My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
‘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.