Tao’s Tale

Some horses take you on a journey – one you weren’t expecting.

Meet Tao – my daughter’s horse who we bought for the price of a pair of curtains a few years ago. Amber trained her while studying for a degree which meant it was a bit stop, start but we got there in the end. The horse eventually became rideable.

Lessons from Tao

Lessons from Tao

Tao has taught me a lot. I could go on Mastermind and be quizzed on proud flesh, infected tendon sheath, tendon injury, intolerance to sugar and now bereavement in horses. She’s an accident prone little mare who’s been ‘under the vet’ more than even the vet would like.

A few posts ago I promised I would tell you about the worst day in my horse keeping career. So here goes. It was one day last year. We had to have Amber’s elderly, nearly blind pony Cloud put to sleep. She was 28 and it was time to say goodbye. Caring for her meant I probably hadn’t seen to the needs of the others sufficiently. Tao had an injury at the back of her pastern and I was dutifully poulticing it daily. I should have called the vet.

The vet came the same day that Cloud died. The vet didn’t have good news.

‘I needed to see this within hours of it happening,’ she said. ‘The prognosis is not good.’

She looked at me warily. I sensed she was holding onto bad news. Really bad news. I saw her face and started to feel tears welling.

The cut was relatively small – about an inch or so. It was a bit infected but the leg wasn’t badly swollen. To be honest, if you had it yourself, you’d probably still leap about on the dance floor. I clung onto my disbelief. But not for long.

‘Her tendon sheath is infected,’ the vet, declared. ‘It would be best if we got her to one of the best veterinary hospitals and operated immediately. She will need careful nursing afterwards. Even with that there’s very little chance she will ever be sound enough to be ridden. If we can save her, she might only be a garden ornament.’

Now I really was crying. Nasty, guilty tears. I had ruined the horse my daughter had trained from unbroken.

I had to challenge the vet. The cut was so small. Surely it wasn’t so bad. Surely, it wasn’t enough to ruin a horse.

IMAG0556

Its position, rather than size, was the crux as it had infected something called the tendon sheath. They are very hard to clear of infection; they don’t respond well. The vet phoned a colleague. I could hear them conferring and agreeing that the case stood little chance. When she came off the phone she asked if we were insured. We weren’t. The operation and after care would cost thousands of pounds. We weren’t convinced it was worth putting the horse through so much to become a garden gnome.

‘Antibiotics?’ I suggested.

The vet nodded sadly but later relented. ‘OK, how about we keep her at home. We’ll throw everything we’ve got at it.’

It was a straw but I clutched it gratefully. The field shelter was quickly turned into a stable. Tao’s field mate, Carrie, was given the run of the yard so that the patient had a friend nearby. Tao was given a support bandage that looked like a plaster cast and she was put onto antibiotics. I threw homeopathic remedies into the equation, the vet even gave her acupuncture. I had to ignore internet reports which reminded me that we had little chance of saving this horse. I felt depressed enough as it was.

The vet returned every few days. I learnt how to reapply the pressure bandage and we made progress. It soon became clear that Tao would live without an operation. She was allowed onto the yard to potter about and Carrie was kept nearby on part of the field. I kept up pressure on the vet to allow Tao more space and movement. She was only stabled for a few days and gradually we increased her turnout.

Well, she defied the odds and got better. The vet was delighted. No, she was amazed. Within a few weeks she said Tao could be ridden. The vet took photographs! She even agreed that Tao’s barefoot, natural lifestyle had helped in her recovery. Wow…

Skipping over some of the other things this mare has taught me I must bring you up to the present day. This little chestnut, the cover girl for my book The First Vet, is suffering once more. There are two possible causes – the grass is too high in sugars for her delicate system or she is suffering from bereavement.

Problems with the grass we’ve had before. It makes her go nuts and throw her back legs in the air. This time, though, her nervousness had a different expression. She didn’t want to leave the yard and putting pressure on her made her aggressive. I couldn’t think what could be wrong and wasn’t convinced the grass alone would tip her over. I went for a ride on Carrie and the chestnut didn’t bother to call out when she was left on her own. She looked sad and depressed when we returned, her head lowered.

A few weeks before this we had lost Casha, an elderly horse belonging to my friend. Our herd was now only two horses strong. Was Tao upset? Did she miss her field companion? Or was I dragging human emotions where they didn’t belong?

I asked my favourite Facebook group – The Barefoot Horse Owners Group – for an opinion. So many people agreed that bereavement might be a cause. Grass was giving other riders a few problems, even in November, but many warned that we ignored bereavement in equines at our peril.

I needed to get Tao some help.

