me Down would survive, but she and her foal both did. The foal was reclaimed by the abusive owner, who had to sign all the foals over to his vet in lieu of fees, but Lay Me Down stayed.

She really was a quite exceptional mare, and Susan Richards shows you just what a complete sweetie this horse was. Despite the horrors she had known, she bore no one any malice, and was always accepting and kind: no mareish nasties at all, unlike one of Susan Richard's other horses, the Morgan Georgia, who was the ultimate in mareish sass. Susan Richards does wonders in portraying this mare. Thinking back over the horses I've known, I've known difficult mares by the bucketload, and I've known mares who would put up with anything a child chose to do to them, but I don't think I've ever known a horse as benign. The animal in my life most like Lay Me Down is in fact my dog, Holly, whom we took on at the age of 15 months after she'd ping ponged in and out of 5 homes. Susan Richards describes Lay Me Down thus:

Unlike me, Lay Me Down seemed to feel no rancor. In spite of everything, she was open and trusting of people, qualities I decidedly lacked. It was her capacity to engage that drew me to her, that made me aware of what was possible for me if I had her capacity to... to what? Forgive? Forget? Live in the Moment? What exactly was it that enabled an abused animal, for lack of a better word, to love again?

Alas, Lay Me Down is not done with suffering once she is rescued. She develops a tumour which pushes out her eye, and it is inoperable.

The picture of the horse drew me in, but Susan Richard's own experiences didn't, and I'm not quite sure why. I think one thing that made me disengage from her was the episode of the foal being taken away, or to be more accurate, what didn't happen afterwards. After the grim emotional haul of the foal being parted from her mother and carted away after a Judge decreed that the owner could reclaim all the foals from his herd, in order to meet his debts, I expected that we'd be told what happened to the foal after she was taken in by the vet - she was too young to be weaned, apparently, so what happened next? This complete silence was a little odd. Perhaps the foal's story didn't fit into the book, but the foal simply isn't mentioned again after she's hauled away. Susan Richards' own reaction seemed quite profound, and so I expected her to at the least, try and contact the vet and buy the foal back. Maybe she did, or maybe she didn't, but I couldn't quite remove the foal from my brain, and she haunted the rest of the book.

Perhaps tellingly, the book moves on from the foal's removal to a description of how Susan Richards became the person she was: her mother died at the age of five, and then she was shunted from one abusive relation to another. I couldn't help but draw parallels. I'm glad Susan Richards felt Lay Me Down had unlocked something in her; and she gave Lay Me Down the best and most loving of care as she became more and more sick.

That's not to say this is a bad read: it's incredibly involving, and of course the end is tragic and you will cry bucketloads. Just can't get that foal out of my mind.

Wonder where this one will end up

There have been mutterings for a while that jump racing would be banned in Victoria, Australia, and now it has been, from 2011. Read the story here.

As far as I'm aware, there's no equivalent mutterings here. There are some things I disagree with very strongly in racing: breaking and racing two year olds, for one, and not giving any thought to what happens to the horses after their racing career is finished for another.

However, I love National Hunt (as jump racing is called here). Horses do die, and it is absolutely terrible to watch one of those falls when you know the horse is not going to get up. When you make the death or injuring of horses into a welfare issue that you're determined to clear up, I do wonder where it will stop. Horses die eventing, show jumping and hunting, and of course hacking on the roads is not exactly safe. If you take as your premise that the horse hasn't asked to be doing x and that therefore if y can happen you must stop doing x will that leave us with simply poddling round an arena doing dressage? (And I am simply not going to open the can of worms that is dressage...)

I suppose what worries me is how you define what is an acceptable risk to the horse, and to you. I'm more worried about the horse than the human, the human being the one with choice. A lot of changes have been made to Aintree over the years, for example. It's much safer than it was. I don't think you can remove 100% of the risk for the horse, whatever you're doing: riding is a partnership, and either you or the horse might get something wrong. It comes down to how much death you're prepared to tolerate, and I suppose if I look at the issue rationally, I obviously am prepared to accept a small amount of death, although I hate it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Rollkur (well sort of) in 1961

I said in a previous blog post that I'd never seen or heard of a horse doing rollkur on its own. The following example isn't really a horse doing rollkur because it feels like it: it's more because the horse wants its own way and is evading the bit, but still. Here it is:

"She had a mouth like iron, but she could not be accused of bolting, or even running away. She would just tuck in her chin until it touched her chest, drop the bit, and canter slowly, steadily and relentlessly on. The most that you could hope to do when she was in this mood was to turn her into a circle, and wait until she grew tired - unless of course you had a friend on foot who would run in and grab the bridle." (Stella Markeson - Horse Portraits, in Riding Magazine, Sept 1961)

This is of course evasion, and not at all actual rollkur, but I found it interesting to read of a horse doing something similar!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Review: Alison Hart - Racing to Freedom Trilogy

Alison Hart: Gabriel's Horses
Peach Tree Publishing, Atlanta £8.21

Alison Hart: Gabriel's Journey
Peach Tree Publishing, Atlanta £8.21
Age 10+

My New Year's Resolution was to get through the to-be-reviewed pile more quickly, but nearly at the end of the year, I can tell you I have failed miserably. Gabriel's Horses I have had for well over a year; Gabriel's Journey much less long, thanks to the author, who kindly sent me a copy, but still quite long enough for it to be embarrassing.

