I've been so lucky to have had horses in my life since the 1960's - it really was a case of right place, right time. Sounds like forever ago now, but the older I get the quicker time seems to pass. It still seems like yesterday that I was a young teen galloping mad ponies bareback with just a headcollar. Don't think my heart-rate could cope with that now.
Me, Blas and Murphy
Since those happy days I've watched modern progress change the horse world beyond all recognition, with chemically-driven agriculture leading to technological feed breakthroughs, and management techniques the likes that have never previously been witnessed - or even concieved - before.
The equine feed and nutrition industry has become a minefield of confusion; where once we used to pick up hessian sacks filled with oats, bran and raw linseed, now there's huge industrial units piled high with hundreds of shiny bags promising every aspect of equine health.
Yet sadly, the longer I've been caring for horses, the more I've come to realise that while these bags appear to promise miracles, the only advice available with some feed companies seems to be based purely on product sales. If the overall deterioration of the domesticated horse's health over the last couple of decades is anything to go by, there's an element of the feed industry that doesn't seem to be for the benefit of our horses' health at all.
For me, it was only when my horse world started to go horribly wrong in the mid-2000's that I had a massive wake-up call, and ran at top-speed back to a more natural ideal and methodology.
Since then I've been on an eye-opening trip of healthy discovery. If I've learned nothing else, the one overriding factor to sustain the health and longevity of our horses is so very simple - and natural. Keep our horses how they're meant to be kept, and feed our horses with what they're meant to be fed while balancing their nutritional needs. In other words, let our horses be horses as they should be, naturally.
My EquiNatural world is supported by my years of practical experience in caring for my own horses since the early 1970's, and of course my wonderful horses who continue to teach me more every day. My competition days are now long gone and my horse world is now much more relaxed, with our horses now pretty much living a well-deserved leisurely semi-retirement in the glorious Mendip Hills in Somerset.
It all started . . .
. . . when mum took me for my first riding lesson as a child. Although in truth we can probably say when I was born in1958, because my maternal grandmother put Pepi, a cuddly toy donkey, into my cot. Pepi is still with me to this day, although his ears are split and floppy, he can't stand up any more as he's got three broken legs, he can't see because his eyes fell out, and he can't speak any more because one of our jack-russells ate his mouth.
Then, when I was 18-months old, look what I got for Christmas . . .
Me and Lulu - you can't argue with destiny
I was so lucky to spend my childhood in the beautiful Surrey Hills countryside with literally miles of glorious never-ending Crown-Estate forest and hills to play in. It's no wonder that I became a committed tomboy - nature was my world. My early childhood was literally spent outdoors playing cowboys and indians, climbing trees and taking off into the woods to make camps with my brother.
Meanwhile my poor mother had tried every girlie hobby for me to make something stick. Swimming, bit dull; ballet - bit girly. I kept saying 'Ponies!', but she kept resisting, and it wasn't until many years later that I learned she was allergic to all things pets and pollens so needed to avoid ponies at all costs. As a Last Chance option she enlisted me in the local Brownies, which I actually quite enjoyed but 'White Horses' was on TV at the same time - anyone remember that? So I sulked and Brownies came to an abrupt end. (Click here for a 'White Horses' blast from the past)
Eventually mum very stoically gave in and contacted the local riding stables. On a lovely summer's day I was introduced to Wichy, a beautiful white Connemara Princess-Pony, with a coat soft as cashmere and meltingly warm breath. My heart melted right back; she was my real life 'White Horses' white horse. I can still remember every detail of that day as if it was yesterday.
From then on I never looked back. I became the typical pony-mad kid, spending every spare moment of my early teens helping out at that same riding school, which just happened to by run by one of today's most esteemed equestrian families, Marion and Peter Larrigan and their daughter Tanya, an Olympic junior team member and one of Britain's leading international dressage riders and classical trainers. Talk about lucky.
By the mid 1970's and now aged 16, I became a live-in Working Pupil with the Larrigans to train for the 1-Year BHSAI exam. I didn't only learn the syllabus from them though; the Larrigans were very unique communicators with their horses - it was never about controlling or dominating that regrettably we see so often today.
