Cantering over Canny Hill, Cookie, and the Cartmell Fells.
Who knew we’d need to learn how to tie a boating knot and trust an ex-car mechanic – someone who’d only sat on a horse some three years ago – to escort us on an 80-mile circular trek across Lakeland. I’m always up for an equine adventure, and I was ready to accept that being five foot nothing with short legs and on the wrong side of 60 might carry certain limitations. Or so I thought. I thought I didn’t want a big cob. Physically, big cobs and I don’t always get on. The width and the rolling gait can leave me feeling compromised. No, I wanted a small, slender beast I could manage without assistance. A horse who’d wait patiently outside the pub without feeling the need to untie himself in order to send my hat rolling down a steep bank towards a stream. A horse that didn’t feel considerably taller than 16 hands towards the end of the day, when jumping off onto hard ground felt increasingly perilous on tired legs.
But I got Cookie. The Cookie Monster. The mighty Cookster. My feet dangled somewhere behind his immense shoulders, and his special treeless saddle initially felt as if it offered little in the way of anchoring. My toes nudged the saddlebags slung across his withers; fixed by straps through the girth and balanced out by two bags of hard feed – his substantial lunch. Once up top, I couldn’t even reach the girth straps and his massive head felt an awful long way out in front. This was going to hurt. My riding fitness was mostly based on hacking out a pony belonging to my good friend and travel companion, Sue. Fortunately, thanks to her nursing background Sue possessed impressive medical supplies, including some black-market Voltarol – a potion apparently strong enough to handle the pain of childbirth. It all sounded good until we learnt it could only be administered via suppository. A thoughtful silence descended as we headed out across Canny Hill and up through the forestry at Simpson Ground Plantation. Maybe we’d make do with gin, heat pads, and ibuprofen after all.
Four mature ladies, five days in the saddle. Sue and I were joined by Lydia from Manchester, and Wendy from Virginia. We were following mostly ancient bridleways across the fells, through forests, villages and fords, calling at predestined pubs for lunch and overnight stays. The route would take us along the east side of Windermere as far north as Kentmere, before circuiting both Ambleside and Grassmere across central Lakeland, and then heading back via Conniston and over the top of Walna Scar. Basically, it was a massive pub crawl on horseback, starting with the Hare and Hounds at Bowland Bridge. Cookie had proved himself eminently reliable through the morning and waited patiently for me to untack and tie him to a suitable bit of fence in the car park, before I emptied the saddlebags and tipped up his lunch onto the grass. An hour in the pub for us meant plenty of time for the horses to digest their hard feed. Cookie would invariably be resting one hind leg and snoozing in the sun on my return. Mostly. If any of the horses were going to get tangled in their own lead rope, sit on a car bonnet or get loose, it would be Sue’s Lusitano-cross mare, Gaia. We began to call her Princess Gaia for good reason. Probably more a testament to her fitness, but she didn’t even sweat.
Throughout the morning we’d glimpsed the long shivery stretch of Windermere in the distance from the considerable height afforded by forestry tracks and the open hillside, but the afternoon saw us crossing lower ground as we headed up the valley towards Ings. Cookie felt fortified after his lunch and we picked up the pace with some steady canters through fields and along little-used bridleways. This horse knew where to take on water and how to pace himself, and exhibited the same stoic sensibility whether crossing the deep ford at Winster or trotting along a short stretch of busy road to the next bridleway. We meandered through open pastureland to arrive at Ings by late afternoon. Six hours in the treeless saddle, and although I felt tired I was more relieved to discover that not only was the saddle a good fit for both Cookie and I, the horse was a gentleman to handle.
The horses stayed overnight at an international showjumping yard, and our billet for the night was an old-fashioned guest house run by the lovely Mrs J. Our rooms were an eclectic mix of floral, flock, and frills, a blend of historical styles which stopped somewhere around the seventies. A crocheted mat for every item, a pile of Reader’s Digest circa 1999, china knick-knacks, faux flowers and brass beds, patterned rugs on swirly carpets, snake draught excluders, and the radiator in the hall set to scorch level. It felt reminiscent of visiting Nan as a child or seaside holidays with Mum and Dad. And sharing with Sue took us both back to school trips when mild exhaustion and forbidden drink took the form of giggly hysteria. But then things took a sinister turn when we decided to Google the meaning of the Latin scrolls on the wallpaper. The best we could come up with translated to the iron hand of blackest terror… Safely cocooned in nostalgia, the discovery of this felt mildly disturbing and for some unfathomable reason we thought it might be prudent to check inside the wardrobe. We grabbed a handle each… tugged. It lurched, then suddenly toppled towards us and a hundred mismatched hangers flew out. Trying to push the thing back upright against the wall and replace the innards made a considerable racket. Likewise the litter bin which seemed placed for musical impact rather than practicality, since the lid bashed the party wall with a resounding boom-tish every time the pedal was depressed. Sensing we might already be unpopular with our fellow companions, we retired early to our flowery beds and stifled our inner schoolgirl.
Sticky Toffee Pudding, the Troutbeck Valley, and Trotting On.
Another day promising sun! Mrs J had already taken our breakfast order the previous evening, but lost the list. When it came down to it, any variation on a full English had her in the iron grip of blackest terror; so we all pitched in. By the time Mike arrived in the pickup to collect us and our bags, we’d cleared the table and said a fond farewell to Mrs J. Back at the showjumping yard, we collected the horses from their overnight grazing and began preparations for day two of the trail. A quick groom, a fresh saddle pad (all of them washed at the end of every day) saddle, saddlebags, breastplate, and the halter left on under the bridle for convenience, with the lead rope secured out of the way using Mike’s special boating knot. I loved day two, perhaps because I was already familiar with much of the area, and as we drew closer to central Lakeland the countryside developed into the classic, rolling English countryside the Lake District is famous for, inspiring not only Wordsworth but also Ruskin, Arthur Ransome, and Beatrix Potter. Plenty of sun and a warm breeze kept light cloud scudding across the fells, highlighting miles of drystone walls and some of those iconic Wainwright summits.
