November'17 I’d like to introduce you a certain tank-like, semi-feral chap called Mac, who's joined my herd. Yes, this is me rapidly approaching my 6th decade, and I've got 4 horses again. What am I like ... (the above photo is Mac in November '17 after a very tough summer getting his chronic sweet itch under control).
Earlier this year we moved house, which meant we moved livery yards as well. Boy did I land on my perfect dream yard – right on the top of the Mendip Hills, with acres of untouched, ancient sheep moorland with perfect rough grazing, ideal for my two metabolics, Cookie and Murphy, (er, make that 3 now) and my adorable TB, HRH Queen Carmen.
Murf, Cookie and Carms settled instantly into their huge field set deep in the Somerset farmlands, bordered by ancient, crumbling, dry stone walls lined with huge beech trees, and views as far as you could see out to the Bristol Channel. Didn’t take long to get to know the two ponies in the next field, Shannon and Mac, both belonging to the YO, as well as her other last few retirees dotted around the farm, all now well into their dotage and enjoying a free-range life.
On talking with the YO, Mac was an former livery’s who’d left him behind 4-years previously after asking the owner if she could rehome him for her. Two attempts later, he ended up coming back.
The YO, now pretty much retired from all things equine other than leading her grandchildren out for a potter on her retirees and happily running a B&B, had eventually resigned herself to the fact that Mac was there to stay, so she paired him with Shannon and he fell into the same free-range regime as her other retirees, a home for life with a friend and no stress. Which also means ... he was pretty much untouched (he was then 14).
Anyway, when I arrived, my lot went into the field next to Mac, so I couldn’t help but get to know him over the fence. We soon found out he was a proper biter, with 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 always being accompanied by proper GrrSnashing. He looks 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, ever since I met little-man Campion on a livery yard decades ago, and lost my heart to him.
It didn’t take long for me to find Mac a little bit irresistible. I always made time to say hello and risk a face-on cuddle in the hope my arm didn’t get bitten off, but I wasn’t brave enough to risk trusting his rear end in the field with him, so I played safe over the fence.
After a few weeks I asked YO if I could get Mac’s feet done – they were a bit ropey and I'd sort of got a bit attached to him. She was more than happy, and while we were chatting I got a bit more on his background. Apparently he was a sweet-itch sufferer so every year the owner bought him a special rug. He was also allegedly unrideable – don’t know the reason why but he very firmly sent anyone brave enough to try, well and truly skywards.
Trim time, so I went to bring him in. But ... I hadn’t counted on the NIGHTMARE it would be to get him out of his field. He caught fine, but trying to lead him away from Shannon to the gate was horrible. He saved the best till last - his final trick at the gate was to spin his half-ton thuggery against me and gallop flat out back down the field. I haven’t felt the full weight of a horse against me for decades, or rope-burn on my hands either, so this was an almighty wake-up call and a heavy-weight shock. Blimey.
I got him out eventually but only by bringing Shannon in too – we’re quite a trek from the yard so yes, I was very aware that my heart was in my mouth – another feeling that I’ve not had for years. I knew I was consciously trying to stay calm and b-r-e-a-t-h-e. I’m so lucky with my three – we’ve been together for years so we all know each other inside-out and are very calm together - they lead like a dream and usually at liberty alongside me. Suddenly having two half-tons of pulling, spinning fire-breathing dragons on the end of each arm was a huge reminder that in a blink they can not only floor you, but it might hurt a lot too.
Finally in the barn and that’s when I saw Mac's sweet itch for real. I knew his skin was scrawny and in poor nick as I’d only met him at face level. His neck was a bit rubbed with bare patches and scurfy skin, and not much left of a scrappy mane, but I’d not been round his back end yet. Once there, I was proper drop-jaw'd.
This was the worst SI I’d ever seen, and our Kelso had been the SI King so I knew SI, but this was something else. Huge, deep, open, suppurating wounds, raw, weeping and bloody, the size of dinner plates. Just dreadful. Mentioned it gently to YO who said his rug was already on order, and to be fair it arrived that day.
Cut a long story short, I was really concerned for this little chap, knew I could help him so asked if I could. The owner was more than happy. And this is where it happened ... I really should have felt those planets aligning ... she just happened to say that she was hoping to find someone to take him on as she felt so sorry for him. That was it. Those fatal words.
Just like when Carmen came to join us, I neither needed – nor wanted – another horse. I’m knocking on a bit now, for one thing, but another reason is cost as, let's face it, livery ain't cheap. But as I always flipping do, I start pondering, and I found myself wondering if I could take him on as a ‘sharer’, which meant maybe I wouldn’t have to pay livery as technically YO would still own him, but I could certainly get him comfortable, maybe do some early-learning retraining with him, or at least get him used to humans again, and he might pair-up with Cookie who often played third-wheel alongside Carms and Murf. The more I thought, the more I convinced myself. I found myself really keen to go for it.
