A pet biscuit company is born…

My Facebook friends and Twitter followers may have noticed some unusual activity lately. I appear to be baking copious quantities of biscuits in different shapes and sizes – hearts, squares, rounds, flowers and even…bones! What’s going on? Am I going slowly mad??

Well, perhaps I am!

You’ll know that I have a slight obsession with food – cooking and eating it. Regular readers will also know about Taffy – Riff Raff, Tiff Taff, Raffy, occasionally Fatty – the family Jack Russell. Well, a few Christmases ago I received a gift of a small box containing an assortment of three dog biscuit cutters and a (pretty useless) recipe book. I imagine it was a Secret Santa present, but I can’t remember. I found myself with a little time on my hands and opened the box. Out fell the small bone shape biscuit cutter… Hmmmm!

Two hours later the kitchen worktops were covered in freshly baked small bone shaped biscuits and Taffy couldn’t believe his luck!

Our first dog bone biscuits

Our first dog bone biscuits

“Are they really all for me Mum?” he asked through his soft big brown eyes, lifting one paw off the floor in such a cute beg, wagging his tail furiously and flopping one ear.

Taffy asking (begging!) so nicely

Taffy asking (begging!) so nicely

“You can’t possibly eat all of these Taffy…but maybe you’d like to share them with your doggie friends? What do you think??”

And so the idea was born…!

Since then the kitchen has been a hive of activity as I have experimented with various biscuit flavours. Sweet potato – bit chewy! Carrot – bit bland, Taffy didn’t seem overly keen! Chunky peanut butter – big hit, especially with the addition of a squishy banana for natural sweetness. Biscuits flavoured with caraway seeds seemed popular with Taffy too, inspired by the knowledge that dogs love aniseed. Parsley and mint biscuits were devoured and left him with a pleasant doggie breath. Wholewheat parsley and sesame seed crunchy bones didn’t last long!

Chunky Peanut Butter & Banana Oat Hearts

Chunky Peanut Butter & Banana Oat Hearts

Caraway & Poppy Seed Crunchies

Caraway & Poppy Seed Crunchies

Minty Herb Squares

Minty Herb Squares

Parsley & Sesame Seed Dawg Bones

Parsley & Sesame Seed Dawg Bones

Chicken Liver & Parsley Bites

Chicken Liver & Parsley Bites

The latest recipe – chicken liver and parsley oat bites – left Taffy guarding the oven door while they baked, sending his nose into overdrive when they came out. Impatient for them to cool enough to sample them. Taking his job as chief taste tester very seriously indeed.

Taffy thinks the liver biscuits smell delicious

Taffy thinks the liver biscuits smell delicious

I couldn’t possibly give all these biscuits to Taffy, there were just too many, so little packets of ‘samples’ were shared around the neighbours’ dogs and taken to the stables to be distributed amongst the yard dogs. My taste testing circle was being slowly expanded. Quality assurance was paramount!

Samples for our Doggie Biscuit Taste Testers

Samples for our Doggie Biscuit Taste Testers

Feedback from my research activity was favourable…perhaps this idea has legs after all!

But this business would need a name! What could it be? I thought it would be apt to mention the founder and company mascot – Taffy – in some shape or form and considered the Jumping Jacks Biscuit Company. It was catchy and most definitely Taffy through and through…but sadly it had already been trademarked. Other names came and went – Artisan Pet Biscuits, Pet Bakery, Doggie Bags – but none of them were quite right. The search continued. Each time a name contender emerged I discovered it was already taken or the domain name registered.

Eventually, it was my old friend Liz, from DesignHouse NorthWest who came up with the perfect name for my new business, after a very productive evening brainstorming session with her husband. It absolutely reflects who we are and what we do – a small business, producing homemade pet biscuits and baking them fresh in our oven, to be delivered straight from our kitchen direct to those of our future customers…

…The Little Pet Biscuit Company

Please follow our continuing story as we put the wheels in motion. We’re on Facebook – http://www.Facebook.com/LittlePetBiscuitCo and Twitter too – http://www.Twitter.com/PetBiscuit

Easy homebaked crusty white loaf

‘Tis the season to be baking…tra la la la la!!  When it’s cold and frosty outside, what better way to warm up and work a few muscles than baking a nice crusty loaf – without any help from a food mixer!  Any pent up frustrations will soon be kneaded out of your system (did you like what I did there?) as you work your bread dough into a silky smooth dough.  Try it yourself with this dead easy recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 1Ib (500g) strong white bread flour
  • 1 1/2oz (40g) melted butter
  • 1oz (30g) fresh yeast or 2 sachets fast-action dried yeast
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 10 fl oz (300 mil) tepid water

How to make my crusty white bread loaf:

Turn your oven on to 200 C and put an old baking tray into the very bottom.

