Timothy James Bolton-Milhas

Mar 242018
 

Yesterday, I spoke to the owner of a twelve year-old horse, shod for at least the past six years. She asked me particularly about the transition to barefoot (the conviction is there but the uncertainties about how and when remain…).

I won’t go into all the implications of transition here – suffice to say that a horse shod for fifteen years can make an imperceptible transition while another, shod for a short misinformed moment, goes through an absolute drama. There is nothing so unpredictable as the horse!

And so the question arose: what about hoof boots (EasyBoots® etc.)? Would that help?

more…

Jan 222018
 
harsh use of bit

This month, I read at least two calls to end ‘cruel comments’ on social media -one from a Dutch trainer/rider and one on Facebook by Abi Hutton, covered in this article by Rachael Turner on the Horse and Hound website. Naturally, we cannot condone the actions of some commentators which are solely aimed from a so-called competitive viewpoint and simply intended to gain psychological advantage over an opponent. On the other hand, many of the comments made by Abi Hutton need to be carefully analysed – a great number of these ‘keyboard warriors’ is not simply attacking for attack’s sake.

The H&H article starts by highlighting the comment

“The equestrian world is a really tough place to be,” she wrote. “It’s early mornings, cold weather, long days, late nights, rare days off and non-existent holidays […] But we love it, we love those darned animals more than ourselves.”

This would appear to excuse much of what is criticised. And let’s be clear here, we are not talking criticism of a rider showing disgust at not scoring enough points, a clear round or being fast enough; we are talking of unacceptable actions directed towards the horse. And this she realises when she states

So next time you see a video and think their horse is over bent, or they are using too much spur, sit back, make a cup of tea and think how you would feel if someone made comments like that about you, think if it’s likely the rider means to do it, because one thing I know for sure, there is not a single rider on the planet who has not kicked, flapped or pulled when they haven’t meant to.

Here is the crux. Very few ‘keyboard warriors’ will actually make a song and dance of one single incident – as Hutton states, ‘there is not a single rider on the planet who has not kicked…‘etc. and I’m sure the majority of the warriors would, and do, accept this. What they don’t accept is actions that are clearly repeated, actions that are expressions of anger towards the horse and actions that are obviously intended despite being clearly forbidden by regulation and have been so for a long time. This last category can at times be subjective -what is ‘excessive’ use of the whip, for example?- but is also often objective -the horse that is bleeding through use of spurs or the use of rollkur/low-deep-and-round or whatever excuse of a term we would like to apply these days.

Looking a little closer at Hutton’s comments:

