Your Logo Goes Here
Your Fully Branded Digital Publishing Platform
Nicole Tough has been part of the Australian dressage scene for decades, and along the way she’s learned a lot, writes
Nicole and Emma Weel’s Grand Prix contender, the big moving 9-y-o Florenz
Image by Christy Baker Photography.
Passionate and committed, Queensland based dressage coach and rider Nicole Tough never stops learning and studying her sport despite the wisdom she’s already garnered over the years. And her biggest teachers? The horses themselves.
Growing up in a non-horsey family in the suburbs of Sydney, Nicole had to wait until her family moved to Queensland and her dad bought a share in a racehorse before horses came into her life. She recalls: “My dad and Noel Payne, the racehorse’s other owner-trainer, conspired and bought me a Galloway of mixed breed called Cha Chi, and my journey began when I was 13 years old. I did Pony Club and Interschool equestrian competitions had just started, so we participated in those.” Her first instructor was actually a jockey, Terry Payne, who helped her with all the basics.
However, dressage wasn’t Nicole’s first love. She was an adrenaline junkie who loved eventing but had to do dressage “to get to the fun stuff.” It wasn’t until the purchase of an Anglo Arabian for Nicole’s dad that things changed. It bucked her off when they went to try him, and 14-yearold Nicole’s response? “Oh, I love him. We should totally buy him.”
The horse was purchased … and was never ridden by Nicole’s dad! It was this horse that taught the young rider that dressage was fun. “I watched the top event horses, and I remember walking the novice cross country courses hoping I wouldn’t win because I didn’t want to move up the levels to those advanced jumps. When I started to think that way, I started to look at the top dressage horses instead thinking well, I’d love my horses to look like that.”
Life started to get very busy for Nicole in 1990. Over the next three years, she finished her Bachelor of Arts, received her teaching diploma, married husband Colin, had their son, and purchased
her first “serious” horse Landerlee, an unbroken Holsteiner filly. “While I was studying, I taught aerobic classes and gave dressage lessons and by the time I’d finished, I thought maybe I could make a living coaching dressage,” she explains. “It was more flexible in the hours I could work. So I trained to do my EA Level 1 General and later Level 2 Dressage Specialist accreditations.”
Since those humble beginnings, Nicole has gone on to train 12 horses to FEI level. All of them have reached the Queensland State Squad, a few made it to the National Squad and there were multiple State and National titles, as well as Horse of the Year awards along the way. Nearly all of the horses were bought unbroken and Nicole had to learn the hard way; training them up, moving them on and then starting again with something that had a little more natural ability. However, she only tried to break in one, after which she decided you really need a round yard and perhaps not a dressage saddle for such adventures!
Life throws ups and downs at you, and Nicole experienced the devastation of a career ending accident to her top horse Glencoe Manhatten during a Squad training session in 2007. Seeing how quickly one bad moment can destroy years and years of training, Linda and Beau Dowsett, her clients at the time, decided to take Nicole horse shopping in Germany, and what began with a tragedy turned into a sliding doors moment. “That started a whole different ball game for me,” she remembers. “I sold all my horses to commit myself to Beau and Linda and had some wonderful, wonderful years with them and their daughter Danielle.”
Nicole still remembers that first flight over to Germany: “We hit a random air pocket while flying over Afghanistan and the plane just dropped, and I thought, that’d be right, I get this amazing opportunity to help buy horses in Germany and I get shot out of the
sky before I get there!” Happily, Nicole landed safely in Europe and after some training with Leonie Brammal, rode a multitude of horses in two weeks. Expat Robert Schmerglatt guided the Aussies through their buying experience and three horses were brought back to Nicole’s for training: four-year-old Flavio; Dante, a five-year-old; and two-year-old Furst Tyme. “I didn’t pick the fanciest horses,” says Nicole, “I picked the horses I thought I could work with and make a difference with.” All the horses made it to Grand Prix.
Owned by Nicole and husband Colin, Ferragamo was Queensland’s 2021 FEI Horse of the Year
Image by Amy-Sue Alston.