Put half the tepid water into a measuring jug and crumble in the fresh yeast.  Leave until the liquid starts to froth and has doubled in size (about 10 minutes in a warm place).  If you’re using fast-action dried yeast then just following the instructions on the packet which would normally be to sprinkle the yeast straight into your flour.

Put your flour and salt into a large bowl.  Make a hole or well in the middle and pour in the melted butter and frothy yeast mixture.  Start mixing everything together with a spoon or spatula until all the yeasty liquid has been absorbed.  Now roll up your sleeves and get your fingers into the dough, adding a little more of the tepid water and working it in as you go.

As soon as all the ingredients have combined into a single soft ball of dough, sprinkle a little flour on your worktop and turn it out.  Now start kneading the dough – be as rough as you want!  Remember, this is a great opportunity to release your energy and frustrations.  Really work that dough!  Try to keep it going for at least 10 minutes and the dough will be silky soft and perfectly smooth.

A ball of dough

Now put your ball of dough into a floured container – I have a nice proofing bread basket – cover with cling film or a clean tea towel and leave in a warm place – not on top of a radiator as this is too hot!
Dough in a proofing basket

When the dough has roughly doubled in size – maybe after about 1 – 1 1/2 hours – tip it out onto a floured worktop and knead it again for a few minutes to ‘knock back’ the air.  It’s ready now for its second proofing and I do this again in my floured bread proofing basket.  If you don’t have one of these then grease and flour a bread tin.  Pop your ball of dough into your proofing basket or bread tin, cover again and leave to rise somewhere warm.  This will take around an hour, but don’t rush it!
Risen dough

I turned my dough out of its proofing basket onto a non-stick silicon sheet and dusted it lightly with flour before putting it into the oven.  If you have proofed your dough in a bread tin you can just put it straight in the oven without doing any more to it.
Dough is ready to bake

Before closing the oven door, pour a little cold water into the baking tray at the bottom to create some steam – this will help your loaf bake crispy but not hard and crunchy.

Bake your loaf in the oven for 30 minutes.  When cooked leave to cool and then cut yourself a slice while still warm and enjoy :)
A slice of fresh bread

Damsons: three ways

Just in case you have a few kilos of damsons lurking, here are three recipes to help you make some lush goodies.  I happen to have almost two drawers in my freezer which are absolutely full to the brim with damsons from previous foraging expeditions, so decided to create a little space for something else by using up 4 kilos.  Trouble is, it hardly seemed to make a dent in my stash of damsons so I’ll have to be creative and think of something else to make with the rest!

These recipes were inspired by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage fame.  His recipes are always simple and seasonal, often using foraged ingredients which are in plentiful supply if you know when and where to look.  All my damsons were picked off trees in ‘the wild’ and not shop bought.  When I have time (and space in the freezer) I love to go foraging.

So, my 4 kilos of frozen damsons were divided into two heavy saucepans with 1 1/2 kilos going to make a damson jam compote and a hot & sour damson dipping sauce.  The remaining 2 1/2 kilos would be turned into a damson cheese.

How to make my damson jam compote

For every kilo of damsons in the saucepan, add 500g of caster sugar and then enough water to come halfway up the fruit.  Stir until the sugar has dissolved and simmer for around 15-20 minutes or until the damsons are soft.

Bring your damsons to a simmer

Spoon out about 500ml of the syrupy damson juice through a sieve and into another saucepan and put to one side – this will form the basis of your hot & sour damson dipping sauce.

With your first saucepan still on a low heat, work through the damsons removing all the stones – I usually do this with a couple of metal spoons because you can hear the sound of the stones against the metal as you stir.  This is a particularly tedious task and you will create a small mountain of damson stones on a plate, but eventually what you are left with is a pan of stoneless damson compote.

Damson stones

Spoon the compote through a jam funnel into sterilised jars which should keep in the fridge for up to 3 months, although in reality it will be eaten long before then.

Damson compote in sterlised jars

The compote isn’t as sweet as a typical jam, so won’t keep as long.  But the tartness works beautifully with rice pudding, semolina, creamy custard or natural yoghurt, as well as on toast.

How to make my hot & sour damson dipping sauce

To the damson syrup add 2 finely chopped garlic cloves, 2 chopped small hot chillies, 100ml light soy sauce and 100ml cider vinegar.  Stir and bring to the boil for around 5 minutes.  Then pour through a funnel into sterilised bottles.

Damson dipping sauce

The sauce should keep in the fridge for up to a year and is delicious for dipping spring rolls and other oriental canapés into.

Damson dipping sauce in sterilised bottles

How to make my damson cheese

Cook the damsons with just a couple of tablespoons of water, simmering until completely soft, so probably for around 20 minutes.

Spoon the mixture into a sieve over a clean saucepan and rub with the back of a spoon to remove the stones and skin.  This will give a smooth purée.

Rub the damsons through a sieve

Measure the purée by volume and add 350g of caster sugar for every 500ml.  Now bring to a simmer over a low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar and cook until the mixture has reduced to a thick, grainy paste.  This will probably take about an hour.  You will notice the bubbles changing shape and sound as the consistency of the mixture thickens.