After a sharp incline, we meandered down a long bridleway towards Kentmere and across open countryside before dropping down to a cluster of properties. An old gent stood by his garden gate, his hands held out, his expression rapturous. I’ve been watching you, coming down off the hill along the old bridleway. What a sight! What a wonderful, wonderful sight… We waved as we clattered past, heading through the hamlet and onto the Garburn Pass, an ancient byway which took us over the fells and into the pretty Troutbeck Valley. Much of the going was rough at the start with huge rocks and boulders forming some of the climb but the horses never hesitated and rarely put a hoof in the wrong place. Cookie needed no directional assistance whatsoever and the lightest contact through the reins. All I had to do was to stay in balance and make his job as easy as possible. Mike, Sheila, and Zara Myers had done an impressive job with their horses, especially since many of them have been acquired from less than satisfactory beginnings. Although the pace on the trail was very much dictated by the terrain – and lots of the time it was rough and slow going with the horses scrambling over rocks and on one occasion, steps – this isn’t pony trekking. Experience of riding a fit horse across open country is a priority, as is general fitness and stamina. Bracing against severe inclines and staying in balance with the movement of the horse over uneven ground is deceptively tiring for the uninitiated. And riding continues across five consecutive days, with care of your horse at the end of each day coming well before dinner. Heaving off the tack and the saddlebags and then heaving your own bag up to a hotel room had us all ready to eat and fall into bed before 9pm most evenings. The mantra was very much eat, sleep, ride, repeat. Since I’m happy doing all of these things the routine suited me quite well.
Lunch was at the Mortal Man in Troutbeck and we secured the horses in a small yard close to the pub. During our substantial repast, Cookie saw fit to untie himself and bump my hat off the post where I’d left it. Fortunately for him, it had stopped short of a deep stream, and who could be cross with a horse that enjoyed his head being cradled and stood like a rock to be cuddled, whenever required. On our way again, and the horses burst into action the second Kieron glanced behind to check all was well before upping the pace. Trotting on! We clattered briskly through the village towards Robin Lane Bridleway, instantly regretting the rather excellent two course lunch with sticky toffee pudding and pints of cider. And then we were cantering. Low branches! We grew to love and hate Kieron’s sense of humour. And we soon grew wise to his response whenever we asked how much longer to the pub/hotel/yard because it was always 40 minutes, regardless of where we were. But we laughed, a lot.
Robin Lane to Jenkin’s Crag is a beautiful bridleway which meanders for some five miles over Low and High Skelghyll. The scenery gradually opened up towards Lake Windermere and the Langdale Pikes, before dropping down through Skelghyll Woods into Ambleside. Then a long, long power trot around the outskirts of the town, over the Rothay Bridge and onto a single-track lane following the River Rothay virtually all the way towards Rydal Mount – Wordsworth’s famous residence. Kieron advised us to keep right on the steep, slippery lane (only slippery to shod horses) in order to avoid wheel spin. It seems you can take the man out of the garage but you can’t take the garage… The Coffin Route into Grassmere allowed us to peer over the walls into Wordsworth’s garden. I couldn’t see his writing hut but then the glittering expanse of Rydal Water came into view and hundreds of geese took flight. We cantered along a smooth stretch before the terrain of rock slabs and enormous tree roots had us back down to a considered walk. In places I had to hook my left leg over the top of the saddlebags to avoid getting my kneecaps bashed on the wall as the path was so narrow. A truly arduous task it must have been to carry coffins along this route to the main church in Rydal.
We were booked into a hotel at Grassmere. First priority was to buy two large gins and sit in the sun. Bliss. Back in the room, which had a gorgeous view of Helm Crag right outside the window, the second bliss moment was a deep bath. Too tired to wash my hair separately I soaped my tresses in the bath then reached for the shower head to rinse. Maybe it’s just me but I can never get hotel showers to run at an even temperature especially with soap in my eyes, so I suffered a short blast of stone cold instead. It dried looking no different to the original ‘riding hat helmet’ I’d finished the day on, and thanks to all the soapy residue and no conditioner, the sweetitch started during perusal of the dinner menu. I loved that there was Waldorf salad as a side though, and combined with a lovely East European waiter who had little grasp of the English language beyond I go check, it didn’t take much for Sue and I to lapse into sit-com territory. And another thing. Why do we look fat and rippled when we walk past the mirrors in this place? Er… Funhouse mirrors? Sticky Toffee Pudding?
Tolkien, Teddy’s Tunnels, and Tourists at Tarn Hows.
In the cold light of day I was pleased to find that I still had no need of serious medication. In fact, other than the discovery that the shampoo-induced sweetitch had spread to my withers, I felt pretty good and ready for the day. While we ploughed through scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, Kieron had been busy bringing in the horses and tacking-up, for which we were incredibly grateful. Our day began with a long canter alongside Grassmere lake and a paddle, before heading up Red Bank bridleway bordering Loughrigg Fell. It had become apparent that when Kieron and Jigsaw dropped back, Cookie was no slouch when it came to heading-up the group and I often found myself out in front. Sooner or later though the mares, Princess Gaia and Wendy’s chestnut, Moody Milly, would see to it that Cookie was put back in his place – usually the minute Kieron and Jigsaw took up the lead again, and they’d skillfully manoeuvre themselves back up the pecking order. Until it came to passing through gates. Neither mare would entertain going through first and would mince and prance. Oh no, it might be dangerous! Get the cob! Only then would they allow Cookie to take the lead again. Cookie absolutely knew this was his dutiful job and walked manfully ahead, ears pricked forwards, his pride fully intact again until the girls decided his leadership was no longer required and barged past him with a snicker. At least he had moments of glory. The horses took no notice whatsoever of Lydia’s mount since Micky was the new bloke on the block, and firmly relegated to the rear at all times.
We were en-route towards Elterwater and the Great Langdale Valley, wading through a deep ford at Little Langdale. Cookie ploughed through, his huge feet setting off a tidal wave. And then Kieron surprised us all by issuing baler twine so we could tie up the horses to the trees. Since there wasn’t a pub in sight, we were puzzled but duly obliged and followed him up a steep incline to a cave. Cathedral Cavern was the location used in the Bear Grylls episode with Warren Davies. Not my favourite thing, crouching in the dark beneath tons of rock, but I was encouraged by a group of schoolkids carrying candles, and therefore persuaded to stumble down a long tunnel. I was even less happy when the light from the entrance disappeared, but then blinding daylight ahead and, after a scramble down some rock slabs, the Cathedral revealed itself; a cavernous space above a dense pool of black velvet. I fully expected Gollum to come crawling out and I was happy to take the exit at that point and continue our Lord of the Rings adventure above ground, and with the horses. Hopefully they were still tied to the trees where we’d left them. True to form, resident drama queen, Princess Gaia, had managed to wind herself round and round some saplings until the length of her lead rope was down to strangulation point at three inches. Where have you been? Look what happened to me! Cookie hadn’t moved an inch, one hind leg at rest, eyes half closed in the sun-dappled copse.
