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.
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 via the RDA Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/conwygogarthrda/