Smooth thick grainy damson paste

Now you’ll need to pour the cheese into containers where they can be kept in the fridge.  I used shallow Chinese takeaway plastic containers which I lined with cling film to pour my cheese mixture into.  Then after a couple of hours the cheese had set so I folded the excess cling film over the top, put the lids on and popped everything in the fridge where they will keep almost indefinitely.

Damson paste in a container

What is a fruit cheese?

This is an intense fruit preserve which has been reduced until it will set to an almost solid consistency when cooled and can then be cut of sliced with a knife.  The most commonly known cheese of all is made from quince which is excellent served with cheese – of the Cheddar variety!  The damson cheese is a delicious accompaniment to my Christmas cheeseboard and a perfect complement to strong cheeses like Roquefort, Stilton and strong Cheddar

Perfect chocolate orange brownies

Undoubtedly the worst part of having a gastrointestinal virus ON MY BIRTHDAY was not the subsequent unpleasant aftereffects, or visit to the out of hours GP service at our local Hospital.  It wasn’t even having to a cancel a ‘special treat’ lesson on Chunky or not being able to enjoy a glass of wine with my chosen birthday meal – a homemade lasagne.  No!  It was the torture of having to leave a beautifully wrapped package from the Isle of Wight untouched, in full knowledge of the mouth-watering deliciousness it contained :(

For 4 days the parcel, a birthday gift from hubby, sat lonely and unloved on the kitchen worktop whilst my stomach attempted to regain its equilibrium.  With the final rumblings and gurglings fading I was finally ready to peel off the wrapping and savour the content – and did so, with almost ritualistic enjoyment in the company of my camera.

I have sampled these delightfully decadent chocolatey nuggets before.  Followers of my blog might remember how I found Anita – the creator of Say It With Brownies and master baker in this previous post.  But my taste buds have been tantalised recently with the revelation that Anita had created a new flavour for her delicious brownies – Chunky Chocolate Orange – and I just needed an excuse to try them – or at least to hint to hubby that he needed to buy them for me – so my birthday seemed the perfect occasion!

Box of Brownies

I peeled open the parcel as lovingly as Anita had no doubt wrapped it before sending it on its way over the Solent to arrive at my doorstep in Surrey.  Lifting the lid of the box revealed the carefully folded tissue paper protecting its precious contents.  Then a sweet chocolately orange scent wafted temptingly towards me and my stomach started gurgling again…in anticipation this time!

Brownies protected in tissue

Brownies unwrappedWith the tissue unfolded the brownies were finally uncovered, dusted lightly in icing sugar and cut into perfectly sized portions.  The milk chocolate orange chunks clearly visible. I just couldn’t wait any longer and delicately nibbled a corner of my brownie.  Delicious memories of chocolatey orange Christmas mornings and birthdays started attacking my senses.  This wonderfully light and gooey brownie was really hitting the spot and was surprisingly not as sweet as I had anticipated.  It was, quite simply, perfect!

Delicious brownies

Buy them for your friends or family at Christmas and they will love you FOR EVER!!  What the hell, treat yourself and buy for one…some things are just too good for sharing :)

Go to Anita’s website to ogle at the pictures of her full brownie range and order a box straight away www.sayitwithbrownies.co.uk

Decaf coffee cupcakes with coffee buttercream

I wasn’t on a drive to reduce my caffeine intake when I made these little treats, but as we only had decaffeinated coffee in the kitchen at the time it had to do.  Obviously, full strength caffeinated coffee will work just as well!!

Ingredients:

  • 3 1/2 oz (100g) unsalted butter
  • 3 1/2 oz (100g) light muscovado sugar
  • 3 1/2 oz (100g) self-raising flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tsp instant coffee – I like a really strong coffee flavour so I’m not shy with the granules

For the buttercream topping:

  • 3 1/2 oz (100g) unsalted butter
  • 7 oz (200g) icing sugar
  • 3 tsp instant coffee
  • Walnut pieces – to decorate

To make my coffee cupcakes:

Preheat the over to around 180C.

Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs and mix.

Dissolve the instant coffee granules in about 3 tablespoons of hot water and add to the mix.  Sift the flour in and now gently combine.  Don’t overmix.

Put a large dollop of cake mix into each cupcake case and pop in the oven for 15-20 minutes.  When they’re springy to touch they’re ready to come out and leave to cool.

Coffee cupcakes cooling out of the oven

To make the coffee buttercream:

Just mix the butter (which should be at room temperature) with the icing sugar until combined and fluffy.

Dissolve the instant coffee granules in 2 tablespoons of hot water and add to the sugary, buttery mix.  Stir until all combined.

When the cupcakes have completely cooled, spread a little of the coffee buttercream onto each cupcake, or pipe it if you want a more professional look.  I decorated each cupcake with a little piece of walnut.

