Metal-free on the ‘Moon’

by Linda Chamberlain

Some of these horses looked like death when they were found – now they can be ridden on ground as rocky as the moon. They make it look easy and they are shocking local people by doing it without bits in their mouths.

Meet the rescued horses from Tenerife who are causing a stir because ‘they have no brakes’ and ‘no protection’ for their feet. This barefoot-and-bitless tribe don’t need metal to help them enjoy their new chance at life. There are 12 of them and they are thriving thanks to Emma Greenfield and her partner, Edoardo Pensato, who have set up a charity to help them called Horse Holidays Tenerife.

There is Turbo, the 25-year-old warmblood, who was twice abandoned on the island when he outlived his usefulness. The picture below shows him six months after his rescue but he came to them so thin that his bones were breaking through his skin – he is now so well recovered that he is doing a little exercise to relieve his boredom. And then there is Eric, a stallion pony who was kept in a stable without food or water, knee-deep in filth. ‘It was months before he would let us brush it off; he was a sad, shell of a pony,’ Emma remembered.

Eric is a sought-after type, rare on the island, and within a month of being rescued, Emma and Edoardo had six requests to buy or breed from him so it’s a mystery why he was ever abandoned. Others have injuries from being ridden too young, or in heavy bits, and they have all taken to gentle, bitless riding. They do minimal training in a menage and show a preference for riding along the trails and by the coast – who can blame them?

 

Now, this is the point where I fear that I am lauding an English woman who has travelled to foreign climes in order to show other folk how ‘we do it better than them’. So, I’ll just straighten that one out – we don’t. The UK leads the world in the sticking-to-tradition stakes and riders routinely use bits, metal shoes, whips, spurs and long periods of stabling for their horses. While we might muck those stables out with vigour and provide enough food and water, there are plenty of horses who live in confinement full time. There are also many who are trained using harsh methods.

There is a small-but-growing move towards alternatives which are kinder to the horse and Emma found herself in that camp years before moving to Tenerife. The scepticism and criticism she and Edoardo are now dealing with can be found in any traditional horse yard, anywhere in the world.

Many UK riders, who have ditched metal shoes and bits, will be familiar with some negative comments if they board their horse at a traditional yard.

For Emma, the volume is much higher because the natural-horse concept is so new in Tenerife. ‘The general horsemanship here is very strict and heavy, so we are sometimes fighting a losing battle when people say they will not ride our horses because they are unsafe, they don’t have brakes! Or they say the horses are unhappy and need to be in a stable. One visitor told me to stop rescuing horses if we can’t afford to put shoes on them.’

In many ways, Tenerife is the ideal place to have a barefoot horse thanks to its dry climate and rocky terrain. To prove it, all of her rescues have transitioned out of shoes without a hitch and most are being ridden. In fact, Emma says taking them barefoot is the easy bit. Lush grass and its associated foot problems are a thing of the past and she has forgotten what mud looks like or what fun some of us have trudging through it every winter. The other key to their successful transition is the lack of stabling and the fact that the horses live on the same terrain that they ride on – take note if you are struggling with your own barefoot horse who might be on too much soft, green grass. Neither the diet, nor the surface is helpful.

She says the island is as close to perfect as you can get. ‘The dry, rocky ground is great for their feet, making trimming almost unnecessary and, of course, grass does not exist here so we have no problem with fat ponies.’

Luckily, there is a barefoot specialist on the island and Emma has the easy-to-use Radius Rasp for tidying up as well – I have just bought one myself and find it great for that Mustang roll (the bevel on the hoof wall)! Their initial plan had been to support the horses financially by offering riding holidays but they are finding it better to keep the pressure off their rescues who now have sharers to exercise and help care for them – only gentle riders need apply.

Emma says: ‘The temperature doesn’t generally go above 30 or drop below 15 so we stay at a nice temperature all year with a lovely Atlantic breeze. The horses relax, enjoy the sun and rolling in the dust. To this day, I have never seen a horse use a field shelter for shade, only when it rains once or twice a year.’

Of course, there is a snake somewhere in this Paradise! With no grass, high land prices and few crops, all feed has to be imported and is therefore expensive. She finds it is also unreliable and shortages mean they sometimes only have straw for their base feed.