The Larrigans had a genuine respect for their horses; their horses were their best friends - they recognised them as their partners, their team-players, yet very much with an appreciation that their horses had horse needs. There was always a lot of 'play' - you only have to see Tanya's 'Magic of the Horse' and 'Mini-Marvel' shows to witness the amazing relationships she has today with her horses. You don't achieve partnerships like that through dominance.
Once out in the big world and thanks to the Larrigans, it wasn't hard for me to lean towards what is now generically known as 'natural horsemanship'. As the 'natural' concept grew over the years, I dipped in and out until I found my own natural direction. How I tumbled into EquiNatural, however, was quite by chance.
Fast forward to 2007 . . .
. . . I'm in my 50th year, and for the last couple of years I've watched, helpless, as my beautiful herd of horses have metabolically crashed in front of me.
But before all that, let me introduce Kelso, a truly charming, beautifully bred, elderly ex-show cob, who we'd originally met a couple of years previously via our trainer. (Trainer?! Why did I need a trainer, I hear you ask? Aha, read on ...)
If it wasn't for Kelso, there would be no EquiNatural
In August 2007, Kelso joined our family as my husband's horse. We knew Kelso well as we'd fostered him for 6-months when our trainer had previously been unwell. We knew he also came with baggage - 'allergy' was his middle name. He had chronic sweet-itch, with deep-rooted habitual red-raw scratching and serious head-shaking, but I was perfectly happy to manage this with the usual paraphernalia of fly rugs and face masks.
However, he also came to us with brittle, crumbling hooves which he hadn't had previously when we'd fostered him, and a worrying hacking cough which, for August, was unusual. The only respiratory term banded around then was COPD, which as far as everyone knew only related to winter, didn't it? The now very recognised seasonal pollen allergy response hadn't been acknowledged back then.
Within a week of Kelso coming to live with us, his cough got progressively worse, and he was now wheezing so badly, with such extreme heave lines and nostril flare that he literally couldn't get his breath to walk. Kelso's respiratory system was in meltdown.
The vet diagnosed secondary chest infection, and he was prescribed the usual bute, antibiotics and Ventipulmin. Two weeks later he'd not only not responded to any of it, but he was significantly worse.
He was now in his stable permanently as he could no longer muster the energy to walk out of it. The vet came again and prescribed another 2-week course of meds. Still Kelso didn't respond.
I was desolate, and having only just got him in our lives it now seemed we were facing the very real prospect that we could lose him. As his respiratory system weakened, it was crystal clear that his immune system wasn't coping, and the prescribed antibiotics weren't killing off anything other than what little immunity he had remaining. On the third visit when I was now borderline manic with despair, the vet finally suggested PTS.
I'm sure most of us have experienced issues with our horses - you probably wouldn't be reading this if you weren't going through something right now. In the list of worse things that can happen to you in horse-world, having your vet either unable to help, or giving you the impression that he's not that interested in helping, or saying the PTS words, is right up there. So once I'd somehow found an atom of sanity through the red mist, I did what any educated, self-sufficient woman on a mission to get her horse healthy again, would do. I raced home and hit the website.
I was clutching at straws, I knew that, but I wondered if herbs could help kelso. I hit the herbal medica, and lost sleep researching every herby web page I could find. Finally, in the small hours, I'd put together a bronchial-busting blend of respiratory herbs. I also had a generous helping of Liquorice for lovely vapour and soothant to help re-open and soothe Kelso's upper respiratory tract to get him breathing again; naturally there was Echinacea, the renowned immunity booster, as a major player; and I figured that Yarrow, which sounded like a brilliant tonic herb, would maybe help lift Kelso's spirits again. I bought everything and gave him a double dose for breakfast, crossed everything I had to cross, and waited.
His response was quite astonishing - if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed it. Within 48 hours, his nostril flare and wheezing were significantly reduced. By Day 3 his eyes were bright again and he was breathing regularly. Within 5 days his heaving had completely stopped and he was able to be turned back out with the others. Within 2 weeks we took him out for a gentle walk on the flat. I can't describe the relief we all felt - Kelso was on the road to recovery.