Et voila!! Dead easy and so quick.  Delicious eaten straight away with a fresh cup of coffee.  Worry about the caffeine another day :)

Decaf coffee cupcakes with coffee buttercream

A metre of pizza in Abruzzo

Just two nights away and I come home 4Ibs heavier!  Where could I possibly have been?  I’ll give you a clue – copious quantities of extremely gluggable red wine (a 5 litre plastic bottle of it!!), a little sunshine, fabulous coffee and a mosquito bite or two….


Sant’Egidio alla Vibrata in the Province of Teramo, in the Abruzzo region of central Italy.  A town of approximately 8,000 inhabitants and home to much of Hubby Pizzi’s extended family.  Mama Pizzi likes to go ‘home’ to Italy two or three times a year and the responsibility for delivering her there safe and sound rests with her three sons who take it in turns to perform this duty.  This time, in order for her to be home in time for the All Saints Day celebrations on 1 November, it fell upon Hubby to be her chaperone and I tagged along too…!

Leaving early on Friday morning, flying out of Stansted which feels a million miles away from our home in Surrey, we had arrived in Sant’Egidio (via the supermarkWhitebaitet) by mid-afternoon and we were starving!  Fortunately a feast was quickly prepared so we weren’t hungry for long.  One of Hubby’s aunties joined us and brought along a gift of freshly prepared deep-fried whitebait (as you do!).  These joined the fritto misto from the supermarket, some roasted pork belly and chicken, a tomato and fennel salad and my favourite – olive all’Ascolana – green olives stuffed with a herby pork and veal mix, coated in breadcrumbs and fried.  Absolutely delicious!  We ate like Kings!

Olive all'AscolanaThe next day we took a drive to the beaches at Alba Adriatica and Tortoreto.  On the Adriatic coast, these beautiful sandy beaches slope gently down extending out under the sea on an apparently endless underwater shelf, making it popular with Italian families in the Summer months.  My recollection of these beaches, having last visited during the month of July, was of a sea of sunbathers and parasols with barely a grain of sand left uncovered.  It was quite a different sight only three months later and although the temperature was peaking at around 21 degrees – quite pleasant really – there was not a sun-worshiper to be seen.

The AdriaticThe beach at TortoretoThe sea air had induced a ravenous appetite and I was looking forward to our evening meal.  We had invited several of Hubby’s aunties to join us at one of the town’s pizzeria – O Sole Mio.  This is a little gem of a restaurant where the pizzas are made to order but rather than an individual pizza for each diner in the group, they make just one!  Each person still gets to choose their preferred toppings which will cover approximately 20cms of the pizza base (which is about a foot wide).  The pizza dough is rolled along what can only be described as a long wooden plank and the toppings added before the whole thing is carefully lifted and slid through the mouth of an enormous wood oven to cook for just a few minutes.

Wooden board for metre long pizzaA metre of pizza will feed around 5 people…and this is what it looks like!

A metre of pizzaThere were eight of us around the table, so in addition to this monster pizza, we had another one of 0.6 metres with yet more toppings…clearly being enjoyed by young Luca who chose the spicy Diavola (Italian spicy sausage) and kept it all to himself!!

Another pizzaThe ages around the table ranged from 11 to 93 and never a heartier appetite for pizza will you ever see.  There was barely a crumb left…and still there was room for Tiramisu, Panna Cotta and Lemon Sorbet!!

Cachi FruitOur weekend in Abruzzo was nearly over.  Large vacuum packed chunks of Parmesan cheese were sharing space with clothes and underwear in our hand luggage as Hubby appeared with about a dozen persimmons or cachi fruit in Italian.  Picked from his mother’s tree this fruit grows in abundance in Abruzzo and must be eaten when ripe otherwise it can taste foul.  Harvested in the Autumn, as the clocks change, along with the region’s olives, the cachi’s sweet interior resembles an orange jelly.  Eaten too early and they are bitter and nasty.

So, having read this blog post, it’s hardly any surprise that I gained a few pounds is it?  Back to my rice cakes and lettuce leaves now…till the next time!

Chunky’s big day at HOYS: the final instalment

Two weeks ago today (as I start typing) I had just finished warming Chunky up in the outdoor arena at HOYS.  It was a great deal more crowded than it had been the night before with a good mix of people working in – showjumpers on their phones and showing riders trying to avoid the piles of poo which would easily ruin a clean white leg in one fell swoop.

The alarm clock had been set for 4am, to allow us time to get Chunky ready for a familiarisation ride in the main International arena at 5am.  I heard the alarm and poked my head through the top of my warm cosy sleeping bag where I had been nestled, to feel the dampness and chill in the air and hear the sound of the rain pounding on the roof of the horsebox.  In my semi-awake state, I quickly came to the conclusion that to bring Chunky out in this weather and walk him through puddles of watery manure enroute to the arena, would spell disaster.  So I returned to the warmth of the sleeping bag and committed to a 9am warm-up outside instead, by which time I prayed that the rain will have stopped.  If we made it through to the Supreme Championship in the International arena later that day, we would just have to cross that bridge when we came to it!