The second book I haven't read, but if it's up to the standard of the two I have, it's well worth finding. The Race to Freedom trilogy is set in Kentucky, during the American Civil War. Kentucky, as I learned, was not a centre of operations during the war. Only a few battles were fought, and racing and breeding carried on. So unaffected was Kentucky that some Southern owners brought their horses to Kentucky to remove them from the ravages of the war in the South. The state was not completely unaffected however: Guerilla raiders (the ones in the book are Confederate but I assume there were Union counterparts) raided farms for horses to use in the war: a horse's illustrious pedigree and racing career were no proof against being taken.

The book's hero, Gabriel Alexander, is an African American boy born into slavery. His father was free, but because his mother was a slave, the children were slaves too. Gabriel is, to some extent, lucky: Master Giles, the owner of Woodville Farm, where the family live, is mostly considerate and kindly. Gabriel loves horses, and manages to follow his dream of working with them. Racism though is never far from the surface, and Alison Hart paints a disturbing picture of some of its manifestations during the Civil War: Confederate guerillas hunt down and kill any blacks who survived the Saltville action described in the third book, and racism is casually present in the attitudes of many.

Being British, the American Civil War isn't something that swam into my history syllabuses, so I found the historical detail fascinating. I had no idea that there was a colored cavalry regiment. Gabriel goes to join his father in the Fifth U.S. Colored Cavalry, though he does not fight, but is used as a horse boy. Tellingly, the Cavalry are not issued with the most recent, and effective weapons. The Saltville attack described in the book was a Confederate victory, but Gabriel survives, having learned that war is, as his mother says, not about glory but death.

This book is a fascinating picture of the decency that can exist in human beings, as well as the unthinking prejudice and cruelty. Gabriel is an attractive character: he's brave but not unbelievably so, and the telling of the story in the present tense gives the book's events an immediacy historical novels don't always have.

This book also, gasp, is produced as a hardback, with a dustjacket: something British publishers now alas don't do for most children's books.

Going green...

The non-recycleability of some of the packaging materials I use has been nagging at me for a while now. I've now decided there's not a lot of point my carefully composting, giving scraps to the hens and filling the council recycling bin when I'm contributing to the waste because of my use of padded envelopes and non recycleable bubblewrap.

So, paperbacks will now be posted in little paper padded Jiffy envelopes. You can use them again yourself, and they should rot down nicely on the compost heap too. Hardbacks will be sent in cardboard book boxes (when they arrive - they're still somewhere between the factory and here, after they attempted to deliver at the one time I went out yesterday). Anything that needs bubblewrap will now have a new green - quite literally, as it is green in colour - bubblewrap that will break down rather than rot in landfill for ever. I'm still using the corrugated card and brown paper I always have used, and I moved a while ago to using biodegradable sellotape.

I still need to find a biodegradable parcel tape, and am using little plastic bags to wrap the books in before they go into the Jiffy envelope or box. I'm not sure whether this is worthwhile or not. I worry about the possibility of books getting wet, as I know some books are left out on the doorstep or in the bin. What do you think? Should I use plastic bags or not?

As a last thought, I never thought a picture of an envelope might be considered a good illustration for a post...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

An update on Rollkur

The FEI have now held their meeting, at which they discussed Rollkur. This is their statement:

"The FEI condemns all training methods and practices that are contrary to horse welfare. The welfare of the horse has always been and will always be at the core
of every aspect of the Federation’s work as the international governing body for equestrian sport.

During its meeting in Copenhagen (DEN) on 15 November, the FEI Bureau had extensive discussion on the issue of hyperflexion. The FEI Bureau insists that, with immediate effect, stewards in all disciplines use the disciplinary measures available to them, such as verbal warnings and yellow warning cards *, to prevent any infringement of FEI rules.

The FEI is now engaged with World Horse Welfare, a leading international equestrian organisation, in addition to continued consultation with riders, trainers,
officials and veterinarians to thoroughly research the issues. The further education of stewards will also continue to ensure that welfare issues at FEI events are dealt with promptly and professionally.