  • The equestrian world is a really tough place – but so is cricket, rugby, golf…so is sales and marketing; being a nurse, GP or surgeon; lorry driver; bus driver… Don’t excuse yourself for something you have chosen yourself as a hobby or profession.
  • we love those darned animals more than ourselves. Yes, you quite probably do. Nobody is denying that. But even battered children and wives are loved – and by the one that batters them; the mistreated dog is loved by its owner… What we are missing here is not love, it is respect.
  • So you’d think by the time we’ve fought all of this in the day, we would resist making cruel comments about each other on social media. Firstly, the videos are rarely posted on the same day and likewise the comments. And as I have already stated, commentary is very often related to repeat or clearly illegal incidents.
  • “…if the folks commenting want to say they’re looking out for the welfare of the horse, follow the rider around for the day and see how pretty much all they do is in the best interests of their horse.” This is sadly a very misguided statement. One of the places where the ‘warriors’ feel justified in making comment is the practice ring: here we see the riders and horses ‘warming up’. And despite claimed invigilation by officials, it is often here that the first signs of the breakdown of a supposedly good rider-horse relationship appear. But if we want to stick to basic welfare-principles, when horses are kept in trailers, or at best, tied up outside trailers, almost all day long, then we can hardly call that good. And back at home, the horse is all to often stabled for long periods, isolated from any proper physical contact with other horses, poorly (incorrectly) fed…thus crumbles the argument of ‘best interests’ all too rapidly.
  • “So next time you…think their horse is over bent, or they are using too much spur…think how you would feel if someone made comments like that about you…” Personally, I would be horrified – not at the fact that someone was criticising, but in the interests of the horse. The competitive rider should be able take these criticisms on board since, as already noted, they are rarely made on a single isolated incident but rather on continued action.
  • “…think if it’s likely the rider means to do it, because one thing I know for sure, there is not a single rider on the planet who has not kicked, flapped or pulled when they haven’t meant to.” See the previous point -we are not talking isolated instances. And we are talking competition. The jury may mark you down but even they are not above unacceptable or illegal actions.
  • “People have contacted me saying they don’t even want to ride if people are around watching. Others have been avoiding competing because they’re scared of what people will say.” I’m afraid that is what competition is all about; people watching you and noting your mistakes. After all, what Hutton is saying is that being over bent or too much use of the spur is not intentional. So it is merely social media comment on a rider’s mistakes…
  • “One of the issues with horses being behind the vertical is it’s such an easy thing to spot – but a lot of people don’t have the knowledge to see if its [way of going is] going to get better.” Once again, it is the observation of a repeated or long-lasting action that causes people to react. A momentary -albeit illegal- behind-the-vertical posture is not going to incite the wrath of every keyboard warrior out there. They don’t need the knowledge to see if its [sic]…going to get better; when it lasts more that a scarce couple of seconds, it is wrong. And if you do it even for a few seconds in the ring, how much do you do it at home when practising while nobody is there to correct you?
  • Abi said that those in the horse world are particulary [sic] vulnerable to being affected by unpleasant comments. Why? Do you think being a horsewoman or horseman makes you special? There are a great many more people outside the horse world that have a very much higher vulnerability to unpleasant comments.
  • “We’re already dealing with so many uncontrollable things. Horses can sometimes bring out the worst in people because it’s such an up and down sport…” Yet another problem in the (competitive) horse-world – so many people do not seem to be able to accept that the horse is an animal and not a motorbike. If you cannot accept that, then (competitive) horse-riding is not for you.

I would also like to quote from one of the comments on the H&H article – it seems to partially sum up the problem nicely: “Nobody wants to hear the truth. Who would pay an elite trainer, to tell them they have no talent, & their horse has no talent?! The standards of equitation, & basic horsemanship, are plummeting on a daily basis, because instructors are afraid of losing much needed business, if they offend a pupil w/ the truth.” In fact, we can go even further than this. A routine visit to almost any equestrian establishment will show (so-called) professionals practising exactly that what is wrong in front of their young and impressionable riders. It is commonly said that the future lies in the hands of youth – but when youth is so blinded and brainwashed by the malpractices we call tradition, the future suddenly becomes a great deal less bright. These future stars learn from the stars of today and if the stars of today don’t set a good example, then nobody else will…

bit pulling on mouth

©iStock

Probably the biggest problem, in the end, is the definition of welfare. There may well be some justification in the argument that we shouldn’t be riding horses in the first place. But evidence would tend to point toward the horse, ridden under a good flexible saddle and by a rider of adequate ability and limited weight, being quite capable of being ridden without detriment to its health until quite late in life. But we must also consider many other detrimental factors such as incorrect management -accommodation, feed and so forth – the use of bits, shoes, hipposandals etc.

Most people in the equestrian world seem to forget that the horse is a sentient being, forget that it is a mammal. They expect it to perform exactly the same way week in – week out and when it doesn’t, they express alarm and anger. They ask the horse to be perfectly aligned, to walk in an absolutely straight line. In reality, a horse will never be perfectly aligned -mammals never are; it does not naturally walk in an absolutely straight line.

