Carriage Driving's Gary Docking wonders where all the good grooms have gone?
Another day, another duck shoot - or so they say! All my show horses have returned home and are looking well, clipping and dodging the showers have been the name of the game, and at long last we are all semi-naked and ready for work! It's always so very interesting to have the horses back from their respective owners with great expectations for the coming season, some lacking discipline, some returning like the day they went...
Our great white hope is Striker, the current British Driving Society Supreme National Champion. He lives with us all the time so is very interested to see who and what has made the cut for the 2012 season, he seems too look them over with a mixture of distain and old school charm as they clatter off the delivering lorries.
Is it me or is there a severe lack of real grooms? Young people seem to be in education for years and years and then come out the other end qualified to teach or be a equine nutritionalist or an equine behaviour specialist! What is that? And why? If we are not careful we will have a generation of educated idiots and not a soul who can plait properly or sweep the yard. Grooming professionally is a rewarding and talented job so why has it been so dumbed down and made to sound un-career worthy and below the salt! I would give my right arm for a REAL groom, dare I say old fashioned, that knew bandaging, how bad the colic needs to be before calling me, the vet or the owner, and an interest in my yard and the horses on it.
Everybody at this time of year has the best possible horse for the forthcoming season. The way it goes, its colour and movement are much bragged about and listened to in every market and sale yard. Whether we see all of these animals reach their potential is another matter, but the anticipation is worth the gossip and makes everyone go home and try that little bit harder. Schedules are piling in, I have a fair few judging commitments this year so this gamekeeper is putting on his poaching clothes and thoroughly looking forward to it.
"I'm pleased to say I survived Christmas with the family (there is a reason you move away from home!), but since New Year we had three days of the worst storms in years battering West Sussex. Two days without either electricty or phone - both my mobile and my landline were down - was totally unbearable, and if one of you says we never had all these mod cons years ago I will actually scream. We live in the present, and life today revolves around communications and the ability to boil a kettle without first chopping wood.
A lovely little box
I've sold my lorry and am looking for something smaller. Fuel and running costs have played a big part in the decision, besides which the client list is not as long as it once was. The global financial situation (I hate that phrase!) has not really improved, and the buying equine public are simply not buying. I have an awesome (another word I hate) client base for next season, with great horses to match, but they are not quite so plentiful as they were. Travelling the southern part of England looking for a lorry has proved both costly and time consuming, with lots of misleading ads. 'One lady owner' - I presume they mean one per year? Living areas like pig styes, horse areas like cattle trucks, and the overall appearance of a Ne'er-do-well.
The boys and more
All horses look as fat as seals and well, the American Hackney pony Hartland Glittering Gal (now there's a name) is a great tease, keeping the boys on their toes. The Donkey, yes he is still here, is wearing a rug. You heard it here first! His 'busy' Christmas, with bookings for personal appearances and as a goodwill ambasador for the yard, didn't really take off even with the addition of antlers and hoof oil. There ia always another year! March and April are all booked up with each weekend accounted for with either an after dinner speech, lecture demo, or teaching so plenty to look forward to. Next will be the final fitting for the new harness, I'll find the elusive lorry, sharpen the clipper blades and we'll be off! Oh, just a minute - it's only the first week of January, I'll have wait a month or two yet..."
"As I sit here in my office, it doesn't seem 5mins ago that it was the begining of the year and we were still wondering whether to chance the novice at his first show or not. Is it me, or is it true when people say that time goes quicker the older you become? I remember as a child thinking that people in their mid-40s had had a good innings, and here I am now slap bang in the middle of that age group. Plus I'm grumpy as hell because I'm on another diet, on the wagon - pardon the pun - and determined to get my waistline and blood pressure down to around the same figure.
A good ending
This season really has been a game of two halves. I can't complain too much about March to June, but June to September was fantastic. The team (that saves listing everybody individually) really came together, and at the National Championships this year they excelled. The show had moved to the wonderful Addington and it went wonderfully.
