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Sherman the Shire horse by Sarah Eveleigh

My Gentle Giant

(This story first appeared in The Exmoor Magazine “My Favourite Horse” feature. It was written by our daughter, Sarah.)

I was about 8 years old when Sherman arrived at West Ilkerton Farm, and I was rather scared of the snorting, fire-breathing beast that stood at the top of the lorry ramp. He was by far the biggest, most powerful horse I had ever seen.

Sherman and Spec taking out a horsedrawn tour in 2004
Sherman and Spec taking out a horsedrawn tour in 2004

However, my initial fears went very quickly and, being slightly naive and fearless, I was soon climbing on his back and riding him about the yard. I created a bond with him that I had never had with a horse before. I would tell him about my life and what was happening at school. I soon came to the conclusion, after some difficult times at school, that he was the ideal friend as he was never mean to me, always accepting and always pleased to see me. We all loved him. He was such an impressive horse with such immense power, yet so kind.

When I was about 15, Sherman and his working mate, Spec, were sold and my parents gave up the horse-drawn tour business. I understood why my parents had to sell Spec and Sherman, and I tried to keep a brave face on the whole situation as I could see that Mum and Dad were as upset as I was. I went with Dad in the lorry to deliver the two horses. It was possibly one of the hardest days of my life so far. It was an end of an era for us all, and a big part of life at West Ilkerton seemed to have gone.

Sherman and spec
Sherman and spec

Years went by, but Sherman was always playing on my mind. The horses had been sold on condition that we would have first refusal if they were sold, but we found out they had been sold on, and we couldn’t find out where they’d gone. Mum eventually managed to track Sherman down through his passport number and reassured me he was alive and well in Dorset.

I finished my finals at Cirencester, and on the 1st June this year I decided to go home for a break. I arrived home and everything seemed normal. Mum came out of the office when she saw my car, and suggested I should go and see Winaway, my horse, in the barn. As I went into the barn to say hello to Winaway I saw a big, white unmistakably shaped blaze. I did the biggest double-take I have ever done in my life! There, standing back in his rightful place, was my gentle giant, my friend, my Sherman!!! I flung my arms round his big neck in an overwhelming whirl of emotion. Mum and Dad had tracked him down and bought him back so he can spend the rest of his days back home for retirement!

Now he’s back it seems like he’s never been away. I go down to the barn every day, climb on his back and tell him what’s been happening, I’m sure he must already be bored of my stories, but like a true friend he never lets on.

Sherman enjoying a well-earned retirement with Winaway and Tinkerbell for company
Sherman enjoying a well-earned retirement with Winaway and Tinkerbell for company

Orion The Exmoor Pony 4

When we went into the enclosure where the foals were running loose on the second day, it was almost as if we hadn’t done anything with them! They still seemed petrified of us, and they
bunched together in panic as we approached. Gently, we guided each foal into its individual pen, making sure they had the same places as the day before. We’ve found that if we do this for the first week of handling it gives them a sense of security, and by the end of the first week they’ll more-or-less put themselves into their own pens as soon as the gate is opened. Horses are creatures of habit. When you want to try something new that can be a great disadvantage, but you can definitely work it to your advantage when trying to gain their trust.

Orion
It was amazingly easy to put a head collar on Orion

 

Once in their pens, the foals settled relatively quickly. Orion’s amazingly laid back character hadn’t been a fluke on the first day, and he allowed me to walk up and fit a head collar on him without any fuss. Gaia and Demeter still had to be caught with a long rope, but they weren’t quite so anxious about being touched. Gaia, especially, seemed to be incapable of standing still and relaxing. Given half the chance, she’d run ‘through’ us (ie past us) so we had to teach her that wasn’t allowed by blocking her when she attempted it.
Interestingly, once we started teaching the ponies to lead, Gaia and Demeter were easier than Orion because their first instinct was to move whereas his was to stand still.
However, it was a different story when we tried to pick up their feet. Orion learned what we wanted incredibly quickly, and before long he was picking up any foot, fore or hind, when I touched above the relevant hoof and said, “Up.” He never panicked or tried to kick. In contrast Gaia was obviously terrified of having any of her hooves picked up. As her first reaction was to flee from anything scary, it was a big deal for her to give up that ability by giving us her hoof. For a couple of days I thought we’d never teach her. She was positively explosive, especially when we tried to handle her hind hooves, but she was incredibly brave and tried her hardest to do as we asked. We rewarded the slightest try – even a shift of weight in preparation to lift her foot – and after a week and a lot of hours of encouragement she’d lift each foot off the ground for us so we could pick her hooves out and examine them. Seeing how hard she tried to please us although it was the scariest thing for her to do was truly awe-inspiring.