And that is where some of the arguments also become distorted. Getting the horse to be perfectly aligned is ‘a question of proper training’ and if you say that a horse does not naturally walk straight, then you can also say ‘it is not natural for it to be ridden either’. But these are irrational arguments based on futile tradition. It is impossible to have a perfectly aligned horse. It is true that some horses have muscular and/or skeletal problems but these cannot be ‘trained’ out; they need proper treatment by an osteopath or physiotherapist. Training it out is more likely to place the stress elsewhere with the result that the horse simply gets tied up elsewhere. And a horse without muscular or skeletal problems will suddenly find itself stressed as never before!

The same applies to making the horse walk in a perfectly straight line. It is not natural and to force it to walk unnaturally is to stress muscles and joints abnormally; even more so if it is carrying a rider.

‘Top’ sportsmen and women always lay claim to fabulous abilities; only they are capable of using a double bit and reins for such imperceptible subtleties in signals; only they know exactly how much spur to give -and it never hurts the horse. But there are obvious questions to be posed here: at just what point in your career did you acquire these abilities (unlikely they were bottle fed with them…)? after all, before you discovered them, you were undoubtedly yanking at the bit and prodding in the ribs too… And shouldn’t we be principally riding our horse through use of the seat and legs, not through the ankles and the hands? If it is so necessary to have a bit to direct the horse with subtlety, how is it that people manage to turn their horses on a sixpence, with just a piece of cord around the horses neck?

Horse in morning sunshine

©2017 Sabots Libres

So before you start to complain about people who point out your errors, just think first. Are they so ‘unjustified’? Are they just being ‘cruel’? Or do your feelings for your horse go no further than love? Because respect is not what YOU need, it is what YOUR HORSE needs…

Jun 292017
 

For many horse owners, there are three words or phrases that that strike fear into the heart: Colic, Laminitis/Founder and Navicular Syndrome. All three are surrounded by myths but probably none more so than Navicular Syndrome.

Read here an interesting article that attempts to explode these myths and give hope to many owners struggling to manage their horses with this debilitating disorder.

Jun 102016
 

First of all, we would like to thank everyone that took part in our survey. There were one or two dissenting voices and, sadly, one person descended into a personal attack on one of the survey’s authors; nevertheless, in general, the reception was positive.
Just to clear up one or two points raised:
We are sorry that not all the answers in the multiple choice questions suited everyone – occasionally choices have to be made when setting questions and, as anyone who has taken part either in professional psychological tests or simple online quizzes will confirm, at times we are given to choose from something not entirely appropriate to our own situation. We could possibly have given an “other” option a little more often…
A few people felt the questions to be biased. The questions were reviewed by equine professionals, amateurs and even the veterinary profession and we have made a concerted effort to avoid bias; the personal opinions of those involved in the survey should have no place in the actual results. One source of confusion over this matter may be the fact that questions were “streamed”; where there was an either/or choice, subsequent questions would relate to the principal answer. However, the questions remained essentially the same (for example, someone who used a bit was asked why, someone who didn’t was asked why not). Again, maybe some explanation at the start of the survey might have been better.
The results are not intended to reflect what is good nor what is bad: we are not seeking to divide opinion nor to take any side in an argument with this survey; we simply want to present a picture of the current welfare situation of the horse. Remember, welfare is not the same for everyone: one considers stabling essential, another an abomination, one considers barefoot to be the right choice, another finds shoes a necessity. Whatever the personal perception, we have tried to portray the variety of ways horses’ welfare is approached without being judgemental.
Although the survey has been posted within differing disciplines, the actual demographics are a little more complicated. Just which discipline stables more or shoes less, who feeds what and when, these things are neither represented nor asked in the survey. This alone prevents jumping to conclusions about who might be “better” for their horse – a question that, as has already been stated, is not being posed.

So, what are the initial results?

Stabling:

  • a larger number of respondents indicated that they keep their horses out 24/7 with only 1/5 stabling their horses; from reactions to the questionnaire, it is probable that a number of owners responded with 24/7 since they do not stable all year around.
  • of those stabling, nearly 90% stable at night, although more than a third of these said they reverse the situation at certain times of the year, keeping their horses in during the day and turning out at night.
  • only one person said they always turn out at night.
  • more than 10 % of respondents said their horses are never turned out.