Striker won his three classes and then qualified for the evening floodlit Strictly Come Dancing-esque final. My finest show horse, Striker is not known for his patience (some say rather like his driver) and this kind of evening event usually gets him doing airs above the ground and Gary's bottom going to a point. However, the horse somehow got his brain together and walked - yes, I said walked - into the arena and decided (with little help from myself) to win the championship and become The Osborne Refrigerators British Driving Society National Champion - the only title thats has eluded me in my 30-year career.
It wasn't made easy for us either. Mention must always be made of my other double succesful showing livery Dunkery Bewick, an Exmoor pony who won three classes classes and joined me for the evening championship. Penny, who drives the Exmoor, was thrilled and trotted around the ring festooned in red rosettes and sashes looking very much like the cat that got the cream. I was rather pleased winning the Moutain & Moorland class with him as the judge described him as a pony with an arse "like a haunch of ham". He has a point - it does look a bit like that.
Back to the yard
Now with some of the showing horses gone home to go feral, and me looking forward to a couple of week in the sun after Christmas (with a toned and slimmer body, I hope) we have a few breakers in to sort out for next year. I say breakers... There's a two-year-old Welsh Cob stallion who thinks the world owes him a living. He has been shown extensively in-hand with much success but needs his owners to go home and Gary to apply a little grown up conversation. There's a miniature pony with a metabolic disorder, and a jack donkey that can't be caught. Ah, the glamour of it all!"
Gary is clearly trying to escape from another service station sandwich
“It’s been a good season, he says with an air of contented optimism, which won’t last very long as HOYS gets closer.
The older I get, the quicker time passes by. It’s almost the middle of August now, and we are 36 events and shows down and I cannot remember the last two. I know some of you will put this down to my addled brain, but I just think it's age. By August I am sick to death of filling station sandwiches (with the exception of Marks & Spencers and Waitrose) and if I wanted to eat shoe leather then it would not come filled with spicy chicken and call itself a wrap! The coffee that comes out of the-oh-so-special-Coffee-Republic-machine spits out liquid like molten lava in a cardboard cup too hot to handle. Don’t worry, that is the end of my rant!
Humping Harry takes on one mount to far
The lovely Hackney stallion that I mentioned earlier this year - black, 14.3hh, four white socks - is now a gelding. After he tried to mount everything at an early season show - including the judge who hasn’t seen any action since the early 40’s - I would have done it personally in the lorry on the way home if the law would have allowed. He has now settled and Humping Harry is now just Harry. He has worked into his novice season very well, thanks to a very patient owner, Mr Upnorth, and he is looking forward to the future.
A champion Striker
Striker, the only man in my life, has had a wonderful season, claiming championships at Devon County, Royal Norfolk and The New Forest shows to name but a few. Alongside his new mate Vivaldi they completed the Tandem Club meet and their first show together and qualified for the National Championships.
Impatient Welsh and Exmoors
Pip, my novice Section C, has really turned out to be a charming fellow although he lacks patience, but he is Welsh after all. His progress has really come together this last two months. Both he and Non-Humping Harry are owned by the same gent.
Merlin, the unlikely stable star, has had a bumper season for an Exmoor and has won every single country turnout and Mountain and Moorland class he has entered, thanks again to patience owners (boy, do you need to be patience with an Exmoor) and of course Miss Charity Shop who has proved to be a more than an adequate showman.
And as for me…
All this has been made possible by generous and incredible sponsorship from Baileys Horse Feeds; the horses all look like catwalk models.
As for me, I’ve learnt two things so far this year.
1. Don’t dry clean your suits too often, they are inclined to shrink.
"Well, here we are again at the beginning of the year; we are as ready as the weather has allowed us, which is quite ready considering. After two-and-a-half weeks in Thailand, elephant riding, white water rafting, staying up late, eating and drinking, it is a little difficult to come back down to earth and it has taken a little longer than usual to get back into things.
A horse for all seasons
As you can see by the photograph, we have a new leader by the name of Vivaldi (the horse for all seasons). He is a half-brother to Striker and both are by the incredible Warmblood sire Mano, so he has no trouble with movement or showmanship.
We have had our first outing and lecture demonstration for the British Driving Society in Cornwall and, other than the toothpaste freezing in the lorry, we all got along pretty well. It is always exciting taking the horses out when they are freshly clipped and with the addition of an indoor school and a friend blowing the coaching horn, we were certainly showing our paces.
