Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Bob was home bred by Brett Strickland, and raced by his son Nathan, from the age of two until his retirement from racing aged eight. 

He came to us in October 2013 at the end of his last season racing. 
Why a Standardbred?
I am an older person, and had come to the conclusion I had better get on with my bucket list whilst still able. My intention is to see the UK from the back of a horse, due to frail limbs that won’t stand up to much walking, and doing it on a mountain bike is just too much like hard work. I also don’t want to do much in the way of trotting, due to a bad back, so I wanted a gaited horse that would deliver me where I wanted to go, comfortably and speedily. NO TROTTING is imperative.
I looked for gaited horses in the UK. I am too large for an Icelandic, and at the time, gaited horses were as rare as hen’s teeth. I read that a Standardbred pacer can be trained to Gait. On further investigation I learned that Standies have good temperaments, are hardy and are adaptable to most equine pursuits. I also liked the idea of giving a working horse a new career, my previous, and only other horse was an ex pointer.
Being ignorant regarding Standies, I spent time visiting welsh racetracks, to get some idea of what a Standie is, and talked to owners to get a feel for the breed.
So, what did I learn? 
Some Standies never make it to the racetrack as they are too slow, others, like our Bob, race at the lower levels and can progress no further, and others have a long successful career and retire. Some retire due to injury. Some are sold because the owners have too many horses. I did not trust myself to buy a good horse at a sale, so I contacted the secretary of the Hereford and Borders Harness Racing club, giving her my requirements and asking if she knew of any suitable horses. She was very helpful and I was given the details of owners who were looking for homes for their horses.
My requirements were: 15.2hh max. (the largest horse I could conceivably get on from the ground if necessary), sound, injury free, with a quiet temperament.
I told Helen about my plans, and she decided she would like to join me. Brave girl, she had never been near a horse in her life, let alone ride one. So, now we needed two horses.
Why Bob? He was the right size, had a kind eye, good confirmation, was polite and sound with no signs of injury. I am an osteopath, and have treated a lot of horses in my time, so was able to give him the once over and was pretty certain he had no musculoskeletal issues. When I sat on him, I felt I was not sitting on a brave horse, and once he knew his job, and Helen could ride (the project had got rather long term by now!), he would serve her well, and she would not get the dominance problems a braver horse might give her.
For myself, I found a lovely horse, a winner with a very successful long career. Unfortunately I was concerned regarding his soundness, which was verified by my vet, who advised he would not be suitable for trail riding.
We were left with one horse, which subsequently proved fortunate.

Bob’s good manners were perfect for Helen’s new horsemanship skills.

Bob and Helen started their lessons.
All went well until it was time for Helen to learn to trot. She gave him the aid, he put his best foot forward, and projected H straight out of the saddle onto the floor. He does have quite a big engine at the back, and, at the time was unbalanced in trot, so, hard to sit to.

H continued her training on the shorter striding Bonno
And Bob continued his riding lessons with myself.

I have never trained a horse before. We had a round pen. I started with a Monty Roberts style join up. Bob was so shocked by his move from all he knew, I think he was desperate to join up with anyone. But, he did all the right moves, joined up with me, which made me feel better. I decided all new skills would be learned on the ground, so, he would not have to cope with my weight as well as trying to balance himself. Then practice under saddle.
We did some of the Parelli games. Aim was to get Bob skilled at gates and placing him where I wanted his feet. Vital skills on different terrains, I don’t want to end up stuck in a bog somewhere. Bob very much likes learning new skills, using his brain and is people friendly. His confidence grows every time he ‘solves a problem’.
A trail horse has to balance himself, and me, and work things out for himself. So, no side reins or varieties of for Bob. He had to find his own outline and his ‘lessons’ consisted of presenting him with problems and allowing him to work out the best solution. . He was very unbalanced, of course. His muscles had been doing something entirely different all his life. He had been moving laterally with no rider, on long bends and straights. His muscle development was different to a riding horse, and my saddle didn’t fit. Fortunately an old Wintec, which is used for breaking young thoroughbreds, fits everyone. So, we used that one for the first 6 months.
We did circles, changes of pace, spirals, serpentines, changes of rein, figures of eight, all with minimal contact with the bit. Bob had to find his own balance, with no help from me, and develop his riding muscles. First he put his head in the air, then he tried going along with his nose on the ground. Eventually he found his own equilibrium, with a head carriage that any novice dressage horse would be proud of.