Turnout:
of those horses stabled

  • a small majority has between 6 and 12 hours turnout
  • a little under ⅓ of stabled horses being turned out for up to 18 hours
  • just under 10% are turned out for somewhere up to 6 hours a day
  • only one horse is shown as spending more than 18 hours a day on turnout
  • as already recorded, more than 10% are never turned out

for all horses, stabled and not stabled – but, of course, not including those not turned out:

  • just 5% are segregated in their own paddock or field; the reasoning was not specifically questioned
  • a very small majority is turned out with one or two other horses
  • more than 40% is turned out in a larger group – these two last groups account for over 90% of the horses represented
  • 5 horses have the company of other animals including donkeys, cattle, chickens, goats, sheep and dogs – although two are apparently also in the company of a different sort of horse!

Feeding:

  • nearly ⅔ of horses has unrestricted access to grass, slightly more than those with unrestricted access to hay (57%)
  • more than 20% of owners restricts access to grass whereas just over 10% restricts hay access
  • about 6% of owners allow their horses brief grazing with slightly fewer not allowing any grazing
  • between 4% and 5% of owners each fed hay once, thrice or four times a day with a very small majority in this group that feeds twice a day
  • more than 5% of owners never feeds hay

grains/cereals:

  • just two horses are fed grains/cereals ad lib – the authors are not sure whether this is actually the case, or whether the answer was misunderstood.
  • 17% feeds their horses restricted grains/cereals – this could possibly be categorised with the following:
  • over 40% feed once or twice a day – the numbers being divided almost equally
  • a large number but by no means a majority (38%) never feeds grains/cereals

supplements:

  • nearly ⅔ of owners gives their horse supplements, of these
  • ⅔ give once a day and ⅓ twice (just 1 and 2 people respectively give 4 and 3 times a day)
  • the supplements given vary widely although often they appear to be of a “general” nature. Very few owners indicate that they use specific makes. Magnesium and turmeric (curcuma) feature fairly regularly, as does vitamin E – only one instance is given of giving vitamin C. Other fairly specific mentions worth noting are biotin, zinc and copper and selenium. Although nobody specifically recorded iron, there was one owner that gave seaweed.

salt/mineral licks:

  • 4/5 of owners give their horses access to a salt lick – a third of these also offer a mineral lick
  • the remaining 1/5 give a mineral lick alone.

Activities:

  • Few people seem to take part in competition with any regularity, harness racing being almost completely absent!
  • A slightly larger group rides in harness recreationally but by far the most popular activity is recreational outdoor riding over short distances
  • Freestyling is fairly evenly spread among the occasionals, sometimes’ and the mostlies – although, when considering other demographics, a slightly surprising 35% never practices freestyle

frequency:

  • More than a third of respondents is active more than 16 hours a week with just under 40% active between 8 and 16 hours
  • Just 7½% fall into the category of less than 4 hours.

Feet:

The singling out any group within this survey was never the intention and probably nowhere is more prone to the pointing finger than within the sphere of the horse’s hoof. For this reason, although the figures are extant from the point of channeling the questions, the actual split shod/unshod is not discussed.

the shod horse:

  • a fairly even split – more than 60% total – indicated that their horse would go lame or his feet would wear down too fast without shoes
  • just over 10% felt their horse needed them for competition despite it not being a requirement, with less than 5% citing competitions that do require shoes
  • a fraction under 9% cites poor/crumbly/split hooves as the reason for needing to shoe
  • nearly 18% had been advised by a professional to apply orthopædic shoes – more than 10% being the vet
  • a small number cited comfort as a reason for shoeing; arthritis and acute laminitis being others

the unshod horse:

