How to get taken
for a really good ride
by Catherine R. Macaulay
I’d come seeking refuge from my hectic, urban lifestyle. I wanted to ratchet back, disconnect, hack out across the Welsh countryside, far removed from today’s existential epidemic of me, myself and I. Following a cramped, six-hour flight from Washington-D.C. to London, I met up with my riding companion at Heathrow Airport, both of us having coordinated our arrival times in advance.
Tossing our bags into a rental car, we were headed toward a trail outfitter in Mid Wales aptly named Freerein. Its self-guided tours enable riders to negotiate terrain the old fashioned way—by reading the lay of the land. No satellite-based GPS systems to direct us over the hills, no markers to keep us on course. We’d be riding completely on our own, equipped with a printout of directions.
Having poured over Freerein’s candy-box assortment of trail packages months earlier, my riding partner and I had settled on a two-day trek across the Begwyns, a length of countryside with scenic, open terrain. Smooth and easy was my new mantra ever since I’d thrown out my back shoveling mulch. My companion was in even worse shape, having torn her rotator cuff from a fall off a horse. On the positive side, I’d requested a pair of push-button mounts when filling out Freerein’s pre-ride questionnaire. Level-headed and experienced—that was key.
Following a three-hour drive west from London, we arrive at Freerein’s base of operation near Hay-on-Wye, a Welsh river village that, at present, was overflowing with bibliophiles attending the annual Hay Festival of Literature & Arts. Contenting ourselves with a tidy lodging nearby, we fall asleep in a centuries old B&B, awaking the next morning ready for our trek, slightly apprehensive as to what the day might bring.
SO FAR SO GOOD. The entrance to Freerein looks promising—grounds are well-manicured, healthy looking horses grazing in the pastures. We drive past an imposing manor house immortalized by British author Arthur Conan Doyle in his 0Sherlock Holmes mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles. Built in 1839, Baskerville Hall has since been converted into a hotel, which is set on 130 acres of peaceable countryside. We slip into our boots and half chaps, grab our overnight bags and walk into the stable yard to find other women of similar age and inclination sitting around picnic tables, sipping coffee. Some are repeat adventurists. Others, like us, are first timers, no doubt wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into.
An enthusiastic staff member explains the process by which we’ll be navigating the Welsh countryside. The concept appears simple enough—match the written directions with the physical landscape. To help in the process, we’re given a set of laminated, geographic maps and a hotline to call in case of emergency. The requisite declaration of competency follows. Riders must be able to control a forward-going horse in all paces, negotiating varied terrains for between four to six hours a day.
Finally it’s time to meet my mount, the intrepid traveler with whom I’ll be wandering the grazing commons where semi-wild herds of Welsh Mountain ponies roam. So far so good—horses all standing quietly on the cross ties. Many of them are solidly built, not too big. If I can’t manage to keep the saddle between myself and the ground, I won’t have far to fall. Quietly, I approach the richly brown gelding assigned me only to see him pin back his ears. “Oh that’s just Toffee,” replies Freerein’s staff member. She laughs lightheartedly, like a mother speaking of a child with a quirky but harmless behavior. Unconvinced, I slip the standing martingale around Toffee’s neck. Or had she called him Coffee? I never did sort that out.
One photo op later and my riding companion and I are off, the rhythmical clip clopping of hooves against the pavement steadying our nerves as we wend our way up the road, our senses filled with the moist, bracken-rich air of the Cwmsirhwy woods. In the distance, I can almost hear the meadowlarks calling from the Begwns. The world at last is slowing down. We turn onto a narrow lane flanked by hedgerows. I feel myself starting to unwind. That is, until the sound of an approaching engine collides with my Zen. Moments later, a compact European car comes barreling around the curve. Seeing us, the driver politely jams on his brakes, then shoves the gear into reverse, allowing us to trot on past with an appreciative wave. Encouraged by the level-headedness of our mounts we continue on, our confidence boosted. Clearly, both horses are experienced on the trail, trained to alternate between leading and following, although Coffee, or Toffee, seems less relaxed, more attached to the piebald colored, wide-crouped horse up ahead.