The EquiNatural seed was sown
The stress of watching Kelso struggle - and worsen - for a month, had turned me into an exhausted, desperate woman. Kelso had had a list of symptoms as long as my arm, yet the vet's 5-minute attendance and diagnosis was instant; "He's got a chest infection." In his professional opinion, it was nothing that a dose of bute, antibiotics and Ventipulmin wouldn't fix.
Two doses later, a PTS recommendation and a bill enough to bankrupt me, I felt devasted and betrayed, with little confidence in our vet. All the more so when a simple blend of herbs had given Kelso not only symptomatic relief within hours, but had completely healed him within 4-weeks. And ... at a fraction of the cost.
With Kelso better, I thought no more of it. Life carried on as normal for me and my horses. Then, as we headed into winter a few months later, a yardie pal had a COPD horse who was not responding to Ventipulmin. She asked if I could put together some 'Kelso Herbs' for her, so of course I did. A couple of days later, her horse was much improved.
Soon I was bagging up more bundles of Kelso Herbs, and as the orders kept coming in, someone said very casually that I should think about selling them on Ebay. Blimey! Really? So I thought about it, and wondered whether maybe there was something in this herby stuff. December 2007 I set up an Ebay page alongside my full-time job, and gave Kelso's Herbs a new name, BreathePlus, so named because those herbs had literally got Kelso breathing again.
The Ebay page took off. Within a month, by end January 2008, I had a website. Thanks to Kelso, my life was starting to change. The learning, however, had only just begun.
The bit in the middle - when our horse-world went horribly wrong
From the Surrey Hills for my childhood, to the South Downs as an adult - it didn't get much better than that for riding! Then, early 2000's, me and my Connemara, Murphy, moved to Wiltshire, where the newly acquired husband and I found 7-acres of (what we thought were) perfect grazing - unkempt, overgrown, unfertilised - and private!
Pre-Kelso days - Blas, Murphy and Cookie, in our idyllic piece of toxic Wiltshire heaven
And yes, before anyone says it, that was me taking the scissors to Cookie's mane ...
Right on the edge of Salisbury Plain, we were tucked underneath the White Horse of Westbury, with sweeping open country as far as you could see, and surrounded by miles upon miles of fields of crops and heady yellow rapeseed. The only blot on the landscape was a concrete factory a couple of miles west of us with a huge eye-sore chimney that belched out its smoke-cloud over us when we had a westerly wind, which was most days - we always knew when we had the westerlies as the air smelt of kids cap-guns.
Sure enough, within 6 months everything started to change. Our horses became lethargic, and generally out of sorts. Bromley, my husband’s once-sweet New Forest cob, became positively evil; he bit, kicked and rear-ended, refusing to leave the yard. The only way we could get him out of the gate was by literally riding him in reverse to get him going in the direction we wanted. He threw the nastiest naps imaginable, many of them on the main roads just when an articulated truck was going by. It wasn’t long before we were referring to him as ‘dangerous’. When my husband finally ended up with several cracked ribs and a fractured jaw, he threw in the towel – understandably.
As for Dinky, my step-daughter’s second pony, he literally crashed overnight with very unexpected laminitis. Meanwhile, Murphy's gut went into overdrive, colic-y and ulcerogenic, with projectile gravy replacing healthy droppings, alongside pounding digital pulses. It wasn't long before he soon acquired lots of labels - EMS, IR, LGL, and mega-spooky. My beautiful, calm, laid-back sociable boy changed to bordering on wide-eyed psychotic, and he frankly started to scare me when riding out.
Our once-gentle herd had became metabolically challenged within months of moving. At the time I was clueless - if only I'd known then what I know now, but back then all I could see were the symptoms. I just couldn't understand it - I was completely baffled.
We spent a fortune on every specialist we could find; backs, teeth, saddles, bodyworkers, but nothing changed. Eventually tunnel-vision set in - I couldn't even think within the box, let alone outside of it. Finally, all I could think of was to get a trainer on board to try and school-out these 'attitudes' that Bromley and Murf had developed. This was tough for me, after all, I'm a qualified instructor, trained with the Larrigan's! And here I was feeling like a novice and ringing round for a trainer . . .