  • less than 5o% has always been barefoot
  • more than ¾ believe shoes to be damaging to the horse
  • over 12% cite the restricted amount or absence of riding as a reason for not shoeing
  • maybe surprisingly more farriers advised barefoot than vets but the total number of cases was appreciably smaller than advice to shoe.
  • transition experiences varied, some took a long time, others were almost instant. In general, 6 months seems to be a normal period
  • more than 60% considered using hoof boots of which nearly 20% ended up not
  • the overwhelming majority cite the reason for boots as being difficulty on stony or rocky terrain with ¼ citing transition difficulties.
  • nearly 25% has stopped using boots; 50% still use them but only on difficult/long rides.

Bits:

The use, or not, of bits was fairly even – a tiny majority choosing bitless over a bit.
Most people seemed to prefer the bit for the control they experienced, but this was also the general reason given by those who didn’t bit ! Several people expressed a desire to go bitless but said they hadn’t (yet) got the confidence. Nearly 60% of those who used a bit, said that they also rode bitless. The most used bit was the snaffle or a derivation thereof while the most used bitless setup was the sidepull.

Finally, 97% of people said that the horse weaned naturally from its mother between 6 and 24 months with a small majority indicating 6 – 12 months.
Although a clear majority, well over three-quarters, said the horse was fully grown at between 5 and 8 years – with 3 – 5 and 8 – 15 each taking a 10% share –  nearly 40% considers a horse capable of being ridden at between 3 and 5 years with 55% choosing 5 – 8. Just two people felt 6 – 12 and 12 – 24 months to be possible.

Over 47% considered a horse to be old at between 22 and 27 years with just over 30% placing the old horse between 27 and 35. Just 6% placed the old horse above 35 years, considerably less than the 15% that felt the 15 – 22 year old was old; although only two people put the age at 8 – 15.
These figures tend to correlate with the perceived average age at which a horse dies, 36% saying 22 – 27 and 33% saying 27 – 35. The latter seems to be something of a limit – just 11 people thought the average age of death to be over 35. It was rather disheartening to see how many people chose a lower age, well over ¼ putting it at under 22.

Most people again placed the life expectancy of the horse in the 27 – 35 bracket although now a third went for the 35 – 42 age range. Just over 5% considered it to be over 42 – nobody placed it below 15. This last was surprising since 1% felt the longevity to be in this bracket. In general, it appears that respondents felt longevity to be one bracket higher than life expectancy although 12.5% put it above 50.

Responses were received from, in no specific order, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Tanzania, UK, USA

 

We would like to thank everyone that has taken part; the survey is still open and will remain so until the last week of June and the final – full – analysis should be available by mid September.

Jan 292015
 

Horse clicker training workshop in the South West of England lovely indoor venue, all horses and owners welcome. Problem solving, fears, phobias, improving performance or simply teaching some fun tricks! Spaces for rider and/or spectator places available, see link for more details.

14 & 15 March

Cannington Equestrian Centre, Rodway, Cannington, Nr Bridgwater, Somerset TA5 2LS

More info…

Jul 082014
 
This article was first published by Sabots Libres: Ban on Stabling Horses in the Netherlands

In a public ordnance dated 5 June 2014, published in “Het Staatsblad van het Koninkrijk de Nederlanden” issue 210, year 2014, is a clearly defined ban on the keeping of horse in stables or boxes.

Specifically:

Article 1.6 The Keeping of Animals 

1. An animal’s freedom of movement may not be restricted in such a way that the animal experiences unnecessary suffering or injury.

2. An animal must be provided with adequate space for its physiological and ethological requirements.

 

Article 1.8 Housing

1. A building where animals are kept, must provide adequate light and darkness to fulfil the ethological and physiological requirements of the animal.

 

In order to fulfil its ethological and physiological requirements, a horse cannot be kept in a box or stable. Lighting and darkness in stables and boxes and the space they offer is inadequate for the requirements of the horse.