Another nod to Tolkien then after a short hack to the Three Shires pub, and another tie-up for the horses right outside. Patrons were amused to see five horses hooked up to the railings on the road, especially when Kieron carefully positioned the ice-cream boards at either end of the equine hazard we’d created. Fortunately, traffic was very slow at this point and refreshingly, the vast majority of people seemed happy to see the horses and interested in our adventure. After a substantial ploughman’s lunch – a glimpse of a truly hobbit-style piece of engineering in Slater Bridge, before picking up the old quarry road to Hodge Close. Myriad deep ravines and underwater tunnels were not something I wanted to linger alongside and I was much happier when we’d left the quarry sites behind and entered the maze of coppice at Holme Ground, to eventually arrive at beautiful Tarn Hows, the most visited spot in Lakeland. Thanks to some very obliging Chinese tourists we managed a good few group pics here until Princess Gaia declared she’d had enough posing, and put in a few playful bunny jumps. On to Conniston then through mature, ancient woodland beneath increasingly cloudy skies, and our thoughts turned to climbing Walna Scar the following day – the highest point of the trail climbing to 2,000 feet. Given the torrential rain elsewhere in the country we didn’t hold out much hope for staying dry.
Horses turned out, fed, and rugged up against the promised rain, we clambered into the pickup for a short drive to our guest house for the evening; Oakland, a traditional Lakeland property featuring plenty of local slate. Comfortably elegant and with enough en-suite rooms for us all to enjoy solo residence. Views from my dual-aspect room were overlooking the cricket pitch, with the dark bulk of Yewdale Fell beyond. I soaked away the grime of the day listening to the many garden birds on the feeders below, and the mellow sound of leather hitting willow. The rain began as we walked to The Crown in Conniston, but we had the best of meals here and in the true spirit of helping Wendy sample the local cuisine, we tested yet another sticky toffee pudding – and this one easily took the top pudding of the week slot.
High Winds, War Horse, and Walking Walna Scar.
My sweetitch problem fixed, plus scrambled eggs and a jar of homemade lemon curd on the breakfast table promised a good start to the day. A significantly better start than the resident garden birds, since our exasperated host reported the plunder of several very large bird feeders by a gang of young squirrels. She cast an eye towards the long barrelled shotgun above the door frame. We made a sharp exit. No rain; but a strong wind was in force, with ominous clouds moving slowly across the summit of Conniston Old Man. Fair to say, the track to Walna Scar is uphill all the way. A long pull against the wind towards the open fell, but we managed to enjoy some breathless canters on the undulating grassy track by the bridleway, before the terrain necessitated a pace closer to scrambling. Boulders, and steep slabs of rock at seemingly awkward angles for a horse posed no problem for our herd of professionals.
Cookie powered up, down, over or through everything in his path; bogs, scree, streams, bridges. He thought nothing of slowly sinking both front legs down a bank at a 90 degree angle in order to drink from a sunken stream. The only show of hesitance came when he had to go first through a busy farmyard, where he’d wait then for Jigsaw to head up the group again. Some powerful crosswinds at the summit of Walna, with far-reaching views to the west of the Irish Sea. Too much low cloud to see The Isle of Man but great views of Scafell Pike and Bowfell. And then it was a long, slow amble down Walna Scar Side by a foaming stream towards Seathwaite, and our lunch stop. I love a genuinely quirky pub, and the Newfield Inn didn’t disappoint. Net curtains, coat hooks fixed into the wood-panelled bar, and since it was only early June – a roaring fire and bowls of hearty lentil soup. A friendly, unpretentious place which likely represented the heart of the village. The sort of tiny rural place where all community problems were still referred to the vicar.
Lifting Cookie’s saddle above my head in order to get it on his back again was beginning to feel arduous, but Kieron threw it in the general direction for me and then once everything was buckled-up and belted-in, hoisted me on as well – although his energetic leg-ups sometimes had me halfway over the other side. I did love his excuse, though. You don’t weigh anything! We picked up the trail again across the Dunnerdale fells before entering Broughton Moor Forest and in places I had to crouch low over Cookie’s neck as we inched along dark forestry paths through dense, dense trees. Then we were out onto wide roads affording us plenty of canters where the gradient levelled out and the surface softened. Once out of the forest, the road down to Torver was impossibly steep and my limbs began to feel tired with both knee joints aching a little, and our overnight stop was a welcome sight. Sue and I complained that getting off at the end of the day with buckled legs was the worst thing ever. We both perched side-saddle and held out our arms, damsel style; and Mike came to our rescue for the second time that week. We’ve looked forward to this all day! we chorused.
So have I, Mike quipped, and lifted us down in a (mostly) gentlemanly fashion.
It seemed much investment had been sunk into our stopover at Torver; the ladies loos being the most surprising. Incorporating the use of slate and wood to such a rustic degree must have been eye-wateringly expensive, to create what I can only describe as something Barney Rubble might design. Eye-catching, but not terribly practical, and I wasn’t sure I enjoyed the intimate narration of War Horse echoing around the cubicle as I went about my business. Our en-suite room was light, clean and modern, if a tad bijou. Fortunate that Sue and I are so petite, so it didn’t pose a problem. But in the spirit of continuing observation, we did laugh at the blue ‘mood’ lighting and the over imaginative use of decorative panels, extra-large lamps, and mirrors hung for those over seven feet tall. In my tired clumsiness I found it awkward to avoid trapping my fingers between the shower screen and the wash-hand basin. And then filling the kettle from the sink tap wasn’t possible due to the angles of the sink and the size of the kettle. Both bottles of complimentary mineral water went to make the tea.
We’d arranged to meet Lydia and Wendy for pre-dinner botanicals at 6.30, but in our disorganised fuddle managed to land in the bar at 5.35, only to then wonder where the hell they were. This despite both of us glancing at several plus-size clocks, iPads, and phones. A couple of drinks later, we were ravenous and had already eaten the best part of a tasty hotpot by the time Wendy and Lydia arrived. Our faux pas forgiven, the evening passed with recollections of the week to date, the exchange of email addresses and the victorious realisation that our stash of drugs and support bandages had mostly gone unneeded. We hit the hay at a sensible hour, taking careful note of the mood lighting switch, should we accidentally need to illuminate our passage to the loo in the night. The sound of cars swishing through hard rain lulled me to instant sleep.
Bridleways, Bullocks, and Homewood Bound to Backbarrow
Phone calls home the previous evening had revealed the most awful weather conditions in North Wales and a similar horror story from my son in London; so I wasn’t too surprised to see rain continuing to stream down the windows. Since it was the last day it didn’t seem quite so depressing to run into bad weather since we’d enjoyed three gloriously sunny days and only one cloudy, windy day, which is pretty good for somewhere as wet and green as the Lake District. We dressed ready for action in waterproofs and yet, by the time we’d saddled-up the rain had dissolved to an intermittent drizzle and it was a difficult decision then whether or not to remove the waterproof over-trousers. They certainly compromised grip in the saddle but then the thought of maybe trying to put them back again on top of the fells in pouring rain made it a tough choice. Everyone opted to keep them on but Sue, ever the optimist and resident weather expert stuffed hers in the saddlebags and declared it wasn’t going to rain properly until 3.55pm. Thus cheered, we took the old coffin road across the Woodland Valley and Lowick Common to arrive at Spark Bridge for lunch. While Kieron was busy checking the horses and tacking-up again (before the rain started at 3.55pm) we organised a whip-round. Our guide had looked after us royally and we felt bound by the laws of decency and appreciation to present him with a roll of notes and, for no other reason than it was us – wrapped around a Voltarol suppository. I like to think it expressed our combined experiences and wrapped up the morning rather well.
