Browsing through an online list of vintage books I came across an ancient, yellowing copy of this book, first published in 1965. I decided I must have it, purely for the sake of nostalgia and, I told myself, pertinent to the writing of my equine diaries. And so I reacquainted myself with the story of Dundreary Riding School and its imminent closure. Narrated partly by eight rebellious inmates it soon becomes clear that the future is not entirely in the hands of their owner, Daisy Dedleigh-Sirkett. Being especially bright, Daisy’s ponies are fully aware that the most desirable outcome lies in acquiring a loving, knowledgable little girl of their own. Of course, all ponies know that little girls are something designed by nature to look after them. Naturally, they dread being sold to an ill-trained, wilful child. In the event of impending disaster along these lines, Old Smoky’s advice is to fully utilise the four equine aids at their disposal: the head, the hooves, the whinny, and the teeth. It’s important to seem more confident than you are, he says. And don’t forget… you are in charge.
Smoky goes on to explain that head-shaking is usually enough to dispel small disagreements such as being asked to trot instead of staying in walk, turning left instead of right, and so on. Fix those too-tight reins by stopping to graze; thus allowing the errant child to suddenly shoot forwards and hit the grass. If the child clutches at your mane and begins to kick and scream instead, fling up your head and hit the child smartly on the nose. With exceptionally ill-mannered children it might be necessary to force a temporary separation through swerving, rearing, or bucking. At any chosen moment – preferably in full gallop – simply change course with no warning and the offending child will sail smartly over your withers. Some ponies scamper away after such an event, others choose to consider the matter closed and graze quietly. On the yard, it’s important to draw attention to any instances of neglect by whinnying; instances such as being late with your bucket feed, not noticing an empty hay-net, failing to refresh your water, and so on. If all else fails, a firm nip is always a good reminder of who is in charge. Meanwhile, at The South Dorset Pony Club, there’s a dismounted rally taking place and Miss Nutshell offers some sage advice to the beginners and nervous children. It’s important to seem more confident than you are, she says. And don’t forget… you are in charge.
I begin to wonder just how much ‘training’ I’ve been given over the years without realising! Is ‘being in charge,’ quite so relevant these days? ‘Show him who’s the boss,’ was something I heard throughout the sixties and seventies. The principle is perhaps much the same, although we talk more about Leadership than Mastership in these politically correct times. And as the ponies of Dundreary discover, that point when novice riders became tolerable and gain sufficient equine intelligence (what a wonderful term this is; it suggests that good horsemanship is a satisfactory dovetailing of a concessionary partnership, something I believe in wholeheartedly) they vanish, and buy ponies of their own. And the tiresome learner-rider business begins all over again. How true these sentiments are. And I love that Smoky tempers his advice with the idea that once discrepancies have been settled, the relationship between rider and pony must continue with kindness and consideration. Every pony deserves an owner blessed with a modicum of equine intelligence. I do hope there’s a special place in heaven for all riding-school ponies, fictional and otherwise. They sure deserve it.
A post in support of those who have made the right decision for themselves either to ride, or not to ride.
As the lockdown continues, the rage of the social-media exercise-police gathers momentum. There are no specific rulings from the government as to how we take our permitted exercise, other than we should avoid high-risk activities which are likely to put further strain on the NHS, and that we should practise social-distancing at all times. The latter is an extremely easy business to achieve on the back of a horse. The rest of it is proving to be something of a grey area, and provoking considerable hostility, especially through social-media where people are lightning quick to sit in judgment on someone they don’t actually know, let alone the world of equitation – and, where any one individual sits within that sphere. Anger is high towards those still able to continue with some of the activities they’ve always done. Families are grounded at home, and not only is this encouraging lots of on-line activity, but I’m wondering if the accidents on quad bikes and trampolines over the easter bank holidays could potentially outweigh those of low-key horse-riding!
At the time of writing the UK government, quite rightly, recognises the fact that exercise is vital for mental and physical health. And the need for it to continue is also relevant in order to keep the population fit, and to avoid a whole range of problems for future NHS services. Those who exercise regularly already know the benefits and understand the reasons for doing so. But these waters have become muddied by hoards of people taking exercise together, or hanging-out in the park and for some reason, the lone rider or cyclist, or walker, is an easy target for fear and anger. Some situations need to be understood in context. Someone walking, cycling or horse-riding from their back door in the Welsh hills and covering 10 or more miles, is virtually no risk compared to a guy attempting the same activities in a highly populated city.
If your horse is kept on a public livery yard then the decision may already have been taken out of your hands. If you have to travel a long distance to ride your horse, then its probably not a good idea either, unless the issue is also the fact that you need to feed, water, and do all the things necessary to maintain basic welfare requirements. But if you choose to ride, how do you evaluate the risk factor? It’s obviously down to the individual horse, your own confidence and ability, and the type of riding available to you. If your horse is only used to competing in an indoor school and this is now unavailable, is your horse safe to hack out in your designated area? And if you don’t ride your horse at all, how safe will he be once you decide to get back into the saddle?