Sadly. the law, and the interpretation thereof, are two different things. It is unlikely that the animal police will take any action where the majority of horses are stabled, even where the boxes are too small.

Apr 242014
 

This article was originally published on the Sabots Libres website

20140424-152122.jpg

We live in a world of almost endless possibilities. The internet has given us access to information in a way that only twenty years ago was impossible. Vast libraries of books have found their way onto the electronic highway and although not always absolute in its accuracy, Wikipedia is almost as expansive – and accurate – as that highly revered (if fictional) publication, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Add to this the gigantic increase in the popularity of social media in the past 5 years (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr etc.) and the ability to research and exchange information has outgrown our ability to process it all. And suddenly a host of dangers present themselves; we don’t always possess the discipline to pursue a line of thought before publishing it as true – and millions more people believe every word of what they read without question. Case in point is all the hype around Monsanto; without wishing in any way to condone Monsanto, it is notable that people are starting to attribute all manner of disputable products with the company despite Monsanto not having anything to do with them!
And similar things are happening in the field of barefoot horses (I use this phrase to avoid associating with any particular trimming method). Hundreds of photographs are posted daily in fora and on Facebook of variously trimmed or untrimmed hooves asking for advice or confirmation. And a world of “specialists” is sitting on the sidelines waiting to dispense varying diagnoses, suggestions, warnings and arguments – purely on the basis of a (frequently poorly shot) photograph!
Obviously the horse owner has the choice to ignore all this commentary – then again, why did he post the picture in the first place? Usually for confirmation that he is treading the right path, only to be inundated with – often fatuous – remarks about this hoof, a history of hooves and just about any hoof in general… But worst of all are the “…you need to…” comments dishing out advice that most owners would be better off without.
Not that all the advice is necessarily bad, but it is often conflicting, frequently confusing and usually conjecture. Trim a bit more here, rasp a bit more there; the heels are too high/low and the frog should be shorter/longer/thinner/thicker… And here is a magic template to solve all your woes. But these people have never seen the hoof in question live.
20140424-152233.jpgI have a dark raised mark on my arm; if I was to post a picture of it on the internet I would get all manner of reactions declaring it to be a mole, to have been jabbed with a pencil (my mother’s favourite!), to be a malignant melanoma or an alien implant… In fact, I have no idea what it is other than I have had it for longer than I remember and it never changes – so I leave it alone! Which is what we should do with all these hoof photos on the web… If you’ve been there, touched it, scraped it with a hoof knife and been able to evaluate with your own eyes, ok. Otherwise, try and refrain from speculation and conjecture. I know of at least two people who have ended up crippling their horses, admittedly through their own stupidity, but at the behest of all these internet advisors.

Jan 142014
 

For the past few years, once a year, I have taken part in a Transhumance.

The dictionary defines transhumance very simply as the action or practice of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle, typically to lowlands in winter and highlands in summer

For me it is four (autumn) or six (spring) days of adventure, freedom, hard work and most important of all, learning from nature.
And in this case it is the herding of around 70 horses from the high Pyrenees in Cerdagne/Languedoc-Rousillon to the Aude in Southern France.

The Owner: Pierre Enoff; bio-mechanical engineer and musician; inherited a farmhouse and a couple of horses from his grandmother over 45 years ago. From that moment, Enoff has studied the actions and interactions of horses, their habits, their way of surviving in a natural environment; he has, and still does, actively promote the barefoot horse – his own herd being the prime example of barefoot survival.

The Riders: Of necessity with a reasonable amount of experience of riding outdoors in all terrains – a couple of hours around the lanes with the riding club every summer is not sufficient! The days are long, it can be perishing cold, or soaking wet, or both; between departure in the morning and lunchtime, and between lunch and arrival in the evening, there is no possibility for a sanitary stop – you are moving with a herd and they will not stop just because you need a pee!

The Locality: Porta, Cerdagne; the valley floor is about 1600m at this point, the surrounding mountains rise to around 2800m. The horses have a total of around 2,000ha common land to graze on.