Gaia, Demeter and Orion
Gaia, Demeter and Orion

I’d better explain here that ‘us’ was sometimes me and our daughter, Sarah, and sometimes me and a good friend called Caroline Fardell who was staying in the self-catering cottage for a week. Both Sarah and Caroline were a huge help.

Well, by the day of the inspection all the ponies would be caught in their pens without the aid of a rope (Orion was by far the best at this), would lead (Orion was still the worst at this!) would pick up their feet (Orion was a pro, Demeter was just about okay and Gaia was okay if you were really careful and did nothing to upset her) and would have their teeth inspected (Demeter was the most sensitive about her mouth being touched).

Orion

On inspection day, the inspectors seemed to be in such a hurry that they ignored my request to let Sarah and me handle the foals, sample their hair and pick up their hooves. Unfortunately one of the inspectors was particularly rough towards Orion. He slapped him in an attempt to get him to move, and pulled two large bunches of hair out of his tail for DNA samples, when a few hairs from his mane would have done the job just as well and been far less painful. This was a great shame because the three foals were understandably alarmed by several strange people handing them in different ways. At least the foals don’t have to be branded with hot irons anymore, even though the alternative, microchipping, isn’t pain free.

Since microchipping became compulsory, it’s now up to owners to decide whether they want their ponies to be branded as well. I personally hate branding, so I don’t do it now, but it is a very useful means of identification for unhandled ponies on the moor – especially as Exmoor ponies all look similar, with no white markings. At present, microchips can only be read using hand-held devices which are placed next to the pony’s skin. As you can imagine, this can be tricky with a wild pony! Branding, if done well, gives a pony an easily identifiable mark for life. However, in the past an unnecessary number of brands have been used and brands have often turned out to be illegible, especially in winter. Thank goodness work is now in progress to devise a better system.

Exmoor foals coming out of shed High jinks Orion, Gaia, Demeter and Hell's Bells
After our ponies had been inspected and registered, we decided to turn them out into the small field (called a splat on Exmoor) behind the shed so they could relax. They came out into the back yard cautiously, but as soon as they entered the field they were off – galloping, bucking and chasing each other in circles. This must have done wonders for their spirits (and it did wonders for mine as I watched them) but it didn’t do the grass much good.

Orion Orion Orion

I’m very sad to say that when we got the ponies in again to handle them, they all behaved differently, especially Orion. He was obviously scared stiff (literally) of anyone coming near him, he resisted having his feet picked up and he was terrified of anyone moving towards his tail – so much so that he’d swing round explosively to protect himself. We could only put the change down to his inspection. There was no other logical explanation.

Orion the Exmoor Pony 3: Orion’s First Close Encounter With A Human

This is a brief account of the first handling session we gave Orion and his sisters, Gaia and Demeter. I hope it gives some idea of how different each individual foal can be.
After they’d been weaned, the foals spent a few days running loose with a tame mare in a large shed which opens onto the farmyard. They watched us walking around, but we made no attempt to touch them. In turn, we were watching them to see what sort of characters they were. Sometimes there’s a bully in the group and all the ponies are constantly unsettled. I don’t know whether the older ‘nanny’ mare was keeping them in order this year, or it may have been because there were fewer foals than usual, but there seemed to be remarkably little friction between them all. Gaia was inquisitive, and initially we thought she’d be the easiest to tame because she seemed to be the boldest. Orion, on the other hand, was always hanging back behind his sisters, watching from a distance. We thought he’d be the most difficult one.

