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The Purple Poppy

It’s been a 100 years since the guns went silent.

A century since we bombarded the other side with mustard and chlorine gas.

It was to have been The Great War – the war which ended war.

My grandfather was at Passchendaele. It’s also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, and it went from July to November of 1917. Both sides each lost between 200,000 and 420,000 men. It was hard to tell as so many were lost in the mud, explosions and general gore. My grandfather didn’t really like to talk about that time, but he did show us his “war wounds” – the scarred feet from his bout of Trench Foot.

FRANCE – 1920: War 1914-1918. Douaumont’s ossuaire (the Meuse(Maas), 1920-1932) and the cemetery, in the foreground. RV-898013. (Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

I never really appreciated it all until I visited the site and war graves in 2001. Then I understood his far away look and deep sadness each November. My father, a WWII veteran, would join him at sunset each November 11 and drink a silent glass of whiskey. It was their salute to their fallen, but never forgotten comrades.

The years rolled by and I never forgot what my grandfather told me. His happier reflections centred around the fact that he had been able to ride with General Pershing. He would talk about how important this man was and how important the bay mare my grandfather rode was. Again, it is only now that I reflect also upon that unknown horse, who I think one of my aunts may have been named after.

Each year the Royal British Legion sells their red poppies. The poppy is a sign that we haven’t forgotten and it helps raise necessary funds for today’s soldiers. The red poppy is currently everywhere. But what about the purple poppy? The purple poppy is hard to find. It is the flower that reminds us of how many animals were lost in The Great War.

Sixteen million, that’s right million, animals were used during World War I. Horses, dogs, cats and birds filled the trenches of both sides. Dogs provided companionship but were also used to help find the wounded, carry first aid when it was not possible for a human to do so as well as to sniff out bombs. They were also instrumental in finding the dead. As you probably know, birds, specifically carrier pigeons, were used to send messages. Anyone caught with a carrier pigeon was immediately branded a spy and both bird and human were summarily executed. Cats were the first suicide bombers as they would stealthily meander across no man’s land to opposing army’s trench in search of food. Their effectiveness is still open debate. Then there were the equines.

Eight million horses and countless mules and donkeys died in the Great War. Britain provided over a million horses in the European Campaign and another 65,000 in the Mesopotamia Campaign . The USA sent 1 million over via ship and another 185,000 with their army. The British “topped up” their animal forces at about 100,000 horses each year. The French provided 17 regiments of mounted soldiers. The German, Austrian, and Russian forces had equal numbers. The various allies of Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Italians, Turks and Slavs all provided immense numbers of equines. These animals were used to transport ammunition and supplies to the front, pull ambulance wagons, as well as participate in numerous failed cavalry charges.

For the British, they lost 1 horse for every 2 men.

These animals not only died due to warfare injuries, they died from shellfire, appalling weather, overwork and starvation. Some troops even went as far as to kill the horses for food for themselves.

You may have seen the stage play or film, War Horse. Joey’s story is rather accurate. We all held our breath as tears rolled down our faces when the injured, blind Albert Narracott wanders in desperation to save Joey, his horse, from being shot by the unit Commander. At the end of the war many horses, mules and donkeys were simply abandoned. They were also sold for slaughter to feed the starving human population. Many were simply shot so that the local population would have no access to them. As the troops came home, often their most trusted companion did not. Britain tried to repatriate as many as they could and it was about half a million, but of the nearly 600,000 Australian horses only 1, Sandy, returned home.

Blue Cross Animal Charity began in 1887 as Our Dumb Friends League, but changed its name in 1912 after the Balkan Wars. Its purpose was to help the horses of war. It was instrumental during World War I in making sure that horses had proper treatment for the host of diseases that were rife – ringworm, tapeworm, mange, equine influenza and anthrax were common. They also helped oversee surgery for hoses caught in gun fire. Blue Cross is still active today supporting horses who have been abandoned, neglected or wilfully injured. They rehabilitate them and try to safely re-home as many as possible.

After the war, the millions of donkeys left in the Middle East were cruelly treated. A group of British women were appalled by what they saw and did what they could to provide appropriate veterinary care and food for these animal heroes. In 1930 they formally created The Brooke Trust which operates to this day as a charity to help the donkey population in the Middle East and around the world.

There is a good reason to wear a purple poppy. These animals didn’t ask to go to war nor did they celebrate it. They died for us. They gave their all and until recently no one spoke on their behalf. On 11 November I shall remember those who fell, both human and animal, and I shall remember my grandfather and his bay mare which he left behind in France.

Next year, please wear a purple poppy along with red poppy to Remember All Who Gave Their All.