Horses and staff coming along nicely
The horses looked fantastic, thanks to Baileys and my girls, who are all new this year. Both Katie and Amy have really stepped up to the plate, pulled their fingers out and become very competent girls.
They have yet to cope with me in showing mode, but I'm sure they will; at least I hope they will.
The rest of the yard is coming along nicely with another Dutch Warmblood, by the name of Synbad, our resident Hackney stallion Monty (who's ego is nearly too big to get him back into the stable), Pip, a novice Welsh Section C pony, and Ruster the original miserable old man, but then again he is from Belgium!
March will be full of lecture demonstrations, and inside events and come April when the weather is better and warm (said with tongue firmly in cheek) we hit the great outdoors - I only hope everybody else is ready!"
"Its like Boxing Day on our yard; our Towerlands National Carriage Driving Championships and Horse of the Year Show are over, and all we have left to look forward to is cold turkey and wondering how much you can get for the presents you didn't want on eBay.
Once a quick Mediterranean holiday is over its kind of getting your mind set and organised for the season ahead, although we are still only at the end of October, there is only five or six months ahead to get your ducks in a row and prepare for next year. This year's baby horses now need to become next year's novices, and that is quite a leap. The novice horses have either proved themselves, or need to make a space, we have one or two like that and I need to make a pretty serious decision as to whether to be patient or cash in!
All the dinner and dances and AGMs come at once, with the inevitable clashes; I am torn between the British Driving Society, the Hackney Horse Society and the Donkey Breed Society, such choices! All need an after dinner speech, a vote at an AGM, or an entertaining raffle puller and cup presenter. Plans made now for next season seem to go the best, as I know these best laid plans don't always go the right way, but at least its a plan and something to work towards.
As far as home is concerned, Monty the young Hackney stallion has come on a treat and enjoyed a couple of non competitive outings, where excitement didn't get hold of him too much. We are reinventing the tandem, and we are going to look at a horse today to replace Dreamer, so watch this space. With a pair of young Hackneys on the horizon, which we will hopefully get together for a new client in Middle England, we are being kept busy with breaking, schooling and teaching, so long as my patience holds and I don't swear too much.
All the horses look great, and Baileys have done a wonderful job, they look as good now in winter coat as they did in June of this year. Chalky the donkey has found a wonderful way of rolling under our perimeter fence to help himself to the Colonel's garden, so a little trip to the garden centre to buy replacements I think.
Well with luck, by the time I blog next we will be into schooling, and putting ourselves back into hard work again, so get ready for the winter regime and how not to waste a moment of dry weather."
Gary and Dreamer out at one of their training shows
"What is it about horses that makes you forgive, forget and fall in love again?
As you will have noticed in my last couple of blogs, I have had a new leader horse here for the last few months. He really was something special, we 'baked our cake properly' - visiting every small show in the south east and west of England, winning exercise cart classes, making sure he knew the job inside out, travelling, loading, plaiting, bandaging, bumpy showgrounds, busy showgrounds, standing in line, standing alone; he was exposed to everything that was necessary, he went in the lead of the tandem, infront of our established show horse here, and was exemplary. I even organised a drive and show here at my own yard, to prove that it was no fluke; I even enjoyed showing off a little, they were perfect. Everything at last had come together. God was in his heaven, the tandem were in a straightline, some of the competitors were pissed off they were going so well, and I was thrilled. Thats until Royal Bloody Windsor.
The day started much like any other. Those of you that know Royal Windsor Show, and have been there for the last thirteen hundred years like myself, know to arrive early so you can park somewhere near the show entrance rather than having to walk from Datchett, Slough or Eton. The best carriage was polished, the silk hats had been back to Pateys for a touch up, I was thin, the horses were fat.