Although tired, our spirits remained high through the final leg home with Sue stuck in a strong northern dialect for most of the afternoon, and Moody Millie suddenly realising she was on the outskirts of home and taking up an active walk in the lead. We passed through some pastureland inhabited by bullocks who decided to follow us all the way to the gate at the far end, and we worried then about the logistics of getting five horses through an awkward gate without 50 head of cattle barging through with us. But Jigsaw was fearless in facing the snorting beasts head-on and Kieron herded them back up the field with a whoop, cowboy style.
And then it was quiet country lanes and hamlets as the countryside softened towards Backbarrow. The rain never did take hold and the experience of damp hedgerows heavy with cow parsley, wild honeysuckle, and rose, wasn’t unpleasant. At Low Wood, a long uphill track allowed us a final opportunity to canter. Only Sue and I elected to go ahead, the other horses happy with a steadier pace. Gaia and Cookie obliged, albeit none too energetically, although we waited ages for the others to catch up. Sue thought she might jump off and lie flat in the undergrowth while I explained to Kieron that the horses had bolted and Sue had been dragged for half a mile at least, and I was too scared to check if she was still breathing. And, although we laughed at the joke we could have played, the bottom line was we were just too damn tired to get off and back on again. And, we reasoned that Kieron really didn’t really deserve any more of our tasteless humour.
We turned up the familiar lane to the yard and for a moment it felt out of kilter that the horses were taken from us, untacked, and showered by a band of willing helpers, while we drank tea. Unable to put off the moment much longer, we loaded our bags into the car and tried to come to terms with driving home. Human farewells done, we had one last goodbye to do and wandered to the stable block where our faithful comrades were already in their pyjamas. A good finish to the trip to see our horses nestled in deep straw beds, and it felt especially gratifying that they nudged us for a final selfie, even Princess Gaia.
But it was a bitter-sweet end to five amazing days. Five days where at times we’d ached to get off our horses, but then ached to get back on. Five days of living in an almost fictional bubble, where real life stayed on hold somewhere far away. A cosy world where Hobbits and Potter’s Peter Rabbit felt more real and immediate than our lives back home. A world where Wordsworth and Wainwright had far more interesting and important visions to share. To be able to ride miles of ancient bridleways across such achingly beautiful countryside instilled in all of us, I feel sure, a deep sense of privilege. We’d explored a piece of old England the way it should be explored. And something magical happens when out-of-comfort zones are pushed together through circumstance, and instant bonds are forged with complete strangers – both human and equine.
Ok, let’s plan the next one. Ten day equine coast-to-coast, anyone? We’ll need more supplies… ibuprofen, chocolate, gin. And a torch. We’ll need a torch, for going down caves and checking wardrobes.
Part One of this memoir is now available to read for Kindle:
Memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 1: Spring
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge, Cheshire. 1976. Since I was the new girl, I was invited to join the regular Sunday morning crowd. Most of them were hungover, but the guy with his foot in plaster assured me that this wouldn’t be a problem. This same guy elected to ride Specky, the one-eyed hunter. No one questioned whether this was a wise combination, or not. No matter, spring was in the air along with the peal of church bells, and the day was full of promise. Masses of daffodils and crocuses, every shade of dark emerald green through to the palest of jade, chocolate-brown fields wet from heavy showers. I followed cautiously on a quiet bay mare called Babysham, which felt entirely appropriate on all counts. We turned off the road after some ten minutes and began to ascend a steep, sandstone track partially formed by huge boulders. Crouched low over Babysham’s neck, the climb presented a challenging scramble for four hooves – but all the horses took it at speed, experienced at keeping the momentum going and knowing exactly how and where to lunge around the rocks. Once the horses had caught their breath at the top of this escarpment, we would wind our way through ancient woodland, sometimes cantering along a criss-cross of tracks and leaping small logs along the way. The mare was light and forward, the company funny, and a whole new riding experience looked set to unfold. I was hooked…
Mary Dawson’s kitchen at Higher House was invariably a wonderful chaotic jumble; pans of boiling barley and sugar beet, wet jodhpurs steaming over the Aga, something in a bucket covered with a wet cloth. A chewed laundry basket full of puppies, a three-legged lamb in a box under the kitchen table. On the windowsill, a row of gin and dry martini bottles containing milk and fitted with huge rubber teats. Dogs, always dogs.
Bee the greyhound dropped a size eleven shoe on my foot and looked up expectantly. Naturally, I hurled it as far as I could across the muddy garden. The dog merely tilted her head enquiringly until eventually, I was forced to go and retrieve the thing myself. I was less amused when I discovered the shoes belonged to Big John. I understand now that Big John may have been mildly autistic, but mental health wasn’t really acknowledged or talked about much in the seventies. Verbally, he was pretty non-communicative – but his favourite story, when he felt so inclined, was the one where he cycled to Macclesfield on a bike with no gears in less than twelve minutes. He was freakishly strong – which had its merits on a stable yard, but on the flip-side he was often in trouble for over-tightening things and once, for teaching Midnight Prince how to smoke his pipe.
Big John found great amusement in trying to pair-off my friend, Nicola, and I with the local vicar; engineering timings so that we rode out together. We always tried to get mounted up and off before the local reverend arrived, one eye on the driveway as we fiddled with girths and adjusted stirrups. The vicar drove an extremely flash sports car. I can’t recall the exact make and model but it was sleek and low slung, and he invariably struggled to climb out of it. He was an archetypical country vicar too, with buck-teeth, a loud voice, and a receding hairline.
I loved all of this mild eccentricity, and stored it away for future use, for reasons unknown to me at the time, but anyone who has read my novels may well recognise my fictional roots starting to form.
Under her main hat, Mary Dawson bred racehorses as well as running a riding school. None of the hacks out were ever accompanied, she was too busy teaching and training. After a couple of visits and once I’d proven myself to be trustworthy, I was pretty much allowed free rein of the school horses. I bought a 1:25000 map and plotted dozens of routes, often riding out solo and I continue to do so now, although my dreamscape these days belongs to the Welsh hills – a significantly more remote playground than the cosy Cheshire green-belt I frequented then. My solitary riding across the hills here often attracts more than a raised eyebrow but this was how I learnt to ride well, and in hindsight how I learnt to fix problems of my own making. Back in the seventies and eighties, we never envisaged falling foul of an accident, and we never experienced anything we either couldn’t fix at the time, or learn from. We simply took responsibility for ourselves.