The Destination: Denis, near St Gaudéric, Aude; a rolling grassland of 85ha with a lake. Mean height 450m.

The Route: On the map, the autumn edition is about 150km and the spring edition about 200km – in reality, with all the twists, turns, ascents and descents you cannot measure on the map, the distances are some 20% longer.

The Chase CarThe autumn transhumance begins for Enoff and his team some time beforehand, organising the night stops (accommodation is more or less the same each year but at some locations there needs to be hay on hand to feed the horses, for instance), insuring sufficient provisions, getting clearance from the authorities both at local and at departmental levelTransu! – some sections make extensive use of the public highway – and all the sundry tasks involving vehicles and tack.
Corralled in PortaFor the riders, it all begins at La Pastorale on the Sunday morning. Seventy-odd horses have to be brought down from the mountainside and corralled. They can be anywhere within an area of a couple of thousand hectares – but, horses being horses, they are seldom alone, rather in their bands and often close to the larger group to which the band “belongs”. This is always helpful, but there are always groups that will hide themselves away and, surprisingly enough, when there is a reasonable layer of snow, they are nigh on impossible to just find!
Sunday afternoon is the time for a try out – old lags having prior knowledge can pick and choose their own horse, the rest can make their preferences known and a suitable horse is allocated. If it doesn’t click during the try out, then it is no problem; there are plenty of other horses to choose from.

On the roadAnd then breaks Monday morning. 9 o’clock sharp, everyone is at the stable, brushing down and saddling up their allotted or chosen steed. By 10 we must be on the road to insure a timely arrival at the evening stop. In previous years, there have been some major problems during departure – horses have cut a dash over the railway-line running alongside the main road in an attempt to get back to their pastures… others have dived up side roads into the village… so these days, there is a carefully planned departure involving help from the village, metre upon metre of striped tape and a rapid and tightly coordinated release onto the main road.
Col de PuymorensWith the exception, weather permitting (deep snow makes it impossible), of a very short stretch, the morning is spent on metalled roads. The herd passes through the famous skiing village of Porté-Puymorens (4 seasons of skiing) up the old road from Barcelona to Toulouse that snakes up the side of the Puig Carlit crossing the Col de Puymorens at 1915m.
From here, it is a downhill trot – irrespective of road conditions, dry, wet, snow, ice – to L’Hospitalet près l’Andorre, a distance of over 9 km and a descent of nearly 400m, and lunch. The uninitiated are thinking how tough it was and the old lags are remembering how tough tomorrow morning is going to be…

L'Hospitalet

Lunch is an al fresco affair, the Equi Libre trailer being kitted out with an awning for inclement – or excessively sunny – weather and carrying two large tables and four benches providing a modicum of comfort. Soup, cheese, cold meats and salad are the order of the day and all accompanied by the obligatory french bread and red wine. Even here there is no question of really slumming it – most lunches are rounded off with coffee and bitter chocolate.

Along the RailwayNow we follow the railway line almost to Mérens-les-Vals, home of the famous Mérens horse. This is a stretch on wooded paths alongside the river with the minimum of obstructions – occasional overgrown trees and bushes and a couple of particularly narrow bits. The horses have little need of guidance – they can’t do much other than follow the path – and most of the riders are glad of the change of pace from this morning.

First Night StopTwo large rolls of hay await the horses at the night-stop – the next morning there will be just about nothing left of them. We leave the horses to it and are transported by minibus back to La Pastorale in Porta; backs need repacking tonight for tomorrow, we move the whole caravan to Comus, some 12 km above Ax les Thermes as the crow flies.

Hoof 1Tuesday dawns early – the minibus is ready to whisk us back to Mérens-les-Vals at 08:30 so everything needs to be in the trailer well before then. By 09:15 we are collecting saddles, brushing down horses – or still trying to catch horses in a few cases – and the first tentative moves are made to look at the horses’ hooves after the gruelling descent of yesterday morning. And the first gasps of disbelief at just how good they look.