Dumbledore, a Rivermead Estate QLD State Talent Squad member and the first pony in Queensland to make an open squad
Image by Christy Baker Photography.
A real student of her sport, Nicole has always been committed to learning as much as possible, never resting on her laurels thinking she knew it all. Over the last 30 years, aside from perhaps the Christmas period, she’s never gone a week without a lesson. For the past 12 of those years, her weekly coach has been Traci Baldwin with Matthew Dowsley traveling up from NSW once a month. “There are some months where I might have six lessons in a week, and every other week I’ll have two or three with Traci.” Nicole believes you can’t get anywhere without a coach, without those eyes on the ground to stop bad habits creeping in.
Aboard Emma Weel’s German Riding Pony Deveron Nintendo
Image by Christy Baker Photography.
Competing with Ferragamo at this year’s Tamworth Dressage Club event
Image by Amy-Sue Alston.
Other influential trainers have been Hubertus Hufendiek, Edgar Lichtwark, Carlos de Cleermaecker, Clemens Dierks, and Di Jenkyn. Nicole was also
fortunate to participate in masterclasses with Steffen Peters and Charlotte Dujardin. “There is a degree of control that Steffen has that really resonated with me. He said riders shouldn’t do anything in the saddle out of habit.” From the German-born Olympian, Nicole learned about extreme body control, never doing anything without a purpose and never without producing a response. Never using the rein, or putting the leg on, or giving a seat aid, without a reason.
It was Olympic gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin’s mental strength while competing that astonished Nicole, and she quickly realised that you can’t be a winner and be scared of losing. “Charlotte rides ten after ten after ten when there’s huge pressure on her, especially after London. And yet she kept producing big scores. You can’t ride for a ten in an extended walk if you’re worried about breaking and getting a four. If you have that worry, you’ll ride for a seven not a ten.” There’s no room for doubt in the competition arena.
But the biggest teachers in Nicole’s life have arguably been the horses. “Every horse I’ve taken through is special to me,” she says, “and every horse has had something to teach me whether I wanted to learn it or not.” The Australian bred horse Cherenton Armani taught
Nicole to never let a horse get test smart. Dante, with the help of Warwick McLean, showed Nicole how to get a horse in front of the leg. Furst Tyme taught her to be the courage he lacked: “Everywhere we went was Mordor!” she laughs.
Nicole with Florenz and owner Emma Weel
Image by Christy Baker Photography.
Borsato, purchased in the Netherlands and owned by Tracy Bolt was perfection personified. He was brave, had talent to burn and always gave 100 per cent. However, Nicole tells me he could have “little brain farts” just before going into a test, and forget how to do the simplest of transitions, like walk to trot. German bred Faberge, owned by Emma Weel was born to be a dressage horse. “He was always, ‘pick me, pick me, it’s my turn to train!’” she recalls.
Emma and husband Paul continue to support Nicole and own one of two German Riding Ponies that Nicole has recently started campaigning. She explains: “They’re bred to be miniature Warmbloods. They have all the movement, confirmation and character of a Warmblood, just in a smaller package. That’s great for Australians because adults can ride ponies in Australia. A lot of us aren’t tall like the Germans, or we’re broken and can’t muscle a big 17hh horse around.” She says Emma’s six-year-old pony Devron Nintendo is like an Eveready battery, while her own five-year-old, Dumbledore, is by Bundeschampionate winner Double Diamond.
Nicole continues to compete the big horses, the most recent special one being Ferragamo, which she and husband Colin imported from Germany. It was Ferragamo who was by Nicole’s side during 2017, a tumultuous year when she was diagnosed with a melanoma that had to be cut out of her ear. The silver lining was the addition of a roof over her arena to protect her from the harsh Queensland sun.