Now, we live in very different times, governed by a whole plethora of health and safety rules. Common sense and trust aren’t allowed to develop and prevail. But the domain of the public riding school has changed beyond recognition – access to suitable land has become more and more restricted, many bridleways have gone, country roads have become racetracks, and crippling insurance costs reflect our blame culture. The artificial world of the indoor school has obvious advantages, but its rise in popularity through the eighties and nineties has also produced a generation of horses, business owners, and riders nervous of the real world. Does this combined social baggage add to the mass of anxieties we have become? I think it might. Of course, riding schools find it physically easier and more financially lucrative to allow one member of staff to teach ten riders or more in a confined indoor space rather than venture off-site and risk an ‘accident’. And in this decade there’s been a boom in children’s parties, coffee mornings, and ‘educating’ children having them learn how to fill hay-nets and muck-out. This is good, but only up to a point.
I’m glad I learnt to ride more than fifty years ago. For me, it was a time when those personal dreamscapes felt real because we were allowed to experience them. Now, we seem to have lost a wealth of respect on our roads, and the ability to trust our own risk assessment of any given situation. Above all, we’ve lost a wealth of freedom.
Booths, Shaftesbury Avenue, Timperley 1968. The birth of an obsession. My new Australian friend regaled me with stories of her ponies ‘back home’. She owned the biggest collection of horse books I’d ever seen and The Observers book of Horses and Ponies, published around the year I was born, immediately went onto my Christmas list. I still have it. My imagination was further captured by Australian author Elyne Mitchell whose books – an unusual equine series set in the Snowy Mountains region of Australia – began to feature heavily in my teenage years. In direct contrast to my friend, I grew up on a quiet, leafy council estate in south Cheshire, with non-horsey parents. I was an outdoor child, fuelled by books and maps. Rupert Bear, and Nutwood, the fictional idyllic English village. Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit and the Secret Seven books all helped to inspire an active interest in animals, the countryside, and the idea of setting out on an adventure. I liked to be on the move. Around the age of ten, my father would cycle 6 miles or so with me from where we lived in Cheadle to Booths place, where Pamela Rigby taught me the basics on a ‘yard’ consisting of a few acres of fields and a couple of caravans. It was open and flat, and despite the road running alongside, felt like a different world to a child with a good imagination. Not surprisingly, this entire area is now under concrete and the road is a roaring, incredibly busy dual-carriageway.
Mr Booth, always seated in his maroon Jaguar, took the money. In 1968, an hour in the saddle under instruction cost ten shillings, aka 50p. Sometimes, Booth would put three-penny-bits between our knees and the saddle, promising we could keep them if they were still there at the end of the lesson. I don’t think I ever managed it! Now of course, gripping with the knees has long been ousted as correct or effective horsemanship. Copper prizes notwithstanding, Dad and I would cycle home afterwards, and my six-day wait would begin again. I started on the steady ones: Twinkle Toes, the grey, and Puffin, the roan, before progressing onto a smaller, albeit far wilier and more challenging Welsh Mountain Pony: Merrylegs. Twinkle and Puffin may have given me confidence and balance, but Merrylegs taught me how to ride. The adventure really began when I was considered proficient enough to leave the confines of the fields and join day rides to exciting places like Ashley, or on one occasion, a holiday in Hope, Derbyshire.
In the early seventies, Pamela Rigby relocated to Mobberley Riding School, Newton Hall Lane; a much bigger establishment with proper stables and an indoor school. I did continue to go as a child for lessons and even a few times in the late nineties when I took my son along for one of Pam’s holiday clubs. She kindly allowed me to hack one of her horses around the Cheshire lanes. The 16-hand middle-weight hunter was wonderfully schooled and a joy to ride, but the restrictions of those Cheshire roads just felt too confined for my roaming soul. Although I wasn’t part of this particular story, I love that Mobberley Riding School survived over 40 years and Miss Rigby enjoyed a long career at top competition level. The school only closed in the spring of 2016 but Pam is still very much in the business and now runs a performance and event venue at New Barn Livery in Knutsford; jokingly referred to as her ‘retirement project’. Pam was awarded the MBE in June 2013 for her lifetime service to people with disabilities. The site of Mobberley Riding school is now under redevelopment.
Once I was considered sensible enough to coordinate a bus ride into Stockport and catch a second bus to Offerton, I began to frequent Forsythe’s place at Offerton Riding School, Holiday Lane. This yard offered more scope in that we could ride – unaccompanied – on private land for something like £1.20 per hour. A horsey haven, nestled in the middle of suburbia. The beautifully kept whitewashed stables and the authentic Victorian buildings complete with iron hayracks and cobbled floors, the smell of the leather – all of these things felt deeply evocative – though I couldn’t explain why. Perhaps the history of those buildings and the thousands of dreams it all represented had somehow soaked into the foundations.
Ken Forsythe kept a big desk diary with all the horses’ names running down the left-hand column, Flikka, Trigger, Sabre, Winston, Brandy, Romany, Charmaine, Piper… It was a foolproof booking procedure, and nothing much ever went wrong or got mixed-up, and nothing was ever cancelled. Ken always wore a shirt and a tweed jacket with his wellies, which seems ridiculously formal but we didn’t have all the purpose made outdoor clothing we have at our disposal now.
Riding gear was mostly for show, rather than practicality. Anything other than a hacking jacket was often too bulky, or too long. Hats were not always worn, let alone air-jackets or back-protectors and high-vis tabards. Outdoor gear is probably one of the best improvements we’ve had since the early years – protective, lightweight, waterproof, high visibility, breathable clothing. I had a brown, second-hand riding hat for years, its only anchorage to my head being a loose length of elastic. I remember investing in a buff-coloured rubberised raincoat in the eighties which was the order of the day, but there was no ‘give’ in the material and the coat was so rigid it practically stood up by itself when I wasn’t wearing it.
At Offerton, there was a flat sandy area we were sometimes allowed to canter round, sensibly. Trigger was always especially up for this, and although I was a pretty confident rider by then I parted company from Trigger a couple of times in spectacular style. He was the first young, finely-bred horse I’d encountered. He moved much more quickly than the ponies I’d grown up with, sometimes choosing to leap the pools of sandy water rather than plough through them, and he was especially adept at changing gear and direction. Sometimes, we were allowed to leave the confines of riding school land, cross the stream and venture along the banks of Poise Brook for a long canter, until the track petered out. We were always accompanied for this venture, I suspect because none of us were trusted to stop in time before we ran into the immaculate greens of the local bowling club.