Mérens-les-ValsOnce underway, we pass over the picturesque little bridge in Mérens, over the main road and begin the slow ascent that allows us to reach Ax les Thermes without making use of the main road. The atmosphere is good, the views are superb and everyone is feeling reasonably relaxed; until the twisting, narrow extremely steep path up through the trees. Tough ClimbWith a rise of over 150 metres in a straight line distance of just over 250m, the horses have to work very hard to climb this stretch, a number taking time out at the top to have a good roll in the snow. But then it is all downhill along wide forest rides, finally back onto the main road and into Ax les Thermes.

The herd passes rapidly around the outskirts of the town and heads out on the road up to the Col de Chioula and towards the ski-resort of Camurac. Ax les ThermesOnce again, a suitable spot alongside the road forms the ideal place for lunch – once more, very welcome after the mornings hard ride but also as preparation for the afternoon. The climb up to Chioula and back down the other side is again almost exclusively on metalled roads. Weather permitting, from Prades to Camurac is possible on farm tracks but a recent change of venue for the night halt, has also cut this short.
This is the second night spent at a location usually above the snow line and so hay needs to be provided and as before, the next morning there is almost no trace left. In previous years, use was made of a gîte just outside Camurac that was run by Flemish people – this had the added attraction of meaning the beer was well above reproach! Sadly, they have returned to Flanders and this year the evening was spent drinking self-mixed G&Ts at a brand new gîte in Comus.

Plateau de Sault 1Wednesday dawns with the possibility of one of the most spectacular parts of the route – but again, weather permitting. Too much snow makes it almost impassable but the chance of riding over the Plateau de Sault in the snow is one to take up at every opportunity. Once over the plateau, the route finally descends below the snow line and apart from the occasional patch, we have seen the last of the “real” snow.Plateau de Sault 2
Lunch is at La Maison des Maquisards; the Maquis were rural resistance fighters – named after the scrubland in which they fought – and at this house a group of maquisards was executed and the house destroyed by the nazis.
Château de PuivertFollowing another rocky descent and the fording of a river, the going now very easy. Before long, the castle of Puivert can be seen on the horizon and not long after that we are into the outskirts of the town and heading up to pastureland next to the local graveyard. Tonight the horses will have to fend for themselves – there is plenty of rough grass and scrub; we shall retire to the marionettes’ gîte.

Graveyard, PuivertThe last day; despite this realisation, activity is unsubdued and all the riders are at the graveyard before the saddles are brought up in the trailer. We climb out of the corner of the pasture and hit the road for the last time. The day is a mixture of metalled roads, muddy paths and forest tracks but still enough twists and turns and stretches at a gallop to make even this last day as good as the rest. As we finally climb the hill past the abandoned farmhouse, even the first-timers have the realisation that this is the end. Into the enclosed meadowland, we have one final gallop to the top of the hill, dismount and unsaddle our horses. The adventure has come to a close.

DénisThe horses are thanked, we watch them rolling on the grass and sniffing out the ground they have not seen for the last seven months. The last chance for taking photos of the hooves and the horses and it’s off down the hill to await the minibus back to Porta.

LogohoofHoof 3Hoof 4But what about those hooves? How do they look after four days intensive riding – a substantial part on asphalt too? In one word, superb! The myth that hooves wear out too fast is completely busted. These hooves are as good on day four as they were on day one and lameness and injury is almost unheard of.

What does this trip teach us? That horses do not suffer for being exposed to nature, having to fend for themselves, having only dry grasses and, in their absence, hay to feed on. On the contrary, the majority of liveried horses on bix and cubes and all manner of grain-based feeds, would probably have difficulty getting through day one, let alone all four days. Their shod hooves would have had great difficulty in handling the ascents and descents and the chances of injury would have been considerably higher.