Our directions lead us past a tidy stone cottage, then through a gate, which opens onto a tunnel of hedgerows, the likes of which have turned Toffee, or Coffee, into a virtual magnet for swarms of gnats. Removing the travel-size fly spray from my kit, I proceed to rub it over his face and ears, smug in the knowledge that I’d thought to pack it.
After a few minutes, we emerge from the ether of insects to find ourselves on a centuries-old, grassy track formerly used by Welsh herdsmen, called drovers. Considered the cowboy of their times, drovers herded geese, cattle and sheep across Wales into the major markets of England, covering between 15 to 20 miles a day. Serving as both herdsmen and couriers, the drover lived apart from human settlements, reveling in a life outside the limits of conformity. The sons of the wealthy often rode with them, eager for the taste of freedom. Independent, yet reliable, these herdsmen yielded to no one save perhaps, that smallest of herding dogs—the Welsh Corgi.
Considered ‘big dogs with short legs’, the Cardigan and the Pembroke Corgi, (each named for the county where they originated), formed the backbone of any Welsh drive. The sturdy little herding dogs are intelligent and loyal companions, agile, yet low enough to the ground to avert any hoof kick, able to nip at the heels of cattle and sheep with seeming impunity. It’s small wonder the Welsh fairies chose them as their mounts. According to legend, those young at heart can see faint traces of a saddle on a Corgi’s back. Children alone can see the fairies riding them across the moonlight.
“YOU THINK THAT'S AN ASH?” inquires my partner, staring at the lone tree to the right. “Not sure,” I reply. “But we’re at the end of the fence line where we’re supposed to turn.” We make a sharp switchback, as directed by the 8x10 laminated set of directions draped across my companion’s chest, confident that the sizeable tree of unknown origin is, in fact, the right species. Besides, navigating the unmarked trail is the very point of our adventure, making us feel as if we’re on a scavenger hunt, each clue leading us that much closer into the hidden treasure that is Mid Wales. The drover track leads upward, then splays out across the bracken hillside, which has become a plateau, revealing a panorama of sleepy valleys below. No clouds anywhere, avian voices skirting the fields, it feels good to be alive. I am filled with gratitude to Major G.W.F. de Winton who gifted the spectacular 1,200-acre Begwyns to Britain’s National Trust in 1922.
An untroubled breeze sweeps us into a canter, sending us flying over the bald, flat-topped ridges heaving skyward in unapologetic folds, creating a sublime invitation to ride and ride...until we realize we are lost. A quick call to Freerein’s hot line directs us down off the plateau and past a dilapidated Welsh hill farm, placing us back on track. So far so good—my lower back holding, my companion’s shoulder not too bad, no joggers anywhere, no power walkers, no skin-tight-clad bicyclists peddling furiously past—only two American women on horseback opening and closing farm gates, some snug, others poorly fitted.
I haven’t seen any herds of semi-wild Welsh Mountain Ponies yet, but I hope to yet, given their colorful ancestry. Standing at just 12 hands, the Welsh Mountain Pony is believed to date back to the Celtic pony that established itself in Ireland (Connemara) and the Hebrides (Shetland). After Roman legions rode into Wales on their Arabians, they began breeding their horses to the Welsh Mountain Pony, combining the intelligence and refinement of the Eastern bloodlines with the pony’s inherent hardiness and courage. Yet today, despite their many fine qualities, the semi-wild herds of Welsh Mountain Ponies are now classify as a rare breed in Britain, their dwindling numbers reflecting the decline in traditional hill farming. Today, their survival is dependent upon Hill Pony Improvement Societies working to ensure their preservation in the wild.