The FEI acknowledges and welcomes public opinion and will continue to ensure that the welfare of the horse, which has been central to this debate, will remain its absolute priority. "

I had to read this a few times before I worked out whether it was saying anything or not. It isn't coming out and condemning Rollkur outright, which isn't a surprise, as it's not clear whether or not it's against FEI rules. They are going to research the issue further, which is good. As I said in a previous blog, what is needed is definitive research on the impact of rollkur on the horse's mental and physical wellbeing.
The statement reads to me as if they do consider there were welfare issues at Odensee, and that the stewards should have acted: why insist on using disciplinary measures if they're already in place and working fine?
There's a little more elaboration on the Horse and Hound website. FEI veterinary director Graeme Cooke said: "Clearly, anything inappropriately done to excess is something we have concerns about. And there needs to be more clarity about rollkur — whether it is acceptable and to what level." World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers told H&H: "There are issues with rollkur (hyperflexion) and the incident in Odense last month has brought this sharply into focus. We are happy to work with the FEI on this."
I think it's a pity the FEI didn't put a moratorium on the use of Rollkur until they have reached a decision on whether or not the process is acceptable. If no one uses it, no one is at a competitive disadvantage. At least there seems to be some progress, but I'd like to know exactly what form the consultation and research will take, and how long will elapse before a decision is reached.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The latest on Rollkur

According to Horse and Hound, the FEI are going to debate the Rollkur issue at their general assembly on 15th November in Copenhagen. A spokesman said "important developments will be announced as soon as possible."

When you look at the FEI's dressage page, and see listed along the right hand side article after article on Anky and other Dutch dressage riders (Anky, the Olympic gold medallist, is very well known for being a Rollkur practitioner, as I believe are most of the Dutch team) it is immediately obvious what a tension there is here. On the one hand, the top echelons of the sport support rollkur, and are presumably lobbying very hard for the FEI not to change their stance; on the other there's a great deal of public attention being directed at a sport which has only just emerged out of the shadows and started to become popular.

In an ideal world, I would suggest a moratorium on rollkur being practised until definitive studies have been done on the effect on the horse's mental and physical wellbeing have been carried out. Until those happen, the need to produce a top competition horse, will, unfortunately, take precedence as rollkur's practitioners argue their practices do not harm, and in fact can help the horse.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Vote on Rollkur

Horse and Hound have a poll going on on their front page at the moment. You will have to scroll down the page a bit to get there - it's on the left hand side, but if you want to tell H&H what you think, here's your chance.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Rollkur and the blue tongue

I've been meaning to write about this all week, but reading the exclusive in Horse and Hound about the controversy tipped me over the edge.

For my non-horsy readers, rollkur is a training/warming up technique used by some dressage riders. It basically involves riding the horse with its jaw pulled in virtually to its chest, in order to increase suppleness.

Patrik Kittel , a Swedish competitor in Odense was videoed riding his horse in this way. If you watch the video, you'll see the horse's tongue hanging out - blue. It takes a while before the rider notices this. When he does, he stops, puts the horse's tongue back in, and carries on.

There are two things which bother me about this. Firstly, I am fully aware large sections of the dressage world, and some of its brighest stars, consider rollkur perfectly ok, but the FEI guidelines state this practice should only be for short periods, allowing the horse to rest. Patrick Kittel apparently rode the horse for two hours in rollkur, albeit with rests: look at those round about him in the video. None of them seem remotely bothered, which suggests to me riding your horse this way is not unusual enough for anyone to notice, comment, or do anything about it.

Secondly, Patrik , in Horse and Hound, said "Scandic sometimes plays with his tongue. During the filmed period of my training, he caught his tongue over or under the bits. I stopped when I noticed, and put it back in the right place." And so he did, but he didn't get off the horse, and carried straight on with a bit more rollkur. If my horse had had a blue tongue, I would have thought that sufficient reason to STOP. To stop, get off, and let my horse recover, during which period I would be checking his tongue, and not carrying on until I was certain he was ok.

I don't like rollkur: it is not a natural process. You might see a horse piaffe, or do extended paces in the field, but you will not see it canter round and round with its chin tucked into its chest: it can't see, for one thing. I am constantly amazed at what horses let humanity do to them. If you can't achieve the higher echelons of dressage without rollkur you shouldn't, in my opinion, be attempting them at all.

Read more about it here and here. Thank goodness the British Horse Society have come down off the fence, unlike Horse and Hound.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Review: Susannah Leigh - Strangers at the Stables

Susannah Leigh – Sandy Lane Stables – Strangers at the Stables
Usborne Books, 2009 : £4.99
Age 10+ (or thereabouts)

This book was originally published in 1996, but it’s been republished a couple of times since then and is still going strong. The latest reprint came out this year.

