Monthly Archives: February 2013

Snow at CT Quarter Horses

Finally after three days of rotten weather in Tuscany, it seems the snow is finally melting. The sun is out, and though it is still certainly very cold; the blue sky is much more positive than the black one earlier this morning.

Snow is lovely for people who don’t have to work in it. It’s not so fun for horse owners, and the logistics of feeding and watering horses under heavy snow can be messy.
It’s during these periods of snow that horses need more food than ever, just as we crave hot soups, grains and other warming foods; our horses dietary needs change with the cooler weather.

horse italy tuscany

With the recent snow, our horses have had their hay rations increased. Most of the horses eat simple meadow hay, of a high quality. They are supplemented with a feed designed to condition horses rather than for horses in work.
Hay can vary in nutritional value depending upon the stage of maturity at harvest and how it is stored after baling.
Our hay is stored in a large covered shed to protect the bales from the weather. All of the hay is produced locally. We have a large field near the lake that usually gets two cuts worth of high quality Lucerne hay. This is used for the breeding stud horses rather than the trekking horses.

One thing we always need to keep an eye on during the winter is colic. When the temperature drops below freezing level, horses are likely to drink less water, and impaction colic occurs more frequently.
If we are worried a horse is dehydrated, we do the pinch test on the neck. We take a fold of skin between the thumb and forefinger. Raise it above the muscle for one second and then let go. It should return to its flattened position on the neck within a second or two. A “standing tent” of skin for a longer duration indicates the horse is suffering dehydration. Often if the horse is offered warmer water straight from the tap, they will drink happily – its cold water they are not so keen on.

The February snow is usually the last for the winter. Next month all the young horses, broodmares and retired trail horses will go out into the big field for the summer. Soon the wonderful wildflowers and long grass will color up the countryside, and it will be spring again.

Until then, its rugs, mud and lots of horses to keep fed!

Boot Camp

There is faint whiff of Spring in the air this week. Whilst undeniably cold, the sun is out, and the sky is clear.

Yesterday half the team of trail horses started their boot camp to get fit by the end of March.
The criollos were brought out in one big group, and round-penned one at a time. Nothing too heavy yet,simply walk and trot as its been two months that they haven’t done anything.
Next came the little Quarter mare that we are bringing back into work this season after a year off. She was hanging her head over the gate, almost begging to do something. After 20 minutes of good behavior on the lunge, she was allowed to graze on the lawn outside the stables while I talked to Elke.

Shamal and Red came in for a good clean. Neither horse was used last year due to one reason or another. Turned out all winter in a hill paddock, their condition was better than most.
After a brief schooling session I took Shamal out for a slow hack along the top of the ridge. Shamal, a big handsome Palomino stomped past everything that he came across without batting an eye. Bulldozer, men in the vineyards, fast drivers, and a couple of startled pheasants. A nice horse, with a good determined walk; Shamal knows that hes a leader. I feel simply a passenger on his back – but considering hes doing everything right, that’s fine for the time being.

Back at the stables I ride two more horses lightly in the arena, and call it a day. Muscles by this stage are in agony, and its only the first day of boot camp.

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European Horsemeat Scandal: Whats really in your Lasagne?

Five years ago, in Southern Tuscany a well known equestrian center had thirteen horses stolen in the middle of the night. The stable manager woke up in the morning to feed the horses, and simply found every single box and field empty. Gone without a traced

These horses were not meat horses. They were warmblood showjumpers, arabian trail horses, purebred haflingers for childrens pony camps… and they almost certainly ended up butchered at a clandestine equine butcher.

haflinger horse meat industry victim

Our pretty halflinger mare. This breed is often a victim to the horse slaughter industry in Italy.

Two years ago there was a scandal in Italy when it was discovered that noted vets were signing off and creating false passports for racehorses that were never to meant to be killed for human consumption, as well as many other riding horses that had ended up in dealers hands also ‘privy of their passports’. These horses ended up on the commercial meat trade. Ended up in peoples supermarket trolleys and on their dinner plates. These horses were probably full of performance enhancing drugs, bute etc, and aside from the moral implications of slaughtering horses that should never have gone down that one way road – they were not fit to be consumed by animal or human.

