Over the Hill: 14

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
P1000024-1The Sychnant Pass was built in 1772 and snakes through a deep cleft in the hills between Alltwen and Maen Esgob. The tiny access road from Pen Pyra Farm snaking down from Conwy Mountain runs below Carreg Felen, an outcrop of rock formed from volcanic lava c.450m years ago. I am in awe of such historical facts and feel slightly nervous that Conwy council have closed a mile or so of this unique road – more specifically the section which runs between the walls of Pensychnant Estate and down towards Dwygyfylchi – in order to carry out ‘essential groundworks.’ Some humorous soul informed me that they were putting in a dual-carriageway.375 Jokes aside, it seems we’ll be under siege until December 21st with barricades at strategic places in the form of flatbed trucks occupied by dozing workers. I see the patch of tarmac chalked up as temporary (I think it’s been there since 1972) has morphed into a cavernous hole, then abandoned and coned off. On the eve of my sixty-second birthday – of which we shall speak no more – my pony pal and I venture over Conwy Mountain to ascertain current access onto the Pensychnant bridleway. I dismount to walk down the steep access road, with Storm shuffling beside me. I’m poised for his reaction to the bulldozers, pneumatic drills, bleeping dumpers, and groups of shouting men in case we need to double-back. Ears pricked, he’s wide-eyed but not especially worried about this secluded section of country lane changing into one of noisy chaos resembling some sort of apocalypse. We cross the road sneakily and bound up the opposite grass verge, passing into the calm safety of the Pensychnant Estate. The sea is shivery and there’s a fierce breeze as we climb higher.
I’m glad when we change direction at the top, as my face is like cardboard and my gloved hands are cold. The sky is purple out towards Aber but as we meander downhill towards home, Conwy castle is bathed in a welcoming glow. Storm remains in mellow mood and canters nicely around the lake before we head up the Pass back home. Pertinent to the feel of the day someone has made a poster for their bedroom window which reads, Save Are Planet. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment but the mis-spelling makes my teeth itch. I’m thinking about this when two minutes from home, Storm spots a horse having some dental work done. The sound of the rasp behind the hedge is enough to have him trot out an impressive range of lateral dressage moves. He propels us both rapidly through the yard gate and stands for a moment, head up, spinning, snorting and blowing, worried that he’s next on the hit list. Clearly, the dentist is a far bigger threat than any amount of road-works, high-vis outfits, or bottomless pits.
Down in the field the shelter has been modified into an escape-proof stable. Can’t beat an old-fashioned straw bed for coping with mud and keeping out the draughts, but most of all this golden cloud makes me very happy to look at it. Untitled design-1It certainly seems to be holding its own, unlike Storm’s bright blue cagoule – which has been rapidly and mysteriously destroyed. Maybe he felt the colour clashed with his halter. As I tramp back over the muddy grass to the feed store, I’m tempted to make my own poster, Save Are Rugs. But an impatient whinny has me focus on other, more pressing matters. There’s an empty bucket at stake. Afternoon tea is late, and saving the planet or a wardrobe malfunction must remain on hold. I strongly suspect the local council might be following a similar philosophy.