The story will continue…

Care about horses? Then follow this campaigning blog and buy the book! My novel The First Vet is based on one of our very-first vets who amazingly proved that horse shoes deform and cripple the animals we love. His work was suppressed…until recently. Horse lovers, book lovers are buying it and sharing it. It’s a story of love and corruption, full of real history.  Reviewers have described it as ‘brave, witty and romantic.’ The First Vet is on Amazon – UK. Amazon – US.

 

BookCover5_25x8_Color_350_NEW from Amber

A man who could cure horses

A woman who couldn’t walk without them

And the brother who stood between them

The most romantic novel since The Horse Whisperer set against the turbulent early years of the Veterinary College. One reviewer said it was ‘brave, witty and romantic’.

Who can name the horse on the front cover?

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Trainer with a difference…

by Linda Chamberlain

Sports horses – are they really locked up for their own safety? Are fields such dangerous places that a talented thoroughbred is not allowed near one without a rider? And horseshoes? Surely, these horses work on grass and have no need of them.

Does it have to be like this?

bored - isolated

bored – isolated

Meet Simon Earle, a racehorse trainer, who asked himself those questions ten years ago and came up with answers that set him on a different path to the rest in the industry. His horses are predominantly barefoot and, surprisingly, live for much of the time in a herd. In a field! If you’re not a horse person, you might not realise the significance of this. Believe me, it’s a rare sight and the common regime for talented equines is training followed by stable confinement. It’s rarely questioned and yet the lifestyle causes such stress that ulcers can be found in most race horses. Tendon injuries are regarded as a hazard of racing but Simon has found that taking their shoes off minimises the risk. It sounds as if I’m tempting fate but, since finding a specialist barefoot trimmer eight years ago, not one of his animals has suffered a tendon injury and yet ninety per cent of conventionally-kept racehorses are thought to suffer such a break down, or similar, at some point in their predominantly short careers.

It’s September and Simon’s horses have finished work. At four o’clock they’ve been fed (high fibre, low sugar, vegetable oil and a magnesium supplement) in the American-style barn that will shelter them at night in winter. Now it’s empty and echoes with our footsteps as we walk to the fields where the horses are grazing and socialising. These equines are a friendly crowd. They come to meet us; some check out my bag or the back of my head. One thinks the bag might be worth chewing but is easily dissuaded. There’s the usual herd dynamics to watch out for – that’s my mare, mate. Get lost. A newcomer is chased away and dominance is achieved without violence. Simon picks up their feet for us to examine even though we don’t have a head collar. The horses are so calm and amenable that for ten seconds I kid myself that even I might manage to ride one should it fall into my bag without him noticing. As I mentally choose a favourite, he apologises because I’m seeing their feet at their worst because they’re due for their four-week trim from farrier and barefoot trimmer, Chris Keable. These hooves are healthy and a credit to both men – no thrush, no white-line separation, both are warnings that things are wrong – but some of the horses haven’t been here long and he’s looking for improvement.

They have the usual high price tags that make your eyes water – up to £85,000. That’s enough reason for most owners and trainers to resort to convention and stabling but Simon has seen results from giving his animals a more natural lifestyle. He views the field as a place of health and safety unlike most of his peers explaining that more accidents happen in the stable. He’s undoubtedly thinking of the recent loss of a promising horse nicknamed, Derek, who was put to sleep after an accident in the stable where he had been recovering from an operation.

‘Our horses are trained from the field,’ he says. ‘And they are out together. It’s better for the horse like that. So many come here from other racing yards and their brains are buzzing. To be a racehorse is very stressful. They are pushed to their limit every day.’

 

Free to play

Free to play…

Simon runs a professional yard and there’s no doubt that his horses are also pushed to extremes – he wants winners like any trainer. But their more-natural lifestyle should give his horses an advantage.

He’s already shown that tendon injuries are reduced. He says conventional shoeing plays its part in causing the damage. The farrier endeavours to reduce the number of front shoes pulled off by a hind foot by placing the shoe forward. Eventually the toe becomes long, the heels under run until eventually the foot has migrated changing the break over point and putting strain on the tendon.

‘It’s common sense that if you are weight bearing further forward then the back of the leg takes the strain,’ he says.

I read on the internet how Simon would examine the track after a race to see his horse’s hoof marks and guess what? The barefoot horse doesn’t sink into the ground as much as his shod cousins – less strain on the tendon. He’s also observed that a horse’s stride lengthens without shoes and of course this will help the animal’s heart and his speed.