The wild foals are easily scared and can move fast. This is Orion in the shed before he was handled
So, this is what happened on the first day of handling. The foals were in one side of the shed, and we made three pens in the other side out of round pen sections (fairly expensive to buy, but worth every penny). Using long sticks with stuffed gloves on the end as extensions to our arms, we guided each foal into an individual pen. This was easier said than done, because they bunched together and moved fast; we knew they’d try to jump impossible obstacles if they became too scared. We’ve discovered that you have to think you’ve got all day, be very calm towards the ponies and fellow handlers, read the ponies’ body language and have just one or two people helping who are in tune with each other. The pressure on the ponies increases with every additional person in the shed, and they can tell instantly if someone’s anxious or impatient. Chris, Sarah and I now make a good team, but it’s taken us a few years. When you’re with domesticated horses for most of the year, it’s easy to forget how reactive unhandled foals can be. 
One of the golden rules of horse training is you shouldn’t have a time limit, but the reality is that everyone has a time limit of some sort. My deadline was eight days, because that was when the Exmoor Pony Society inspectors were due. Before then, I wanted each foal to be easy to catch, relaxed about being touched all over and relatively happy about having its feet picked up and mouth opened.
Once the foals had been shut into their pens, we left them alone for a few minutes so they could get used to their confinement. Gaia made a terrible fuss, whinnying and charging around looking for an escape route. Demeter had a similar reaction, but she tried to burrow under the pen rather than looking for a way over the top. Orion was much more laid back. He inspected the pen at a walk, and then stood in the middle of it and looked at us. I decided to handle Orion and let Sarah get to know Gaia!
Having made myself as calm as possible, I entered Orion’s pen and stood just inside it, expecting him to move to the far corner or rush around its outer limits, but he stood still. After a couple of minutes, I took a few steps towards him and then backed away again. He stood still. Worried that he might have shut down with fear, I took a good look at him, but he seemed perfectly alert and interested in what I was going to do next. It wasn’t completely plain sailing (once or twice I approached too quickly and he backed off or did a circuit of the pen) but after about ten minutes he let me touch him. He was always keen to face me, so it took a bit of patience to get him to stand still while I touched his sides, but once he realised what he was supposed to do he stood still. Like a lot of unhandled ponies he was much more tolerant of being touched on one side (his right) than the other (his left). Each time he did what I wanted, I rewarded him by moving away. He learned quickly, and after about an hour I left him alone with some food and water.
Meanwhile, Sarah had resorted to a rope and stick (explained later) to catch Gaia. I must admit I felt rather smug, and allowed myself to think that Orion had been so good because I was becoming much better at handling wild foals.
Full of confidence, I entered Demeter’s pen. She instantly fled, desperate to get as far away from me as possible. After she’d calmed down, I started gently advancing and retreating towards her, determined that I was going to touch her without the aid of a rope around her neck to keep her steady. She allowed me to get so far, then rushed round the perimeter of her enclosure, with me standing in the middle. After about half an hour, I decided that I was getting nowhere fast; we’d settled into a pattern of her fleeing at the same point every time. In fact, I wondered whether I had been inadvertently teaching her to flee. Time to think again.
I fetched the rope and stick, and noticed that Sarah had finished her session with Gaia, who seemed much more relaxed about life.

“Shall I go in with Orion while Gaia’s having a rest?” Sarah asked.

“Help yourself, but go steady. The next stage is to put a head collar on him,” I said. “But I should put a rope round his neck first, just to make sure.” Secretly a teensy weensy awful part of me was hoping she’d be slightly less successful than I’d been.

 
I hung the noose of the rope over the long stick, and entered Demeter’s pen again. Despite introducing the contraption slowly and carefully using advance and retreat tactics, she fled whenever it came too near, dashing around and looking for an escape route near the ground. This sort of reaction to something scary is, I find, very difficult to deal with. It’s tricky to get a rope around a pony’s neck if it’s facing away from you with its head touching the ground! After about five attempts I managed to slip the noose over her head and remove the stick, and I retreated to let Demeter calm down. Glancing into the next door pen, I was astonished to see that Sarah had a headcollar and lead rope on Orion.

“How did you do that so quickly?” I asked.

“Walked up and put it on,” she said.

“No need for a rope or anything?”

