Is he happy?

I wrote this post four years ago – four years!!! Jaysus!!

Up to now, I haven’t had the balls to post it. But I’ve just finished reading Tik Maynard’s In the Middle are the Horsemen (will review it later!), and I’m coming to realise that more and more people in the equine industry are beginning to question what we do with our big four-legged friends, and how we do it. So I’m posting this now, in the interest of making people think, maybe provoking some dialogue.

First of all, a throwaway remark from an old friend on Facebook got me thinking.  Then I read a post on another blog which made me realise I’m not the only person from a ‘traditional’ equine background who starts to question everything he or she has always held to be true.

My friend’s remark was that Aero didn’t look happy in the still clip from the video that I posted earlier that week.  (I think this is the post she was referring to videos are good) “Where’s the bright eye and the forward ear?” she asked.  Fair enough, in the frame chosen at random by Youtube to illustrate this video, his head his down, his ears are back and one could indeed think that he’s a bit pissed off.  But, in the interest of that same fairness, he was concentrating about moving backwards around a corner at the time.  It was his concentration face, I said.  Nobody has a pretty concentration face.

But the comment got me thinking about what we interpret as ‘happiness’ in our horses.  Here are some of my musings…

First of all, I’m going to dispense with the anthropomorphic word ‘happy’ – I don’t feel it’s right to project the human emotion ‘happiness’ onto an equine.  I don’t think that a horse is capable of the same feeling of happiness that a child feels on Christmas morning, for example.  Rather, I prefer to use the word ‘contented’ or ‘contentment.’

So, how do we define a contented horse?  Can we say that a horse grazing peacefully with his herd on a sunny day is contented?


I think we can all agree that he is.  He has food, the security of the herd and the warmth of the sun on his back.  To me, this is probably about as contented as a horse can be.  He’s munching away to his heart’s content, maybe he’s doing some mutual grooming or mutual fly-clearance.  The other horses are all around, perhaps the younger ones are wrestling or playing chase on the sweet green grass.  It all sounds idyllic to me.

But let’s introduce a threat, something that will stress our horse.  How about a wolf or two – this is possible where I live, but perhaps in Ireland and the UK, we’ll replace our wolves with the much more likely, two stray collies who are bored and want to hone their herding skills.

One ‘wolf’ appears on the right, the other on the left.  Our horse goes on the alert.  His head goes up.  Nostrils flare.  Eyes are wide and ears are sharply pricked forward as he tries to determine whether the ‘wolves’ are a threat or not.  Is he still contented?

For sure, not as contented as before. Can we say he is worried? Alarmed?

The ‘wolves’ close in, zigzagging back and forth, but still keeping their distance.  Our horse and his herd become more and more agitated.  They run for a short distance and turn to face the threat.  Perhaps he starts to pace up and down, pawing at the ground, trying to scare the ‘wolves’ off.  The adrenaline now coursing through his system causes him to defecate.

Are we all agreed that our horse is most definitely not contented any more?  Is he stressed?  Anxious?  Fearful?  All of the above?

The ‘wolves’ become braver, and start to make darting runs at the herd.  Our horse and his herd decide to get away.  They’re in a huge, open parkland, so they start to gallop, with the ‘wolves’ in hot pursuit.  Our horse gallops as fast as he can, ears concentrated behind him so that he can hear the ‘wolves’, eyes are wide open, alert for further danger either in front or in his peripheral vision.  His nostrils are flared as wide as possible to maximise the airflow into his respiratory system.  His veins are enlarged to allow blood to flow more freely through his body as his heart rate increases dramatically.  He leaps over rocks, streams and any other obstacles that lie in his path.

What emotion is he feeling now?

Finally, he has outrun the ‘wolves’ (or they have become bored) and he and his herd gradually come to an uncertain stop, pacing around continuously, heads shaking from time to time, as they remain on high alert for further threats.

Can we now say that our horse is feeling good about all this?

Because that’s what we like to tell ourselves.  “My horse loves to go for a gallop across country!”

Think of this :

Our horse is contentedly eating hay in his stable.  Whoops, something is happening – his owner has started to hitch up the trailer.

He fixes his eyes on his owner’s movements.  His head is up, eyes wide, nostrils flared, ears sharply pricked.  He returns to his hay, snatches a mouthful but then goes back to the stable door, eyes fixed on his owner’s activity.