At the beginning of the eighties, the horses and ponies at Offerton were whittled down in preparation for Ken’s retirement – many of them sold privately or to Bank Farm Riding School, Poynton – which is still operating as a riding school, albeit only offering walk and trot rides. I do remember riding there a couple of times and galloping along the Middlewood Way on a horse with only fair-to-middling brakes, trying to slow down enough for the rest of the party who were miles behind. A sad coincidence that in 2017 my mother had occasion to stay in a nursing home just off Marple Road and I drove past the end of Holiday Lane in morbid fascination, lost in the nostalgia of it all and the terrifying march of time. Although in the grip of advancing dementia by then, Mum seemed to remember the day I led her around the fields on Brandy. Offerton Riding school closed at the end of the summer in 1981 and I read recently that the area is being further developed by a sand and gravel company. Sad to see that the stables and the buildings have all but collapsed, including those handcrafted Victorian stalls, now cluttered with rubbish and old shopping trolleys. The land is not built on as yet, but maybe it’s only a matter of time. The end of more than one bygone era…
Still in the early seventies, someone I only remember as Rosemary, set up a small riding school at Bruntwood Park, Cheadle, alongside her boyfriend’s dog training business. This was great news for me as I could walk or cycle the short distance from home to the cottage at the top of Bruntwood Lane. Rosemary had half-a-dozen horses but I only really recall Ebony – a huge black cob, both in height as well as girth. Eric Broadhurst ran a security business retraining failed police dogs, usually German Shepherds. I remember one afternoon running around in one of those padded strait-jackets so the dog could leap at me and wrestle me to the ground. Eric’s career as a dog trainer gained considerable repute, being associated with Crufts along the way and enjoying a long working relationship with Granada Television training dogs for film and TV.
When Eric and Rosemary went their separate ways, Eric retained custody of Ebony. Fearful of the cob’s ever expanding size, I began to ride him at Eric’s request that I keep the horse fit. This was no mean feat. The world was one big smorgasbord to Ebony. He was a wise soul, patient, mostly plodding, and happy to be taken anywhere, if we didn’t rush him. I occasionally rode him home, across Brookfields Park, paddling through the Micker Brook, round the fields at the back of the houses and onto Brookfield Road where we lived. I left him on our driveway once while I nipped to the bathroom. I could hear my mother shrieking downstairs that not only had he eaten a tub of geraniums but he’d come partway into the hall, looking for me. Dad went looking for the camera. Clear evidence here that he always managed to chop our heads off.
Sometimes my friend Barbara would join me on expeditions further afield, and we took it in turns to either ride the horse or pedal the pushbike – our packed lunches in the basket on the front. We attracted some verbal abuse and hilarity out and about through Cheadle Hulme and Bramhall, especially waiting in traffic at the lights where Ebony towered above the cars and peered through the rear windows of stationary traffic. Sometimes he’d choose to pee just as the lights turned green. He’d plant all four hooves, oblivious of honking traffic trying to get round him. And it could take a while, at least until the lights turned back to red – a torrent of foaming urine spreading across the tarmac. All credit to his stoic character, Ebony wasn’t fazed by anything we encountered on the roads. As part of his fitness regime we encouraged him to trot for as long as possible, especially uphill, and he did usually oblige – at least until whoever was on the bike began screaming for mercy. Barbara and I were very fit through those years, not sure how much impact it had on the horse.
During all of this I remember getting stranded in London in the spring of 1975 because I’d gone to see Led Zeppelin at Earls Court (with an unsuitable boyfriend, naturally) and missed the last direct train back to Manchester. The parents were furious. I think I arrived home just as the milkman turned up. A quick change of clothes, a note on the kitchen table and I was straight out again, Ebony’s halter swinging on the handlebars of my bike. I ditched the boyfriend not long after, kept riding the horse. Eventually, all that sustained trotting only produced the required slight sweat (mostly Barbara and I) and we moved on to cantering. Cantering only happened on Ebony’s terms, usually on the way back to his field. This was an idyllic meadow, full of big oak and beech trees – gone now, concreted over by a prestigious housing estate with properties hovering just below the million-pound mark. The park is hopelessly over-developed now boasting a boutique hotel and more car parks sprawling across what used to be an unlabelled open space of almost 100 acres. Another large chunk of this has been swallowed up by various superstores on the periphery…
This is an extract from the memoir My Life in Horses:
Continue reading: mybook.to/MyLifeinHorses
My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
There’s a dead banana on the Sychnant Pass Road, splayed flat like a dirty yellow star and embedded into the tarmac. The pony always drops his head to investigate, nostrils quivering. This is despite much nicer pickings amongst the stitchworts and bluebells along the verges and the tall hedgerows, heavy now with cow parsley and other delicacies dangling at nose level. But the downside in stopping amid all this abundant foliage is that we’re dangerously concealed along some sections of this narrow road, and I’m always happier when we get onto the open ground at Crow’s Nest. Sheep and feral ponies roam here, many of the Carneddau mares with foals at foot. The pony tends not to be overly interested unless there’s a young stallion in the vicinity, although I’m not convinced that making a noise like Scooby Doo is sufficient warning.
We turn off Hendre Road into an unmade lane by Llechwedd, a route back onto the open hillside which is dogged by gates. Storm’s small stature is appreciated when it comes to jumping on and off, especially since there’s nothing remotely helpful to stand on. Even I can get my foot in a stirrup which is just a few feet from the ground and mostly stationary. (I’ve learnt to ignore his rolling eye.) We approach the second gate when the head of a lamb suddenly pops up… from beneath the cattle grid. My immediate thought is to applaud Storm’s lack of reaction and assume that if the lamb has fallen down there, then it must be able to get out. But as we draw closer, the lamb appears to be well and truly imprisoned. I slide off the pony and trust him to stay put, which he does. I try every which way to manipulate the lamb, but there’s no way he’s coming up through the bars of that grid. The ewe paces up and down, bleating pitifully. A neighbour says she’ll call the farmer, so not much more I can do.
More Carneddau ponies by the lake at Pensychnant, including a foal born during Storm Hannah; one I’d been concerned about in the rough weather, but all looks good in the sun. The pony picks up his pace facing home, and pounds up the road at full speed, shying at a pair of knickers in the hedge. The two mares he shares field space with, whinny at the sound of his approach well before he’s in sight. The smaller mare, Lady, is currently in season and in fat-camp (on sparse pasture) and this situation can be comical or exasperating depending on everyone’s mood. There’s often much calling and posturing between both gelding and love-sick, segregated mare. The older, taller thoroughbred, Ellie, misses her female companion and is mortally disappointed when I release Storm back into her space. She gives him a cursory head toss, ears flattened. Uh, it’s Pipsqueak. I guess he’s better than nothing. Go on, get out of my way! He generally heeds her warnings. It’s an entirely different scenario when Lady is around, since she actively seeks him out the moment he’s through the gate. Where’ve you been? Shall we groom each other? How about I nibble your withers?