Get this hood off me please Mum!The stabling area is a hive of activity regardless of the time of day it seemed.  As we headed to Chunky’s stable to give him his breakfast, there were already riders returning from their classes.  We made some fuss of him but frankly he was more interested in the food and getting his Snuggy Hood off!  He seemed fairly happy and had obviously slept well, but best of all, he wasn’t covered in poo stains and was still relatively clean.

My friend Pip arrived at around 8.30am – she had been on a VERY early train from London that morning to join us.  By 8.50am it had stopped raining and we were at the ringside of the outdoor arena waiting for the lungers to stop lunging before being allowed to enter at the alloted time of 9am.  It’s organised like clockwork at HOYS and the working-in sessions are kept to time with military precision.

Returning Chunky to his stable we then proceeded to get him show ready.  Pip did the fetching and carrying, Hubby covered each leg in copious quantities of chalk and I followed rubbing it in by hand and creating a cloud of fine white powder.  The lotions and potions came out one by one – leaving a gleaming, shiny, polished cob that you could almost see your face in.

We then led him – gingerly around the remaining puddles – back to our horsebox where I tacked him up with Lynn Russell’s ‘lucky saddle’ and changed into my show gear while Pip and Hubby oiled and polished his hooves – the finishing touch!

Now on board we walked the long walk down to the Caldene Arena and arrived around 10 minutes later in the collecting ring.  I was nervous!  The curtain through to the main arena was open and I could see crowds of people.  We could hear the commentary In the collecting ring at the Caldene Arenaand intermittent applause from the appreciative audience.  It was the CHAPS Native Horse/Cob final – always popular.  Chunky seemed a little edgy when he first heard the clapping and all I could do was just walk him calmly around the collecting ring until he settled and became accustomed to the noise and above all the atmosphere.  It felt quite different to how it had the night before.  There was definitely more of a buzz in the air – he could sense it and so could I.

There was a massive cheer from the crowd.  The Champion was announced – Jayne Webber and the ever popular The Humdinger had won again!  This could only mean one thing…we would be on soon!

I circled Chunky near the curtain, hoping to be the first to enter.  Not to show off, but because he has been known to be a little naughty when following other horses into an arena – jogging sideways and upset with being held back.  But I was beaten to it and had to be happy with being the 2nd to walk through the curtain.

The Search for a Star music was playing as we entered.  The crowds seemed enormous to me.  I fixed a grin on my face, took a deep breath and hoped for the best.  Scanning the faces around the arena, I knew there would be people there supporting us, some of whom I’d never met before – followers from Twitter and horsey friends – as well as Hubby and Pip.  They were all there somewhere but I couldn’t see them!  I did spot Fiona from Local Rider Magazine though as she pointed an enormous camera lens at us to produce some lovely photographs, including the one below :)

Lovely trot from Chunky at HOYSThe go-round happened in a blur and Chunky didn’t put a hoof wrong.  He was settled in his trot and gave a wonderful smooth controlled canter.  I could have set the gallop up a little better, but he showed a good extension I thought and obediently came back to me at the end.

Richard Ramsay was on the commentary and as we were pulled in 3rd initially he explained that the preliminary line-up would change considerably after the ride judge and conformation phases.

We all dismounted and waited for our horses to be ridden one by one.  The officials came to talk to us and put us at ease.  The ride was so brief.  Chunky did everything that was asked of him but maybe just a little sluggish in the extension again.

Chatting to the judges at HOYSThen on to the scrutiny of the conformation judges and I think they liked him.  I remember hearing them say he showed a “good length of rein” and “excellent hind limbs” followed by saying he was “a good example of a lightweight cob”!!  Chunky was becoming a little too relaxed though and decided to rest a hind leg – not looking at his best for the judges!  I straightened him up and then on cue, he rested the other hind leg!  This bit wasn’t going quite according to plan!!  The walk away and trot back went well though.

Then disaster!  OK, maybe not quite disaster…but a pain nevertheless!  I was offered a leg up by one of the officials.

“On your count or mine?”  he asked.

“On mine”  I replied, offering him my leg.  “One…two…three”  I counted, bobbing up and down in time and expecting a lift on three, but nothing happened.  Then a second after the momentum was lost he hoisted me up.  It was like scaling a cliff.  I heaved and he pushed….it can’t have looked very elegant.  As I clambered up into the saddle I heard something go ping.  It was the tape around my waist which must have caught on the saddle flap and snapped as I winched my way up and now my number was on the floor :(

The official and I spent the next few minutes trying to reattach the tape to my waist – his hands in a slightly compromising position.  It must have looked strange, but we managed to tie a knot in it in the end.