“Nope. He was as good as gold.”
Orion and me
Back to Demeter: I now had a very nervous little foal with a soft rope noose around her neck. She was still keen to flee from me and try to burrow under the pen, so the first thing I had to teach her was to stand facing me. I did this by exerting just enough pressure on the rope to cause a reaction from her. If she gave to it at all (by stepping in the right direction or lifting her head to look at me) I let the rope slacken, averted my eyes and walked away. She learned fast. Within about ten minutes, she was responding well to signals from the rope. Within another five minutes I’d touched her for the first time. That first touch was pretty traumatic for her. She leaped backwards and tried to flee, but couldn’t because of the rope around her neck. Interestingly, once she realised that fleeing was no longer an option she became much calmer. Perhaps I shouldn’t have persevered for so long trying to touch her without the aid of a rope. I touched her on both sides, and then let her have a well-deserved rest.
Afterwards I felt that, although we’d got there in the end, I hadn’t handled Demeter’s first lesson at all well. I could have been a better teacher. She’d taught me what I should have known already: ego isn’t at all helpful when handling wild foals and, although general principles still apply, every pony needs to be approached differently.

Orion the Exmoor Pony 1

 

Orion as a foal

It seems that Orion the Exmoor pony is getting quite a fan club. By popular demand, there are going to be regular updates about him on this blog. He’s nearly a year old now, so I’ve got some catching up to do if I’m going to tell the story of his life so far. Bear with me, as I’m supposed to be re-writing A Stallion Called Midnight at the same time!

Here goes, from the beginning:

Orion suckling his mum when he was a couple of weeks old. The other foal is Gaia.
Orion suckling his mum, Ivy, when he was a couple of weeks old. The other foal is Gaia.

Ilkerton Orion (265/035) was born on the moorland above West Ilkerton Farm in April 2011. In case you’re wondering, the number 265 is the West Ilkerton herd number and 35 is his individual number. Orion’s mother is Ivy (349/4) and his father is Ziggy, short for Acreswild Zeitgeist (230/3). Ziggy was our wonderful stallion for several years. He can now be seen with a herd of Exmoors on the moorland above Countisbury Hill, near Lynmouth.

Ziggy May 08
Acreswild Zeitgeist (Ziggy) was Orion’s dad

For any Exmoor pony experts out there, Orion’s grandparents are Liqueur (A/167-A), Cranbrookpaddocks Sanlucar (190/9), First Time (44/9-A) and Holly (A/79-A), so he has excellent bloodlines and a lot of the famous Anchor herd in him.

Orion and Gaia on the moor

Orion spent the first six months of his life as a wild pony, living with 34 Exmoors on about 800 acres of moorland. He had three other foals to play with, and life must have been pretty idyllic. Humans were, no doubt, of little or no concern.

Orion with his mum, Ivy
Orion with his mum, Ivy

However, that all changed in early November, when the herd was gathered and he was weaned. What a shock that must have been!

Mares and foals in the shed
Mares and foals in the shed

Weaning is never easy, but it was especially traumatic for him because he tried to jump through the cattle feed barriers to get back to his mum. Like Pooh, his tummy was the broadest part of him and, like Pooh, he got stuck. He became so terrified when we approached that we decided to back off and let him work things out for himself. Just as we were thinking that, like Pooh, he’d have to stay there until he became slimmer, he made a monumental effort and struggled free. As far as we know, no serious damage was done, thank goodness. As we often seem to say when dealing with livestock, “There’s always one!”

Orion was very upset about being in the shed
Orion was very upset about being in the shed

His mum and most of the rest of the herd were put back on the moor, leaving Orion and his sisters, Gaia and Demeter, behind. We kept them all together in a large shed with a tame mare I was given called Hell’s Angel (!) and her ‘surprise foal’, which was born in June, who we couldn’t resist calling Hell’s Bells. At her last home, Hell’s Angel had got together with a neighbouring Appaloosa stallion, and the result was Hell’s Bells. I suppose she could be the only Appaloosa x Exmoor in the whole world!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It definitely helps to keep unhandled foals with a calm and confident older pony, and Hell’s Angel was a very good nanny. The shed was open at one end, so the foals could get used to the sights and sounds the farmyard, but we didn’t attempt to touch them for several days. Then the fun began…
I’ll describe how I taught Orion to accept basic handling in my next blog.