I volunteer to be the gatekeeper given that my companion is actually reading her directions whereas I can only stare at my geographical maps and wonder. My horse has settled into his job with sedate walks bursting into canters that relax into smooth, ground-covering trots, which slow to a walk before lifting back into a faster gait. Both my riding partner and I are caught up in the adventure of getting lost and found with such spectacular ease. Sensitive, light to leg, Toffee's, or Coffee’s, willingness to go forward is as integral to my own enjoyment as the buttercups and foxglove blushing the fields.
We pick our way down a scree-covered path, past clotheslines and farm dogs too content in the day to care much about us, feeling myself immersed in a bygone tempo of life...until the whine of an engine abruptly revs up my thoughts. Moments later, two men riding ATVs emerge from between the hedgerows. Motoring over, they inquire if we wouldn’t mind waiting while they herd their flock of sheep down the lane and into another field. Our horses stand as a worried group of prospective woolens move down the road, guided by ranchers on ATVs rather than any Welsh pony or Cob.
THIS IS, AFTER ALL, THE 21ST CENTURY. Allowances must be made for change. Besides, at the moment, nothing can infiltrate my calm. As William Henry Davies wrote in his poem Leisure: "What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare. No time to stand beneath the boughs And stare as long as sheep or cows."
The pastoral landscape of Mid Wales creates the perfect oasis for equitrekkers Our picture-perfect day is beginning to wane as we reach Painescastle, a centuries-old hamlet located three miles west of England’s border. Cast in the distinctive blue stone quarried nearby, this well-preserved village belies the shadow of foreign rule that once dominated its fortunes, along with so many Welsh border towns.
Fully 641 castles remain in Wales today, more per square mile than anywhere on earth, many built by outsiders to suppress the Welsh. The Norman-built castle in Painescastle was erected, destroyed, then rebuilt, only to be destroyed again in 1195 when it was besieged and attacked three years later by a Welshman from Powys who came seeking revenge for his cousin who’d been dragged behind a horse through nearby Brecon, then summarily beheaded.
I’m guessing a Shire did the dragging, though it may have been a Welsh Cob—they’ve been indispensable to the people of Wales, having carried soldiers off to battle as faithfully as they’ve carted families off to church each Sunday. Muscular, with short cannon bones, strong backs, deep, well-set shoulders and strong hindquarters, they’ve plowed the Welsh hills, herded sheep over rocky-topped plateaus and pulled trams of coal in the black-pit mines, helping to underwrite a country’s rich, but turbulent history.
We guide our horses through a sleepy intersection before veering off onto a quiet lane, which leads to yet another gate, this one fortified by a cattle grid. Shutting the world behind us, we begin picking our way through the brackish-colored moorlands. We’re entering Red Kite country—home to the magnificent bird of prey whose comeback from the brink of extinction remains one of Britain’s great conservation stories. The Red Kite, with its deeply forked tail and five-foot wingspan streaked in russet and orange, is an elegant bird of prey. Once protected by medieval royal decree, they had grown extinct in England and Scotland by the turn of the 20th Century, considered worthless vermin. Only 10 pairs remained in Mid Wales, sheltered by its upland Oak woods.
A CERTAIN TRANQUILITY HAS SETTLED over the landscape as we arrive at the fold of Highland cattle grazing on the hillside. We are grateful, if not somewhat surprised that we’ve actually reached our destination—New House Farm. I like the proprietors immediately. “Did you stop at the pub in town?” inquires John Levers, a former master of foxhounds and our host for the evening. We did not, though in hindsight, we might have easily tied our mounts to the hitching post in front of the Roast Ox Inn with plenty of time to spare. Roast Ox Inn in Painescastle dates back 500 years. During the heyday of the Welsh drovers, the town boasted five such public inns. The going rate for a night’s stay was half a cent per 20 animals, all boarded across the street in an area called Halfpenny Field.