Fiddling with the broken tape at HOYSWhen everyone was safely back in their saddles we were instructed to walk on and then we were lined up again along the long-side of the arena for the judges to take one last look.  The places were announced and I was delighted to be called forward in 4th.  Actually it was more a feeling of total and utter relief!  Pleased on the one hand to have been placed…ecstatic on the other hand not to have won and had to go through to the Supreme Championship.  I was done and could now relax and go and drink bubbly!!

Smiling at HOYSA few final words on Chunky.  He behaved impeccably.  Beyond my wildest dreams perhaps, and I was so proud.  HOYS is an occasion which is so difficult to prepare for.  The atmosphere is absolutely electric.  Bright lights, music, crowds, noise and a nervous jockey – so many strange sights and sounds to expect a novice horse to take in his stride when he’s never seen or experienced anything like it before.  I think he grew up in the two days we were at HOYS.  He certainly reached the cob equivalent of the ‘age of maturity’ there and showed immense courage and trust in me for what I asked him to do.  It may be a clichéd saying, but he truly is my ‘horse of a lifetime’ and I feel lucky and privileged to have found him.

Ironically, the lady I bought him from 2 1/2 years ago was there too, although I didn’t know at the time.  She came to find us as we were packing up to leave on Saturday morning and said how well he was looking and wasn’t I pleased to have bought him?

“Yes I am!”  I replied emphatically.  “I’m very pleased indeed…”  :)

Celebrating outside the Caldene Arena at HOYS

The night before Chunky’s HOYS debut: familiarisation

Mr Toastie’s cheese & onion creation was gobbled down after settling Chunky in to his temporary stable at HOYS, with a great big fat haynet and some dinner.  We had a little time on our hands and decided to familiarise ourselves with the route to the Caldene Arena.  Good thing too!  It was a fair way and took maybe a little more than 10 minutes.  We entered the building and walked right into the collecting ring.  I’m not sure why, but I thought it would be larger.  The curtains were open and revealed the main arena with a ‘structure’ taking centre stage and rows of seating all around.  I’m not sure why, but I thought it would be smaller!!!

The Caldene ArenaThe collecting ring was a buzz with ponies being worked in and grooms (mothers?) fussing, grooming, brushing and polishing.  We walked through into the public area and sat down for a while observing the empty arena lying in readiness for the next arrivals.  I was perhaps a little speechless!  I think the penny had finally dropped!

By the time we walked back along the access route to the horsebox, it was time to attend to Chunky, tack him up and start doing some work with him.  Our allocated time for work in and familiarisation in the Caldene Arena was 9.20pm, but I intended giving him a leg-stretch in the outdoor exercise arena first.  We had been warned in our training session, that the ring stewards would allow us to ride on one rein, and then we would be Lots of space in the outdoor arenapermitted to change direction upon their instruction, but there was just us and one other horse in the enormous warm-up arena, so that hardly seemed necessary and we enjoyed the vast space just doing our own thing.  Soon more cobs started appearing and as we were all due to work-in at the same time in the Caldene Arena, I guess they would all be my competitors…I tried not to stare!!

Hubby gave me a time-up nod and together we made the long walk to the Caldene Arena collecting ring.  Chunky felt rock solid.  Obviously it was dark at this point and the route wasn’t well illuminated, but all those months of evening riding last Winter had obviously paid off.  When we arrived at the collecting ring we saw a couple of familiar faces and felt more relaxed.  Then at precisely 9.20pm, the arena was emptied of the previous occupants who had all been working in and we were allowed to enter.

Despite the late hour, there were still quite a few people seated around the arena’s edge.  I walked Chunky all the way round, allowing him to have a good look at everything, but quite honestly he really didn’t seem the least bit bothered…or interested.  I walked him round the centre ‘structure’ surrounded by potentially spooky plant pots, but again, nothing not even a flinch from Chunky.  Well, as he seemed so settled, I thought I’d just get on with it and popped him into a trot…

…well!!! He floated (as much as a Chunky cob can!) around the arena.  I didn’t recognise this at all, possibly because he had never felt as good, as light and as responsive as this before.  He trotted around the arena as if he owned it.  We criss-crossed the diagonal making a beeline for the spooky plant pots, which he continued to ignore.  Cantering now I tried lengthening and shortening, to practise for our gallop, and he responded beautifully.  Back in trot I tried the illusive extended trot and he gave it to me without any fuss and without requiring a single pony club kick!  Wow!  He felt like a dressage cob.  I even did a few laps in sitting trot…SITTING TROT!!! :D

We stayed in the Caldene Arena till the bitter end of our allocated session.  Most of the others had left by now but we were enjoying it too much not to make the most of it.  The music had been turned on and although it had taken him a little while to get used to it, reacting at first, he had settled into the rhythm of the beat and I couldn’t help singing along.  Embarrassing I know!

