Ponies with Purpose: Preserving the heritage of Wales’ mountain herds

 

The rugged Welsh Mountain ponies have for centuries roamed the hills and mountains of Wales. With their numbers now in decline, a new tourism initiative seeks to give them a renewed purpose and restored commercial value as pack ponies and hiking companions to ensure their continued survival.

 

September 18, 2020

Some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories are of cantering around carefree on the backs of Welsh ponies, occasionally hurtling over my pony’s head when she decided at the last second not to jump the fence in front of her. With giant personalities that belie their small size, Welsh mountain ponies are endowed with almost cartoon-like characters and expressive natures that unmistakably convey their mood.

The ponies have long been a source of pride and affection for the farmers who managed the wild herds on the hills and mountains of Wales. Referred to by some as the “little white van” of the past, the sturdy, trusted ponies were traditionally used for a wide range of farm work, but also served a vital role as pit ponies in the Welsh coal mines. Nowadays, with the ponies no longer required for these traditional roles, their presence in the Welsh countryside is in decline and the long-practiced management of feral herds under threat.

In the hope of reversing that trend through supporting the tradition of breeding mares to maintain the presence of the wild herds, 77-year-old Will Williams decided to give the ponies a new purpose and a modern value. With a background in outdoor education and adventure tourism, Will recently established Hooftrek, a tourism initiative employing a herd of semi feral ponies trained to carry packs and accompany hikers in the hills and mountains of mid Wales.

On an unusually warm sunny September day, I joined three friends from London, together with pony trainer and trekking guide Louise, or Lou as she’s known, and Regina, a Hooftrek helper, on a day hike in the Radnor hills with four pack ponies. Upon arrival at the Hooftrek HQ, the ponies meandered freely while the hikers chose their preferred companion for the day (or perhaps it was the other way around, we’re still not sure). With each hiker responsible for their own pony, the day began with instruction from Lou on how to groom them and prepare for the trek – a chance for both people and ponies to get to know each other.

As the hike began, it was clear that the strong-willed creatures would be setting a gentle pace, stopping frequently for an irresistible mouthful of grass, sometimes needing encouragement or persuasion to overcome natural obstacles along the way. Like those I grew up riding, the small ponies exuded varied, but always large, personalities with a mix of stubbornness and eagerness depending on the perceived challenge of the monster-shaped rock confronting them or the log that required a little too much effort to step over when going around made much more pony sense. Much more than simply carrying packs, the ponies brought an element of entertainment, companionship and a sense of achievement for the hikers who learned how to interact with their pony, some clearly developing a bond over the course of the day.

The idea behind Hooftrek was inspired by the success of French initiatives that overcame a similar problem following the devaluation of their donkeys, once the working animal that was central to farm and agricultural work. “Going back to 1970, 1980, they turned the donkeys into part of the leisure industry,” explains Will. “Now there are dozens of farms in the hills of France where you can hire donkeys to carry packs along trails.”

Will hopes his idea will raise the profile and inherent commercial value of the native Welsh herds, while also encouraging others to buy semi feral ponies, especially the young males – colts – who are otherwise taken away each year, and often sold for slaughter, in order to prevent inbreeding. “There used to be thousands in Wales but now we’re down to less than 500 breeding mares on all the different hills in Wales,” explains Will. “They used to be useful – they were farm animals, they did all the farm work, they were down the pits, and so the breed became very desirable throughout the world.”

As a result of their versatility and popularity, the feral herds were for many years protected and the offspring sold, generating an income for the farmers who managed them and the land they grazed. As working animals were replaced by modern machinery, the traditional role of mountain ponies was thrown into question. Nowadays, domestic bred Welsh ponies are prolific worldwide as much loved pets and riding ponies, while their wild counterparts face an uncertain future.

Like all wild animals, ponies born on the hill have an innate instinct and wisdom, explains Lou. “They have over the centuries developed the skills and knowledge of the land that enable them to survive in different environments and seasons that domestic bred horses don’t necessarily have,” she says. “It’s quite an honour to work with them because they have that. These are our indigenous creatures. They’re as old as the hills.”

Training ponies is a time-consuming task, especially for those that came from the hill, Lou explains. “It takes time to build up their confidence and trust in humans, longer than with domestic bred foals, which is why it’s not so popular to breed on the hill anymore and why some say there’s no longer any monetary value in them.”

Hooftrek is on a mission to re-brand the hill ponies’ value, not only as pack animals but also trekking companions, teachers and ambassadors of the picturesque Welsh countryside and its rich tradition and history.

Alpha male Jacko stands on high alert while the other ponies seize the opportunity to graze. Like people, each pony has its own distinctive personality and sensitivities. Born on the hill and bought as a colt, Jacko took time to train and build a trusting relationship with people.

Familiar with the routine, the ponies eagerly wait to be fed their morning grain before beginning their day’s work.

On arrival at the farm, hikers are introduced to the ponies before choosing their preferred hiking companion and learning how to groom them, pick out their hooves and secure their pack frames.

Trainer and trail guide Lou explains the basics of pony care and preparation.

Three friends from Australia and the USA, now living in London, set out with their pack ponies for a full day of hiking in the Radnor hills of mid-Wales.

Pony Suze expresses her indignance at being asked to step over a large log, knowing there’s an alternative route that requires less effort. With gentle and persistent encouragement from her human Claire, Suze eventually obliged.

The ponies were tied to trees while we sat down to enjoy our picnics with a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains.

A view of the Brecon Beacons from the Radnor Hills in Mid Wales.

Ponies are curious creatures and interact easily and affectionately with people they trust. Such contact and interaction with ponies is shown to have a positive impact on mental and physical wellbeing, something that was abundantly clear during the day I spent with them.

Pony trainer and trekking guide Lou receives some affection from one of the foals she’s recently started training. With a herd of 16 ponies, all born and bred on the same hill, their confidence and trust in people is testament to Lou’s calm and patient approach to training the ponies and the Natural Horsemanship technique employed by the Hooftrek team.

The ponies are not subtle in showing their enthusiasm for treats.

Jacko snorts and backs up suspiciously upon suddenly noticing what he perceives to be a life-threatening monster-shaped rock. His human Regina quietly showed him his fears were unfounded.

Lunch time on the hill.

The pack frames the ponies wear are imported from Canada, while the panniers are made locally in the Welsh town of Tredegar.

Hooftrek co-director Lyndy Cooke who was instrumental in transforming Will’s idea into reality.