Saturday, 9 February 2013

Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)


Fertile stems of horsetail topped by spore - bearing cones

One of my first experiences in horse riding occurred when a mate of mine, Mike (name changed to protect the innocent), badgered me to go with him to a riding stable somewhere in Cheshire. The only thing I remember about the location of the place was the fact that, to get there, you went past George Best's house. It was a strange looking affair and I think they've knocked it down, since.

Mike was a smashing bloke but he did get a bit over the top in assessing his own capabilities: we arrived at the stables and I, as a beginner, was allotted a gentle horse called Mooney who was so old she must have been top candidate for a Tesco Value Beefburger. Mike, having been before, had a much more sprightly mare and, for a while, we just trotted round in a roped off ring with him shouting advice. I didn't need it - Mooney hadn't got the energy to chuck me off.

There were red and white pole fences at different heights for people with varying riding abilities to jump, and the stable girl keeping an eye on us suggested we were ready to have a go at the lowest one. It was about two foot high and Mooney ambled up to it and stepped over rather than jumped. This gained me some patronising applause from Mike, who was beginning to get on my nerves.

"Now watch this", he shouted, "this is the way it's done" and with this he rode to the far end of the ring then urged his mare to run full pelt at the jump. Up until then I was under the impression that the idea was to negotiate the jump with the horse. However, his technique involved the horse stopping dead about a foot from the bars while he proceeded by himself in the manner of  superman, arms stretched out before him. His flight trajectory came to an abrupt conclusion when he buried his head in the deep mud, suggesting that he'd become Clark Kent again.  The horse looked round at me with what, I swear, was a smug grin, then wandered off to chew some grass at the side of the ring.

Mike now rose slowly from the mud with the whites of his eyes a startling contrast to his now dusky complexion, and it crossed my mind that he only needed a straw hat and a banjo to pass for a George Mitchell minstrel. Anyway, after that his enthusiasm for riding seemed to wain and, even after he stopped wearing the neck brace, the subject never came up again.

This experience did little to encourage an enthusiasm for riding but there is something a bit compulsive about it: about a year later I accompanied a youth club on an outing to Colwyn Bay, in Wales. I regularly helped the youth workers at the club but on this occasion seemed to be a bit surplus to requirements, there being a number of other people along to keep their eyes on the kids. And so it was that I found myself in a pub with another volunteer, a bloke called Dave. When, some time later, we emerged blinking into brilliant sunshine (contrary to popular belief, they do get an annual sunny day in Wales) and wandered onto the beach, the first thing I noticed was the horses.

"Hey", I said, "look".

"Right", said Dave, glazedly eyeing the group of horses which were standing idly next to a sign offering rides for a pound. "Oh. Horshes".

Dave wasn't normally the adventurous type and had never ridden a horse in his life but a few pints of Newcastle Brown can change ones outlook. So it was that we wandered over to the bloke running the horse rides, with the intention of a pleasant canter across the beach.

Even at that time there was a bit of health and safety awareness around and I anticipated that the man would want to absolve himself from any responsibility should a disaster occur.

"He'll probably ask if we're experienced", I warned and, sure enough, that was the first thing he said. Dave, who bore an uncanny likeness to Eric Morecambe, simply nodded in a world-wise manner and said "done a bit". The man held  the reins while Dave put one foot in a stirrup, and hauled himself up. Then he hauled himself down because, having arrived in the saddle, he quickly came to the conclusion he was either on the horse whose  head appeared in The Godfather or, and this seemed more likely, he was the wrong way round. His glasses had acquired a tilt in the mounting process, making the likeness to Eric even more marked. The horse owner, who had obviously discharged his health and safety responsibility in asking about experience turned away, affecting not to notice this unusual mounting technique. Having asked me the same question, he watched while I clambered onto a big black horse, taking care not to replicate Dave's mistake.

"What's he called?", I asked.

"Lightning", he replied, gruffly.

"Why", I said, for some reason slightly uneasy. But he had turned away to talk to another customer.