Almost the last to leave

I remember thinking at this point, that if I had to pack him up and take him home right now I’d be happy!  I will have had the schooling session of a lifetime in the Caldene Arena that evening, regardless the outcome of the competition the next day.

Reluctantly, our session was called to an end by the officials and we walked back out into the dark and now rain, to follow the horse walk back to the stables where we would put Chunky to bed with another fat haynet and a cuddle.  The next morning we were planning to work-in in the International Arena at 5am, so we would need at least a couple of hours sleep.  Our makeshift bedroom awaited – a campbed in each horse partition in the horsebox, with a grooming kit box for a bedside table and a Thermatex rug for a mattress.  But so long as Chunky was comfortable, that’s all that mattered!

Our horsebox beds for the night

Getting Chunky to HOYS: just a few hiccups along the way!

A week ago today – as I’ve started writing this post – we were on our way to Birmingham with a normally quite sane and quiet cob in the back having an unexpected ‘hoo-hah’! All good intentions to have a meticulously planned final few days in the run up to the Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) had dissolved as one minor crisis after another (and one fairly major one!) appeared to test my nerve!

Two weeks before our HOYS debut I informed our (then) yard owner we would be leaving, giving the obligatory month’s notice. I was lucky to have secured a stable for Chunky at a lovely yard less than 5 minutes from home. The temptation to reduce my journey time combined with an indoor school, some old friends and the opportunity to be stabled at a yard with a fabulous reputation were all just too much.  And yet in circumstances which appeared completely out of my control just a week later, only 5 days before our big HOYS adventure, we found ourselves moving unexpectedly early to our new home which could fortunately take us in at extreme short notice.  The situation was far from ideal, however, any concerns I may have had about Chunky being upset or unsettled by moving house so soon before the big event were soon put to rest.  His new stable floor was knee deep in fluffy shavings. He was cosy, warm, dry and instantly looked at home. Phew! Disaster averted!! :)

We were due to travel to HOYS on Thursday, leaving at lunchtime.  Chunky would be stabled there on Thursday night.  Our class was on Friday morning, then Hubby and I wanted to stay to enjoy the show, keeping him there one more night and returning home on Saturday.  I had the Wednesday off work to pack the horsebox and prepare Chunky’s things.  Nearly finished in the horsebox I heard a little cough behind me from Helen, our yard manager:

“Um” she said hesitantly “Jerry’s come in…and has thrown a shoe!!”  It was 4.30pm!

By 5.30pm my farrier had been to re-fit the offending shoe which had been found firmly and vertically embedded in his field – like a trophy!

Thursday dawned. Bath time for Chunky.  It was a joint effort between myself and Hubby – we tossed a coin to choose who would hose and who would lather. In the end, we both seemed equally soaked but Chunky was clean and drying nicely with his Thermatex on.  All that remained to do for the rest of the morning was clean my tack – the ‘lucky saddle’ lent to me by Lynn Russell for the day, girth and lovely wide noseband show bridle and have a coffee.

Usually I don’t put boots on Chunky for travelling. I never have! He always travels alone in a very horse-friendly horsebox, so there seems little need to get his legs all hot for no reason.  BUT…this was different! It would be quite a long journey, his legs were clean and I was determined they would stay that way!  So, I carefully and neatly wrapped each leg in gamgee and a stable bandage – not too tight, not too loose!

With his mafia-style Snuggy Hood, travelling rug, tail wrap and leg bandages on, Chunky was ready to rock & roll…

Chunky ready for HOYS

Setting off out of Epsom all was well.  Horsebox was full to the brim with diesel and the roads at lunchtime were much quieter.  On to the M25 and there were no problems here either.  Turning off onto the M40 Birmingham-bound and the traffic was moving well.  At this rate we would arrive in good time to settle him in and have a look around.

“BANG BANG BANG BANG!!!” We heard from the back “BAAAAANG! Thud. Boom. Kick!!”

Followed by more “KICK. Bang. Kick. Bang. Wallop!”

What on earth was Chunky doing back there?  Hubby peered through the little interconnecting window and watched Chunky tossing his head, clearly uninterested in his haynet, stamping his feet, kicking the wall and then…trying to rear!!  What had happened to him?  Normally you don’t hear a peep from him for the entire journey, he’s so easy to travel.

Continuing up the motorway didn’t soothe his frayed nerves.  Something was clearly up and we had to pull into a motorway service station to find out what.  We quickly unlocked the ramp and found him sweating and breathing heavily, clearly distressed.  He had managed to take a few chunks of the horsebox lining out with his front feet.

“I’ll take his bandages off” I said to Hubby as I squeezed under the partition to get to Chunky and one by one they came off.  By the time I finished, my ‘old’ Chunky had returned. The scared, worried expression had disappeared, normal breathing had resumed and finally, he was tucking into his haynet!

We continued on our journey to Birmingham without hearing a peep from Chunky who clearly suffers from bandage intolerance…he is a cob after all and probably thinks they’re only for wusses!