Orion the Exmoor Pony 2: Tips on Handling Wild Foals

Some Thoughts on Taming Wild Foals 
There are many different ways of taming wild foals and, as with most things in life, there’s no ‘right’ way. However, some ways give much better results than others, and some are much kinder than others.
  I’m most definitely not an expert, but I’ve developed a method which seems to work well for me, feels right and makes use of the equipment we’ve got here on the farm. It’s based on what I’ve been taught by a horsewoman called Vanessa Bee, tips I’ve picked up from other people, information gathered from books and videos on the subject, and also what I’ve learned from our wild foals themselves.

Working in a round pen at West Ilkerton

The equipment I use is:

A large barn which is divided in two with secure barriers and gates. The floor has a deep bed of straw so the ponies won’t slip. The ponies run loose together in one side of the barn. There are three round pens (made up from about six or seven segments each) on the other side of the barn. Initial handling is done in these round pens.

Round pen segments I bought some mesh round pen segments a couple of years ago, and they were a great investment because they make handling so much easier. A round pen can be made out of lots of different things, though – big bales of straw, for instance. A normal stable or any enclosure with four walls will do, but if it’s got corners it will make handling the pony more difficult.

A long, thick piece of yachting rope with a noose and stopper at one end. This is for initial catching, before the pony has learned to be caught. It is like a thicker version of a lasso.

A long stick which is forked at one end You can use this to ease the noose of the rope over the pony’s head, (unless you’re good at lassoing!).

A head collar which is strong, fits well and is easy to put on and take off.

A good-quality lead rope which is about 10 feet long

Before I describe handling Orion for the first time, I think it would be useful to talk a little bit about the way in which I communicate with our wild ponies. Horses and ponies usually communicate silently (despite what you may believe if you’ve watched the film of Warhorse!). Most of the time, they use their bodies and their inner energy, and tremendous results have been achieved by people who have perfected the art of communicating with them in this way.
Here are some basic things I’ve learned:

First and foremost, always try to be as safe as possible. Prepare everything beforehand so you’ve got the best chance of achieving what you’ve set out to do. Practise rope skills and things like putting on halters beforehand. Do initial handling in a confined area which is large enough for the pony to have its own space. You should have an escape route out of the pen, but the pony shouldn’t. The surface of the handling area should be non-slip and soft (sand or shavings are ideal, but straw is also okay). Wear a hard hat, non-slip gloves, non-slip boots and clothing which doesn’t make a noise when you move. Ponies are very sensitive to smell, so be clean but don’t wear perfume!

• Try to have a clear, still mind. Control your inner energy and emotions. I find it helps to follow Vanessa Bee’s advice and imagine a flame deep inside which I can turn up and down according to how much energy I want to project (like a Bunsen burner – do they still have them in science labs?). Try to keep in balance with the pony’s energy, so your total energy is a notional 100%. Therefore, if the pony’s energy is high (around 80%, say) you want to drop your energy to 20% so that the total energy you are both projecting is 100%. When dealing with horses, you should keep your ego (the part of you which makes you think you’re something special!) locked away where it can’t do any harm. There’s an old horsy saying: Pride comes before a fall. It’s true.

• Your eyes are very powerful tools. Make eye contact only if you want the pony to move. It’s possible to make a pony move a particular foot just by looking at that foot. Eye-to-eye contact is very scary for a wild pony. Ponies are also very sensitive to breathing, so try to breathe calmly and regularly. If you hold your breath you’ll make the pony nervous, but if you sigh deeply it can be relaxing (for you and the pony!).

• Make all your movements gentle, relaxed and flowing. But be confident, not creepy. If you’re creepy you’ll look like a predator. Ponies respond well to circular movements. Following on from this, they respond well to advance and retreat tactics when introducing something new (especially when introducing people, including yourself). With a gentle, flowing movement, go towards the pony and then away again, getting a little closer each time. Sometimes you don’t even have to move your feet for this to work – just lean in a different direction and change your energy flow. Similarly, introduce a new item like a headcollar by holding it out gradually and taking it away again, getting closer each time.