The latest cover re-design is of the twinkle-twinkle-fairydust school. Goodness alone knows why. There’s nothing remotely fantastical about the story, so presumably this latest effort is to make the books appear fashionable and “new”. I don’t dislike the cover particularly (I love the grey Arab in fact) but I wonder if it wouldn’t confuse its public a bit: this is a straight down the line pony story and there’s not even the merest hint of a mysteriously fading sparkly hoofprint anywhere.

The Sandy Lane Stables series is one I’ve been aware of for years, but which I’ve managed to avoid reading, assuming from the various cover designs that I wasn’t going to enjoy it. Well, I was wrong. I haven’t read the whole series, but I liked this later example from it. Rosie, stalwart teenage helper at Sandy Lane Stables is the book’s heroine. The stable’s owners have to go to America for three weeks, leaving their new groom, Becky, in charge, but when she breaks her leg in an accident, guess what! The children are left in charge. However, the author thankfully took note of the fact that times have changed since fictional riding stables would be left in the hands of eleven year olds for weeks at a time and the stables only has a couple of days being run by the children until Sam and Vanessa turn up to run it. Sam and Vanessa are not what they seem, however, but the only one who can see they’re iffy is Rosie.

I liked the plot: it twists and turns, and kept me interested, though I couldn’t help but wonder how likely it was Sam and Vanessa would have been able to leave their other life not so very far away and no one would actually have spotted. The characters emerge, pretty much, as separate individuals, as do the ponies. The book is a good, fun read, and probably one of the nearest things you’re going to get to a traditional pony story for this age group at the moment.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

My little pony goes Gaga

I've mentioned these before, but Finnish artist Mari Kasurinen has transformed some more My Little Ponies......

I love these, particularly the Gaga one, and the Elvis unicorn is just brilliant. The artist presumably has a bit of a thing about Johnny Depp, as there's a pirate pony, and a dreadfully pathetic Edward Scissorhands.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Book memories meme

The following meme comes from the Ibooknet blog.

The book that’s been on your shelves the longest.
A bit difficult, this. As with most people, I guess this would have to be a childhood book. The one I've had the longest would either by my extremely battered Winnie the Pooh paperback, or my slightly less battered but still not good Wind in the Willows, both of which were read to me by my mother.
A book that reminds you of something specific in your life (a person, a place, a time).
Well, most of them do, really, even ones I've bought on to sell remind me of where I bought them. Hmmm. There is something that reminds me very specifically of a time in my life, and that is "Jane Hankey" scrawled across the title page, as that was my name when I was married first. I used to spend a lot of time either in Mowbrays (which at that time was north of Oxford St and not amalgamated with Hatchards as it is now) and was one of my lunchtime haunts, or in W H Smith in Victoria Station, waiting for my suburban train home. My then husband did not approve of my book habit, and sadly as our relationship deteriorated, less and less of what I actually read. Then as now, I didn't spend a lot of time on the far shores of edgy modern literature which might have provided a literary argument, but was far more likely to read a Dorothy Sayers or Margery Allingham. The bone of contention was that I did not read enough Christian literature, which is a tad ironic considering Mowbrays was well known for being the churchman's bookshop and supplier of all sorts of other bits and bobs to the church, and if I'd had a mind too, there was a more than ample supply of reading material.
A book you acquired in some interesting way.
I've had a few books sent to me by the authors, which is always fun, though slightly worrying when I know I have it for review, and I have to balance the fact I don't wish to upset someone who has been kind enough to give me something with my desire to make my dislike fairly plain if I don't like the book.
When we moved here, we did find a huge heap of books, mostly alas damp ridden beyond saving, in the pigsty.
The book that’s been with you to the most places.
Probably Pride & Prej I guess, as it came with me to university and I moved every year, books bunged into my splendid collection of International Stores carrier bags.
Your current read, your last read and the book you’ll read next.

My current read is actually reads, as I always have several books on the go at a time.
Currently on the go are Dickens - Dombey & Son, Mistress of Charlecote - the Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, Dervla Murphy - Through Siberia by Accident and Phillis Garrard - Hilda's Adventures. Last read was Phillis Garrard - The Doings of Hilda, and the book I'll read after I've finished the current lot is probably going to be the first Pony Club Annual as I need to start my research on those.

Bonkers Advertising Copy - Joules

Eating my cheese muffin at lunch today I was mulling over the Joules catalogue, as you do, when I came across this:

"One of life's greatest pleasures is a loose fitting shirt pulled overhead."

I can think of a few circumstances where that might be the case, but frankly, in the general scheme of things, isn't your life a bit sad if putting on a shirt is your greatest pleasure in life?

A bulging parcel which you know contains a book being pulled out of the letterbox, on the other hand....