Horses in Springtime

Well, Spring is officially here. You might not believe it as you dig out from under the snow, but yes spring has arrived. I am very sure that after this last “HaHa!” of what has proved to be a very long, wet winter, the rising green and soft winds will be more than a relief for a weary soul.

So what happens to our four-legged friends? Actually Lots! And it is the time of year when we, as their carers, need to spend the most amount of time caring for them and their things. Believe me when I say they will appreciate both now and later — as will you.

The first thing we need to aware of is that their winter coat will be shedding. Our yard is going to be covered in fur for about 10 weeks as the horses lose the thick coat that kept them warm most of the winter. Even the horses who were clipped for shows this past winter will be dropping some fur. So deep grooming is needed all around. The use of a hair removal comb for 30 minutes a day should get it under control relatively quickly, followed by an industrious use of the curry comb and dandy brush. If you don’t want to eat, breathe and wear horse hair, then a cheap coverall and a facemask will be your best friend.

Horses will try to rid themselves of their unwanted hair as well. This can make exercising or riding a bit more challenging as they will want to drop and roll. Rolling is a way to scratch your back and get rid of that fur. That’s great! That’s natural! Rolling with tack on is bad and can be expensive with regards to saddle damage and injury to the horse. Try very hard to NEVER let them do this. If there is a concern that rolling might happen, then lunge your horse without tack first and if he wants to roll, let him. This lunging will also get rid of his pent up energy.

Nature also gives horses gifts. With the warmer temperatures, they lose their coat which means the question of whether to rug or not to rug raises its ugly head. There are no hard and fast rules which makes this issue very contentious amongst owners.

One of best gifts of spring is the new shoot, buds and leaves. The lush green grass smells wonderful, and I am assured by Charlie that it tastes as good as it looks. The reason he, and 99% of the rest of the world’s equines, likes it is the sugar. Young, new shoots of grass are loaded with sugar. It tastes divine and after a winter of dried grass (hay), they will gorge themselves silly. For older or lamenetic ponies, this is dangerous as it can kill them. For horses and ponies with easily upset digestive systems, again this could kill them when they develop a fast moving colic. So, as much as they love it, it is important that they are monitored during the spring and not allowed to over eat.

The last gift of spring is babies. In nature, now is the time for foals. Horses have an 11 month gestation period. Naturally it is better for the foal to be born when there is plenty of grass so that the mother will have lots of milk. Also the temperatures are better as there is less of an overnight chill. Of course this means that the mares who don’t have a baby will have babies on her mind. Yep, they are at their strongest for being in season. The males, gelded or not, will respond. So suddenly your barn of sweet tempered dobbins start acting like a bunch wild stallions. They are just frisky. They will ride harder, faster and sharper than you might expect. They will be quick to the field and an absolute bore to bring in — if you can at all. As their carer what is important is to understand why they are behaving that way and to manage it in as safe a way as possible. Never rush and never put yourself in danger.

The last of the joys of spring (which could hold to early summer) is the tack. Now is the time to have the saddle fitter out and check to see if the saddle is fitting properly. Your horse will have lost weight and possibly condition over the winter. It is important that their “clothes” fit properly before you take them out showing. You may get lucky and only have to change the girth, which means the old one can be checked for wear and cleaned until needed again come autumn. Speaking of cleaning, this is a great time to deep clean the leather with saddle soap and give it a good oiling. Your hands won’t freeze in the water and it does feel good work in the sunshine!

Adding to the financial woes will be inevitable washing and repairing of rugs. Don’t leave this to September as there will be crush of people who have left it to the last minute. Get them clean and stored properly where there will be a minimum of damage from water, bugs or vermin. I’ve know some folks who put lavender in the strong plastic bags we store rugs in to deter these critters. This is also the time when you can pick up rugs on sale. Think carefully about how much it costs to repair a rug and how much further wear you will get versus the cost of a new rug.

Less expensive but equally dirty and necessary, it’s time to clean that stable. Get on the wellie boots and a t-shirt you never want to wear again, and lift those mats! Also try not to breathe too deep. Once the mats are lifted and out of the stable, clean the floor with Jays Fluid and leave it to dry. Wash the mats down all-purpose cleaner on BOTH sides and leave to dry in the sunshine. Now assess the stable for repairs. Do the walls need filled in from winter kicks? Does the light bulb need replaced in the stable? Does the stable need a spruce up? A quick lick of paint can make the whole stable look brand new. One last thing…change the water bucket. I’ve learned over the years to change them out in the spring (whether you think it needs it or not) because often the bucket has suffered under the cold, and will break easily and unexpectedly during first warm days. Also, it’s a nice treat for your horse.

So lots to do. I suppose I should get off of the computer and get to work… once it quits snowing.

Keep riding,