Stiffly, we dismount, untack our horses and feed them a bit of grain before turning them out in a nearby field, freeing us to relax in the Levers’ ivy-clad terrace. My riding partner and I are both famished, even though Freerein recommends packing sandwiches for the first day in the saddle. Fortunately, the wine and beer we’ve sent ahead with our luggage is warming our stiff muscle groups. We choose from a generous, three-course menu of boeuf bourguignon, Moroccan lamb or roasted chicken. A fruit tartlet or ice cream is our dessert. Many ingredients come directly from the Levers’ garden and orchard, and also, from their farm-bred cattle and sheep. It is meal befitting the day. At last, setting down my napkin, I climb the steps toward bed, completely satisfied, musing over unforgettable scenery.
NEXT MORNING, I awaken to a hillside brooding under the mist. Unsettled, Toffee/Coffee, has been dancing on his tether ever since he was brought in from the field, spooked perhaps by ancient spirits moving through the vapors. Then again, it could be the Argentinian gentleman shooting grouse on the nearby moor. According to our host, he owns considerable sporting rights to the adjoining property and comes to Wales regularly to shoot. The antenna of a horse captures a wider range of frequencies than humans, particularly those shrouded in fog. I sit down to a hearty Welsh breakfast of sausage, eggs and laverbread (pronounced ‘bara lawr’ in Welsh). Gathered off the Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen coastlines, laverbread is a nutritious seaweed delicacy that’s often rolled in oatmeal and fried into crisp patties.
Envisaging a day spent groping through the fog on horseback, the mood is a bit somber given that yesterday’s ride aggravated my companion’s shoulder. She’d barely slept last night. In a moment of weakness, we contemplate ringing up Freerein to van us back to the stable yard. We’d already enjoyed the ride of a lifetime. What’s left to top? But fortified by breakfast and duly armed with sandwiches and delicious Welsh cakes (griddled cakes sprinkled in sugar, a popular snack for miners) we resolve to drill on through the shroud, comforted by the knowledge that a week earlier a group had endured punishing rains throughout their entire trek.
I mount Toffee/Coffee, who by now, has graciously slowed his whirligigging to barely boardable jigs. Saying good-bye to our hosts, we retrace our way back toward the moors, the sound of hoof beats muffled against the lane. A gate creaks open then closed, then only silence as we emerge into a land invisible to my inner self. Cloaked in mist, vaporous whispers are moving through the stillness, luring one into a world emptied of all horizons. This is Wales revealing her Celtic secrets. I can almost hear the Welsh Mountain ponies whispering in my ear. “Now we are free.” Or is that the battle cry of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd I hear calling through the vapors? Impassioned by hope, unbowed by Roman invasion, by Norman suppression or by English rule, the “Prince of Wales” was slain nearby, having fallen in pursuit of a dream, his hope of political independence vanquished by King Edward I of England in 1282.
‘FOLLOW THE GRASS TRACK TO THE RIGHT OF THE RISE.’ We both stare at the track that runs along the fence line before splintering into two separate paths that vanish into the fog. Which one to choose? It seems that we are right back where we started, trying to find our way out of Freerein’s long drive. Or, perhaps not. Tucking our directions into our kits, we let go of all expectation and head southeast in the direction of Freerein’s stable, confident in our ability to chart a course across a landscape we’ve come to see with clarity, one marked not by directions or maps, but rather by the irresistible enchantment of an adventure opening up as if by first light.
Out on the trail, away from all convention, one feels a common birthright to live according to one’s own dictates, to resist limits, to follow an inner compass, if only for a small quarter of time. The staff at Freerein was surprised to see us clip clopping into the yard slightly ahead of schedule, two women floating on an unexpected outcome. Exactly the experience we’d come chasing in Wales.
Specializing in custom riding holidays, Freerein offers both guided and unguided equestrian tours ranging from 2 to 8 days. With prices starting at less than $500 per person (including lodging), for a two-day, self-guided trek, Freerein arranges your ride, books all related accommodations and moves your luggage each day so that it’s there waiting when you arrive. A minimum of two riders is required on all self-guided tours.
Veteran outfitter Matt Williams, Freerein’s owner and managing director, continues to expand on a tradition of independent trail riding started more than 30 years ago by his father. Today, Freerein’s extensive network of scenic trails and tracks passes through a variety of terrains—from meadows and moors to old growth forests and flat-topped peaks.