His owner proceeds to go through his or her travelling routine.  Haynets are filled and hung in the trailer.  Tack is loaded into the boot of the towing vehicle.  Travelling gear is brought out and put onto the horse.

Our horse starts to pace around his stable, stopping from time to time to kick at the door or paw at his bedding.  If he’s tied up, he might start pawing at the ground as he fidgets back and forth at the end of the tie rope.  He lifts his tail and a stream of droppings hits the stable floor.  His heart rate is elevated, his rib cage shakes every time it beats.

He walks willingly into the trailer, because he’s a sweet, obedient horse.  (His owner says he loves going into the trailer because he loves going out to competitions.)  When he gets to the other end of the journey, his owner shakes his or her head in disbelief when the ramp is lowered to reveal a sweaty horse and a mountain of loose droppings mashed into the bedding of the trailer.

He’s tacked up and he starts to do his job, be it racing, jumping, dressage, hunting, whatever.  His ears are concentrated behind him, listening to his rider or observing the horses around him.  His eyes are wide, focussed on the job at hand.  His nostrils are flared as wide as possible to maximise the airflow into his respiratory system as the work rate goes up.  His veins are enlarged to allow blood to flow more freely through his body as his heart rate increases dramatically with the work he is being asked to do.

Finally he is finished.  His blood is up and he dances around at the end of the lead rope, or he jogs and fidgets, barging into his handler or hauling on the reins if he is still being ridden, tossing his head in an attempt to break free.

His owner laughs and says “he loves a good run” or “he loves to compete.”

Sound familiar?  I’ve just described the behaviour of many (NB. not all) of the horses I had in my care over the years whenever they had an outing.

So why do we say that our horses love their job when they are giving all the same signs and signals that our stressed horse, under attack by wolves gave us earlier?  Are we simply projecting our enjoyment of competition onto our equine companions?  How can we be certain that a horse really loves his job?  If we want happy horses, should we just leave them in the paddock, eating grass all day long?

I don’t have the answers… just the questions. And the thought that there must be a better way.

Think of our first horse again.  He’s out in that same huge open parkland, with no ‘wolves’ in sight.  He wakes up from a nap.  His buddy nips at him playfully.

“Wanna gallop?”

After a bit of head-shaking and nipping back and forth, the two horses take off with a buck and a fart, running for the sheer joy of it.

This is different.

This is fun.

Surely it’s possible.




I’m Mentioning the C word

The one that’s connected with December, to be clear.

I’ve been working on dog-themed Christmas cards which will be available to order on-line.

I’ve got three that I’m happy with but I want at least one more.

Mouse over each image to see the caption, and you can click and zoom in to read what’s written on the chew toy. Just a suggestion. You don’t have to.

My models are Lol, Bertie and Cookie, by the way. Thanks, pups!

I have two ideas for the 4th card of the series. One is classically cheesy and Christmassy, the other has my warped sense of humour going on.

The cheesy Christmassy one is simply a dog, probably a labrador but one with big soulful eyes (maybe even Shiva?), face on or three quarter face, with a sprig of mistletoe overhead. Simple.

The other is this guy.

He’ll be chewing that cursed Elf on a Shelf.

So we’ve got mistletoe or mangled elf.


PS when I do make these into cards, white balance and colour will be corrected.  I think they are going to look amazing 😀



Revisiting my Childhood Friends

After reading Dream of Fair Horses, talking to Jane Badger and discovering that Pony Books are a recognised genre, I decided to shake off the shackles of shame that still hovered over my hands every time I browsed through a shelf of pony books.

I know where it’s coming from. I vividly remember an incident in my teen years when a friend remarked “You’re not still reading THOSE are you?”, her nose wrinkling disgustedly as she said the word ‘those”, when she saw me with a pony book. It was probably a Jill book, I loved those. Or maybe A Day to go Hunting which was the last pony book that I bought for many, many years. Whichever book it was, her words cut me to the quick, causing me to feel guilty any time I picked one of my old friends off the bookshelf for a comfy read, and leading to me passing most of my books on to a neighbour’s pony-mad daughters before I left home for university.

Why does learning that these books are a recognised genre make a difference to me? I think it’s the realisation that other adults read them too. After all, many of us (mostly) respectable adults read the Harry Potter books at the same time as our teenage children, and they were most definitely teen/fantasy fiction. Adult science fiction/fantasy can be pretty unrealistic too… never mind comic books, or whatever the politically correct name for them is… but as recognised genres, their readers are considered peculiar or nerdy at worst. They’re certainly not sneered at by their contemporaries!