‘Space is limited, it’s rare to find anywhere big enough to have a real, free-range paddock due to the harsh, volcanic landscape and expensive land prices so many horses are kept in stables or garages. The worst problems we have is human ignorance, tendon injuries and early arthritis due to bad shoeing (we have seen different sizes, back to front and snapped in half) and racing on the streets from the age of two, which is not uncommon.’

Space is not the big issue for this couple. Even though they have less than two acres, it is so much more than most horses on the island enjoy and they haven’t resorted to stabling in a garage yet. Some of the land was levelled and it is now split into three paddocks and another two paddocks will be levelled and added later. Using trial and error, the rescues were put into three herds – food is a cause of tension for many horses who have been traumatised and not surprisingly these wouldn’t cope with a large group. More land is always useful and they hope to buy some from a neighbour.

There is a lot of support for them on the island in spite of the inevitable negativity. They have a huge team of volunteers, some great sharers who treat the horses as their own and support from more established charities who have given advice AND funds. Their own charity is now fully set up.

Emma explained: ‘We work together as we have more space but little money so we can take some of their animals when they help with the costs. Other charities have taken us under their wing and help us with anything they can such as paperwork, licenses and advice. We are slowly moving in the right direction but it hasn’t been as easy as we hoped being accepted. After all, we are advocating a very, very different horse style to the one they have here.’

They have opened as a petting farm since they also have goats, rabbits, cats, dogs and chickens. A yurt and a cave house are being constructed and should be ready for holidays, with or without riding, from December.

Being a pioneer is never easy – but they eventually inspire others so we can expect to see more and more horses in Tenerife ridden without metal and living in the great outdoors.

ABOUT LINDA CHAMBERLAIN

I’m a writer and journalist and I have lived with horses most of my life. Now, I love to write about them whether it’s in fact or fiction. It’s a fact that I keep my horses without shoes, I sometimes even get the time to ride one of them and I often write about them. If you want to keep in touch, click the follow button on this campaigning blog or find me on Facebook

THERE ARE MORE HORSES, MORE GREAT STORIES, IN MY BOOKS…!

My non-fiction book – A Barefoot Journey – tells the story of riding without shoes in a hostile equine world. Mistakes, falls and triumphs are recorded against the background of a divided equine world which was defending the tradition of shoeing…with prosecutions. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p. 

My historical novel, The First Vet, is inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago but was mocked by the veterinary establishment. His battle motivated me to stretch my writing skills from journalism to novel writing and took me to the British Library and the Royal Veterinary College for years of research. Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UKAmazon US. This page-turning book has 60 lovely reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical NovelCover Society. 

New historical books are in the pipeline and coming soon! My novel about Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty, will show why she wrote the most powerful book on horse welfare ever. Right now, I am half way through a book about a horse-mad princess whose family make the Osbournes appear functional!  To put it mildly, I am very excited about this one and have learnt a new 18th century insult – puff guts…! See if you can work out what it means xx

 

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The Barefaced Ban

by Linda Chamberlain

Riders have hit back at ludicrous claims in a national magazine which said barefoot horses were prone to slipping and rarely left the schooling arena.

A letter in The Showing Journal sparked the row and prompted the Barefoot Horse Owners Group on Facebook to write back shouting ‘nonsense’.

Here’s the original letter and the editor’s response so you can see it for yourself.

The Showing Journal

Sadly, these opinions have their grip on the world of showing at the moment. Barefoot horses are banned from many hunter classes because judges, who ironically often wear the traditional bowler hat with no strap rather than a safety helmet, refuse to ride animals without shoes. They fear they are not safe; they will slip and so won’t let them in the ring.

I’m a lover of irony and there’s more of it in this story – you can hunt barefoot or shod, risking your neck over treacherous ground and high hedges – but you can’t enter the hallowed, but safe, show arena and do a few circuits of the level grass on a show hunter without shoes.

And yet barefoot horses are succeeding in many more dangerous equine sports. Our members are competing in endurance, cross country and show jumping and their horses are winning rosettes rather than falling all over the place. Just take a look at Claire Alldritt’s story of her journeys across Scotland on a barefoot animal – here’s a link to my earlier blog.