It was decided to take Dreamer the 'leader' as a single horse, and just let him see a busy showground in a show carriage on his own. Royal Windsor doesn't have private driving classes anymore, so its just the meet of the BDS on Sunday afternoon. Nothing could be finer, or so I thought. We put to at the back of the lorry, and made our way up to the Copper horse collecting ring. He was a little tense but not too worried. I gently trotted around the collecting ring twice and he just felt a little more tense, I asked my groom to jump up and half way around the third circuit, up went his head and he took off. As he cornered at gallop, I was flung from the vehicle and hit the ground with all the grace and agility of a bull elephant. Wayne also ejected himself from the vehicle, somehow got to the horse's head and with the help of one or two friends things ground to a halt, with no injury to any other person or animal. I was out for the count and apparently going blue (albiet in a handmade suit, Hermes tie, and Geoffrey West shoes), this was not the launch I had prepared! The next thing I remember (I think) was waking up in Wexham Park Hospital, being asked if I spoke English. Once I had explained in perfect English that I could speak English, they went and got an interpreter, as all the staff there that afternoon were Indian!
There is some truth in the fact that man makes plans and God laughs, although there wasn't much laughing done, two broken ribs and severe concusion later saw to that.
Sadly Dreamer tried it again at home, and took off in the school for no apparent reason. There is something in his past or maybe in his brain that has simply flipped, so he is now being ridden with the hope that somebody will take him on in another discipline. I am too old to be thrown out of carriages and and too unfit to be able to get up and chase after the horse!
Now that was all a little while ago, the season has stumbled on but this accident has taken a toll on our ability to show horses since. Carriages take a long time to repair, and my ego is quite firmly in my pocket at the moment, but nethertheless we are here, upright and ready for whatever is next, and thats the real thing isn't it. We never know what's round the corner, no matter how we plan, arrange, dream and promise, ten fateful minutes make all the difference."
"Well the season is upon us, the thoughts of the wet, cold, frozen, miserable winter have gone, and I wake up each morning and embrace the overcast, dull and cold spring! However the paddocks have dried up, the school needs a light harrowing, and we are back in business with a capital B.
Last year there was an air of skepticism; clients didn't know quite how the finances were going to pan out, but this year whether they have got the money or not, people seem to be going for it and embracing the new season (hooray, say all independant producers of horses, like my good self).
Baileys my sponsor seem to be happy, thank the lord. People like Baileys who back people like me, are the very life rug of equestriasm. With the London Harness Horse Parade and the South of England Carriage Driving Fair under our belts, and the first show of the season way down in local Yeovil, we are already putting toe to tarmac and beating up the miles on the motorways. My diet (although I am not a welcomed member of Weight Watchers) has worked well, and I am now three stone less than when I wrote my last blog. Anybody who tells you that Weight Watchers food is a "hearty and nutritious alternative" has lied to you. It would have to be a dark day indeed when I agree to eat cat sick in a bag!
The four Dutch Warmbloods are all driving well, clipped out and look fantastic, summer coats bursting through by the day now. The young black Hackney stallion is growing in confidence and competence and is showing more than a little interest in the polo ponies that regularly rattle by on their road work... Wayne the new boy has worked out well and it is great to have somebody that is competent with not only the horses but also drain rods and fencing; a real treat.
The British Driving Society's Clinics and Classes teaching initiative seemed to have had good results countrywide, and people are still eager to improve their 'lot'. We have put a tandem (two horses in a line, one in front of the other) together here at the yard - not an easy combination but one that I have been aching to get back to for some years now. They are going really well at home, but to get them out in company, well that will be another accomplishment.
The area where we live and work has now become a National Park, with all the red tape that that entails, so we look forward to the filling of illegal swimming pools, sneaky photographs being taken of grazed set aside land, and another set of men telling us how to live our lives, work and behave in our county.
Well next time we will be in the thick of it, and showing up to our necks. Get ready for bitten tongues, temper tantrums, good judging, bad judging, motorways, mayhem and more. Until next time."
"What's happened since Christmas? Well this year, a lot. Things seem to be picking up, we have at last found some staff, and with one their CV actually matched their experience, so that's a step in the right direction.
The snow has at last gone, I never thought I would be happy to see rain, but as long as it washed away the crusty white stuff I could not be happier. I know everybody says it's a one off and the result of global warming, but we simply can't do it here. Living out in the sticks, with a lot of outdoor piping and one 4x4 to share between 1600 villagers, is not my idea of fun.