The stable of horses and ponies are mostly crossbreds, with some reflecting the dished face and the sturdy, compact ancestry of the Welsh Cob. A few appear to have some Gypsy Vanner in their veins. Standing between 13.2 and 15 hands the Gypsy Vanner was first developed as a breed after WWII by British Gypsies seeking a more refined draft horse to pull their ornately decorated caravans. Bred to the Shire, Clydesdale and Dales Pony, these horses are solid boned and even tempered, with a wide and level croup, flowing mane and feathered fetlocks, and are widely used throughout Wales today, both for driving and riding.
Efficient and well-run, the staff at Freerein is polite and knowledgeable. Riding tack is well maintained, the Thorowgood, all-purpose saddles are comfortable for long stretches of time. Saddlebags are equipped with a halter, lead rope, first-aid kit and have ample room for packed lunches, camera and rain gear. Located in Clyro Court, Hereford, Wales, Freerein operates from mid-April to mid-October. To book a reservation, request a brochure, or for further information go to:
Tips For Your Trip
1. Bring cash and/or a credit card. Freerein books your accommodations and deducts the B&B cost from your total vacation package. But you pay your local proprietor for your night’s lodgings. (Evening meals are not included in the booking price.) The currency in Wales is the pound sterling.
2. Buy alcohol. Some B&Bs are not licensed to sell liquor. Freerein will deliver wine and spirits, along with your overnight suitcase to your lodging of choice.
3. Pack nibbles for yourself and take along some sandwiches for your first day on the trail.
4. Bring waterproofed gear. The waxed Barbour coat didn’t originate in the U.K. for nothing. April and June are the driest months, October the wettest.
Following your trek at Freerein, continue to explore the Welsh countryside via a different type of horsepower.
VHC's Guide to Exploring the Welsh Mid and Southlands
Attend top-rated horse shows, enjoy county fairs, visit Welsh Pony & Cob stud farms, descend into the mineshaft where Pit Ponies once hauled coal. Prepare to be amazed at the way Welsh horses are woven into some of the most storied and sublime landscapes in all the British Isles.
Go ahead, fall under the spell of this lyrical “land of song”. Enjoy the Welsh Mid and Southlands, equestrian style. Whether it’s jousting, jumping, driving, ploughing, racing on the flat or racing point-to-point, their calendar of equestrian events reflects a heritage spawned by the Welsh Mountain Pony and by a people born to prevail. Ladies and gents, start your engines.
But before you leave, have a glance at some basic facts:
Barely 170 miles long and 60 miles wide, Wales is a country not a principality. Its roughly 3 million citizens define themselves as British, not English. Rugby matches between Wales and England are intensely competitive. The Welsh are a fiercely independent people, proud of their heritage. Even today, nearly 20% of the population still speaks in the native tongue. Which leads us to the second point: the Welsh Celtic language. Think phonetically. Pronounce each letter. Don’t fret over long or short vowels, just talk straightforward and plow on through, much like the indefatigable Welsh themselves.
(In Welsh): Gwd lwc. Ai hop yw can ryd ddys, and ddat yt meiks sens tw yw;
iff yw can ryd ddys, dden yw ar dwing ffaen and wil haf no problems.
(In English): Good luck. I hope you can read this, and that it makes sense to you;
if you can read this, then you are doing fine and will have no problems.
2019 Sport Horse Events in Mid and South Wales
Chepstow Spring International Horse Show, David Broome Event Centre, Mount Ballan Manor, Caldicot; Chepstow, Monmouthshire, Wales
The David Broome Event Centre, named after the Olympian Welsh show jumping medalist, is host to this year’s Chepstow Spring International (CSI 1*/2*, CSIYH 1*, CH-A & P). www.theshowground.com/assets/may_3_6_2019_timetable.pdf
A family-run operation, the center is one of Britain's busiest equestrian venues, its 100-acre facility equipped with 5 all-weather rings, a large, all-weather arena and grass arena, and 334 permanent stables, as well as a restaurant and pavilion.
