My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
Saturday morning is usually a good time to set off for the beach. Since the route involves passing by the local council offices and the secondary school these establishments need to be closed, otherwise they generate too much traffic and hullabaloo. Then there’s the tide times to consider and the crossing of two bridges; one a pretty, ancient thing over a railway line with perilously low stone walls. The other, less attractive obstacle spans the busy A55 dual carriageway. I always ride towards the middle of this one in the event of any sudden lateral moves. Thankfully Storm remains his calm, stoic self, despite Bank Holiday traffic passing beneath us at 70 miles an hour heading for the estuary tunnel.
Then it’s the housing estate – lawnmowers, garden parasols, a whining strimmer – and then the golf course. The golf course is potentially full of hazards since the pony is already deeply suspicious of squeaking golf trolleys, men in yellow pants, and the whipping noise of several clubs whacking balls; sometimes in quick succession. He dances on the spot a little to signal his disquiet, then stares through the hedge at the practice area. We survive all of this and arrive at the beach only to stop dead at a line of big boulders. Boulders, he declares, are the work of the Devil. They cast shadows… they hide predatory things… It’s not as if he hasn’t seen boulders before, but we waste long minutes before he deigns to pass between two of these stone beasts as they slumber on the edge of the car park. Ok, human, so nothing bad happened. This time.
Once on the beach, we sink into the silt that borders the estuary before heading for the firmer, rippled sand towards the mussel banks. Thankfully, there are no marauding dogs on the horizon. On a previous visit my friend and I were plagued by such a pest. His owner watched with mild disinterest as his dog leapt around our horses’ legs, barking and snarling. We suggested he might want to call his dog away in case it got kicked in the teeth. Amazingly, the guy seemed offended that we’d suggested such a thing. Today the area is quiet, only the chatter of oystercatchers and gulls, and the rush and slide of the tide. But Storm is fixated on the opposite bank, where much is going on with boats and kites. He only canters with any conviction when I turn for home and even manages to throw in a violent dodge round a pool of muddy seawater.
Previous hazards prove curiously inconsequential on the return journey – boulders? I ain’t scared of no boulders – but we’re riding along the lower section of the bridleway on Conwy Mountain when a man walking two elderly dogs suddenly ducks down in the shrubs. I’m sure he thinks he’s being helpful, but the pony can’t fathom why he’s suddenly disappeared and slowly draws to a halt, head and neck up, ears pricked, everything tense – the equine equivalent of a dropped jaw. I guess his behaviour echoes my own, suspicious thoughts. In the end I shout and request that the man reveal himself. No, I quickly rephrase that and suggest he gets to his feet. He does, slowly, explaining he hadn’t wanted to spook the pony, and felt it might be a better idea to hide. I say the best thing to do around horses is to act normally rather than appear predatory and crouch in the bushes. We pass without incident but both Storm and I tut at the incongruity of men, and boulders.