Becky Chapman, pictured below, is another wonderful example. She was a winner before the ban on a talented heavyweight show hunter called Mac at a very muddy Horse of the Year Show in 2008 – she says he was the only horse that wasn’t slipping!

She explains: ‘I stopped competing due to the stupidity of the ban and my disillusionment with that world. Due to ethical reasons I no longer compete either of my wonderful barefoot mares.’

Becky Chapman

Once a horse has recovered from the damaging effects of shoeing, he fares much better in wet conditions than his shod companions. He is far superior in the snow and there is a greatly reduced risk of tendon and ligament injuries without the anchoring effect of a metal shoe. Less damage from concussion, too.  Frankly, the ban is a mystery. Bowler hats are traditional and allowed; barefoot is very definitely neither.

My letter from the Barefoot Horse Owners Group managed to appear on The Showing Journal’s Facebook page until it was removed along with other pro-barefoot responses. The only answer I’ve had so far was an email from the editor thanking me and looking forward to receiving my letter. A comment from the Showing Journal on Facebook  – which has also been taken down – acknowledged that both barefoot and shod horses have been known to slip.

There is a similar oddity in the world of dressage with its hostility to riders who choose bitless – see my earlier blog A Bit Much. Did I say hostility? Well, they actually ban bitless horses.

No wonder there is so much talk among the barefoot-and-bitless community about establishing events separately from the traditional competition circuit. More news of this in a later blog…

BOOK NEWS    BOOK NEWS      BOOK NEWS     BOOK NEWS

A Barefoot Journey, my honest and light-heartedCover_Barefoot_3 (1) account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares! A small-but-perfectly-formed field companion to my novel The First Vet. Available onAmazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p. BookCover5_25x8_Color_350_NEW from AmberThe First Vet, historical romance inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago! Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book, which has more than 30 five-star reviews and a recommend from the Historical Novel Society, sold out at the prestigious international show at Hickstead! Still available on Amazon though…

Many thanks to reader Nicola Jones for this lovely feedback – ‘After reading your Barefoot Journey I have finally found the confidence and the oomph to go it alone! I plucked up the courage to ask a local farmer if he had a field for me.. and he does! I feel no fear, just excitement at getting my relationship (with my horses) back on track.’

A Bit Much?

by Linda Chamberlain

This is allowed…

dressage horse

And yet…this is not…

bitless dressage

You might think you’ve misread that or jumbled up the photos but no…bitless bridles are effectively banned in dressage competitions around the world. There is no rule against them as such but judges award points to horses that are ‘submissive’ to the bit and so if you ride without one, you can’t join in. And it doesn’t matter how good your horse is; or how well you ride.

Pressure is mounting across the globe for a re-examination of the rules – there’s already been a relaxation in Holland in lower levels of competition. But you won’t find many more traditional places than the equestrian world which is hostile to change.

A top-level meeting was held last month in the UK following pressure from a group of riders – a David-against-Goliath situation if ever there was one. The group are members of a British Horse Society training club in Norfolk. They have support from their MP, Norman Lamb, who is a former government minister; they ride their horses bitless and it’s a testament to their persistence that the talks took place at all. Round the table were key people from the sport – British Dressage, the British Equestrian Federation, the British Horse Society and World Horse Welfare. The horse world is eagerly waiting to hear what will come from those talks and whether the UK will provide a catalyst for change. A press release has yet to be issued.

Dressage, which is proudly sponsored by numerous feed manufacturers, is all about the horse displaying a high level of training. The horse must be ‘on the bit’ – a rough translation 100 years ago from the French ‘dans le main’. Even from my rusty grasp of the Gallic language I know there’s a possible error here because the literal translation means in the hand.

Carl Hester the Olympic dressage rider, is quoted on social media as saying he has no problem competing against those who ride bitless.

But a change would need to come internationally for the system to work because national competitions feed into international ones.  If a bitless horse became a British champion he wouldn’t be able to represent his country on the world dressage stage. I can see that’s a problem but the issue isn’t going away. More and more riders are turning to bitless bridles and finding they can achieve high levels of equitation. Not surprisingly they are frustrated at the exclusion – even at amateur events and local competitions.