Over the Hill: 13

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
A dry, bright Sunday afternoon at the start of November feels made for riding-out. The colours of the season are holding-up, despite the bracken looking flat and rain-washed, and parts of the countryside looking raw, and exposed. Strings of rose-hips are laced through bare branches like ruby necklaces. A breathtaking gallop ensues and at the top, we assume there can’t be much more in the tank, but both ponies prove us wrong. On the rise we stand breathless to study the curve of Anglesey’s coastline amid a cobalt sea – looking and feeling nothing like November – before Lady takes the lead. Storm insists on tail-gaiting, hot on the heels of the mare at every turn. Payback comes in the form of flying mud, including a good mouthful for me. We pass through the old iron gate and head along the North Wales Path for a short distance before taking a left past the swollen pond. The annual pony gathering means that the majority of the wild ponies have been herded over to a hill farm in Llanfairfechan and the landscape is strangely quiet, not even a distant whinny. It feels like the Carneddau has temporarily lost its beating heart.
Up on the roller-coaster track we ignore the presence of a significant cloud bank rolling in. There are more pressing matters at hand, since Storm is still intent on surging in front of Lady and I have my work cut out to ensure he stays in line. And just when we think they’ve surely had their fill of speed wars, both ponies surprise us by bursting into a flat-out gallop on the final stretch, and for long minutes we struggle to pull them up before the scary descent, Storm flying over the heather in a last second attempt to take the lead. But then the rain starts, and shaves considerable shine off our light-hearted bravado. Could we be any further from the yard on this particular circuit? Lady managed to prick the sole of her foot once at this point and Christine walked all the way home, just to be on the safe side. No accidents or minor injuries on this occasion, but perhaps another lesson in the fickleness of mountain weather. Views across the Conwy Valley deteriorate into nothing more than a misted blur as the rain sweeps in, and plans to buy those waterproof thermals move up the wish-list.
Back at base, His Little Lordship devours his afternoon tea. It’s cold and wet now, with more rain forecast after dark, but there’s something intrinsically cosy about evening stables. It’s those soft pools of light in the dusk as horses are safely bedded down for the night. Since the mares are stabled, Storm – aka Houdini – is settled into his evening quarters where the benefits of some large trees and hedges afford plenty of shelter.
He stays in there for all of twenty minutes.
Unknown to us an ornamental gate into an adjoining garden has been left slightly ajar. Not one to miss an opportunity for extra-curricular foraging, Storm manages to alarm a neighbour by suddenly appearing in her garden in his bright blue cagoule. Visions of deep holes in a svelte lawn have us set aside our mugs of steaming tea. No accidents or minor injuries to the foliage on this occasion, but plans to modify the field-shelter for the duration of winter quickly moves up the planning-list. It will likely feature a boarded-up five-bar gate, an alarm, and three high-security searchlights.

Over the Hill: 12

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1‘Exmoor ponies ride like solid 14.2 cobs with a short neck, and once you’ve got over the lack of bonnet upfront, you should have a good ride.’ I thought this quote from an online forum was a fairly accurate description of Storm’s moorland pony heritage. Occasionally, I also get to experience what I imagine it might feel like to sit astride an alarmed alpaca. It begins with slowing to a firm halt, head up, everything on red alert. There’s a widening of the eyes and nostrils, ears pricked, maybe a snort of disbelief. His neck draws in to an almost vertical rigidity and a sense of flight or fight prevails. Any suggestions from me to relax and move forwards meets a wall of indifference. It’s a reaction usually reserved for miniature ponies pulling carts or other works of the Devil such as brass bands, clusters of red toadstools, drones, or donkeys.
Despite the approach of Halloween it was a friendly sort of day, at least to begin with. A dry October morning, golden and windless, enhanced by a low sun in a bright sky. A day made for ambling around the countryside in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed. Simple and natural is always our mantra of the day. Not for us the pressure of competition, a complicated plethora of tack and equipment, or the need for clipping and specialist rugging. His Little Lordship’s fluffy coat is now the colour of beech leaves and aged bracken and by the time we’ve trundled up to the top of Parc Mawr Woods, we’re both warm.
I always walk part of this route as it’s so steep, and at 8 stone I reckon I’m Storm’s top weight when one considers the extra weight of his tack plus my riding clobber. The same equine forum explored rider height and weight restrictions for native ponies and I did feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that someone over 5’ 5” at 10 stone would still be an acceptable passenger. I’m sure lots of small ponies could carry 10 stone for half an hour in an indoor school but maybe unfair to expect that same pony to carry the same weight over hills and dales all day. And one must consider the long-term ramifications, the age and condition of the pony, and the capabilities of the rider. Whilst the rider might be skinny weight-wise, height matters too, especially leg length. Lots of riders with long legs on small horses tend to ride with short stirrups to avoid looking under-horsed but this can push them too far back in the saddle, leaving the poor pony to carry the weight across its loins.
His Little Lordship stops for a long drink on the stone-strewn stream bed up to the old church. On the open hillside there’s a mild breeze and Storm feels ready to canter at every inviting stretch. He shoots up the incline to the roller-coaster path as if propelled by a catapult. We turn left and pass by the lake – distracted then by clear, sparkling views of the Irish Sea and Anglesey’s coastline – before heading into the Pensychnant Estate and meandering down to the Sychnant Pass. A brisk trot between the ancient walls and then we take a right up the long canter track parallel to the road. And then it happens. In this case, an innocent clucking pheasant breaking cover. We are in mid-canter but Storm spooks and throws in a dead stop. Trick, or treat? I almost pitch over his shoulder. But not quite… I’m saved. Saved by my Moorland Alpaca pony, and his amazing pop-up bonnet.