Meanwhile, I started making pretty much every excuse not to ride. Knowing what I know now, especially as these days I ride my horses out barefoot and bitless on the buckle, when I think back to those days of forcing Murf against his will in the school, when all the time he was desperately trying to tell me that he had real physical and systemic discomfort, I am still mortified with guilt. I think he's forgiven me. I hope he's forgiven me ...
Definition of Co-Incidence
'A remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection'
Without question, Kelso's illness was the start of my starting to question - and demanding answers - for what was going on in my horse world. Him getting seriously ill got me studying again, which effected profound changes in the way I kept my horses.
The same summer that Kelso came to live with us, we also moved house to be nearer our daughter's new school. We swapped to the Somerset side of Salisbury Plain, a very different landscape of dairy and sheep, and not a crop in sight. Within a few months, I noticed that our horses were becoming more like their old selves again, and with a distinct improvement in their overall health. Best of all, I had the old Murphy back - my boy was back to his old friendly self, happy to be with me again, and his gut seemed so much more settled.
Me and Murphy, Salisbury Plain
It was now time to address Kelso's hooves, and I started researching the possibility of taking him barefoot. 2008 was still early days in barefoot-ville, with very little information around. I hit the search engines and by sheer chance found a forum, full of advice and support from people who'd either taken the plunge, or were considering doing so, not so much out of whimsical desire, but more because for many, they were in Last-Chance-Corrall. Many of their horses were crippled with various lameness issues and the choices were limited - either try barefoot or it was PTS.
The forum was invaluable for barefoot advice, and I learned early on that diet and enviroment were two key factors. While researching diet, and more specifically equine feed ingredients, I started becoming aware of the chemical treatments used on those same ingredients, which led me to learn more about the risks of metabolic effect due to toxic overload in our horses systems. I promptly dumped the shiny processed feedbags and stripped back our feed regime to a more natural forage-based diet. I also put in a track system in their field to enable natural and constant movement for them to forage, while keeping them off the rich grass. Kelso's hooves made a miraculous recovery.
On the strength of Kelso's success, I took all my horses barefoot. Happy that we seemed to be heading back to the good old days, I put the positive changes down to going barefoot, with the diet change and the novel track system. It was all coming together! However, the final part of the jigsaw was about to reveal itself when I started talking with another horse owner who had also, like us, watched their herd metabolically crash after moving.
The only factor they could pinpoint was that for the first time ever they’d chemically sprayed their fields, and that they could taste chemicals in the air when the local farmland was sprayed and the air drifted over their property – just like us back in Wiltshire. It all started making sense. Our previous home had slowly been damaging every fibre of my horses' systems, thanks to chemical exposure from local crop spraying and the factory chimney. The nearby crops were regularly sprayed with chemical fertilisers and the full buffet of the 'ides' - pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, alongside the chimney dropping its sulphur cloud onto our grazing land. I recalled the Letters page in the local paper from angry locals demanding answers from the Environment Agency, and gradually, I started to understand.
This was a major turning point for me. I now realised the importance of 'environment' as a whole - it wasn't just about the field they stood in; it was also very much about the location and surrounding area.
Thanks to a series of co-incidences, I'd finally found the answers to my horses' mystery syndrome. Getting chemicals out of their lives seemed to be key - thanks to going barefoot, I'd learned some eye-opening facts about the chemical processes on packaged feeds but now, with the growing body of evidence that I was building from my somewhat obsessive research, together with how herbal support seemed invaluable, I had a fair idea of the direction I needed to take to ensure my horses never experienced such devastating effects on their health again.
I've since completed several training programmes, including:
However, I'll be the first to put my hand in the air and say I'm no qualified nutritionist or vet, nor am I here to replace professional veterinary and/or medical advice. At heart I'm still that pony-mad kid - I'm just a normal person speaking with people just like me, who have maybe crossed my path because they too have struggled with their horse's health. I don't consider myself an expert in any kind of way, but if anything I've learned can help another horse owner help their horse, this is what it's all about for me. For me it's all about keeping everything in balance while keeping an open mind, with a foot in both the conventional and natural camps, and knowing when to use what.