There are welfare concerns about using a bit to control a horse but the UK campaign group – A Bit More Choice – is calling for riders to be able to choose what bridle they use; they don’t seek a ban on the bit which is said to be a development of the Bronze Age.  I’ll give you a link to the group’s Facebook page at the end of this blog.

But let’s look at those welfare worries and see whether they are convincing.  Anyone with blood in their veins can look at the two photos above and see that one horse is ridden in a strong bit and is foaming at the mouth. He’s performing to a very high level and the rider has him held between the leg and the hands as the sport requires. Is there pain involved? Your guess is as good as mine.

My other rider (photographed by Sallist Lindqvist) is bitless. There is no foaming, the rider has no spurs but the horse is performing at a high level and it’s a beautiful sight. All appears relaxed and pain free.

Scientific evidence is available from the renowned vet Dr Robert Cook who has developed a cross-under bitless bridle. He’s from the US but graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in the 1950s. He compared skulls of the domestic, ridden horse with those of its wild cousins. The majority of domestic horses showed evidence of bit-induced damage – bone spurs in the jaw. Cook says on his website that the horse’s mouth is one of the most sensitive parts of its anatomy. The application of pressure from a steel rod inserted in this cavity inflicts unnecessary pain and can frighten a horse, he says.

Bracy Clark, who is the subject of my novel The First Vet, was vehemently against the use of strong bits 200 years ago. He was also concerned about metal horse shoes – but that’s another subject. Clark wrote that a ‘horse that is free of pain will lead from the thinnest piece of cord’.Catherine Campbell - dressage

Helen - 2In the 21st century, should we be using such bits for our sport…or our pleasure…when there is an alternative?

Helen - dressageI asked members of my favourite Barefoot Horse Owner’s Group on Facebook to send me some photos of them Monica - dressageworking barefoot and bitless to illustrate this blog. I’m going to let them all inspire you; I couldn’t leave any out.

The recent talks might offer hope of progress. The rider’s group is hoping to meet MP Norman Lamb again soon and at least a dialogue with the dressage authorities has been opened. If you are a member of British Dressage or the British Horse Society, now is the time to make your views known on bridleKaterine Anne - dressage equality.

Lina Hallberg - dressageDressage is a beautiful art. It’s wonderful to watch but if it wants to win the hearts and minds of today’s forward-thinking horse lovers it might need to leave the Bronze-Age equipment to the history books.

You can find A Bit More Choice on Facebook.

                                                                              * * * * *

BOOK NEWS – just published – A Barefoot Journey, my honest and light-heartedCover_Barefoot_3 (1) account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares! A small-but-perfectly-formed field companion to my novel The First Vet. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p. BookCover5_25x8_Color_350_NEW from AmberThe First Vet, historical romance inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark. Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book, which has more than 30 five-star reviews and a recommend from the Historical Novel Society, sold out at the prestigious international show at Hickstead! Still available on Amazon though…

Christine BlackettThanks to reader Christine Blackett for letting me see one of the highlights of her holiday in South Africa – that’s a good spot to put your feet up for a nice read!

Press the follow button to keep in touch, find me on Facebook or leave a comment here – I love to hear from you. Email me if you would like to receive updates about the books. New one coming – well, just started it! Very excited…

Barred for being bitless…

by Linda Chamberlain

A Royal show gets ready to open its doors – but this is one competitor who will have to stay at home.

Rea 4

Not because the horse isn’t a top performer…and not because the rider isn’t willing and able. Have a look at the photo – Rea Trotman can ride that horse of hers with no hands. Over jumps.

So why does the Retraining of Racehorses Organisation have such a problem with their entry at the Royal Norfolk Show? The animal is barefoot but that’s not a stumbling block for the horse, the rider or the show. No the difficulty, it seems, is the choice of bridle if they want to enter a jump challenge for retrained racehorses.

You see this beautiful thoroughbred, who has won countless races at Ascot, Goodwood and Doncaster, is now ridden with a bitless bridle. His owner has chosen this for him as a kindness because his teeth aren’t as good as they used to be and anyway…he doesn’t need a metal bit, jangling around in his mouth in order for him to understand his rider’s requests.