Bob is a spooky horse. He was frightened of everything unfamiliar, and he had a lot of new sights to get used to. I did some de-spooking in the round pen with tarpaulin, plastic bags and umbrellas. Bob is intelligent for a horse. This training taught him that nothing in the round pen, or anything I do to him is going to hurt. Everything other than that is a potential Bob Killer. We walked in hand around the lanes and villages, sometimes I was fortunate enough to have a rider to ride with. Horses learn better from each other than humans, but, I was not fortunate to have a regular steady horse to go out with. A 12ft lead rope and rope halter gave best control.  I also took every opportunity to expose him to potential scary things, like following a tractor and harrow round a field, watching sheep being loaded, and the pigs:

Bob loved the farm piglets from day one.
The more he was exposed to, the better he got at controlling himself.

We started hacking out alone, or with Bonno and H.

All was well with H, until it was time to canter. Bonno put in an uncharacteristic buck, and deposited H on the ground. At this point she decided one brain was better than two, and she would accompany me on our travels by bike, or foot. Bob was transferred to my ownership in September 15, and plans for our first trail ride commenced. I booked farm accommodation for myself, H and two riding companions on the Ridgeway, Wiltshire, and commenced fitness training for the two day ride, in spring 2015.
It was a windy day, and Bob was unhappy. The previous day we had returned from our hack very relaxed, on the buckle end. I had a schedule to keep to, so we went out. Mistake. He made it very clear to me he was unhappy, but I ignored him. In hindsight, we should have done something else that day, which would challenge him, but was within his capability. Mistake one: I assumed he would know there was nothing to fear on the familiar route. Mistake two: this was not the same horse I rode the previous day. Bob was spooking at the moving trees and sounds, and then spied, in the distance, an object that wasn’t there yesterday! A lady with a dog on a lead. He is not afraid of either under normal circumstances. His head went up and he fixated on the object. I have learnt since that distraction is the best cure for Bob, when he fixes on something. This time I did as I had been taught, and kept him facing the frightening object. I had time to get off, but in the past spooks, he has been worse when I dismounted. He held his ground as the object approached, then tried to spin, slipped and was down in the road, on my leg.

It was a bad break. No more riding that summer. Bob had a nice holiday and I learned to walk again.
We were back together and ready to go again in spring 2016, then, a routine scan, and a diagnosis of cancer for me. Another summer with no trail riding while I went through my treatment.

2017 and I moved yards to be nearer the Ridgeway for conditioning, (bob needed some steep hill training), and they had a school for jump training and canter work. It also gave me the opportunity to hack out with others. Bob likes jumping, but is not careful enough to make a show jumper. I just want him to be able to get over obstacles that might be in our way on our travels.

An outing to the beach

We did half the Ridgeway that summer. My companion had to pull out of day two, so, that is planned for 2018. Bob enjoyed himself. He was confident, calm and a real pleasure to ride. We crossed the M4 motorway over a bridge, encountered new sights and sounds, negotiated a steep downhill escarpment at Sugar hill, and tripped and stumbled over tree roots, until Bob started looking where he was putting his feet. Good lesson. Approaching the M4 on a long open grassy plain, Bob fixated on fast moving cars in the distance, which worried him. I distracted him by doing serpentines all the way to the M4, and he obliged, keeping one ear on the cars, but doing as I asked, not baulking once. When we reached the M4, and he realised the moving objects were cars and lorries, he relaxed. I couldn’t be happier. I think I have a trail horse.

Cantering. Bob will canter on his own, but, not with me on him. This can be a problem with racing Standies, who are taught not to break into canter. He will, with bad grace, canter loose in the round pen, or on the end of a rope. I have tried voice command, using a take off pole, hoping he will break into a canter when jumping, and cantering with others uphill. Apart from the odd couple of strides, he prefers to pace or fast trot. Patience here I think.

As usual, Bob cantered in his own time, when I wasn't asking him to. We were schooling in the round pen,  and some poles had been left down from a previous occupant. They were a little too far apart for Bob's stride, and he started cantering whilst reaching for them. He generally works out his own problems.

Gaiting. Bob gaited from the start. He has a very fast walk, and bats along at a great rate of knots when he is leading. According to my reading, the experts advise establishing 3 good gaits, in walk, trot and canter, before asking for the intermediate gaits. For this reason, I have not encouraged him to gait, but whilst negotiating the Shropshire hills in 2018, my friend who was following me shouted "He's doing something really weird with his feet!" Whatever he was doing, it was comfortable and got us up the hills at a good rate! I have yet to video him to try and decide what type of gait he has adopted. They range from an even 4 time Running Walk, through the middle range Rack, to the Foxtrot, which looks like a Pace, but is 4 time. What makes them smooth to sit to, is that one foot is on the ground at all times, unlike the hard bouncy trot or pace, where two feet strike the ground at the same time.
We had a lovely stay at Tugford farm, if any of you fancy taking your horse on holiday. They have a hot tub which is just lush...…..

Bob was home bred by Brett Strickland, and raced by his son Nathan, from the age of two until his retirement from racing aged eig...