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. I definitely couldn't - wouldn't - do that now; don't think my heart rate would cope ...
Blas, me 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 had never previously been witnessed, or even concieved, back then.
The equine feed and nutrition industry has become a minefield of confusion; where once we used to pick up hessian sacks filled with 'straights' (oats, bran, raw linseed) from a high-street store, now there are huge industrial super-units piled high with hundreds of shiny plastic bags promising every aspect of equine health.
Yet sadly, the longer I've been caring for horses, the more I've come to see that while these bags appear to promise miracles, the only advice available with most feed companies seems to be based purely on their own 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 I've gone back to, in order to sustain the health and longevity of my own horses, is so very simple - I've gone back to natural. Sounds corny I know, but it's really true. By keep my horses how they're meant to be kept, feed my horses with what they're meant to be fed (while balancing their nutritional needs), and let my horses be horses as they should be, naturally, with friends, forage and freedom, I have calmer, healthier, happy, fitter and sounder horses to play with.
My EquiNatural world is supported by my years of practical experience in caring for my own ponies and horses since the late 1960's, and of course my current wonderful herd who continue to teach me more every day. In truth, I was never really one for competitions - of course I loved the gymkhana fun from my childhood, and I dabbled a bit at XC, but I was raised on a trekking/riding/riding holidays yard in the heart of the glorious Surrey crown estate, and I've stayed true to my love of trail riding. These days my horse world is much more relaxed, with my 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, 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, 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 . . .
You can't argue with destiny
I was so lucky to spend my childhood in the beautiful Surrey Hills countryside with literally miles of magnificent 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, aged 7, I was introduced to Wichy, a beautiful white Connemara Princess-Pony, with a flowing long mane, a coat soft as cashmere and soothing warm breath. My heart melted; she was my real life 'White Horses' white horse. I can still remember every second of that day as if it was yesterday.
That was it - I was hooked. From then on I never looked back. I became the typical pony-mad kid, spending every spare moment from the age of 11 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 just learn the syllabus from them though; the Larrigans were very unique communicators with their horses. With them 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 were, well, horses. 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 former show cob, whom we'd originally met a couple of years previously via our trainer. (Trainer?! Me needing a trainer?! Aha, read on ...)
If it wasn't for Kelso, there would be no EquiNatural
In August 2006, 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 also knew he came with baggage - 'Allergy' was his middle name. He had chronic sweet-itch, with deep-rooted habitual red-raw scratching. He was also a serious head-shaker, 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 now well-recognised seasonal pollen allergy response hadn't been acknowledged back then). The only respiratory term banded around then was COPD, which as far as everyone knew only related to winter, didn't it?
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 seemed to be in meltdown, and I was clueless.
The vet diagnosed secondary chest infection, and he was prescribed 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, gave us a cursory 5-minute glance, and prescribed another 2-week course of meds. Still Kelso didn't respond.
Four weeks on and I was in bits - having only just got Kelso in our lives permanently, it now seemed we were facing the very real prospect that we could lose him. As his respiratory system went into meltdown, it was crystal clear that the vet meds weren't working. On the third vet visit when I was now manic with desperation, the vet suggested PTS.
I have to say that in the list of worse things that can happen in your horse-world, having your vet saying the PTS words is right up there. So once I'd somehow found an atom of sanity through the red mist of emotions, shock, desperation and anger, 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 world wide web.
I was clutching at straws, I knew that, but I wondered if herbs could help our big man. 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 list of alleged bronchial-busting blend of respiratory herbs that said they could fix Kelso. Alongside what sounded like good 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; I also figured that yarrow, which was described as a fever reducer and also anti-allergenic, might help as well. I bought the lot, mixed it together, gave him a double dose for breakfast, crossed everything I had to cross, and waited.
Well blow me down with a blue feather. Kelso's response was 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 wheezing had stopped and his eyes were bright again. Within 5 days his heaving had completely stopped and he could step out from his stable, so he was 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, and we'd all stuck the proverbial finger up at the vet.