 

Over the Hill: 11

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1A sunny Sunday afternoon and it seems everyone is out and about. Some glide along via immaculate thoroughbreds and smart cobs. Then there’s us – the British comedy version pelting across the grass verges. It’s good to have a sense of humour about these matters, especially when it seems we’re faced with every conceivable hazard from the get-go. Glamorous horses aside, we’re faced with huge, rattling trailers and noisy motorbikes along the Sychnant Pass. But we negotiate these without incident other than a nervous scuttle and a rolling eye, only to round the corner and discover builders throwing slates off a roof into a skip. At the same time we’re faced with a flock of sheep swarming towards us like an arrow-head, herded along the lane by a Land Rover and a couple of loose dogs. screen-shot-2018-11-14-at-10-31-27-pmHis Little Lordship isn’t too concerned by all the extra curricular activity, but Her Little Ladyship is easily offended and Sue decides to take her up onto the adjacent grassy slope. Of course the situation isn’t directly comparable, but our chatter reminds me of the French and Saunders horse-riding episode where they do battle with the loves of their lives; Peter Pan, and Jigsaw. French is the middle-class girl, the classic all-the-gear-and-no-idea rider, and Saunders is the ubiquitous farm-girl, a length of binder twine holding her coat together. But it’s the endless, breathless commentary that makes me laugh.
She was frightened of something there, wasn’t she? Come on, Peter Pan, you can do it…
As we meander past the tabernacle, Sunday service is resumed to the point of foraging as we go. Blackberries for us, anything going for Peter Pan and Jigsaw. The previous ride in this direction was incredibly windy and His Lordship and I were severely pelted by hazelnuts and acorns, but today it is positively serene with just a golden hint to the trees against an azure sky. We begin the climb up to the sheep-pens above Henryd, where the single-track lane gives way to the open hillside, and then we’re on the grassy tracks of Tal Y Fan. We test Peter Pan and Jigsaw’s brakes with a short canter and suitably reassured, we head up over the track we call the roller-coaster. As the name might suggest, the undulations here can sometimes stretch the definition of fun.
A couple of wild Carneddau ponies lift their heads in mild interest as we set off at a brisk canter. We take a left past the silvery pond, hitch open the old iron gate and enter the estate. Pensychnant are re-wilding one of their hay meadows alongside the Pass, and a band of helpers are busy scattering hay. Traditionally, upland farmers in Wales always had a fenced-off wildflower meadow. They called it the hospital field – essentially using the herbs it contained as medication. The preparation looks hard work but what a wonderful sight it will be once established. We pause to offer an encouraging wave but Peter Pan and Jigsaw are in sight and smell of home ground, and are more than ready to pelt back across the naughty grass. The aforementioned fly-tipped bags are still in situ and Her Little ladyship balks at the plastic monsters lurking in the undergrowth. But much like Peter Pan it seems equine chivalry hasn’t aged one little bit, and His Lordship bravely takes the lead.
Come on Peter Pan, you can do it… the British Team are depending on us!