The United Kingdom as well as France, Sweden, and Holland have confirmed that horsemeat is present or likely to be present in products that have been sold as containing 100% beef.

A sickening discovery for those that love horses and would never dream of eating their flesh by choice, and on a bigger scale, a wakeup call for all of us that buy meat products without thinking it may have been tampered with. If you buy beef, then you expect beef. You dont expect to find pork or horsemeat in these products. It has been doscovered that in prisoners ‘halal meat’ that there are traces of pork – outrageous in a religious sense, and something that has justly caused outrage throughout Europe and further afield. 

Jamie Doward at The Observer stated “experts within the horse slaughter industry have told the Observer there is evidence that both Polish and Italian mafia gangs are running multimillion-pound scams to substitute horsemeat for beef during food production.”

“Coffee, water, fruit, bread, milk, meat, cheese, and even biscuits are all products of organized crime,” says author and journalist Roberto Saviano, who lives under police protection after receiving death threats from the Neapolitan Camorra, one of Italy’s Naples-based organized-crime syndicates.
According to a January 2012 parliament report the Mafia in Italy “controls agricultural and food businesses worth 12.5 billion euros ($16 billion) a year, or 5.6 percent of all criminal operations in the country” as reported by Reuters: “organised crime has spread its involvement through the entire food chain from acquisition of farmland to production, from transport to supermarkets.” http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/29/italy-s-mob-extends-its-reach-into-daily-life.html

In Italy people are not outraged by the slaughter of horses. In this country it is part of the cultural norm, and sad as it is for any horselover – it must be accepted. But to have horses stolen, carted from far away countries, and subjected to horrific treatment before their death. This affects even the hardest horsemeat consumer. Now the fact that this meat is also present in products that are marketed as having 100% bovine meat – well that opens up a new dillema, and thankfully, finally.. people are starting to get upset about it.

 

National Geographic Votes Tuscany Horse Riding Number 4 in the world

In the national geographic book ‘The ten best of everything’ Tuscany was rated number 4 internationally as best destinations to go horse riding in the world.

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“A ride through this stunning part of Italy is a happy combination of idyllic Tuscan landscape seen from the backs of fine horses and a chance to study some of the world’s great art treasures in Florence and Siena.”
http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/top-10/horseback-rides/

As I write this blog post from the office of Castellare di Tonda, the sun is coming down outside and lighting up the silver olive grove outside the reception window. There is still a very winter feel to the farm, but its not a bad thing. The shadows dramatically light up the hills, focusing on the small,solitary points of reference that make Tuscany so unique.

Outside the office there is an abandoned stone farmhouse on the top of the hill. There is a medieval church next to the restaurant. Lonely yet beautiful. Tuscany is special because of the unique concentration of these images. Everywhere you go the view before you looks like something out of a film. Almost unreal, these landscapes have captured the imagination of travelers and artists for thousands of years. Before the Romans, the Etruscans lived in this area. It was from the Etruscan language that the word ‘chianti’ evolved. The Etruscans rode horses and cultuvated farms..and drank wine on this wonderful land, just as we do today.

To finish this post, heres a picture of a very non Italian horse ‘Carlos’. Carlos came all the way from Argentina (he was imported) and was a great trail horse for many years. Here he is enjoying his retirement in the turnout field (all 9 hectares) where he can hang out with the ladies (broodmares) and kids (yearlings)

horse in tuscany

Vignale the abandoned hamlet

Continuing the theme of abandoned castles and hamlets, is Vignale.