The EquiNatural seed was sown
The stress of watching Kelso struggle - and worsen - for a month, had turned me into an exhausted, and angry, woman. Kelso had been through hell and back, yet the vet's 5-minute attendances and supposed professional talents gave us nothing more than repeated scripts of stuff that not only hadn't worked, but had made Kelso sicker.
With a bill enough to bankrupt me and the PTS recommendation still ringing in my ears, I felt betrayed and had lost confidence in our vet, especially when a bit of research on my part and a simple blend of herbs had given Kelso not only symptomatic relief within hours, but had completely fixed him within 4-weeks. And at a fraction of the cost as well.
Life went back to 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 and more bundles of Kelso Herbs, and as people kept asking, someone casually said 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. I didn't know a huge lot about them, other than completely trusting their medicinal abilities, but I could learn couldn't I? Inspired and determined, I started swatting and by December 2007 I had an Ebay page alongside my full-time job; Kelso's Herbs were given 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, husband's daughter’s second pony, he literally crashed overnight with very unexpected laminitis. Meanwhile, Murphy's gut went into overdrive, regularly colic-y 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 what was going on - 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 out-school 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 anatomical and physiological 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.
That 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. He'd come to us with crumbling hoof walls, tripping constantly, and unable to keep a shoe on. I decided to scratch my itch and started researching the possibility of taking him barefoot. 2008 was still early days in barefoot-ville, with very little information around, so I hit the search engines and by sheer chance found a forum, the UKNHCP, full of advice and support from people who'd taken the plunge. Not so much out of whimsical desire - only a fool would do so back then as 'barefoot' was a very dirty word, pronounced 'cruel' in mainstream, unenlightened, un-open-minded horse-world.
The reason people were turning to barefoot was because they were literally in Last-Chance-Corrall. Alongside poor-quality hooves, the 'navicular' word kept cropping up and many horses were crippled to the point of no return with various lameness issues. The owners were desperate - it was a case of trying barefoot or it was PTS.
The forum was run by Nic Barker of Rockley Farm, a small hill-farm located in Exmoor National Park, and who specialised in rehabilitation livery for horses with hoof-related lameness by taking the shoes off. Invaluable for barefoot advice, I learned early on that diet and enviroment were two key factors. Thanks to the forum, I started becoming aware of the chemical treatments used on ingredients in feedbags, which led me to learn more about the risks of metabolic effect due to toxic overload in our horses systems.
As everyone on the forum was doing, I promptly dumped the shiny feedbags and stripped back my horses' feed to a more natural forage-based diet. Track systems were all the rage as well to keep horses off the rich grass, which as we all know affects the hooves, so I put up a track system in my field to enable natural and constant movement for my horses. 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 seemed that everything was 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 they’d chemically sprayed their own fields for the first time. They also noticed they could taste chemicals in the air when the local farmland was sprayed and the air drifted over their property. Funny - just like us back in Wiltshire. Suddenly everything started making sense. Our previous home had slowly been damaging every fibre of my horses' systems, due to chemical exposure from the factory chimney and local crop spraying with fertilisers and the full buffet of the 'ides' - pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, alongside the chimney dropping its sulphur cloud onto our grazing land. I remembered reading the Letters page in the local paper from angry locals demanding answers weekly 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 having a nice field and a stress-free yard for my horses to live in; it was also very much about the environmental issues, the location and the surrounding area.
Thanks to a series of co-incidences, I'd finally found the answers to my horses' mystery syndrome. Getting chemicals out of my horses' environment was key, and thanks to going barefoot, I'd also learned some eye-opening facts about the chemical processes on packaged feeds. With the growing body of evidence I was building from my somewhat obsessive research, together with natural phytonutrient support, 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:
Not to mention all my horses who have given me the opportunity to extensively research the subjects of laminitis, both dietary and metabolic, PPID, and EGUS/compromised digestion.
