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Heed those wise words

I can't remember when exactly it last happened but I have found myself in unfamiliar territory recently with not a single pony stabled at Waxwing.

It's a scenario for which I have often dreamed but as the reality sets in, I can't say that I particularly like or enjoy it.

All of a sudden I am aware that early morning feeds are the reason why horse and pony owners get up in the morning and checking stables is the one thing to pull them away from the comfort of a warm living room last thing at night.

Additionally, I admit that I miss the warm welcome I always receive when I appear at the stables, feed bucket in hand, and the feeling of satisfaction when the occupants tuck into their breakfast or supper and the subtle sound of chomping seems to fill the air.

You've guessed it, I'm desperate to bring something back in.

By way of compensation, I get my morning pony 'fix' by taking the dogs round the fields earlier than normal when the welcome is no less obvious and fueled by affection rather than curiosity or so I prefer to think.

In the field of youngsters, each and every one wants their share of attention and the recently handled foals seem keen to visit their newly acquired friend (me not the dogs). Admittedly the mares only look for food (but what's new?) and the stallions are simply looking for a hassle-free pal.

The friendliness of our ponies is something which I take for granted but a characteristic on which almost every visitor to the stud makes comment.

It isn't the kind of quality which you can demand after all; it is possibly achieved out of respect but surely it is one expected of a small equine bred not only to please their young riders but actually enjoy being around them as well.

I'd like to think so but I am increasingly aware that not all breeders place good temperament high on their agenda but favour other factors such as athleticism, speed and type over the trainability which allows these other factors to come to the fore.

While mares have a significant role to play in passing on the genetics that lie behind temperament, the stallion, with its greater potential to affect the overall population of foals being produced, plays a more significant one.

For this reason, the selection of stallions which demonstrate an excellent temperament linked to trainability is paramount to a sound breeding policy.

Other than racing, never before have stallions played a greater part in performance disciplines giving breeders an insight into both their trainability as well as their individual ability.

Given that I used to compete in driving classes with a stallion I don't know why I continue to be amazed at how well stallions behave in company and I have yet to see one display undesirable stallion characters whilst getting about its job.

Show jumping leads the way in this respect although brilliant stallions still tend to dominate in the dressage arena.

In showing classes, there are more stallions than ever competing in the ridden mountain and moorland classes, but with minimum age limits for riders set for health and safety reasons, there is a growing trend to see adult riders compete on stallions even in the small breed sections.

In the eyes of many judges and competitors, the unbalanced image of rider to pony, whatever the height, creates neither a pretty nor acceptable sight however, despite much debate and discussion, the status quo persists.

While this detracts from the picture, it doesn't distract from the value of the competition stallion which is now greater than ever even for the family producers for whom keeping a stallion would never have previously been considered.

Just as there has always been a debate about some of the best breed examples being castrated for the performance field, it has now shifted in two directions.

Firstly there is the criticism that stallions are being kept entire which should be castrated as they present little value to their breed; secondly, there is currently a lack of top class stallions available for breeding as their value under saddle far outstrips their value to the breeder.

There is a counter argument to the former that if these less superior breed examples may demonstrate excellent temperament through performance, perhaps this gives added value to the breed which might not otherwise have been expressed.

In a world where money rules, there is no answer to the latter and we have to accept that the contribution these superior stallions will make will have to come later in their lives when they become affordable to the breeder. If not, the use of AI will have to expand more fully into the native pony.

I personally have to wonder as to the eventual fate of the uncastrated equine; after all, geldings are much more likely to enjoy a good life than bad and even top class stallions, which command high prices, may not be immune to the less attractive side of ownership.

There remains the issue of the high cost of castration and there are groups which have taken this to heart and castration days have been organised where breeders can bring their colts and have them castrated at an attractively low rate by a group of volunteer vets.

By all accounts it has been successful and one which some breed societies are considering to help finance.

While the future of unwanted colts may cause me concern, I have to say that I was encouraged recently to see two fields literally full of beautiful, healthy and apparently happy horses whose lives have become more passive than active in retirement.

Tucked away in well-maintained, sheltered fields surrounded by trees, these mares and geldings, 40 to 50 in number, do have an important role to play in life but now as blood donors instead of mounts.

Had I been an owner who had handed one of them over to this new life, I would have been well pleased with what I saw. As gruesome as their fate may appear to some onlookers, it certainly seemed to me to be a better alternative to many others.

Like many of you I have felt a bit cheated by the weather this summer, so much so that I have made every effort to get out and make the most of recent good weather.

On the same day that I came across the aforementioned horses, I was out for a walk along a disused railway line which has been upgraded at great expense by Fife Council to facilitate access to the countryside for walkers, cyclists and horse riders alike.

It is truly wonderful, spoiled only by the horse droppings which have been deposited along the tarmac-surfaced track.

Feeling a sense of both anger and shame, I remember only too well the words of BHS Director for Scotland, Helene Mauchlen, who has urged riders on countless occasions to get off their mounts and kick droppings into the side as a goodwill gesture towards fellow path users.

Sadly her words of wisdom seem to have fallen on deaf ears in this particular area.

Given that the Council also provides bespoke mounting blocks along the length of the path, the words lazy, disrespectful and irresponsible come to mind.