Quirky Ferragamo, along with Emma Weel’s big moving Florenz, are Grand Prix contenders, and Nicole still happily travels the country from Queensland, to Willinga Park, to Melbourne to compete as well as support her team of students, who are like a big family. “I think your vibe attracts your tribe. It’s important to me that we all support each other. It’s a tough sport; our venues aren’t up to standard and that can be frustrating, and so much can go wrong. I think we need to stop the tall poppy syndrome and instead build each other up. If I can’t do that on a large scale, I at least do it on the scale I can,” she says.
Work with the horses is now balanced with the job of grandma, a role Nicole was thrilled to take up in March. She’s promised her son that she won’t pressure her granddaughter to ride, but I’m sure one of those German ponies will come into the picture a few years down the track!
Nicole is philosophical of her life and career thus far: “I guess my biggest regret is that I wish I had ridden in my 30s the way I’m riding now in my 50s and that I wasn’t as broken as I am. But then I couldn’t have got here without the 12 horses that I learnt everything from.” And the journeys on those horses also taught her to be the coach that she is today. That’s a lot of tools in your toolkit.
Is embryo transfer the right choice for your mare?
looks at some of the basics.
A recipient mare should have had a previously healthy foal, be under 10 years old), and a proven good mother with a quiet, friendly disposition.
The first transfer of an equine embryo occurred in 1974. Embryo transfer in equines is seemingly simple and involves flushing a fertilised embryo from the donor mare while she is safely held in a crush.
The flushing fluid is collected and closely examined in a laboratory set up beside the crush, not just to find the embryo but also to determine its viability. Seven or eight days later, the recipient mare is put into the crush and the embryo, along with a small amount of the flushing fluid, is inserted into her uterine horn.
All procedures are performed through the cervix of both the donor and the recipient mare with no invasive surgery involved. In order for the procedures to be carried out efficiently and safely, a good, protected crush area is essential.
An embryo can be frozen to be inserted into the recipient mare at a later time. Such embryos can be transported long distances, thus removing the necessity for the recipient mare to be in the same location as the donor mare. Ideally, a frozen embryo should be around six days old, and the recipient mare needs to be at about the same stage in her ovulatory cycle (i.e. six days) or a few days later, when the embryo is implanted.
Aside from any other consideration, in order for a healthy embryo to be recovered the donor mare must of course be fertile, and the stallion must have proven fertility in the breeding modality (e.g. live cover, artificial insemination) that has been chosen. When fertile mares and stallions are used, a viable embryo is recovered approximately seventy per cent of the time.
If a freshly harvested embryo (rather than one that has been frozen) is being used, close attention to detail is critical in all stages of the process. Both mares must be synchronised in their oestrus cycles to ovulate at about the same time or within a few days of each other. In the recipient mare, ovulation is best a day or so later. While the donor mare should be as healthy as possible, it’s more critical to make a discerning choice regarding the recipient mare, whose health should be excellent. The size of the recipient mare is also important. She should be equal to, or bigger than the donor mare and stallion. A recipient mare should have had a previously healthy foal
foals, be young (under 10 years old), be a proven good mother, and of a quiet, friendly disposition. A backup mare or mares is a good idea in case, by remote chance, two embryos are produced.
Hormone injections to stimulate hyperovulation (a multiple ovulation where both ovaries release an egg, or more than one egg is released by either ovary) have been tried but the results are inconsistent. The number of oocytes (egg cells) are generally low, unlike cattle where several viable embryos are often produced.
Pluses for embryo transfer
There are a variety of good reasons to consider an embryo transfer:
• The donor mare has reproductive problems due to poor uterine health, hormonal issues, poor placental development, or any other reason. Many such mares have a history of repeated abortions.
• A high performance mare can continue to compete and not be weighed down by carrying a foal.
• An elite mare can produce more than one foal in each breeding season.
• An older or an unhealthy mare does not have to bear the parasitism of a pregnancy which may further deplete her health.
• The risk of foaling problems in a valuable mare is eliminated.
• Embryos can be collected from mares too young to successfully carry a foal.
• Embryos can be collected from compatible endangered equid species and transferred to ordinary domestic mares.