• Human hands and arms are scary to a wild pony. Introduce your hand with gentle advance and retreat movements, and offer the back of your hand with your fingers curled away rather than an outstretched open hand. (A predator’s claw would be outstretched and open.)  Everything you do should tell the pony that you ‘come in peace’.

• The first time you touch a wild pony (and for several times after that), it will probably jump away, as if it’s had an electric shock. It probably has, in a manner of speaking, because it seems that ponies are much more sensitive to inner energy than we are (or we’ve learned to ignore it to avoid sensory overload in our busy lives). Ponies have very sensitive skin – probably just as sensitive as ours. They seem to respond best to being touched with firm, slow, circular strokes or light scratching. Patting is usually not appreciated, especially a hearty pat which is more like a slap! Some ponies, especially those prone to sweet itch, have particularly sensitive skin and hate being touched.

• If the pony wants to run, don’t stop it, but don’t do anything to scare it either. Just stand passively in the centre of the pen. Running releases the pent-up energy from being frightened (I think psychologists call it trauma energy). If the pony is prevented from releasing that energy it can become neurotic.

• Read the pony’s body language constantly. The eyes, ears, muzzle and tail are particularly good indicators of its state of mind. A truly terrified pony may appear to be good because it’s standing still and allowing you to touch it, but it may have shut down completely – rather like fainting. Signs of this are a rigid body and a vacant, unblinking expression. If you think this has happened, leave the pony alone to recover, keeping a careful watch on it from a distance.

• Remember that being stroked or praised with words is unlikely to be a reward for a wild pony – the exact opposite, in fact. The best way to reward good behaviour is to walk away quietly and give the pony a rest. This has the added advantage of giving it time to realise what it did right. I like to give the foals I’m handling very small feeds in a bucket when they’re resting in their handling pens. This means they associate the pen with something nice, and the act of chewing is relaxing for them. I personally don’t like giving titbits by hand as a reward, but some trainers do. I find that it can be a distraction, it can make ponies pushy and may teach them to bite – probably because they associate hands with food.

• All horses and ponies are individuals. Constantly adjust what you’re doing to fit the pony’s reactions. Don’t stick to a set ‘one size fits all’ formula, and don’t let time be an issue. Like people, some ponies learn faster than others, or perhaps your method of teaching doesn’t suit the pony. (See my descriptions of Orion and Demeter in the next Orion blog.)

• Ponies will naturally brace against pressure. They have to be taught to give to pressure so they can be led or ridden. They learn to give to pressure amazingly quickly if you release that pressure (a pull from the lead rope, for example) the instant the pony yields to it. Never use more pressure than necessary. Your aim is to decrease the pressure needed until you just have to think something and the pony will do it!

• Keep handling sessions short but regular. Always end on a good note. When you release the pony, always make sure you walk away before it does. You should be in control of the pony’s movements whenever you’re handling it. Don’t let it move your feet.

• To quote Alice in the Katy’s Ponies trilogy, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Training wild ponies is incredibly rewarding but it can also be frustrating and it’s definitely time-consuming. Your aim is for the pony to want you to be its leader because it trusts you completely. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?!
Phew! I’d better stop there, or this will be the longest blog in history. Now you know some of the basics, it will be easier for you to understand my description of our first day of foal handling.

If you’re interested in good horsemanship and wild pony handling, the Equine Tourism website has lots of information and a discussion forum. We can all learn so much from each other. 

Vanessa Bee’s new book The Horse Agility Handbook has excellent advice about communicating with horses and ponies so that, eventually, you can work them at liberty.

Using a rope to teach foot lifting

A Lucky Break

This is the first blog on my brand new website. As some of you know, I was self-publishing my books for more than ten years (under the imprint of Tortoise Publishing) before Orion Children’s Books took me on last year. Several people have asked how I managed to become a ‘proper’ author. The short answer is a great big dollop of luck. A longer answer is this:

A lady called Louise Weir emailed me to say she’d like to make my book Midnight on Lundy a book of the month on the website www.lovereading4kids. Well, as you can imagine, I was thrilled. Apparently Louise had picked up the book because she had happy memories of family holidays on Lundy.

It was hard work doing research on Lundy!
It was hard work doing research on Lundy!

