For the latest in its series of occasional ‘Back Story’ features, Out and About Dressage talked to amateur dressage rider and professional communications consultant, Karen Rowe. She worked with ‘big pharma’ and charities on Hormone Replacement Therapy horse welfare issues, and she is a member of the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) Trust committee.

Her company, Interaction PR, also works with companies and charities involved in human health. A current campaign concerns diabetes. There are 120 amputations a week in the UK as a result of diabetes. Karen: “We we want to create awareness of the extent of the amputee problem but also say there is life after.” Her office is a converted barn on her property in rural Kent, but each week she will hold meetings in the Gherkin in Central London and she makes monthly visits to continental Europe. She has done a fair bit of globe-trotting. Following an apprenticeship in journalism with Home Counties Newspapers, she set out for Hong Kong to work as a freelance. She said: “I could find myself working with a Cantonese sub-editor or an Indian editor and covering absolutely anything. It was challenging, but it makes you more determined.”

Returning to the UK, Karen worked for The Daily Mail for many years before switching to public relations in the 1990s. She said: “There are lots of challenges for a professional communicator: you can’t swop sides from journalism and promote something you don’t believe in”

In her new career Karen made innumerable visits to Canada over a period of 16 years as she became involved in a global project concerning the production of PMU (pregnant mare urine) used in Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). She worked as a consultant to Wyeth [now part of Pfizer], a major manufacturer of HRT products, accompanying representatives of horse charities to Canadian horse ranches. She explained: “At the time there was a lot of publicity about the welfare of the mares who supply the urine. The project appealed to me: it’s educational and I’m on the horse’s side. But I’m also pragmatic — so rather than campaigning against something, I wanted to improve the way the mares were managed. I worked with individuals and with organisations like World Horse Welfare to do that.”

Horses who supply the PMU are central to the massive and highly valuable ranching and pharmaceutical business based in North America and Canada. Images most easily found on the internet are of herds of mares at liberty on summer grasslands where they are covered naturally by the stallions. The mares spend the last few months of pregnancy during the winter — when a night-time outdoor temperature of –20°C or below is normal — stalled in barns where their urine is collected.

Karen added: “As well as promoting horse management improvements we also encouraged marketing programmes to ensure that the foals produced could be a valuable asset. Originally the majority of the mares were big heavy Belgian warmbloods, up to 19hh, and there was not much of a market for their male offspring. Thoroughbred blood was introduced and second crosses could be valuable as sports or Police horses. Because of the vast distances involved, potential buyers could see the horses available on specially produced videos, or view them online. Different nations have different attitudes to eating horses. In Canada horses are agricultural animals and they do have a horse meat industry and its products are sold to Japan and elsewhere in the world.

“I can’t say that we found a solution to all the issues but we made a huge difference. When I started working on the project there were around 70,000 horses involved in the PMU industry. It is much smaller now as the drugs produced today require less oestrogen”

Working with the BEVA Trust
We have our own horse welfare issues in the UK. A lot of the work that the BEVA Trust does is educational and it works with horse charities like the British Horse Society. It has a hands-on side. Karen explained: “Many vets who are members of BEVA volunteer to help horses in some way, for example, working in castration clinics helping people with horses who can’t afford to pay for the service. The horses are also micro-chipped and at the same time have their feet examined, and it gives the vets an opportunity to talk to the owners about feeding. You hear some amazing stories, like the colt that was brought to the clinic in the back of a car, or the one where the owners were feeding their horse on pasta. We are making a film about this work to try to get more volunteers.”

Karen and Business Dude: "I bought 'Chester' to event, having previously lost two horses. My intermediate horse died in an horrific accident when a bridge I was riding over collapsed. My novice horse died around the same time, I now believe, through sycamore poisoning. I have since located a sycamore which we’ve had removed. “A friend in Cheshire found Chester for me — I was too upset to look myself. We started doing some eventing but he was too slow cross-country and would spend too much time in the air and jump himself into trouble. Wrong horse for the job, but I thought, ‘he’s so lovely, and I’m getting older, I don’t want to break anything anymore’.” Karen gave up eventing around four years ago and in the past two or three has slowly worked their way up from novice, and despite limited outings managed some area festivals and a Petplan finals at novice in 2014. They hung around for a long time at elementary, but at the end of December last year, at Blue Barn, they made their big breakthrough into medium. “I said to myself that night, ‘you’re going to celebrate with a glass of champagne!'”

Karen and Business Dude: “I bought ‘Chester’ to event, having previously lost two horses. My intermediate horse died in an horrific accident when a bridge I was riding over collapsed. My novice horse died around the same time, I now believe, from sycamore poisoning. 
“A friend in Cheshire found Chester for me, but he proved too slow cross-country and would spend too much time in the air and jump himself into trouble. The wrong horse for the job, but I thought, ‘he’s so lovely, and I’m getting older, I don’t want to break anything anymore’.”
Karen gave up eventing around four years ago and in the past three has been working her way up the dressage levels. Despite limited outings, they managed to get to the Petplan finals at novice in 2014. They hung around for a long time at elementary, but at the end of December last year, at Blue Barn, they made their big breakthrough into medium. “I said to myself that night, ‘you’re going to celebrate with a glass of champagne!’”

Karen and her own horses
Karen has had horses in her life since she was four: “My mother thought ponies would keep me and my sister out of trouble — but she had never seen me event! I had so many fractures and breaks over the years, that when I told her of the latest incident, she went, ‘oh no, not again!’ But she would still say when I went off for a two-day in Wales, ‘do drive carefully’. It made me laugh because she had no idea of the cross-country hazards I was driving to.”

She got her first exposure to “pure” dressage at Sarah Whitmore’s Hilders Farm, Edenbridge, while she was still eventing: “I knew my dressage had to be better, so I was based there for a time and Sarah used to holler at me a lot, but was also very good to me. That’s when I got to know a lot of dressage people — Paul Hayler and Laura Fry were also there then.”

Today she has three competition horses. Business Dude, 10, (Chester) is now at medium level, right and top. Eight eight-year old Hassan Van’t Hageland (Harry) she describes as “17.2hh and a thug”. Harry has spent a lot of time off work while vets and various therapists puzzled through problems believed to be associated with a trapped nerve in the back. He is now starting to learn some manners and also get some ring experience with Rupert Garnsey. Her Showmaker youngster, Showvanist (Gatsby), is her big hope for the future.

“I quite often ride at 6.30am — but as my office is next door to my yard, I might suddenly decide to whip out at lunchtime to ride a horse. Because I’m working very long hours and go abroad, too, I have started having Rupert to help me do some of the riding as I can’t keep them fit enough by myself. I have all my tests in the back of my diary and learn them when I’m sitting stationary on the motorway, or on an airplane. I can visualise the test and, I find, if you know the venue you can also see the exact circumstances in your mind’s eye.

“I’ve really loved producing my two older horses for dressage and I think it should be possible to do well competing them at PSG — and I’ll learn a lot along the way. Gatsby, I think, will be capable of going grand prix. He has the paces, so you start with an advantage. With the older ones I’ve had to work hard for every mark. But both Chester and Harry are nice people. They’re with me for life. Horses are my hobby and my passion.”

© Celia Cadwallader, 14 January 2017

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