Thanks to the wonder that is Kindle, I’d found a few example of equine fiction in an adult setting. Laura Crum‘s Gail McCarthy mystery series, for example. Gail is an equine vet who, rather like Jessica Fletcher from Murder she Wrote, keeps finding herself embroiled in one mystery after another. They’re good books, Laura’s equine knowledge is spot on, even if the horses do remain as a background to the story, but you’ve got to suspend disbelief in order to accept that one woman can get herself into so many scrapes, and all while working full-time as a vet! But, despite that, I’d highly recommend these books, I enjoyed them very much.

My rating – 4/5

In the spring of this year, I found a new series on Amazon, the Defining Gravity series, by Genevieve McKay.

I bought the first one because it had good reviews, but I hadn’t realised it was full-on teen horse fiction. Still, it was well-written, current and touched on some pretty serious issues. Astrid is fifteen, overweight, and bullied and cowed by her domineering father. She’s completely unhorsey but has an astounding talent for archery. A rare moment of teenage high spirits on her part unfolds a chain of events which lead to her working in a local dressage barn. The horsiness begins there…

I actually devoured these books, buying the last one as soon as it was released. They follow Astrid for a couple of years as she grows up and navigates her way to adulthood. Once again, the horsey side of things is 100% solid and, to my mind, provides a good glimpse into the young dressage rider’s world. Perhaps the storyline in the last book, Riding Above Air, is a little weaker, but it’s still very readable.

My rating for the series as a whole – 5/5

It was after reading Defining Gravity that I spoke with Jane Badger and realised that I’m not alone in my choice of reading material. There are lots of us out there! And, thanks to Jane, there are more and more of our old favourites being republished!

So, this summer, I’ve read :

My Friend Flicka and Thunderhead, and I’m about a quarter way through The Green Grass of Wyoming. I bought these second hand on Amazon, they’re cheap and easy to come by. In my opinion, Flicka was the best of this series. I remembered not enjoying Thunderhead so much as a child. It turns out I wasn’t wrong, I still find that it drags.

My rating – Flicka 5/5, Thunderhead 3/5.

Jane Badger’s Jill fan-fiction novel, Jill and the Lost Ponies. If you liked the Jill books, you will love it. She absolutely captures the essence of Ruby Ferguson’s heroine. And it finishes the Jill story so much better than Pony Jobs for Jill ever did! Available on Kindle only.

My rating – 5/5

The rest of the books mentioned below were all bought for my Kindle, and were re-published for Kindle by Jane Badger Books.  You can download these from, if you type in the author’s name or the book title, you should find them easily.

Caroline Akrill’s Showring series. I have to be honest here and say Nah, these books didn’t do it for me. I think a lot of my problem was the ‘posh’ English being used throughout. Or perhaps the fact that I’m a little bit biased against the whole idea of showing.

My rating – 3/5

The Horse from the Black Loch by Patricia Leitch. This is a strange story where the supernatural meets the real world with no attempt at explanation – we must simply accept that there are mysteries in this world that will never be understood.  It’s a good read, it gallops along as a well-paced children’s adventure story rather than a full-on pony book.

My rating – 4/5 with the caveat that it’s more adventure than horsiness!

Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Noel and Henry books; Six Ponies, Pony Club Team and The Radney Riding Club. This series follow the lives of a memorable cast of teenage characters over the course of a couple of summers.  Good fun, realistic characters and genuine horsiness throughout.

My rating – 5/5

I’m also half-way through Jane’s book, Heroines on Horseback, which is an in-depth study of the pony book as a genre, starting at the very beginning with Black Beauty and working up to the 1970s. It’s an academic read and not something I want to devour in one sitting. What I find is that most chapters evoke memories which have long been buried in my mind. It’s great as a trip down Nostalgia Lane, and it reaffirms my new-found determination to be unashamed by my choice of reading material. Ever again.

One final remark – there is a little part of me that is wondering if reading these old favourites is helping me to compensate for the fact that I’m no longer riding. I no longer pony-mad and pony-less, but there are times I long to be able to stomp through the woods with Flurry, my little bulldozer.

Happy gotcha day, Monsieur Mustache.