Make it a double header by traveling the short distance to nearby Chepstow Racecourse, home to the prestigious Coral Welsh Grand National. With 32 meets staged annually, both flat and jump racing, Chepstow offers something for everyone.
Glanusk Welsh Stallion Show; The Royal Welsh Showground, Builth Wells, Wales
What originated in 1958 at Glanusk Park has grown into one of the most popular shows for Welsh horse breeds. Rated a Welsh Pony & Cob Society Silver Medal Show, the event is held at the Royal Welsh Showground in Builth Wells.
May 11 and 12
Llanymynech Horse Trials (1); Lower House Farm, Llanymynech, Wales
Located near the border of England and Wales, this cross-country course is just that—an evening course that runs between two countries on the same day. For twenty years, Lower House Farm and Radfords Equestrian have been hosting the British Eventing Llanymynech Horse Trials, which features ditches, steps, water complexes and drops all set in 250 acres of rolling countryside beside the River Vyrnwy. Classes from BE90 up to novice. For more information refer to: www.radfords-equestrian.co.uk
Royal Welsh Spring Festival, Royal Welsh Showground; Builth Wells, Wales
The Royal Welsh Spring Festival is a celebration of country life that’s enjoyed each year by thousands. Trade booths, local foods, more than 1,400 livestock exhibitions and 100 horse classes (hunter/jumper/driving), along with competitions for affiliated CHAPS (Colored Horse & Pony Society), and Mid Wales Regional Show classes for native & non-native breeds, as well as Donkey Breed Society classes along with British Miniature Horse Society classes, give attendees plenty to see and do. For more information, refer to: www.rwas.wales/news/cat-spring-festival/
Spring Sale of Welsh Ponies & Cobs
Hereford Livestock Centre
Roman Road, Hereford, Wales
Going once, going twice…Brightwells, a leading UK auctioneer, is taking the gavel for this year’s Spring Sale of Welsh Ponies & Cobs in Hereford. Last year’s catalogue featured more than 130 top class registered ponies and cobs suitable for breeding, showing and performing.
Tredegar Farmers Point to Point
Lower Machen Point To Point Course
Spend an afternoon in the lovely Welsh countryside watching horses fly over the brush in the highly competitive sport of point to point. Part of the Tredegar Farmers Hunt, the meet at Lower Machen extends over a three-mile course with 18 fences. Located 4 miles west of Newport on A468.
National Driving Trials & National Novice Qualifier, David Broome Event Centre, Mount Ballan Manor, Caldicot; Chepstow, Monmouthshire, Wales
This year’s National Driving Trials will challenge horse and rider with driven dressage tests, marathon driving and obstacle cone driving. A qualifier for the British National Driving Championships, the FEI World Pony Championships and the FEI European Horse Fours Championship, the competition classes feature: Evolution Horse, Evolution Pony, Novice Horse, Novice Pony, Intermediate Horse, Intermediate Pony, Open Single Horse, Open Single Pony, Advanced Horse, Advanced Pony, Horse Pairs, Pony Pairs, Horse Tandems, Pony Tandems, Horse Four-in-Hand, Pony Four-in-Hand. For more info, refer to: http://britishcarriagedriving.co.uk/events/2019/info_2019/cricklands_2019.pdf
June 14, 15, 16
The Knights of Royal England jousting tournament; Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, South Wales
Knights on horseback, squires and marshalls attending them, mighty Cardiff Castle commanding your view. Feel yourself part of the spectacle as two hooded opponents gallop toward one another on horseback from opposite directions, each holding an 11-foot lance tucked under his arm.
Understandably, a contact sport like jousting requires a particular kind of horse. Between the 14th and 16th Centuries, knights in Britain often rode rounceys and coursers, which might be strong Welsh Cobs, but the larger, battle-worthy destriers were generally preferred. Medium built and even-tempered, these warmbloods were popular for the run, strike and follow through. Making the hit was left up to the knight.