Despite the drama enroute, we arrived at HOYS in plenty of time and took our place in the queue to be ‘processed’.  We eventually made our way into the first holding box where his passport was presented to the vet for her to check his jabs and also to have a look at him to verify the horse in the lorry was the same as the one in the passport, although she didn’t remove his hood or rug, so not sure how she could have identified his rather unique markings from an inspection of the only bits which were visible – his ears, eyes and nostrils!!

Then another heart-stopping moment!  The date for one of his latest vaccinations was indecipherable :(  She would let us off on this occasion but advised that I should obtain a letter from Chunky’s vet confirming the date of his jab to carry in his passport, as “we would not be allowed back to HOYS otherwise…”

Later on I would double-check this as the vaccination date in question wasn’t for flu, but for his Herpes Virus jab and I was sure this wasn’t a mandatory requirement for HOYS. It was confirmed by another vet on duty that I was correct and shouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep over it.  They have so many horses to process quickly that this had been pointed out rather hastily.  However, note to self to mention to my vet that he needs to improve his handwritting!! ;)

We were finally there!  Parked in a good spot right by the LG Arena and the shower block (which we were never tempted to use!). Not far from the 24-hour Mr Toastie and only about 3 minutes from Chunky’s stable (No. 220) which was just past the International rider’s stable block. There was already some nice clean bedding left from the previous occupant, which we topped up with just one more bale before leaving him with some food while we went for a toasted sandwich and a look around.

Chunky relaxed & tucking in

Once Chunky was settled and I had the opportunity to relax and look around, the enormity and atmosphere of the event hit me….like a giant haynet swinging down from the sky!!

Preparing for our HOYS debut

Now it’s all over, I have time to reflect on our journey and time at the Horse of the Year Show (HOYS).  It all passed in a blur but I made sure I would make a mental log of what I saw and how I felt as I went, just in case I’d never get the opportunity to go again.

Chunky qualified for the SEIB Search for a Star (SFAS) cob section back in July at Wellington Riding Centre.  It was a huge high for us, well for me more specifically as I don’t think Chunky was too bothered either way!  We attended the SFAS training day at Bury Farm in September where we received some personal instruction from judges Richard Ramsay and David Bartram.  Richard described what to expect upon arrival at Birmingham NEC, how we would be ‘processed’, when we could expect to ride in the arenas and most of all, he tried to give us an appreciation of the special atmosphere and grandeur of the event and how we and our horses might react to it.  David rode each of our horses and provided feedback on how to improve their way of going and in my case, my riding!

The few weeks following the training day just whizzed by.  I clipped Chunky 12 days before the big day.  It was a good plan because his coat was perfect and it was still short enough that he wouldn’t sweat up under the arena lights.

Having met Lynn Russell at the Cranleigh Show and chatted with her about her recommendations for HOYS preparations, I took Chunky down to her yard at Dunsfold in Surrey for the day.  She was running a pre-HOYS clinic and there were five of us in total: the lovely Piebald Cob who had qualified with us at Wellington; a Show Hunter also qualified through the SFAS route; a Palomino Pony veteran who was going to Olympia in December; and a prospective Hunter who was just about to embark on his showing career and whose owners were taking pre-emptive advice.  It was a fascinating day.  We learnt about conformation – good and bad.  We critiqued our own horses and the others.  I discovered that Chunky has one pastern a good size larger than the other and that his fleshy hocks would need careful looking after to avoid wear and tear.  Lynn’s expert eye soon spotted the slight swelling on his annular ligament and she would later show me how to disguise it with some clever clipping techniques.

My saddle was much criticised and perhaps I was a little dubious until I got to ride the Piebald Cob whose saddle felt so much more comfortable and who seemed to work much more freely through the shoulder.  Lynn would later put one of her saddles on Chunky for me to feel the difference on him for myself and I was shocked…totally stunned in fact with the difference it made to both him and my riding.  She lent the saddle to me to use at HOYS, but I would have to return it as soon as I had finished with it because she would be using it herself the following day…it was her ‘lucky’ saddle.

Practising in-hand work with Lynn Russell

We left Lynn’s clinic armed with bags of lotions and potions to provide maximum polish and shine and with her words of wisdom still ringing in our ears.  I would return with Chunky three days later for her to finish him off – trimming and snipping off his excess hair and overgrown chestnuts and ergots – and to receive a little extra tuition with our in-hand work.  Chunky was looking at his all time best.  A fact to be confirmed by his previous owner who happened to be at HOYS and had spotted us in the Caldene Arena during our work in the night before.

The preparation had been done.  Chunky was cleaned, trimmed and looking amazing.  My tack was sorted.  Clothes all cleaned and arranged.  Haynets stuffed, feed packed and buckets ready.  The horsebox had been checked – oil, water and tyres – the tank was full of diesel and my purse was £120 lighter.  There was nothing left to do but go and give it our very best!!

Ready for HOYS