I am currently riding a 17 year old 12.2 pony and able to ride mostly off-road – not that the roads are a problem, there’s never been a safer time to use our country roads! I hack at a steady pace and consider my activities to be as low-risk as they possibly could be. Compare this scenario to that of riding a young thoroughbred and perhaps schooling at home over jumps. I would evaluate both the horse and the activity to be pretty high-risk. There are a million permutations in-between these two extremes. This is why riders should be allowed to make their own, honest judgement in deciding whether they should or could be riding at this time, or not. And without fear of reprisal or guilt.
A response from someone who works in an NHS emergency department.
” We’ve had 2 trauma calls in the last few weeks. They were both RTAs. We’ve had around 20 large bone fractures. There were a couple of cyclists, but mainly elderly falling in their own gardens and 1 drunk person on a hover-board in their house. I have seen zero horse injuries. Zero sport injuries. People really are listening in this respect and we’ve been very thankful for the lack of this work whilst the respiratory work increases daily. I think the key is low risk. You know your horse and local area. You know whats an easy ride Vs challenge. We trust you to make good decisions, and if you don’t, that’s called autonomy and we’ll still be there with open doors to help if needed.
You still need to enjoy life, responsibly.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, its mental health and domestic violence we’ve seen rises in.
Personally if going for a gentle ride in a remote place stops your mental health declining, I’d rather you did that.”
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:
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…
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
Just when you think you know everything about a subject, along comes someone to blow apart a lifetime of assumptions.
Monty Roberts’ father was virtually destroyed by his son’s belief in ‘horse-whispering’, as a far more humane and less exhausting method of breaking and training horses. It’s no secret that Monty took a severe beating for it.
A remarkable man, Roberts went on to foster disadvantaged children, using much the same wisdom and insight he’d learnt through studying horses and their social groups in the wild. It’s too easy – and often misguided – to bestow animals with human emotion, but maybe trust is rooted in the same place in humans as in horses, and observation and interpretation is all that’s required to make a valuable connection, regardless of language. And isn’t whispering usually far more effective than shouting? Much the same as writing good fiction; and if we’re talking analogies there’s nothing worse than clunky dialogue. Is Natural Horsemanship simply natural dialogue?
Guido Louis Leidelmeyer: “In the words of the horse: ‘Listen’ by observing me, and communication between us will come naturally and silently. In my words: Can I help you do that?”
As with most things that work well, it’s based on a simple concept of alignment with nature. Horses like to hang in a crowd (herd), follow the leaders – usually the older mares – and be out in the open simply because if there’s a predator, they’re more likely to bolt, than stand and fight. That’s about it. If a horse is singled out he is more likely to turn to us without fear or aggression once he comes to realise that we are not predatory, and as a surrogate leader can offer the ultimate protection. And that’s where the ‘following’ or ‘joining-up’ comes in.
This principle works with wild/un-handled horses as well as re-training by reiterating the relationship of horse and leader for equines who have formed bad habits, or those with anxiety issues. Actually, most bad habits stem from anxiety and a lack of leadership. It’s a little like your pet dog – and dare I say children, too? – needing to know their safe and secure place in the family pack, although the body language between dogs and horses is rather different. Flattened ears in a dog is more likely to mean subservient greetings whereas a horse … well, watch out!
Not everyone agrees that these principles are quite so cut and dried, and as is often the case with a lot of unquantified skills, there is perhaps some sixth-sense at work gleaned from years of experience. There are many equine behavourists who claim the ‘following’ principle is flawed. But the proof is in the pudding. I’ve watched Guido use these techniques on a couple of riding-school horses – both of whom he’d never ‘met’ – with amazingly fast results: 20 minutes to resolve a problem with electric clippers on a mare which had for some 12 years, aggressively avoided the issue. The owner was quite rightly, open-mouthed. But the problem isn’t solved in its entirety, as Guido explained: Tilly’s owner needed to learn and understand the process for herself, and as is the case with most success stories, a certain measure of self-belief is required. It’s this psychological leadership which is perhaps where the sixth-sense bridges that gap between human and equine.
I think we can also safely assume that nothing much in life is achieved through bullying or force, certainly cooperation would be bottom of the list so far as horses are concerned; and there’s no way we’d win any kind of fight with an animal quite so strong and fleet of foot as a Lusitano stallion. Yes, Guido’s horses are compliant, but they are also as naturally spirited as they are trusting. Once that bond of trust is formed, the sky’s the limit; demonstrated in perhaps more extreme style by Guido’s stunt riding – swinging beneath galloping horses and leaping fire is pretty spectacular to watch. Some of these moves were developed from Cossack riding, which in turn originated from wartime ploys to fool the enemy.
Guido has an interesting, somewhat unconventional history too. From humble beginnings in a circus, he’s achieved worldwide acclaim in a number of disciplines: Cossack riding in Germany, the formation of Rockin’ Horse Productions, top trainer for the Royal Cavalry in Oman… I’m sure there’s a novel in there!