Over the Hill: 10

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
P1000024-1I wonder if Storm spent some of his summer on the set of Poldark. Employed by the BBC for Cornish authenticity, he’s been spotted either tied to a stake or trawling panniers up from the cove on several occasions. And then in the final episode he was ridden by Valentine Warleggan, a truly fitting finale for His Little Lordship. He had to get into mental and physical shape of course, and this morning I witness him continuing to practise his Pony Yoga. Roll to both sides, centralise and hold. Then sit up like a dog, forelegs straight out in front. Stand, shake, then flex each hind leg back as far as it will go. Arch neck and tail, hold for three seconds. Test ears. Shake thoroughly.
I hope Storm doesn’t retain any ideas above his station. Thankfully, other than a snooty harrumph at sight of his old halter on my arm, His Lordship follows me from field to yard obediently, if somewhat disconsolately. His mood improves dramatically when he realises Her Little ladyship is to join us, and whinnies his approval at sight of her saddle waiting next to his.
We take the sun-dappled bridleway onto Conwy Mountain. Always a strange vision when the moon is visible during daylight, and setting as the sun is rising. Today this occurs in a crystal blue sky, and the soft air temperature takes us back to summer. We’re soon reminded its autumn by profuse clusters of haw and rowan berries, and ruby rose hips entwined with blackcurrants, but there’s no humidity or biting insects so a real jewel of a day. As we approach the farm, the wind off the sea suddenly rushes full-on towards us and Her Little ladyship becomes anxious about Christine’s flapping cagoule. Careful removal of the offending object allows us to continue on our way, giving a wide berth to the sagging barbed wire where I previously snagged my jods. We dismount to negotiate the steep track down the mountain before continuing into the Pensychnant Estate, and then a thrilling neck-and-neck gallop on the roller-coaster grass has both ponies stretching for the final furlong. Lady is always gracious and allows His Lordship to take pole position at the last moment. But then on the next path I hear Christine shouting, snake! And so we slow to a walk and I learn that – unseen by myself or Storm – an adder slithered right behind us into the heather as we thundered past… close call!
At the top we pass through the gate and pause a while to catch our breath. The sea is like a mirror, and there’s still a mellow flush of colour across the Carneddau. Not another soul to be seen. As the main holiday period comes to an end it’s good to enjoy less cars and visitors, especially wild camping – an activity often leaving evidence of fires and litter. As we head alongside Sychnant Pass for the final canter, we come across a huge plastic bag suspended in the brambles disgorging fast-food trays, cans, and other debris – most likely thrown from a passing car. Storm swerves to a suspicious halt, all senses on red alert. It takes much firm persuasion to scuttle past, only to find two more of these rustling monsters further along the track. The ponies are spooked, but we arrive back at the yard with all potential hazards artfully negotiated. In fact we feel mildly victorious in surviving snakes, cagoules filled with wind, bags filled with rubbish, and sagging barbed wire. It seems pony yoga has some serious benefits…

Over the Hill: 9

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
P1000024-1A fly-tipped fridge at the side of the road has Her Little Ladyship slowing to an uncertain halt. His Little Lordship masterfully takes charge, although he still needs encouragement and backup from both of his field-mates. Fortunately, early Bank Holiday traffic is pretty much non-existent on Hendre Road and the sky promises sun, and light, summery winds. It feels too soon to be thinking of cooler times, but all things flowering are dying off to leave small green buds and berries. From a distance the heather across the mountains remains a sea of purple, but like the bracken it’s already starting to brown at the edges. The hedgerows, especially the blue-black berries of the blackthorn have me in mind of harvest festivals, sloe gin, and Christmas jam. The rest of the countryside looks either hopelessly overgrown, or shorn to within an inch of its yellow life as final hay making gets underway. We push on to reach Parc Mawr Woods, grateful for the shade, and by the time we’ve tackled the steep bridleway up to the old church we’re thinking longingly about the aforementioned fly-tipped fridge being full of cider, strategically placed in a hollow somewhere and magically hooked up to the National Grid. Perhaps next time we should think ahead and lower some bottles into the nearby holy well of St Celynnin.
On the mountain, there’s a welcome breeze to clear the air of biting insects and we canter over the undulating ground, Storm heading-up our small group and taking a strong hold for a while, but when the incline increases he drops back to a walk. And then a strange sight as long, horizontal skeins of sea mist obscures our view and cools the air temperature. Sheep and ponies appear ghost-like and it seems surreal to look down on the sun-filled valley below, and yet not be able to see much beyond a few feet ahead of us.
Back on the yard, His Lordship appreciates a wash-down with a big car sponge, at least I assume he does. Hey, I’m not an old Vauxhall Viva! Any perceived indignity is instantly forgotten as I fill his bucket with a scoop of pony nuts and a handful of chop – this described as soft grass and alfalfa with a molasses coating. It smells divine. Rather less so Storm’s sweaty saddle pad, which sports a thick furry layer of loose hair. The previous time I washed a saddle cloth in the washing-machine my husband had to suffer a week of hair shirts, so I set to with a stiff brush and hang it on the line to air. We turn out Ellie and the two ponies, and Lady chooses a slightly uphill spot to roll. This looks slightly incongruous, like a precursor to misadventure. I hope they don’t get up to too much mischief in this field which is bordered by a variety of trees, and sections of less conventional fencing. Storm likes to explore – probably in an effort to breakthrough to the orchard, recent evidence being telltale scratches at chest height, and a shifty look. On occasion, he has been allowed to graze beneath the apple trees – minus any early windfalls – being the only pony small enough to fit beneath the low, gnarled boughs. One time he wouldn’t settle and I crept back to spy on him, like secretly peering through the school window after leaving a fractious child at nursery. And he stared right back at me, head lowered through the hedge. Hey, I’m not wet behind the ears, you know. All the apples have gone!