He strolls single-mindedly towards the water trough as if it’s a big American fridge, like he’s some hotshot stallion home from the office and he’s going to get a beer. Lady follows, and he slows up, turns to contemplate. Give me five minutes, can’t you? I’ve just got in from work. Been up and over hills all afternoon with the Old Biped…
Part one of this memoir is now available to read for Kindle: mybook.to/MyLifeinHorses
The 2018 Annual Gathering of the Carneddau Ponies
Picture this. An early Sunday morning in November on the Carneddau Mountains and a small convoy of assorted vehicles heads up into the clouds. This vast coastal area is mostly inhabited by sheep, and features bogs, boulders, ditches, deep ravines, and rough tracks. Celtic standing stones and burial mounds are scattered across remote hillsides, amid miles and miles of undulating heather and gorse. When the sea fog creeps in with the tide, visibility can be reduced from poor to, well… zero.
The mission: to find in the region of 200 Carneddau ponies and shepherd them down to a single hill farm at the top of Llanfairfechan. Mission impossible?
The bleak, often cruel beauty of the Carneddau is a double-edged sword because the land here has supported these ponies since Celtic times, with little human interference. And although they’ve likely had connections to the more well-known Welsh Mountain Pony variants somewhere in their past, the Carneddau have been scientifically proven to have the most inexplainable DNA – a kind of unique, indestructible set of genes which sets them apart from not only other domestic ponies, but from other wild native breeds as well. And one has to appreciate that the kinder, more temperate habitats of our native Exmoor, Dartmoor, and New Forest ponies are also controlled and managed more selectively, whereas the Carneddau are isolated in all senses of the word. These ponies shape the land, and the land shapes them…
Dr Carol Hughes (director of a life-science company based in Wales together with Sharon Smith) explains, “The Carneddau ponies are an important part of an integrated and ancient self-regulating ecosystem.”
In essence, the Carneddau ponies are a product of pure wildness…
Susanne Shultz (Senior Research Fellow at Manchester University) has spent many years studying the herds and logging their movements, understanding their social groupings, taking samples and analysing their lives to an astonishing level of detail. One item which did stand out was that the ponies’ social groups were paramount in maintaining health, especially as they aged – and this was a big factor in underpinning their physical fitness. Ponies (and people) with good social interactions generally enjoy a better quality of life. Of course, there will always be some individuals who fall by the wayside or just prefer to be loners, as evident in our own social structure. Interestingly, stress levels in the ponies during the gathering were not especially high – the levels only rose when the ponies were returned to the hills and endeavoured to re-establish their social groups.
Susanne goes so far as to suggest that this wild gene pool might be introduced to strengthen the breeding lines of domestic ponies who’ve fallen foul of various commercial and domestic traps such as sustained inbreeding. Small, domestic ponies are often prone to laminitis and a whole list of other ailments which clearly don’t affect the Carneddau ponies. Occasionally there are ponies on the hills with skeletal abnormalities and defects such as locking stifles, something which may have crept in due to the breed being watered down by the dumping of domestic horses on the mountains, or simply it’s the weaker ones falling foul of the brutal climate – or a combination of unfortunate circumstances. What is clear is that in order to protect their natural selection process (i.e. their breeding and social grouping) questions have to asked about our level of interference, because their way has seen them adapt to survive on this land for centuries. Essentially, these ponies enjoy a freedom denied to the majority of equines.
Standing in the mist-wreathed landscape, boots slowly sinking into a wet mattress of heather, the noise of the wind and the rumble of a distant quad broken only by the occasional whinny, was slightly eerie. And the ponies are well camouflaged; the colours of bracken and stone, rainclouds and earth. Occasionally we’d glimpse a small herd, moving easily across the landscape in a seamless line. The high-stepping speed with which they cover the ground is challenging for the following drivers, often risking life and limb over the unforgiving terrain.
An entirely voluntary exercise, the annual gathering is deeply rooted in Welsh tradition and reaches back several generations to a time when entire villages were involved – either on foot, or on horseback. A time when communities pulled together to ensure that the future of these herds were protected and managed to the best of their abilities. But these are modern times and although lots of people have strong opinions about the ponies, sadly, few people are interested enough to offer time and practical help. Given the depleted manpower available it’s doubtful the gatherings could continue without the use of quads, scramblers, and 4X4 vehicles. Helpers prepared to walk, line-out across the hills forming a human barrier to deter the ponies from chasing back uphill; while the vehicles traverse the Carneddau, circling as far as Tal Y Fan and out towards Conwy, driving the ponies down towards Llanfairfechan.
Today, the same seven local farming families who continue to graze sheep on the Carneddau, retain the rights of guardianship as the Carneddau Pony Society. Gareth Wyn Jones, spokesman for the society, owns just 7 of these ponies while his uncle and father (still incredibly active on the farm at the age of 82) lay claim to around 80. After some five hours, around 150 ponies moved in a long, colourful caterpillar along the single-track lane to Tyn Llwyfan. An emotive sight; some cautious, some bold, some distinctly flighty, many of them vocal! The ponies were segregated into ownership groups – no mean feat. The individual families then make decisions as to which colts and young stallions need to be held off the mountain, along with the old and sick – on this occasion watched over in an advisory capacity by veterinary surgeon, Ellie Salisbury. Obviously, there are no predators on the Carneddau and so numbers need to be managed in order to allow the available grazing to support the existing ponies, and the resident sheep.
The vast majority of the ponies removed at these yearly gatherings are re-homed; thanks to various successful schemes working with the society such as conservation grazing – headed-up by Hilary Keyhoe (PONT coordinator and North Wales Regional Development Officer),or simply as companions to solo horses on private yards. The society even received a request for a matching pair of colts to be brought on as driving ponies, and many more have been taken on for rehoming and rehabilitating by Jackie Williams (Bryn Gaseg, Anglesey).
At times it seems a thankless task, managing 200 wild ponies which are worth nothing in monetary terms, and it’s a job which can occasionally attract negative press. Essentially, the Carneddau Pony Society is up against a balancing act between conservation issues, the rigours of a farming livelihood, and those who are perhaps misunderstanding of the ethos. But one has to look objectively at the roots of life on the Carneddau in order to appreciate the most effective way to co-exist, and it’s clear how much can be achieved if ideas, opinions, and resources are pooled. Looking at the big picture is an essential part of survival and exists at the heart of every successful community – both human, and equine.
