The ability of horses and ponies cope with bad weather amazes me. If given the choice between being outside in a field or inside in a cosy shed when it’s pouring with rain, they’ll often choose to stay outside. Flies are a different matter, though, and the horse flies were particularly vicious this year. By the beginning of July the riding horses and the Exmoor ponies were stomping at the gate by seven o’clock in the morning, begging to be let in.
We led the riding horses into their stables every morning, and Orion, Gaia and Demeter followed them into the barn (usually!). Orion is particularly wary of gates, after one slammed shut in his face when he was younger, and occasionally he found it hard to summon the courage to go through by himself. Gaia was a problem in a different way; she’d often overtake the horses, then, finding she was in the lead, go into panic mode!
Exmoor ponies look completely different in summer. Their thick winter coats briefly give way to sleek summer ones which are glossy even when they haven’t been groomed.
Whose side are you on?
Unfortunately I didn’t have time to handle Orion much during July because I was busy writing my latest book, Joe and the Race to Rescue, but towards the end of July my good friend Caroline Fardell came to stay and we spent a happy couple of days playing with ponies. It’s amazing how much they remembered, even though they hadn’t had head collars on for nearly a year.
First we worked with the ponies in the confines of the shed – catching them, setting them free, then catching them again; leading; backing up; turning; touching them all over and picking up their hooves. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?! Well, it can take a whole day to get just one of those things right.
Horses are often ‘one-sided’, and prefer being handled from one side or the other. Orion has taken this to a whole new level. He prefers people to be in front of him, where he can keep an eye on them, but he’s okay about people standing on his right (off) side. His left (near) side is a different matter, and it’s taking ages for him to feel comfortable about anyone being there. It’s particularly inconvenient because head collars are buckled on the near side, it’s traditional to lead from there and (if he’s ridden eventually) people mount from the near side too.
If I’m standing beside him and trying to get to his near side, Orion will politely block me with his head. This can look very endearing, as he’ll snuggle right into me! If I’m further away (as in the photo below) he’ll become very tense, ready to flee. Nervous horses and ponies find people much more threatening if they’re standing a short distance away rather than up close – perhaps because predators, and aggressive horses, need a bit of space to build up the momentum for a strike. I’m glad to say that Orion is getting better all the time. The trouble is that I’m concentrating on doing things on that side of him so much that he’ll probably end up with a problem on the other one!
*Did you know that the terms ‘near side’ and ‘off side’ date back to the days when road vehicles were horse-drawn? The near side is the side next to the pavement when you’re driving a vehicle along the road in the UK, and the off side is away from the pavement.
Funnily enough, Gaia doesn’t seem to be one-sided at all, and Demeter is one-sided on her off side rather than her near side. I have asked several equine vets about one-sidedness and what causes it, and nobody seems to know why it happens. From birth a lot of foals appear to favour being on one side of their mothers, but whether this causes the problem or is a symptom of it is a mystery. The most plausible explanation is that horses are similar to people in that they are generally born right-handed or left-handed (or in their case, hooved).