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. For me it's all about keeping an open mind, with a foot in both camps, as in conventional and natural, and knowing when to use what. At heart I'm still that pony-mad kid - I'm just a normal person speaking with people just like me, who have found me because they're struggling with their horse's health. I don't consider myself an expert in any kind of way, but if I can help another horse owner help their horse, this is what it's all about for me.
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 friendly bull), hundreds of chickens, many of whom were ex-battery rescues, several guinea-fowl (one of my own 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 very chewed-to-bits office sofa after a fun-run doing the yard chores.
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 will continue to be, 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 his journey from Ireland (another grim story). He is my absolute heart-horse, having given me years of trail-riding fun, always with an edge to keep things interesting.
However, he is my most metabolically challenged. Diagnosed IR at 7-yrs, with a very sensitive gut, he's also my most challenging for barefoot hoof soundness.
Murf is wholly responsible for the creation of our hoof and gut blends.
How gorgeous is Cookie! Meet our gorgeous girl, 13.2hh of native cob, sweet, sensitive and very affectionate.
We were looking for my husband's daughter's third pony and found Cookie in a trekking centre back in 2006 at age 6, sadly covered in lice with matted mane and tail, a missing shoe and one hanging off. Once we got her home we soon realised that Oh-Boy could she jump! It was a match made in heaven - daughter and Cookie whizzed round the junior XC circuits, with Cookie clearing the 2'9" courses with a foot to spare.
Cookie's metabolism is rock solid but summer grass management is essential for her. 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 CushTonic blend, and within a month she was back to her former cheery self and hasn't looked back.
Cookie initiated our EyeTonic 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've been told, 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, typically for me, I was neither looking for, nor needed, another horse.
Next to our beautiful Blas (husband's former TB and sadly now no longer with us), Carmen is as near-human a horse that I've ever met; super-clever, thoughtful, sensitive, communicative, and very ladylike. Not a hint of Diva in her, but she'll let us know her opinion very clearly. I adore her and I consider myself very lucky to have her. 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.
Carms has one heck of a story - see our Case Studies page : Carmen. She initiated our HerbalBioCARE blend.
Meet Mac, now affectionately known as MacAttack, who joined our herd inNovember 2017. Like Carmen, It was never meant to be; me yet again being a sucker for a sob story!
There was something about Mac though - I couldn't walk away from him. When we moved house earlier in 2017 (which meant a yard move too), Mac was in the field next to mine. He has crippling sweet itch - Kelso had sweet itch to outdo all sweet itches, but Mac outdoes even Kelso - I've not seen sweet itch like it. One look at him 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 15-ish old and was left behind by a former livery 4-yrs previously, so the yard owner pretty much inherited him. With not much going for him - he was allegedly unrideable as well as having severe sweet-itch, Mac proved impossible for the yard owner to rehome. Two unsuccessful attempts later, he ended up staying as a companion to one of her own retired ponies, and this was the Mac I met; one free-range chap who would come up to me at the fence to say hello.
He was a bit thuggy, no doubt about it. A proper biter as in GrrrrSnash with all teeth bared, and no concept of personal space – wasn’t long before I was calling him MacAttack. However, there was something about him. Over time you could see that he was super-intelligent, curious and inquisitive, despite the grrrsnashing. He looked like an overgrown Exmoor – solid as a rock with a mealy muzzle and eyes, and for those of you that know me, you’ll know I have a thing for Exmoors. Fate stepping in again, maybe?
Together that first year me and Mac fought, and eventually won, his sweet itch battle with a hardcore rug, a change of diet, our HerbalSkinTonic and lashings of what became our SwItchGel. Mac’s now officially mine and very much part of our herd, particularly bonded to Carmen but he quite likes Cookie as well, letting her share his feedbowl. Together we're also slowly working on a +R training programme with the support of Vikki and the amazing Horse Charming team.
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.
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 HerbalSkinTonic blend.
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.