No completely deserted and in a terrible state, Vignale had 169 inhabitants in 1833. It dates back to around 1100 and at one time had its own castle complete with secret tunnel underground. The ruins of the castle, the water mill, and the hamlet complete with church; are located deep in the heart of the Selva di Camporena. The woods that link Montaione, Gambassi Terme, Sughera and Volterra.  In 1161 the castle was located on the confines of the Pisan and Florentine territories, putting it in a precarious position war wise for a long time. vignale castle horse ride

The hamlet was heavily bomed by Americans in the second world war, and subsequently abandoned. Left much the same as it was 70 years ago, the hamlet can only be reached on foot, horse or mountain bike. There is an eery sadness to the ruins,which one can imagine soldiers and merchants visiting hundreds of years before.abandoned church vignale

There is a local legend that there exists a secret chamber under this castle, which runs all the way up to the sparse ruins of the Camporena Castle a km up the hill. Of course legend has it that under here there are also buried treasures… just waiting for an intrepid adventurer to discover…

abandoned church vignale tuscany

Choosing a Horse Riding Holiday

You need a holiday. You love horse riding, and you want to do something a bit different ie: try a different style of riding, ride over open spaces instead of the arena, or sort out your schooling issues on expert horses instead of your goofy three year old. Image

There are so many options available -how do you decide where to go?

Obviously first up is your budget. You need to add in flights, transfers, extra gear needed as well as the actual ride holiday price.

Where would you like to visit?  Of course every ride operator or agent is going to rave about whats on offer –  they want your business. So do your research. Go through equestrian forums, talk to people that have traveled in the area you want to go to, check walking and cycling websites too, as that will give you an idea of what type of terrain you will be riding over. Some areas of the world can look magnificent on websites/travel sites – but are not at all suited to horse riding (fences everywhere, lots of road work etc).

It is also important to consider what type of riding you want to do when choosing a destination. If you want to ride at speed – then a mountain trail over the dolomite’s is not the right choice for you. Perhaps consider a beach ride in Spain, Sardinia or a safari in South Africa. If you like the idea of riding through a scenic area,  at a mixed pace -and like to visit cultural sites: then France, Italy and Romania may be good locations.

Operator size. Remember that small is not always good. Smaller rides can sometimes be on a tight budget (especially if horses are there only source of earning a living) and you may find costs are cut so that the owners can save a $ especially in these times of economic crisis. On the flip side, these rides are often more familiar, and you may be accommodated in the owners home and be made to feel part of the family. Sometimes big rides count more on quantity rather than quality, and in the name of numbers riders will be heaped with other riders of a different level. Make sure to ask what the maximum group size is, and whether riders of different levels will be cater too (in different groups). To be stuck on a ride with someone of an inferior level all week can ruin a trip.

Ask  as many questions as possible to the ride owner or the agent you are dealing with. How much riding you will do daily?  What type of horses do they use? ,What qualifications do the staff have (and are they relevant for that country> ie. British Horse Society qualifications are not recognized in Italy by insurers)? Ask who will be riding the same week, and what level they are riding at.

Check who else works with the ride you are interested in joining. International rides of a good quality will have partnered up with horse riding agents or recognized travel agents. They will have checked the ride personally, and made sure the horses and instruction is up to scratch. If the website has professional, well done photos, press coverage, reviews and a good team of collaborating agents – then the ride should be a good one.

If you go direct to an operators website and find on the website photos are of a poor quality, and agents haven’t picked up the ride – make sure you do your research, and talk to others that have ridden there. If the ride is good, there should be photos that showcase that.

NB. Dont put your trust totally in Trip Advisor or similar reviews. People can and do fake these reviews. Make sure you try and talk to people who have been on the ride, who have seen the location and are trustworthy.

Nine top tips for a great trail ride with your horse

Its not necessary to have a chilled happy hacker type horse to enjoy trail riding, but it is important to have a horse that you can trust.

Working outside the box (literally) is a great way to teach your horse to listen to you in a different environment -which makes it even more important if you plan on competing or attending events with your horse.

Trail riding in tuscany

Expect the unexpected outside. You may ride the same route every day for a month and not have any problems, only to find the next day after a heavy storm, that the trail has washed out where you normally let your horse canter.. or that a farmers’s rouge bull has escaped into a field you always ride through.

Be prepared for the worst without expecting the worst is the best key for a fun and most importantly SAFE ride.