Simon’s barefoot journey accelerated ten years ago with a retired racehorse called Saucy Night. Frankly, he sounded like pet food and the word retired should have been replaced with finished. He had ulcers, he’d injured his tendons and his feet were a mess. Oh, and he was thin. His career wasn’t successful – not only had he never been placed, he had never passed another horse in his life. A former business partner acquired him and they started repairing him. The shoes were taken off. He was turned out. Slowly he began to recover. Saucy got used to life without shoes. He was put in the horse walker and then ridden. Fast forward to 2005 and a racecourse in Folkestone. Saucy Night made history by becoming the first barefoot winner beating the rest by six lengths. There’s even a You Tube film about him.

Impressed? Saucy continued to make a success of his career before retiring (proper use of the word) a few years later. Simon runs a small yard; he has about a dozen horses, but his most successful horse was Red Not Blue who notched up numerous wins. He had come to him on the verge of retirement at the age of six – he had only one shoe on and after two-weeks of precautionary quarantine was turned out in the field to recover and transition his feet.

 

Red Not Blue - barefoot and winning

                                  Red Not Blue – barefoot and winning

I like Simon’s method – so many of us labour for months, sometimes years over this! But I suppose the pleasure horse has stony tracks to contend with and that’s my excuse. A racehorse trainer doesn’t have the luxury of time and he can’t devote himself to one horse and of course he only needs the animal to compete on grass. So, a newcomer is turned out with the others for six weeks preferably in Spring when the feet are growing strongly. He is trimmed every four weeks and not ridden. Then he’s put in the horse walker to see how those feet are faring. The summer gives the horses a lull from racing so the newly barefoot horse has time to show whether he will cope without shoes. Simon is dismissive of hoof boots because he ‘hasn’t found a good one’ and his attitude to metal shoes is pragmatic. He’ll use them if he has to, he’ll even put them on for a month to give horses a chance to grow some foot but he finds them a pain. They fall off and sometimes they wrench half a foot with them.

Racing, he says, is as conventional as the rest of the horse world. So, I was curious to hear how he was regarded by his peers. Apart from one surprised comment at his first appearance with a barefoot horse he doesn’t get any ribbing and no one has questioned his sanity!

He achieves this enviable situation with a personality that is unchallenging. He does his own thing, in his own quiet way. His horses compete, sometimes they win, and he goes home. What? Not even a little bit of curiosity? I ask.

‘There’s been press coverage. People know what I do,’ he says.

Simon Earle

Simon Earle

Every trainer has a different approach but Simon’s methods are interesting. He favours staff who come from an eventing rather than racing background because, he says, they ride properly. He hastens to qualify the statement, explaining that he wants his horses schooled more than is usual. He wants them working their whole bodies, building up the muscles on their top line and able to sort out their own legs. So if a horse is approaching the final bend in a race, leading with the wrong leg, Simon wants the horse to swap over and not wait for a jockey’s instructions. He also wants the horse to be able to place himself correctly for a jump and so he does a lot of what is known as grid work with them, teaching them to gauge obstacles themselves, minimising the chances of a fall.

Racing, particularly over jumps, has its detractors. It’s hard on the horses. Many are raced at the age of two when they are not fully grown. There are losses and careers can be extremely short. I’m not going to paint a rosy picture of speed and elegance. Hundreds can be lost in a year, still more don’t make the grade or retire without the rebirth made by Saucy Night. What happens to those animals? I don’t ask Simon Earle to defend the sport but what of his own horses?

‘I rehome them and I track them for life,’ he says.

There was a sweet, five-year-old mare in the field who wasn’t up to scratch but I keep myself in check and don’t stick up a hand. Red Not Blue has just gone to a well-known barefoot home.

And two year olds? He doesn’t race them but it’s in character for him not to say much other than it’s not my thing. He favours racing them from the age of five and retiring them at about twelve.

As we leave the fields, we are followed to the gate by a four-year-old bay, one Simon owns himself. He hasn’t raced yet and he has the calm look of a horse who likes humans. ‘He half thinks I’m his mum,’ Simon mutters, rubbing the horse’s face.

Then I remember he’d mentioned Monty Roberts – the innovative trainer from the US who has changed the way many horses are started, not broken, using a method called join up. Simon uses some of Monty’s techniques – of course he does.

 

Some of the racing herd

                         Some of the racing herd

BOOK NEWS    BOOK NEWS    BOOK NEWS    BOOK NEWS    BOOK NEWS

IMG_3822ABOUT ME – I’m a writer and a journalist who has a passion for horses especially if they are barefoot. A Barefoot Journey, is my honest and light-hearted account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p. Horsemanship Magazine said – ‘The writing is charming, warm, and (gently) brutally honest about a subject which is so obviously dear to her heart and central to her life. The big issues of hoof trim, equine lifestyle and human understanding are all covered. From the agony of self-doubt to the ecstasy of equine partnership, it is all laid out here, clearly and thoughtfully. It really ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of taking their horse’s shoes off.’