We started exchanging emails every so often, and one day she asked why I self-published my books. The answer was simple – I hadn’t been able to persuade an agent or a publisher to take me on (although I’d been so disheartened by rejections that I hadn’t tried for ages). She suggested that I should send my books and a covering letter to Orion Children’s Books.

I was amazed when Fiona Kennedy from Orion emailed me to say she’d like to come to see our farm and meet me. She visited us on a lovely sunny day in June 2011. I was so anxious not to get my hopes up that I talked non-stop about anything but books. We gave her a tour of the farm and showed her our Exmoor ponies on the moor. At about four o’clock, Fiona said that the tour of the farm had been lovely, but that she really needed to sit down and talk to me about my books, so we did. As you can imagine, I was delighted (actually, I was too

Orion suckling his mum when he was a couple of weeks old. The other foal is Gaia.
Orion suckling his mum when he was a couple of weeks old. The other foal is Gaia.stunned to feel anything much!) when she said that Orion would like me to re-write my existing books for publication in 2012, and they would like some completely new stories for publication in 2013. Wow!

Since then my life has changed quite a bit. I spend much more time writing, which I love (except on bad days when my mind goes blank – but everyone gets those, I’m told). I spend even less time than I used to cleaning the house (I’ve always found housework incredibly boring) and I don’t have to sell and distribute my own books (hurray!). The only downside is I seem to be spending far less time with my family, out on the farm or with the horses and dogs. However, if I get my act together (and spend less time on Twitter and Facebook or staring at my computer screen while sipping coffee) I’m sure I’ll be able to make time for everything, including handling my Exmoor gelding, Orion. He was born on the moor last year. More about him in my Orion the Exmoor blogs.

How to write a story: ten tips

It’s great that so many people want to be writers. At least, that seems to be the case from the amount of times I’m asked how to become an author. Here are some things I’ve found out in the twelve years since I decided I wanted to write stories:

1. There may be a few natural geniuses out there, but most of us have to learn how to write well. Read as much as you can, write as much as you can, accept criticism from people you respect, learn from your mistakes and don’t get too disheartened when things go horribly wrong.

2. Try to work out why you like some stories more than others. Write the kinds of stories you’d like to read. I’ve always loved horse and pony stories, and now I’m writing them.

3. You’re much more likely to be taken seriously as a writer if your spelling, punctuation and grammar are good. (I struggle with all three.)

4. Ideas for stories can come from anywhere, and often when you least expect them: books, conversations, real-life events, TV, film, radio, newspapers and magazines or out of the blue at three o’clock in the morning. It helps to write ideas down in a special notebook so you don’t forget them. Experiences – good and bad – are particularly useful. Try to put your feelings into words and write them down too. It’s important to take care of your notebook; I often put mine down somewhere and then spend ages hunting for it.

5. Good stories follow certain rules of story-telling. The most obvious one is that they should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and that the things which happen should connect with each other in some way. This is where stories often differ from real life, where lots of unconnected things may happen which don’t seem to make any sense at all!

6. Write about something which interests you. If you’re bored while you’re writing, it’ll show.

7. The more you write, the easier it gets because your brain becomes fitter. The trouble is that your body may become less fit, and writing tends to induce cravings for chocolate and cake, so don’t become a writing zombie. I’ve found that a dog who needs a walk every few hours is a great help.

8.  Make sure you choose a husband / wife / partner / friend / pet who’ll understand when meals don’t appear, appointments are missed and you give up talking all together because you’re so wound up in your latest story.

9. I’m easily distracted by emails, Facebook, Twitter and the internet in general. If you have the same problem, try to be strict with the time you set aside for writing every day. I sometimes turn off the internet so I’m not tempted. Write in a place where you feel comfortable and you won’t get interrupted. (Easier said than done.)

10. Become a writer only if you really enjoy writing and you don’t mind spending a lot of time alone. If you decide to become a writer, give it all you’ve got. Learn as much as possible from others, strive to improve your work and keep going even when you feel like giving up. Make the most of every opportunity; you never know where things may lead. For example, I published my own books for ten years, and I found it really hard work. Then one day I replied to an email from Lovereading4kids, and that eventually led to me being taken on by Orion Children’s Books – a very happy ending!