Approximately 24 hours after fertilisation the embryo has two cells.
At approximately four days old, the embryo is now 16 cells.
The flushing fluid is examined in the laboratory to find the embryo and determine its viability.
Breed society rules are an important consideration. Restrictions may apply as to the number of foals that can be registered to each mare, or if embryo transfer is actually allowed at all.
There is an ongoing debate around this and rules are changing. In 2003, the
American Quarter Horse Association removed all restrictions on the number of foals that could be registered to a particular mare in a single year, and since then the number of specialised breeding clinics has increased considerably.
Unlimited embryo transfer is allowed by the American Quarter Horse Association, the Arabian Horse Association, the American Paint Horse Association, and the Australian Stock Horse Association. However, DNA testing is required for most foals before they can be registered.
So far as Thoroughbreds go, there is no permission for embryo transfer, and only one registration per year is allowed for each mare in national Stud Books that come under the auspices of the Thoroughbred Stud Book. Further, all Thoroughbreds are DNA typed.
Weighing it up
There are a range of variables to consider – from health, practicality, and embryo viability, to the rules currently enforced by your Breed Society - before you opt for embryo transfer. But if the conditions are right, a healthy live foal might be the welcome result.
Getting spring ready
explains what to expect from springtime pastures and offers tips on keeping your horse safe from potential risks.
Days are getting longer and warmer, the soil is moist and spring grass growth has begun. For many, this is good news – plentiful grass means horses won’t need to be fed as much hay, and those who had trouble holding weight over winter will flourish.
But if your horse is an easy keeper, has a metabolic condition, or is prone to laminitis then the next couple of months require very careful management to maintain good health.
Spring also brings out bad or overly exuberant behaviour in some horses, often caused by excess calorie intake, high sugar intake and associated hindgut acidosis, mineral imbalance, changing levels of reproductive hormones and mycotoxin ingestion.
Weight gain & laminitis
Most pasture plants produce lush green growth during spring provided there is adequate rainfall. Horses consuming large volumes of these highly palatable pastures will gain weight and add to their fat stores. If your horse is overweight but not insulin resistant or dangerously obese, you may be able to achieve weight loss without removing them from pasture.
Obesity increases the likelihood of developing Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), a condition that affects the body’s ability to use and store blood sugar, often leading to insulin resistance (IR). Note that some horses with Cushings also have IR.
By far the most common cause of pasture associated laminitis is a spike in blood insulin levels. This is triggered by eating grass, hay or hard feeds high in sugar and starch. During spring and autumn, pastures are naturally high in plant carbohydrates (sugars or starches), putting insulin resistant horses at high risk for laminitis.
When sugar levels increase suddenly, or the horse gorges on lush pasture, digestive upsets can occur as sugars that aren’t absorbed in the small intestine overflow into the hindgut where they are fermented by gut microbes. This produces more and different organic acids to those produced by fibre fermentation, which can cause gut pain, diarrhea, hindgut acidosis and dysbiosis (a change in the microbial population) any of which can affect behaviour and may lead to colic or laminitis.
Managing dietary ethanol-soluble carbohydrates (ESC) and starch is important for laminitis-prone horses even when they are not overweight. And if they’re insulin resistant due to EMS or Cushings then you need to be even more vigilant.
Obese horses, those with active laminitis and all horses with IR should avoid pastures with ryegrass and clover and usually need to be removed from all pasture during spring and autumn, or anytime that pasture plants are stressed. Grass can become stressed during drought or waterlogging, frost, herbicide application or severe nutrient depletion. Use yards or laneway systems without
any grass, especially very short grass plants or runners and feed a controlled amount of ‘safe forage’ with salt and a concentrated mineral balancer.
Courtesy of Farmalogic
To encourage non-lame horses to move more, position multiple hay nets at opposite ends of the area to water. Laneway systems, especially those that create a loop, are particularly effective at encouraging exercise.