Sitting on the back of a horse can make the ground look a hell of a long way away, but I put this to one side as I did a John Wayne, sitting tall in the saddle and squinting into the distance as if scanning for Indians. I was a bit put out to find there was no pommel. A pommel is a rounded thing that sticks up at the front of any cowboy's saddle and he leans on it as he does the 'tall in the saddle' bit. Anyway, English saddles don't have them and it crossed my mind that this was probably a good thing in the case of my old mate Mike. The way he'd parted company with his horse that day could have resulted in his voice going up a few octaves.

"Giddyup", said Dave, speculatively. His horse flicked one ear and breathed out heavily. Otherwise, movement there was none. Meanwhile I was having the same problem with the seemingly inaptly named Lightening. I'd seen more westerns than Dave though and knew the appropriate terminology:

"Har!", I said "hit 'em up!", then, "move 'em out!" - all straight takes from 'Rawhide' which, in retrospect, I think actually referred to something about moving cows. Maybe it was the dearth of cows on Colwyn Bay  beach that was the reason Lightening stayed so perfectly still that Dave's mount seemed animated in contrast. This state of inertia went on for so long that my western vocabulary was running out and I was worried the bloke would tell us to get off and let someone else have a go. I was almost desperate enough to try "Hi-yo Silver", when,instead,  I tried gently kicking the horse with my heels. What Lightening would have done had I been wearing spurs, I hate to think. As it was, his ears suddenly flattened and he took a great leap forward. In a fraction of a second we'd gone from zero to mach something or other, and were heading for a post about half a mile away. This, the man had indicated, was where we were to ride to and back.

I didn't try "whoa!", because every ounce of breath was driven from me as we pummelled across the hard sand and, in any case, the bugger didn't do anything I said. Lightning knew the way, and was probably visualising a sack of oats when he got back. Pulling on the reins had no effect and I resorted to the only weapon in my defence. I shut my eyes.

This perhaps wasn't the wisest move because we reached the post before I realised and Lightening negotiated it like Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren. This resulted in me leaving the saddle and resuming a new perch hanging round the animals neck with my left foot still caught up in the stirrup. When we finally reached the starting point and stopped in a shower of sand, I saw the admiring looks of a small boy who obviously thought I was a trick rider. At the same time, just for a moment, I thought I saw a smile on the face of the horse owner. If it was there, it quickly disappeared in the force of my glare.

"Giddyup", said Dave, who hadn't moved.

Daughter's picture of Australian snowman

And the pernicious weed, horsetail (Equisetum arvense) shares Lightning's horsey  stubbornness. So called because it looks a bit like its name suggests, it is probably one of the biggest problems in the garden. The reason for its persistence is the nature of its root: I was once in Norfolk, buying trees for the council from Notcutts nursery, when the chap showing me round their fields pointed out a large crater with a digger nearby.

"Irrigation", he said, "we'll put a liner in and fill it with water". Then he pointed to something about thirty feet down at the bottom of the hole. "See that". I looked and could make out a mat of black roots. "horsetail", he said. "That's why it's so hard to get rid of".

This is why, if we try killing Equisetum with  a systemic weedkiller, there is no way that the chemical can permeate the whole system, so the unreached length will simply become another plant. Only constant treatment, applying glyphosate to new growth which has been damaged by stamping on, will eventually succeed. This treatment is most effective when carried out at the end of the growing season.

Covering the ground with black polythene or old carpet will eventually do the trick because the root will waste all its energy in unsuccessfully pushing its green growth up to where it perceives the light should be in order to photosynthesise like other plants.   However most people don't want to lose their garden under polythene for a year or so, although I suppose a good Wilton carpet could look quite nice.

The plant contains silica and accordingly has abrasive qualities which make it useful in cleaning pans. It is also  used for many medicinal and culinary purposes: as a tea it works as a diuretic and helps with kidney and bladder problems and the young shoots are edible. In addition, it's used to make a fungicide to control blackspot and mildew, when steeped in hot (not boiling) water, at a rate of one ounce per two pints. In my experience, it doesn't get rid of the existing problem and is more effective as a preventative.

I don't know whether it still is, but horsetail was certainly used at one time to indicate the presence of gold. When the metal is present, a ton of the plants will yield 4.5 ounces of the metal. How's about that for useful information?


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