1: Wear a helmet that fits well. Dont make that all to common mistake of not buckling it up. You may as well not be wearing it in this case. In the world of western riding wearing a helmet is still not as common as in the english riding scene. I myself can admit to riding for years without a hard hat, Il admit to changing my mind only when I heard about a former employer of mine (a top dressage rider) who lay in a coma for three weeks after her safe, steady 15 year old horse spooked on a trail ride.
Even the best horse can fall, spook etc so why risk your life, and the lives of those that would have to look after you if you injured yourself?

2. Before you even get on, check your prepared for the ride.

– Is your gear well oiled and cared for. Make sure you check girths, bridles, and stirrup/fenders for any cracks. Tack breaking at the wrong moment can be deadly – so spend that extra five minutes looking over everything.
Is your cell phone charged? If things go wrong, do people know where you are heading? Have an emergency contacts number written in your saddle bag just in case…. 

In your saddle bags have you got water, a hoof pick,bug spray, sunscreen, lip balm, maps, an easy boot (in case you loose a shoe) and leather shoelace baling twine for emergency fix-it jobs. I always take a snack too, as if the ride takes longer than expected it can help keep my blood sugar from getting too low.

3. Check over your horse before you leave. Even horses turned out 24/7 should be lunged first and warmed up before a ride. Check his shoes are looking ok. Make sure hes clean under his tack to avoid rubs,and put on leg protection. 
Before you leave your horse should stop well, turn well and be controllable in all paces. Equally important is that you gauge your horses level of fitness for the ride.

If hes been boxed up all winter.. dont expect him to do an eight hour ride straight away. Start slowly, and work your way up. Its not worth risking an injury because you didnt sort out a decent fitness routine earlier.

4: Keep your distance.Out on the ride be observant.
One of my pet hates on trail rides is when riders come too close to a horse they don’t know. The rule of thumb is to keep all horses two horses apart at all times on a ride. If you don’t know the horse you are riding, it is nothing more than suicidal to bring him or her close to another horse.
I have seen kicks to riders in this instance, and they are not pretty. Horse are not cars, and they have bad days just like us. Even best pal paddock mates can strike out at each other when in season/in a bad mood etc.

5: Dont stick in the same spot on a group ride. Move your horses position now and then… put him in the middle, at the back, up the front.
He wont expect to be at the front the whole time if you do this, and when he is at the front he will learn to be more assertive if hes not normally so. Keep your horse thinking, and he will learn from the ride as well as enjoy it.

6. Challenge your horse on the ride. If he spooks at things, stay calm and ride on. If you need to cross water – let him think, drink, touch the water. Be determined. Your horse wants a leader, if you are not confident enough to get him through small things like a stream.. what will happen when you face a river? Don’t overuse your reins either.. they are not the only aid. Use your legs and your seat get your horse to move where you want him to go.
He wont think less of you if you boss him about a bit -he will feel more secure.
Remember the cardinal rule to keep your horse moving forward in times of stress. If he sees a herd of cows, rather than stopping him and allowing him the chance to play up and fret..its better to keep him moving to allow him to move away. If you want to get him used to the cows, ride him around them. Dont force him to stay still, thats messing with his prey animal instinct to run. If you keep him moving around them, he will soon figure out they are not anything to worry about.
NB. be careful of tie-downs or side reins on rides out as they will restrict the horse in water crossings, and even cause him to flip over if he rears.

Horse riding fattoria barbialla

7. Dont push your horse. If hes 18 and of heavy horse breeding, hes not going to keep up with the 6 year old Arabian at the front of the ride.
Trail rides should be relaxing, and about mutual enjoyment. If you want to spend the whole ride at a gallop, maybe you should consider buying a motorbike.

If you must return using the same trail, take attention not to rush home. Take it easy, and you will avoid a very dangerous vice -bolting for home.

8. Cool your horse down. Walk the last mile back, even better -walk him in hand for 5 minutes at the end of the ride with the girth loosened slightly to prevent lactic acid building up.

9. Check him under his saddle,wash him down, and check his shoes. Dont feed him grain straight away as you will risk a colic.

Most horses simply need experience to make them great trail companions. Even the spookiest horse will calm down if he goes out daily under the guidance of a calm, respected, leader.

Keep yourself and your horse safe by following the tips above, and with the experience gained on the trail; your horse will become more confident, self assured and responsive.