Rea, who has owned Danegold for the last seven years, read about the harm bits can cause to teeth and jaws, and decided he should never wear one again. As you can see, it hasn’t slowed them down.

They’ve entered plenty of low-key fun shows, showjumping and sponsored rides but Rea thought it was time they stepped up a gear.Rea 6

The Royal Norfolk Show is the biggest agricultural show in the country and the Queen is its patron. More than 1000 horses are expected to enter and over the two days in July about 90,000 people will come to watch the spectacle.

 

It’s a fair bet that those spectators would love to see what can be achieved by a barefoot and bitless horse like Danegold.

And wouldn’t the Queen, were she to attend this year, be impressed  with a wonderful ex-racehorse proving how well these beautiful animals can adjust to life after the track?

The class Rea hoped to enter includes a course of jumps and an individual show. ‘My horse would excel in this class as it is judged on style and performance,’ she said. ‘He is very laid back and well behaved; he deserves to show everyone just how great ex-racers can be.’

She decided to check with the retraining organisation’s officials but was told there were rules against bitless bridles for this class although not for showjumping.  ‘The reasons were shocking,’ she added. ‘They made no sense. Seeing a bitless ex-racer demonstrates complete retraining, which is what the class is all about.’

Rea has much in common with other bitless or barefoot riders who are falling foul of the rules of competitions in the UK.

Rea 3

The rules governing our shows are in a complete muddle. You can participate in extremely dangerous equine activities such as racing, showjumping and hunting without metal applied to your horse’s mouth or feet. But you aren’t allowed to do many dressage competitions without a bit. Rules for working hunter classes insist on both bits and shoes even though you can ride without either if you are hunting across the fields. Many barefoot riders say they are frustrated at the exclusion. One person told me they were stopped from competing in a Pony Club team because a ‘barefoot horse was an unfit horse’.

And just listen to this story from Monica Andreewitch of the Pony Academy in Surrey who teaches children to ride on ponies wearing just a rope halter. She had six children eager and ready to go to a jumping competition and then realised the rope halters might cause a bit of a stir. She checked with the organisers and was told that juniors must ride in a bitted bridle.

‘After pondering and checking with my soul, I decided that I could trust the children with bridles,’ she said. ‘They have independent seats and do not hang onto their halters – so why would it be different in bridles?’

Monica bowed to pressure. The children competed. The ponies weren’t jabbed in their mouths and they did cause a stir thanks to their notable control with long, loose reins. Not everyone can or will comply. For Rea and Danegold, there are dental health issues that cannot be ignored.

Rea 5

But frankly, these competition rules are silly. Or are they about tradition for its own sake?

I can’t help worrying that all this nonsense stems from utter embarrassment. There are a growing number of people who ride like Rea. They have a close connection with their horse. They achieve amazing things without whips or spurs and they do it without hands sometimes and make the rest of us feel like novices again. Imagine feeling like that if you are a judge. Is this the reason such riders are excluded? Are they too good? Too kind? They are not in need of whips, spurs and strong bits – all of which are welcomed with open arms.

The only time I’ve seen a rider booed as she left a showjumping arena was thanks to over use of a whip. A horse refused some jumps in a top competition at Hickstead and was eliminated. The horse was punished severely with a whip. The rider was jeered and humiliated by the crowd. If the public knew of the potential harm caused by shoes and bits, the public would not be amused by the equine world.

 So, here is my message to the rule makers and show organisers. Keep up with this growing equestrian movement towards less coercion and fewer gadgets. Embrace it because it’s good horsemanship; it’s humane and wonderful. Welcome it because the public, and probably the Queen, would love to see it. They would probably cheer!

 

THANKS to everyone for supporting this campaigning blog. My interview with ex-farrier Marc Ferrador last month had more than 30,000 hits in a week! Click on the follow button to keep in touch and leave me a comment as I love to hear from you.

BOOK NEWS – published this week – A Barefoot Journey, my honest and light-heartedCover_Barefoot_3 (1) account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares! A small-but-perfectly-formed field companion to my novel The First Vet. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback and Kindle.

BookCover5_25x8_Color_350_NEW from AmberLinks to The First Vet, historical romance inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – Amazon UK. Amazon US.