So here’s the thing. In North America, I believed I was an experienced horsewoman. I really did.
I definitely didn’t think I knew it all, of course. I’m not insane, and any equestrian not completely out to lunch knows that a life with horses is a life of constant learning. That said, I’m woe to report that I was, unfortunately, labouring under the gross misconception that I had some sort of clue. Spoiler alert: I did not.
I’d worked with hundreds of hunters, jumpers, and eq mounts over the years, both my own and those belonging to clients when I was grooming and stable managing professionally. I’d come to love the differences in personalities, learning to manage each horse’s needs to produce the best performances possible while keeping each mount happy and healthy. I learned how to keep a multitude of different levels and abilities fit, schooled, and prepared for their jobs. I could rank every brand of hoof packing in existence from worst to best (and which ones you actually can’t skip the gloves for). I knew how to not get bucked off (most of the time), and how to keep clients in the tack (most of the time). I knew what to expect from each ring, the signup hierarchies at each venue, how far in advance each feed order had to be done in every office. I knew how to travel with horses, short or long distances, by van or by air. And not to toot my own horn or anything, but I was even a *medium decent* clipper. You guys…I thought I knew stuff about things. Then I moved to the UK and I realized that I was actually the Jon Snow of the equestrian world.
A GLOSSARY OF BRITISH EQUESTRIAN TERMS
- 128/138/148 ponies = Small/med/large ponies
- Coloureds = Paints
- Feed or Nuts = Grain
- Grid Work = Gymnastics
- Hacking, Hacking Out, Riding Out = Trail riding
- Head Collar = Halter
- Lorry, Horsebox = Horse Trailer
- Skipping Out = Picking stalls
- New Zealand Rug = Turnout blanket
- Plaits = Braids
- Rosettes = Ribbons
- Rug = Stable blanket
- School or Menage = Arena (can be indoor or outdoor)
- Stick = Crop
- Sweat Sheet = Scrim sheet
- Yard, Stables = Barn
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present: an unabridged (but far from conclusive) list of the equestrian knowledge I had absolutely not one singular clue about:
Eventing is really, really beautiful
I know, I know, North Americans event, too. I can literally feel the entire Canadian eventing population rolling their eyes right now, but before I moved here, my main interaction with eventing had been leaping a pile of tires for a pony club test in the ‘90s. I didn’t know anyone who evented in Calgary, and didn’t even know where the nearest cross-country course would be. (Actually, I still don’t. Where is it? Someone text a girl.)
At any rate, eventing in England is massive, more popular than showjumping or dressage. Hundreds of thousands of people turn up, rain or shine, to watch the big ones like Burghley or Badminton, and they dress RIGHT UP for it, too, and you know how much I love an excuse to dress RIGHT UP. Also, there are champagne tents. So there’s that.
Anyway, suffice to say I love me some three-day, I dig it in a big way, all day long. I love the atmosphere of an event; it’s an absolutely fantastic day out, particularly walking the cross-country phase. I even tried it out myself a little; I didn’t compete (more details to come on personal bravery types) but I did purchase a back protector (and some big girl panties) and schooled ditches, banks, hedges, tabletops, and even leapt in – and out – of a small body of water, and let me tell you I felt damn near invincible afterwards. I cried with envy while streaming hunter derbies from WEF the following week, but you know; it’s a journey.
Feeding haylage to horses
Maybe other North Americans have, but I had not come across haylage before I showed up in my first barn in the UK and was asked how much of it my mare wanted to eat (cue blank stare).
Haylage is not hay. I guess it once was almost hay in the way that kimchi used to be cabbage, or the way the cartilage in my knees used to be functional. It’s fermented forage and comes in different nutritional values. Unlike hay, which is cut, turned several times, and left to dry before baling, haylage is allowed to ferment in a controlled setting as a means to up nutritional value. Hay is generally baled between 10 to 15 percent moisture to minimize the chances of mould; haylage is cut several weeks earlier than hay, allowed to semi-wilt, and baled within 24-48 hours of being cut. The bales are then compressed and wrapped in multiple layers of plastic to prevent oxygen from reaching the grass, creating the anaerobic environment needed for fermentation.