A Barefoot Journey is a small but perfectly formed field companion for my novel, The First Vet, inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm Cover_Barefoot_3 (1)of shoeing 200 years ago! Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book has 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical NovelCoverSociety. Here’s one of the latest reviews – ‘I work nights & this book made me miss sleep (which is sacred to me) – I could not put it down! I loved the combination of historical fact & romance novel & it is so well written. I’m going to buy the hard copy now – it deserves a place on my bookshelf & will be read again. 10 gold stars Ms Chamberlain!’

 

Horsing Around With Usain Bolt

A spoof, by Linda Chamberlain

World-class sprinter Usain Bolt is to learn the secrets of the horse world in a bid to stay at the top of his game.

 

Usain's new shoes

Usain’s new shoes

 

The fastest man in the world was so impressed by the speed and performance of equine Olympians that he has decided to follow in their hoof steps. On the advice of medical experts, he is having a specially-made, metal attachment, much like a horse shoe, fixed to his trainers. The design of the attachment is a closely guarded secret but I can reveal that Bolt plans to wear them 24/7.

His trainers argue that the Jamaican athlete will get used to the metal shoes more quickly if he wears them all the time. They hope they will guard against slipping during competitions and minimise the risk of exasperating a troublesome tendon injury that has setback his training in the past. They also hope he will be able to sprint faster than a horse.

In an exclusive interview, Bolt said: ‘The shoes felt heavy at first and it took a while to get used to them. They’re coming off next week, so that will be a bit of a break.’

‘Oh, for good?’ I asked the 6 foot 5 inch star of the track.

‘No, only while I have my toe nails trimmed.’

Doubters have speculated that running on metal might be harmful for the athlete but Bolt is confident that medical advice is correct. He’s been told that running without them might have a detrimental effect on the physiology of his foot.

‘The doctors know what they’re doing,’ he said. ‘They must be right and those running tracks can be hard, you know.’

Supporters of the shoe say it can relieve many problems of the foot, including arthritic pain – as well as give support to painful heels and protect weak toe nails.

‘It’s true,’ Bolt said. ‘I don’t break my toe nails half as much as I used to.’

The Olympic authorities have given approval and other athletes are expected to copy the innovation. Bolt predicts that very soon there won’t be an athlete in the world without metal shoes.

In another daring move inspired by the horse world, Bolt is dramatically changing his lifestyle. Apart from the many hours spent in training and competition, he is to be confined to what his trainers describe as a focus room. There will be no TV, no space for friends and therefore no distractions. There’s enough room for his bed and he’ll be given an innovative ball to play with which lets out small amounts of food if he rolls it around the floor.

confiend horse

‘We never stop learning,’ said the runner who has been nicknamed Lightning Bolt. ‘You should have seen those horses at the Olympics. They were awesome and they were focused. If it works for them; it should work for me.’

He’s been confined to his focus room for two weeks and his trainers are pleased it is having the desired effect.

‘He can’t wait to get out on the track in the morning,’ said one of his training team. ‘Before the focus room he was much more laid back. Now he just wants to run; he doesn’t want to stop. It’s brilliant. He loves that room. At the end of the training session we put some of his favourite food in there and you should see him rush back in there.’

* * * * *

Apply the ideology to a human and suddenly it makes you question the treatment of horses, doesn’t it?

Apologies to Usain Bolt for the above article. He seemed such a nice guy that I thought he wouldn’t mind his name being used to support a campaign to free equine athletes.

UPDATE

ABOUT ME – THE BOOKS

Cover_Barefoot_3 (1)I’m a writer and journalist who loves horses. My own horses’ shoes were removed about 17 years ago as soon as I realised the harm they were causing. 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.

‘The author wrote from the heart and with great conviction. It read as a fiction type book, but was also being informative without you realizing it! It gives me hope with my own ‘Carrie’. I totally recommend this book to anyone….my only complaint is that it wasn’t long enough!! – Amazon reader.

‘ Required reading for anyone thinking of taking their horse’s shoes off’ – Horsemanship Magazine.

‘I loved reading this intelligently written book. It’s so good I think every hoof trimmer should hand this book out to clients who are going barefoot for the first time’ – Natural Horse Management magazine.

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 book has more than 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical NovelCover Society. 