 

Over the Hill: 8

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park. 
P1000024-1The heather across Conwy Mountain is at its most spectacular, highlighted with yellow gorse and dappled sun. A honeyed perfume drifts across the swathes of purple, lots of blackberries are already ripe and the drone of insects is especially busy. We have company. His Little Lordship and Her Little Ladyship have been an item for some time and they’ve occasionally exhibited varying degrees of oneupmanship. Storm doesn’t like being overtaken, in fact he doesn’t always tolerate another pony hot on his heels either and is quick to engage the equine equivalent of sticking his elbows out. This can take the form of dastardly cutting-up manoeuvres or last-minute swerves of direction. Even a strong leg and hand applied to the opposing side brings no real control to the situation. However, Conwy Mountain presents a slow amble uphill and the ponies are positively docile. We dismount to walk down the steep slippery footpath which brings us to the top of Sychnant Pass to cross over the road and pass through the gate to the Pensychnant Estate.
Immediately, Lady’s head is raised, both sets of ears are pricked forwards and there’s a subtle shift in Storm’s interest as his hooves make contact with a sea of grass. It’s an especially scenic bridleway, the heathery views enhanced by glimpses of the sea and the eastern coast of Anglesey. But the best bit is of course, good safe going for a canter. Girths checked, we set off at a brisk pace. In no time, the ponies are neck and neck until Storm surges ahead at the last moment. But there’s no bucking, squealing, or swerving, and the gradual incline affords a natural brake. The route meanders to the boundary at the top, where it merges into the foothills of Tal Y Fan and continues as the North Wales Path. The previous summer Storm and I were caught-up here in a huge group of elderly ramblers. No one seemed aware that a pony and rider had tagged on behind, until a particularly officious Tail-End-Charlie suddenly caught sight of us. Stand well back everyone! There’s a big ‘orse wanting to come through!
The walkers slowly turned to look, expecting to see a horse and rider twice the size of us. I impressed that there was no need for alarm, but the opportunity to entertain didn’t escape Storm. He certainly knew how to work a crowd – his immediate reaction being to display his manhood – and then to take a long pee. This seemed to go on for some considerable time, head and tail raised to the wind stallion-style until finally, all 12.2 hands of proud pony strutted past a long line of tittering spectators, the majority of them compelled to tell me that Storm was a boy.
No ramblers today. Only a scattering of wild ponies, and sheep. We turn left after passing through the old iron gate to head past the pond, then take another left to resume the downward trail above a slightly misted Conwy Valley. Like the subtle shift in the seasons it feels as if the ponies have established their hierarchy to one of calm acceptance. Even the final canter facing home across the previously acclaimed naughty grass fails to deliver any explosive action – an area where Storm has often continued to canter downhill towards a strategically placed telegraph pole. For the moment though, it seems Her ladyship and His Lordship are living up to the dignity of their respective titles. Or maybe they’re just lulling us into a false sense of security…