My life's overriding passion are my horses - all animals, come to that. Our previous livery home had alpacas, the adorable Billy the goat who was everyone's best friend, sheep, cows (including Rowan, the very friendly bull), hundreds of chickens, many of whom were ex-battery rescues, several guinea-fowl (one of my hens sat on a guinea egg and hatched a gorgeous fluffy girl), peacocks, geese, ducks ... plus several adorable dogs and cats. As I type, two of the dogs are now curled up on my knackered and chewed-to-bits office sofa after a fun-run doing the yard chores :o)
Horses have always been my first love though; over the years I've watched my own horses grow and interact within their environment, with as natural a lifestyle as I've been able to provide for them always at the forefront of my desire for them. Each one of them has been responsible for many of the blends that we’ve put together under the EquiNatural banner, and they in return have told me over the years whether I've got it right or not. Without doubt, my horses have been, and still are, my greatest teachers.
Murphy is my beloved Connemara, who came to me aged 7 in 2001 - I can't believe he's now in his 20's and living the Life of Riley in semi-retirement.
I met Murf at the West Sussex Horse Rescue, following the wonderful care he received from the sanctuary after after his journey from Ireland (another grim story). He is my absolute heart-horse, having given me years of XC fun, and still a wonderful fun ride with a sharp edge to keep things interesting.
However, he is my most metabolically challenged. Diagnosed IR at 8-yrs, with a sensitive gut so high-risk lami, he's also my most challenging for barefoot hoof soundness.
Murf is wholly responsible for the creation of our Laminitis and Gut blends.
Cookie is our gorgeous girl, 13.2hh of native cob, sweet, sensitive and very affectionate.
We were looking for our daughter's third pony and found Cookie in a trekking centre back in 2006 when she was 6 years old, covered in lice with matted mane and tail. Boy could she jump though, and daughter was smitten; she and Cookie spent a couple of years whizzing round the junior XC circuits, with Cookie clearing the 2'9" courses with a foot to spare.
Cookie's metabolism is rock solid, thank goodness, but she expands in summer so grass management is essential for her, although ideally she'd love to live out permanently. She gets itchy eyes during heavy summer pollens, and straw beds instantly congest her respiratory system. She's also suspect cushingoid; as soon as we saw the signs back in summer 2014, we got her on our HerbalCushTonic, and within a month she was back to her former cheery self and hasn't looked back.
Cookie initiated our HerbalEyeTonic blend.
Carmen started her life as a prospective racer, beautifully bred to fly and win. However, she was born with a twisted left fore hoof so as far as we know, she was discarded to life as a brood mare and passed from home to home. She was not well-looked after - despite now looking amazing, she still bears deep whip scars. By pure chance she crossed my path when I was neither looking for, nor needed, another horse.
Next to Blas (husband's former TB and sadly now no longer with us), Carmen is as near-human that I've ever met in a horse; super-clever, thoughtful, sensitive, communicative, and very ladylike. Not a hint of Diva in her, but if she has an opinion on something she let's me know very clearly. She and I have a beautiful friendship and I consider myself so lucky to have her.
I first met her in August 2014 on a yard I'd not long moved to. She was living free-range, isolated and lonely in a small scrappy paddock, and looking pretty sad and neglected; the first thing I noticed, other than her crooked left fore, was a nasty looking wound on her right hind fetlock. Add in a dull coat plus overgrown event-lined hooves - overall she was very sad looking. I couldn't help giving her a cuddle which she responded to like for like. Then the owner said those fatal words to me, "I'm selling her on as a companion." Two days later, and a wad of borrowed cash from the ever-tolerant husband, she was mine. Hmmm, those planets aligning again ...
That's when I discovered just how poorly she was with joint sepsis a few days away in that fetlock wound, and within 2-weeks we had a PTS prognosis which I fought with everything I had. Just like I'd done all those years ago with Kelso, with the vet ready to prime the final needle, I turned to herbs. Carms has one heck of a story - see our Case Studies page : Carmen.