I had the chat – the owner was very agreeable, and more than happy not to charge me any extra. The deal was done - Mac would come under my wing. I now had a herd of four to now care for.
This must’ve been around end May-ish time? Time flies so not sure. Anyway, Mac went straight onto our regime: our EquiVita minerals with probiotics, l-carnitine to hopefully target his fat pads and leptins, linseed for his coat/skin, and salt for all the right reasons, and all mixed into Agrobs' Leitchgenus oat-straw chaff, ideal for fatties. I also started him on our full-body detox with our OptimaCARE alongside our SkinTonic for his sweet itch.
Of course, his sweet itch was deeply embedded in him so while we were waiting for the herbs to take effect it took all of just a week for Mac to completely trash his new rug. So, on went Murf’s. All mine have fly rugs, not special SI rugs – just cheapo Ebay ones in case the flies are bad, although it's only Murf who occasionally needs one on the odd day as he cries if the horseflies are bloodsucking. So Mac got Murf’s rug and within a week he'd trashed that as well.
Cookie’s fly rug then went on him, and by now we were starting to see progress – the herbs were starting to clean up his skin and by now I was trusting his back-end and slathering our aloe SwItchGel on by the gallon. He still rubbed, but you could tell it was less damaging. Of course where he itched was where his skin was healing, so it didn’t take much to tear it again, but together me, Mac, whatever rug he was in and the SwItchGel were able to keep on top of it.
I really wish I’d taken a photo of him at his worst before any rugs went on him, but the first picture here is him with Cookie’s rug on, so about 4-weeks in.
The second photo was around 2-weeks later after Cookie’s rug gave up the ghost and I finally put Carmen’s rug on him. She'd come with a smart, expensive Horseware rug which I inherited with her yet never needed to use. It was perfect for Mac, strong and robust, and best of all, seemingly untrashable. You can see how the raw skin is now starting to regrow some fluff and his tail is much less inflamed. We were starting to win the SI battle.
Life ticked on, and then one morning, late summer, the owner nabbed me on the yard bearing a red passport. “There you go, he’s yours”. Hmmm. Wasn’t expecting that, but it was pretty definitive - she was giving Mac to me. Um, I can’t afford to pay for livery though, I mumbled, and she confirmed again that 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. By now he was positively running his socks off to me when he saw me, although I’m under no illusion that it was anything more than cupboard love courtesy of the feedbowl I was usually carrying, as he was chronically leptin-resistant.
He was also showing me that he wasn’t the little thug I’d original thought he was, ish. He no longer mugged me as much, wasn't barging me as much, and the gsnashing was getting tamer – more of a love-nibble. And he now caught – and led - like a dream. Unless he wanted to go in a different direction to me then the Rhino came out and I’d be completely dragged along with his full half-ton force, or worse, flattened unless I managed a nifty bodyswerve.
By winter 2017, Mac was now very much part of my daily routine. And so began my new era of 4 horses - again. Mac was now rugless as we were in the best time of year for him, and he’d grown an almighty thick native winter coat. His system was more balanced, and he seemed to be enjoying the routine of his new life.
So what now? Well, I knew I needed Mac working with me, not against me, especially considering his ability - and will - to use his weight, so I knew I had to do this right. However, having tried many 'natural' modalities over the years and none of them really sticking, I was at a bit of a loss as to which direction to go.
Then, as my world seems to occasionally have it, one of life’s coincidences stepped right up just when I needed it, and gave me my answer. A regular client placed an order for her vermer, and also sent me a separate email alongside with some chat. In it, she just happened to mention that she’s a positive reinforcement trainer. Who knew?! My interest was piqued.
I’d already been thinking that I needed something along the lines of +R, not that I know much about it, but Mac was definitely food-obsessed so I figured a treat-reward method might work. I dove onto her FB page and website and lost myself for a couple of hours, feeling all the more positive that this was the system for me and Mac to bond.
If you look on the www.horse-charming.com website, you’ll see Vikki Spit's bio, and she’s become my new equine mentor. I seriously can’t recommend both her, and Horse Charming, enough. Friendly and super-informative, reassuring communicator, with a full appreciation of our situation, and above all, a horse-nut as well - her herd is amazing, and you should see her feisty shetland in action. Over several days, me and Vikki did the deal - I am now about to enter the world of positive reinforcement in Equine Foundation and Target Training, and I can't wait to get started.
So here's Mac's story up to date, as at November 2017, one Exmoor-lookalike, super-chronic sweet-itch, suspect IR, very solid lump of wild native pony, about to enter our world of all things equine, with his new friends Murf, Cookie and Carms. Husband thinks I’m nuts. I think I need a ton of luck :o)