Proving that the power of community spirit can change lives…
2019 will see the 50th anniversary of Riding for the Disabled and by way of celebration a campaign called 50 Faces will comprise 50 portrait photographs of people within the entire UK organisation who have challenged the perceptions of disability, volunteering, or equestrian sport. More on the project here: http://www.rda.org.uk/rda-seeks-50-faces-for-anniversary-project/
In small, relatively unknown RDA communities across the country, there will be more than one face who qualifies for inclusion but of course, not everyone will make the final 50, so it seems an appropriate time and place to bang our own small but very significant drum here in the wild Welsh hills of Henryd, Conwy, North Wales. We’ve created our own special collage: an acknowledgement of each and every individual, including our riders, all the volunteers, the teaching staff and of course, the horses.
Conwy Community Riding Centre. The team of horses – loaned and managed by head instructor Wendy Tobias-Jones at Conwy Community Riding Centre – are of course, key to the entire operation. The mental and physical benefits of horse-riding are far-reaching and it would be impossible to list all the attributes here. And it’s not all about winning rosettes and the more obvious success stories – although there have been plenty of those too, with some of our disabled riders reaching both the regional and national finals in dressage – it can be as simple as participating in something which provides a broader scope for less inward thinking. For some riders their enjoyment can simply be down to enjoying close proximity to the horses and perhaps feeling more aware of the environment. It’s no secret that the companionship of a horse can engage the senses and heighten a feeling of wellbeing in both able-bodied and disabled riders. And for the latter, the physiological affects are doubly beneficial purely by encouraging a different range of movement.
Founder Member of our RDA group Liz Futyan, herself the parent of a disabled daughter, is our longest-serving member. She is currently the safeguarding officer as well as organising many yearly holidays; often taking on all the catering requirements herself (I can vouch for her goat’s cheese tart – in fact, I did hear that one child thought the food was the best part of the holiday. Sorry horses, you’ll have to try harder!)
“I have been involved with RDA since 1985. All the local groups have merged from that period into the present Conwy Gogarth, ” explains Liz.
“There were originally two groups. I started an RDA Group for the children of Ysgol Wern y Wylan, where my daughter Hannah went to school and where I worked as a physio. Hannah was already riding at Bwlch Mawr, where Wendy Tobias-Jones ran a pony club. She loved riding there and I was very keen to get other children with learning disabilities to learn to ride, so I started the Wern y Wylan Group at Glanwyddan. There was already a group there for physically disabled from Ysgol Gogarth which diminished as the disabled moved into standard schools, and Ysgol Wern y Wylan moved into the present school amalgamate with Ysgol Gogarth (and I moved my job into Ysgol Gogarth too) and our corresponding RDA groups also merged. The West Clwyd Group was for adults and that was started at Pinewood, and later changed the name to the Aberconwy Group. When Pinewood closed, we merged the two groups to form the Conwy Gogarth Group we have today at Tanrallt Farm with Wendy Tobias-Jones.”
Do you remember any of the previous groups? Have photos and stories to share? Send them to our Facebook page!
Volunteer! Our workforce is always busiest behind the scenes. Prue Timperly (Conwy RDA charity shop), Carol Moore (secretary, charity shop-shifter and master cake-baker), Peter Davies (permanent loan of a horse to the group and horsebox transport as and when required), Kerri Rockey (Chair trustee), and many, many more. Several volunteers return each week to brave the Welsh weather in order to prepare the horses for lessons, keep the muck heap in good order, and make the tea. Without this network, the RDA wouldn’t exist in Conwy. We work on very limited funds and rely heavily on volunteers – allowing local disabled riders to experience something that would normally be out of their reach, mostly down to the strict health and safety limitations of ordinary riding schools – lots of them now closed due to spiralling insurance premiums and the very real dangers of riding along the roads – and the significant difference in costs.
So although our collage is a special thank you to our local community, it’s also a shout-out to you. If you have a skill set you’d like to share – general dogsbody abilities always welcome. Fundraising would be most desirable and would likely earn celebrity status and extra cake – or, if you know someone who might benefit from riding with us, please get in touch.
W.I.T.H – Welsh Institute for Therapeutic Horsemanship
It’s a well-known fact that getting back to nature can offer a healing balm to those minds and bodies disadvantaged by modern life. Jackie Williams has taken this concept a step further by introducing horses to help heal broken people. But what of the broken horses? Her therapy centre on Anglesey (a satellite centre to the main base in Portmadog) is home to a wide variety of equines: abused, neglected, misunderstood. It may sound ambitious and unlikely, but Williams is adept at bringing the right combination of horse and human together, to create new bonds of trust, hope, and mutual respect.
How do animal therapies work? Don’t go looking for scientific evidence or hard facts as to why animal therapies work, they just do. Maybe it’s a sixth sense and only tenable if one is open to the idea. After all, communication is key to all forms of life. We do know that horses are a flight animal, reactionary to body language and more than capable of understanding what’s going on inside someone’s head and heart. Friend, or foe? Their survival instinct depends on being able to monitor situations and either look for a means of escape, or seek those beings who offer that safe harbour, a trusted leader. Trust. Once we have trust, we have the foundation to build good relationships, both human and equine. And rehabilitation can be all the richer for being a two-way journey.
Sapphire’s story. I recently enjoyed a visit to Jackie’s centre, based on Anglesey. The chestnut pony with blue eyes – Sapphire – had been ostracised by the main herds for a long time and wasn’t doing too well. It’s something of a mystery why this mare was shunned, but we think her poor eyesight may have much to do with the herds’ strict list of criteria for survival. After a few months of basic nurturing, ‘Saffy’ has been physically transformed, although she remains shy. Williams is keen to keep her ‘wildness’ and avoid over-familiarity, in order to add genuine authenticity to those therapy sessions.
And finally, so heartening that four more Carneddau colts have been rescued from the yearly Gathering; one of whom was badly beaten-up by the resident stallion and may well have come to a sad demise. These boys will be gelded and rehabilitated before beginning new careers as therapy ponies.
About the charity
WITH is a pioneering charity based in Portmadog, which aims to help disadvantaged individuals from North Wales and the wider community to improve their health and well-being through equine-assisted, educational and recreational activities. We work with individuals of all ages, many of whom face multiple disadvantages and might never have the opportunity to spend time around horses. Our unique method pairs clients with rescued horses for mutual gaining of trust and respect, and hope for a better future.
More information; book a course of sessions, sponsor a pony or become a volunteer: WWW.with.wales
Some programmes funded by Comic Relief and Children in Need.
Words and photography by Jan Ruth