‘Fantastic read, well researched, authentic voice, and a recognition of the correlation of our best slaves- horses- with the role of women throughout history. If you are into history, barefoot horses, and the feminine coming of age story, then this book is a must read’ – Amazon US reader.

If you want to keep in touch, click the follow button on this campaigning blog or find me on Facebook…Another historical, horsey novel has been completed, ready for editing. I am being inspired by a famous equestrian campaigner from the past who quietly made such a difference to horses. So many people have asked me to write a sequel to The First Vet but I think I should feature one of Bracy Clark’s colleagues. And have I told you about the Very Bad Princess? The one who rode horses, swore a lot and tried to keep a London park all to herself…not a current-day princess…more soon…I’m enjoying the research on this lady! She used to take snuff…xxx

 

 

They’re athletes…not dinner

by Linda Chamberlain

If this horse was to be your dinner you might be worried about the way it was kept. You see, this horse lives in a stable that is only a little bigger than he is himself. He has room to lie down. He has room to turn around but he can’t run and he can’t touch any of his friends. His keeper is, no doubt, generous with his food – he might get two buckets of feed a day and a couple of hay nets. If those run out in the night he can always eat his bed…until it gets too mucky for his taste.

 

library picture

library picture

 

If this horse was to be your dinner you might see a television documentary by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall that would distress you. You wouldn’t be able to smell that stable but Hugh’s nose might crinkle and you’d know what it was like in there by the morning. He might show you the bars on the stable door with a hushed and upset tone. ‘They’re anti weaving bars,’ he’d explain. ‘To stop the horse rocking from side to side – a harmful habit but it relieves the terrible boredom.’

If this horse was to be your dinner Hugh might manage to get a camera in the stable at night. He’d show you that the horse, who sleeps only for a few minutes at a time, is still awake. He’s been chewing the wooden walls because the door has been covered with metal to stop it being eaten.

This horse stays in the stable all day and all night in a very expensive livery yard that is equipped with all the latest in horsey facilities. There’s an indoor sand school, a heated tack room and even a horse walker so he can get a little exercise on the days his owner is unable to take him out. He’s an animal whose ancestors lived in fear of predators. They lived in a herd and if any caught the scent of a lone wolf, they ran. That’s how they survived for millions of years and the instinct is still strong in today’s domesticated horse.

So, when this horse’s owner takes him for a ride he can sometimes be a tricky beast – full of fear and flight. He might want to run simply because there’s a plastic bag in the hedge. He’s spent the last 24 hours in solitary confinement without the comfort of a herd – surely, he can be forgiven a fanciful imagination.

But he’s not going to be your dinner.

He’s an athlete. A valuable sports horse. His breeding is impeccable and his performance is remarkable. He’s extremely fast and you should see him stretch over fences because he’s awesome.

It’s a strange way to keep an athlete, isn’t it? Unmoving. Alone.

Can you imagine David Beckham or Wayne Rooney bedded down in the smallest room in the house but brought out to chase a ball for 90 minutes every Saturday? They suffer enough injuries as it is and it doesn’t take a science degree to work out that their fitness levels might be compromised by the lifestyle of a couch potato. Horses must have been the only Olympians that performed in the world’s most notable sporting event from the confines of what is, by the morning, a toilet.

This horse’s owner is very careful, though. The horse is warmed up diligently before every competition to minimise the risk of injury. A torn tendon could finish this animal’s career and every athlete knows the importance of correct preparation before an event. Although this horse doesn’t get as much space as your average lamb chop, he does get more than most pieces of chicken breast you can buy in the supermarket.

Something no one wants to see before dinner...

Something no one wants to see before dinner…

But there are no campaigns, no cries from animal welfare activists about the way this horse is confined. It’s perfectly normal. In fact, the more expensive and talented the horse, the more likely it is that he is kept in this way. I know many livery yards where the animals are rarely, and sometimes never, turned out in a field. Race horses spend most of their day at rest in a stable.

It is perfectly legal and it isn’t even frowned upon. Why? you might ask.

I suppose the practice has its roots in the past. In the 1800s London housed about a million and a half horses and none of them had access to a field. Horses were like the car in a garage today – brought out when needed. Most of those horses were working animals, vital to the economy. So, if they were awake, they were probably working.

There are few working horses left in Britain and we keep them for our pleasure, or our sport. We no longer have to keep them confined. There’s no longer any excuse.

They are athletes – let them move.

(I’m a former journalist and for my next blog I’m going ‘under cover’ to investigate how our top equines are kept – press the follow button on the black band at the top of the page if you want notification of future blogs and news of my debut novel – The First Vet – being published later this year. Leave me a comment, too. I’d love to hear from you.)