What does this actually mean for the end result? The main difference has to do with how the leaf structure in the grass is preserved. In traditionally dried hay, the leaf fractures and breaks, creating dust and losing water-soluble nutrients. Correctly prepared haylage doesn’t suffer this same leaf loss, as the grass retains moisture and the leaf structures fracture less; typically, haylage provides higher levels of digestible fibre, energy, and protein than traditionally dried hay.
Of course, the type of grass used to create both products is a pretty big part of it as well, and there are timothy, rye, and meadow or orchard grass varieties of haylage available, just as there are for dried hay, and each have different applications depending on the individual’s workload, breed, etc. Also, I know it sounds weird, but the stuff smells delicious. I’m not kidding. I used to be a little suspicious of the scent, since it definitely smells like things have been … happening in there, but these days I’d happily bury my nose in a fresh bale. It smells sort of sweet, and sometimes makes me think of apple cider, and when you cut open a fresh one on a cold day, sometimes they’re warm inside. Haylage mittens, folks. When was the last time your alfalfa squares warmed you up?
Riding on horse on roads
Like, actual paved roads. With cars. I’m not joking. This is a thing people do ALL. THE. TIME. They do it for fun as well as to get to a lesson or a training session or even a local competition. Some people ride almost exclusively “hacking out” on roadways and public country pathways, and not post-ride or after ensuring that their mount has the edge off. I’ve definitely gotten some weird stares for wanting to work a horse down a bit in the arena before venturing out.
Maybe this is just a sign that I’m getting old, but I fully believe there are two types of bravery in this world: the normal variety, and the ‘fresh six-year-old on a narrow lane being passed by a giant lorry in gale force winds whilst a bird banger* explodes in the field next to you’ variety. I am only the second variety once a year, as I require the remaining 364 days to recover from the hangover incurred after drinking my nerves back down.
I think it has something to do with how much less space there is to ride in the UK (it’s pretty heavily populated), as well as the whole public lands thing – there are plenty of public bridle paths and pathways that are free to anyone to use crisscrossing the country and not everyone has access to arenas, indoors or otherwise. Often, in large yards, arena time is scarce and often booked up, so unless there’s a specific reason you need to be in there, like a jump school, plenty of flatwork happens out on a path or circling the perimeter of a farmer’s field (but stay well clear of the seeded bits, or you’re a right jerk).
It’s kind of cool, really. Riding on all sorts of terrain in varying conditions is the norm for even the most recreational horseperson, and you get pretty good at rolling with the punches. There’s no popping off for a quick lunge if you’re on a fresh one that gets set off by something when you’re miles from home on the side of the road, and you definitely don’t want to be walking those miles on foot. You have to hop little ditches to get into a field, or pop over creeks or logs. You start to understand what rideability really is.
It makes me wonder if we’ve lost something on the other side of the pond by becoming so arena-bound, so sport-focussed. It seems a little less free, somehow. And again, I know that there are plenty of horse people in Canada who hack out regularly, but in the places I’ve lived and ridden, it had never really been a possibility, not like this. There were no public pathways; everything was fenced off and private, and of course our cold winters mean either spending a lot of time in an indoor arena or spending a lot of money to head south for a few months. Suffice to say, the vast majority of my equestrian experience in North America was spent within some sort of fence, on some sort of footing. Riding in the UK has expanded my horizons … literally.
Equestrians wear tweed
There’s a lot of it. Don’t fight it. All resistance is futile. You will own a shooting jacket. You will think it’s cute that the green and brown is shot through with pink. You will probably never shoot anything in it. You will consider wearing it with a bobble hat. It’ll be okay, I promise.