Even the people who swear and curse on the road because I take up too much room with my carriages, or go too slowly in my lorry, were glad to see "dear old gary and the pick up truck" - it's amazing how people fly into panic when they are down to their last pheasant or bottle of port!
The pensioner and I decided to go to Brighton. The snow was more or less clear, and the pick up truck has more gears and ratios than you can shake a stick at, so we thought we would go for a little jaunt, and what did said pensioner want to see? Yes thats right, Holiday on Ice. So from -5 degrees outside to -7 inside we went.
The Brighton Centre lacks charm and character but it is a huge space, that can be moulded to any use. We sat patiently in our seats (not allowed to take hot drinks or food into the auditorum - what do they think we were going to do? Donut somebody to death, or throw an expensive luke warm cup of tea at them?). This second day of the run proved disasterous, the many coach loads of challenged folk and the elderly could not make it, so the 2000 seater auditorum only had 17 of us turn up!
I politely asked the seating steward if myself and the pensioner could move around the front, to one of the 1800 empty seats in the best block. "Sadly not," said the quiff of blue rinsed hair, "they might yet turn up and those seats are much more expensive." With that the overture started (piped music - gone are the days of a decent orchestra) and onto the ice came amateur night. Not a member of the cast seemed to be older than 16, and they seemed to have a private joke running among themselves, and us the audience, all 17 of us, were just a hinderance. Where was the sequinned costumes and osterich feathers, where was Anita Harris, a pencilled in mole, a spot light and a chorus line? Nowhere to be seen. It was modern cheap and quick. Lesson learnt, complaint made and two free tickets for Motorhead (I don't think so).
Back to the yard, dodging the showers, things are coming back into work slowly, new staff have to learn new working practices, cope with my pathological tidy gene, have a sense of humour the size of a house, and be able to understand what I say before I say it. With some good young horses, one or two reinventions, a ghastly diet and four weeks on the wagon now, I wish myself and my staff every luck in the world. Till next time...."
"This year is about as depressing as it can get - the South of England (where I am ensconced) is as wet as it has ever been. I have only got five horses in, but the continual rotation of ever wet rugs, gateways are like mud baths.
The local shot seem to find it necessary to kill the three nearest pheasants to my yard regularly, but last week they took the biscuit on the very day I decide to lead in four 16.2hh dutch warmbloods at the same time. I wasn't in a very good mood to begin with (owing to the fact that the local shop has decided not to stock Bombay Sapphire), but being pulled face down and then jumped over was the perfect end to a perfect day!
By the time they had been caught, after demonstrating passage and piaffe around the yard with the security lights on the blink, it looked like strope lighting meets the devil rides out. Ten minutes later, they were caught, hoof picked, growled at, and merrily eating, and as only horses can, looked as if nothing had happened, and were wondering what all the fuss was about. I must admit, they look cracking winter and summer on Baileys feed, this has to be one of the wettest Novembers I have had at this yard, although its green sand and good draining soil, even this land has begun to give up.
Next on the list, the lorry will want a service, and plating (thank christ for Mother's credit card), the two horses we have had in to break to harness need to leave the safe familiarity of the yard, and go up and down the road (pheasants, partridge, and local preacher permitting). I live in a wonderful little hamlet of Hoyle which nestles between Midhurst and Chichester, and although usually quiet, the recent economic situation saw one or two people selling their 'quaint weekend cottages' - substantial farmhouses to you and I - these have been bought and subsequently raised to the ground and built their partcular versions of an idyllic weekend retreat.
So we are awash with lost builders merchants, Polish labourers, local authority officers and in one of the houses they were about to knock down, they have found a slow worm and a bat, no not living together, but merrily ensconced in the loft and behind the sink, so we can't knock that one down yet.
Next season can't come soon enough, with the South of England Carriage Driving Fair on the 14th March 2010, and the judging invitations plopping through the letterbox, and masterclass at Equifest, and the launch of the Hackney Horse Society pony display team, there is a lot to do, I just can't wait to leave domestic wet bliss!"