Even though she's officially 2/10 lame, she doesn't agree. She's a wonderful trail-horse, the sweetest ride in bitless loose reins. As with all my horses she's barefoot but we front-boot her to support her wonky hoof if we're going off road.
Thanks to Carmen, we put together our HerbalBioX blend.
Meet Mac, the newest addition to our herd since November 2017. It was never meant to be; yet another situation of me being a sucker for a sob story, so here I am rapidly approaching my 6th decade and I'm back to four horses again!
I couldn't walk away from this chap though - Kelso had had sweet itch to rule all sweet itches, but Mac outdoes even Kelso. I've not seen sweet itch like it, and when we moved house earlier in 2017 (which meant a yard move too), one look at Mac and that was it - I asked the yard owner if I could help him.
We don't know much about Mac, other than he's around 12/13-yrs old and was left behind by a former livery 4-yrs previously, so the owner pretty much inherited him. With not much going for him other than companion status, and a very entrenched free-range and tank-like approach to life, Mac proved difficult - impossible even, for the owner to rehome. He ended up staying as a companion to one of her own retired ponies, and this was the Mac I met, Spring 2017, who happened to be in the field next to my allocated field for my lot. It didn't take long to get to know him over the fence.
He was semi-feral, no doubt about it; a proper biter as in G-Snash with all teeth bared, and no concept of personal space – wasn’t long before I was calling him Rhino, cos bargy was too lightweight a word for him. However, there was something about him. Over time he started to come up to the fence and wait for me, curious and inquisitive, despite the gsnashing. He looked like an overgrown Exmoor – solid as a rock with an adorable mealy muzzle and eyes. For those of you that know me, you’ll know I have a massive thing for Exmoors, always have, so with hindsight the deal was probably already on its way.
Then one morning, late summer, the owner nabbed me on the yard bearing a red passport. “There you go, he’s yours”. We had kind-of talked about maybe me taking him on as a sharer, more to care for his sweet itch, but I wasn’t expecting this - she was giving him to me. Um, I can’t afford to pay for an extra livery though, I mumbled, but she waved that off, saying there was no need. I can’t say I wasn’t secretly pleased because I’d been putting in the time with him and he was becoming quite the little friend!
Together we fought and won his sweet itch battle, and over time he willingly came up to me, no longer the Tank Thug I’d original thought he was (ish...). He no longer mugs or barges me, he doesn’t gsnash anymore – more of a love-nibble, and he catches – and leads - like a dream. Unless he wants to go in a different direction to me then the Tank reappears and I’m dragged along with no control, or worse, flattened unless I manage a nifty bodyswerve.
As we speak, Mac’s now very much part of our herd, albeit a definite work in progress as I'll be on sweet itch alert as we hit early spring. We're about to start a +R training programme together with the support of the Horse Charming team (I definitely need help with this little man!), and we're all very excited to see this intelligent little pony take his next steps willingly into our world.
I reckon Mac's future - and health - is going to be quite a story, so like Carmen, I've set him up as a Case Study.
Mac has been permanently fed our HerbalSkinTonic throughout the summer, with lashings of topical organic Aloe Vera gel.
Kelso, RIP 1990-2013
Aka Big-K, Kelso was my husband's ride, a truly wonderful elderly gent and our herd-leader. A gentle giant, Kelso was one of the safest, kindest chaps you could ever hope to meet.
Kelso was the reason I started EquiNatural. He was also entirely responsible for our very first herbal blend, HerbalBreathePlus, and our original barefoot hoof blend, our BareEssential, which has now become our Shine&Glow. Due to his chronic sweet-itch, he also instigated our original SkinSoothe blend, now our HerbalSkinCARE, part of our C.A.R.E. programme.
Kelso was also chief test-pilot for many of our other blends, including our Joint and Senior blends.
Kelso was my hero, the most stoic horse I've ever met while enduring genuine suffering without a complaint. Thanks to Kelso we've been able to help so many horses over the years, and hopefully will continue for many more years to come.