It is important to restrict intake to 1.25 to 1.5 per cent of bodyweight which equates to around 7kg of hay for a 500kg horse or 3.5kg for a 250kg pony. ‘Safe’ hay for IR horses and for weight loss is low in sugar and starch levels. Ideally, choose hay which has been analysed and has a combined ESC + starch value of less than 10 per cent.
Although you can’t pick a suitable forage just by looking at it, the safest forages are rapidly growing, mid-length leafy grasses of native species or lower sugar introduced grasses. Avoid pastures or hay made from high production grasses such as clover and ryegrass and do not feed cereal (oaten, wheaten) hay or chaff. Limit lucerne hay to no more than 30 per cent of total daily intake. Do not give access to very short pastures (e.g.
mowed or over-grazed) or grass carrying filled seed heads.
Courtesy of Farmalogic
The levels of starch and sugar become more concentrated later in the day as the sugars from photosynthesis accumulate. Stressed plants also accumulate carbohydrate as they experience slower growth. Although some plant species are more likely to be lower in starch and sugars, these levels change throughout the day, from day to day, week to week and across the season.
If carbohydrate levels of hay are unknown, soak in warm water for 30 minutes or cold water for 60 minutes to remove soluble sugars. Drain and discard soak water before feeding. Remove and discard any uneaten hay at least every 12 hours to avoid mycotoxin contamination. Soaking hay can reduce water soluble carbohydrates by 30 per cent but also removes some minerals, which need to be replaced with a quality, concentrated mineral balancer.
Provide a mineral supplement to top up and balance the levels in your horse's pasture. An overweight horse needs roughage, salt and minerals, but don’t feel that you have to give a ‘laminitis safe’ hard feed which, although low in sugar, is nevertheless adding calories
that an overweight horse does not need. A handful of damp lucerne chaff, beet pulp or copra to act as a carrier for salt and a mineral balancer is all that’s required during weight loss.
Planting safer pastures
Successful long-term management of metabolic and easy-keeper horses can be improved by replanting with horse friendly lower sugar/starch pasture varieties:
In temperate zones
Choose a mix of slower growing, higher fibre, lower nutrient varieties such as Cocksfoot, Browntop Bentgrass, Yorkshire Fog, Crested Dogtail, or Prairie Grass. A good variety of Australian native grass seeds are now available but these plants aren’t always as resilient under hooved animals and heavy grazing as the introduced species. Look for Wallaby Grass, Native Wheatgrass, Native Bluegrass and Weeping Grass as these are amongst the best suited to grazing.
In tropical zones
Many tropical pasture grasses contain high levels of oxalates which bring their own challenges with managing horse calcium levels to avoid bighead disease. Rhodes is considered low oxalate, with under 5g oxalate/kg DM (dry matter), whilst Teff is considered moderate oxalate, falling in the 5-10g oxalate/kg DM range. High oxalate grasses such as setaria, buffel, para or signal grass contain 15-75g oxalate/kg DM.
Rhodes Grass is a high producing, low oxalate C4 grass preferred for planting horse friendly pastures in the tropics and subtropics, with Bluegrass, Native Wheatgrass, Mitchell Grass, Kangaroo and Wallaby Grass also well suited.
During spring and autumn, rapidly growing, heavily fertilised or stressed grass may become high in potassium and nitrate and low in sodium, which can have a dramatic effect on electrolyte balance and metabolism in horses, potentially leading to colic, grass-affected behaviour, grass tetany or grass staggers.
Manage overweight (but not IR) horses by:
• Removing excess calories from the diet by cutting hard feeds back to just a token amount to carry the necessary mineral supplements.
• Limiting the quantity of grass consumed with a grazing muzzle or by dividing the paddock into strips or small sections with moveable electric tape. Do not regraze sections until growth is at least 15cm high. If using a grazing muzzle, keep it on at least 90% of the time the horse is at pasture, to prevent compensatory gorging while muzzle is removed. (A horse can eat a full day's worth of food in just four hours!).
If your horse does not lose weight with these measures, lock your horse off pasture to give total control of the entire intake.