Horses have been a lifetime’s passion for me. No surprise that they feature in most of my novels, more so in MIDNIGHT SKY and PALOMINO SKY. Both books draw on the principles of horse-whispering and the power of self-belief – but I take on this theme in a fictional sense rather than a technical sense. It’s so easy to swamp the narrative with too much unwanted detail. And yet, it’s the minutiae of life which underpins the storyline in PALOMINO SKY. As with horse-whispering, it’s the observation of perhaps something seemingly inconsequential which can change an entire situation. If you’re not horse savvy or enjoy only a passing interest, I’ve tried to portray the equine aspect as secondary to the storyline in these books. On the other hand, horse enthusiasts will hopefully embrace the setting.
The Carneddau Ponies of Snowdonia.
The summit of Drum, a small peak nestled in the Carneddau range of Snowdonia, North Wales, can be an inhospitable, dangerous place. On day two of the annual pony-gathering a heavy shroud of fog obscured the dense landmass to within a few feet. Someone once said, ‘It’s the centuries of men’s hands on the stones that puts the heart into a place.’ The beating heart of the Carneddau for me, has to be the wild ponies, and they were the reason I found myself on top of a bleak mountain in the Welsh hills in November, 2014. The ponies of the Carneddau have access to some 27,000 acres, and there are less than 200 of them out there… somewhere. Ancestors would likely have used dogs and followed on horseback but sadly, modern times dictated the use of quad bikes and scramblers.
The rest of us walked, across a vast mattress of sodden heather. Within the hour though, the sun pierced through the fog and it dispersed like skeins of gossamer, revealing the full majesty of the Welsh hills and the Irish Sea. This dramatic landscape marches towards the foothills of Snowdon in one direction, and in the other falls in a crumpled stone-hewn scree to the west coast. It is both magical, and awe-inspiring. Add into this mix the sound of drumming hooves and you can feel the beating heart of this place match your own. Too whimsical? Probably, but the sight of these spirited ponies galloping across the heather, manes and tails flying; is a hugely emotional sight.
The romance and beauty of the Welsh hills is well documented, but some of the hill farmers are struggling to find definition in an increasingly faster, more cosmopolitan world. Despite this, there are 350 years of family history behind their passion for the hills, the ponies and their way of life. Scattered across these hillsides the remains of farming settlements, Roman forts and the slate industry epitomize the hardships, the triumphs and the disasters – but this history is part of our roots and part of what defines us. I love the honesty of this way of life, but like millions of other people feel powerless to nurture it when something fails to protect those issues which are out of our control. In the past – and we have to acknowledge our farmers have been through desperate times – the ponies have been collected off the mountain and herded into meat wagons.
Now though, I read somewhere that these ponies fetch less than a fiver at market. If something doesn’t bring financial reward, the worth of it is compromised – which is perhaps a sign of our times. And it’s disappointing that there’s a red tape fight over DNA proof to achieve rare-breed status – and therefore some protection – for this unique bloodline of Welsh Mountain ponies, a pure line which is specific to the Carneddau. I feel justified to feel both whimsical and passionate about the ponies fate and concerned for the welfare of these animals, left to survive on their own wits through sometimes intolerable winter conditions. And although it is this very hardiness which makes them what they are, I do find it sad that the larger welfare and equine bodies don’t recognise a need to support and sustain this breed by at least maintaining and documenting the bloodlines.
For the uninformed, the native Welsh Mountain pony is a larger, more elegant version of the Shetland. The Shetland was epitomized by Thelwell – short legs, profuse mane and tail and as stubborn as they were fiery, depending on mood and opportunity. The seven Mountain and Moorland ponies of Great Britain were considered to be the hardy ground stock of children’s riding ponies the world over and crossed with larger, finer breeds to produce, well, anything you wished for. Emotional bonds have a value of their own which is difficult to define. I’ve been around horses for 50 years – although, coming from a working-class background where money was tight, I wasn’t born into a situation which easily accommodated them. Every Saturday, I would cycle fifteen miles with my father to have a riding lesson on a Welsh Mountain pony called Merrylegs. In the early sixties we were taught to stay on by clamping a threepenny-bit between our knees and the saddle. If it was still there after an hour, we got to keep it. Thankfully, gripping-on is no longer considered good practice! Ironic too, that the three-penny bit is extinct.
As a child around ponies, I learnt how everything was connected by a purpose and why even small things should be respected, because there’s a reason they are there. (Sharing this landscape with several thousand head of sheep impacts on the benefits of cross-grazing, the ponies eat the vegetation the sheep won’t and vice-versa, the parasites which develop in sheep are inhibited by the ponies and vice-versa.) I learnt how to give and take, I learnt that physical knocks or disabilities were not a barrier to success. My friend at the time – at age ten – had one-and-a-bit-arms. One side of the reins would be up round an amputated stump, but she was a more effective rider than I.
I learnt respect and humility, and all those invisible things we maybe cannot quantify or explain, but we know are there. But above all, I learnt to love the hills.
WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY by Jan Ruth
Aerial footage of the 2014 gathering: http://vimeo.com/112336601