"Men often fail to score a hit for lack of sight, poor control of their lance
or horses, or lack of determination. As for sight, some close their eyes when
they are about to hit, and yet they do not realize this because they are concentrating
so hard. Others realize that they close their eyes but cannot stop themselves from doing
so...It is important to have someone whom you can ask."
- Writing of Duarte, King of Portugal, on jousting circa 1434*
Polo at the Manor, The Celtic Manor Resort; Coldra Woods, The Usk Valley, Caerleon
Polo is one of the oldest team sports in existence and unrivaled in its ability to deliver thrills, given the well-trained polo ponies who lend real action to the game.
Don’t know how it’s played? Here’s a quick guide:
Scoring the most goals over a field 300 yards long and 160 yards wide is the name of the game. Each of the two teams consists of four players, everyone handicapped on a scale of -2 to 10—the highest. The no. 1 and no. 2 players act as forwards; no. 3 plays center and is usually the best player on the team; no. 4 is the goal defender. There are generally 6 chukkers (playing periods) in a game, with each chukker lasting 7 minutes. At the end of every chukker, players dismount and climb aboard a fresh pony.
The playing field at the Celtic Manor Resort is nestled amid 1,400 acres of stunning Usk Valley parkland. Uncertain of what to wear? When in doubt, pack your Corgi. They always look the part.
The Royal Welsh Show, Royal Welsh Showground; Builth Wells, Wales
Each July, for four very special days, the Royal Welsh Showground fills with 200,000 spectators who come to compete and to see champion Welsh stallions, eye-catching yearlings and top of the line Welsh Ponies and Cobs all vying for awards and prizes. One of Europe’s premier agricultural events, the Royal Welsh features sheepdog trials, mounted games, falconry displays and demonstrations by the King's Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery, to name a few. More than 1,000 vendors complete the offering, selling food and crafts and everything from tractors to tack. It’s an extravaganza. Enjoy. For a listing of the 2018 Welsh Pony champions, refer to: www.rwas.wales/uploads/RWS_2018/Results/Horses.pdf . To view Welsh ponies & horses in action at the show, refer to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wL2wqDKPFZ4
August 2 to 4
International Sheep Dog Society's, 2019 Welsh National Sheep Dog Trials, Food and Craft Festival, Dinefwr Park and Castle; Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire
Sheep farming is changing everywhere and Wales is no exception. It’s small, hill farm communities are being challenged by the pressures of synthetic fabrics, by lower EU subsidies, by rising sheep sheering costs and also, perhaps, by its own next generation of Welsh youngstock eager to seize wider opportunities brought about by technologies. There’s a new $3,500 drone that can actually bark like a sheep dog, inviting sheep farmers to rethink the way they move their livestock.
Happily, the Border collie is still alive and well in the Welsh sheep herding trials. Watch in awe at the bond that exists between these canines and their handlers who guide them in a language of voice, whistles or both. Keep a sharp eye out for ancient shepherds’ traditions.
To view the rules for the upcoming herding trials refer to: www.isds.org.uk/trials/sheepdog-trials/rules-for-trials/
Brecon County Show; Brecon, Wales
The Brecon County Show is where girls in ponytails go wheeling about on well-turned out ponies and farmers compete in sheep sheering contests. Founded by the Brecon Agricultural Society, the Brecon County Show is the oldest of its kind continuously in existence in the UK. Throw in 200 exhibitors, stock it with the latest in farm equipment, flavor it with some great Welsh food and voila, you’ve got roughly 10,000 attendees all having fun.
Reminds me of the 1946 song whose lyrics by Harry Ruby seem to form the backbone of Celtic country life.
I don't believe in frettin' and grievin'
Why mess around with strife
I never was cut out to step and strut out
Give me the simple life
Some find it pleasant dining on pheasant
Those things roll off my knife
Just serve me tomatoes and mashed potatoes
Give me the simple life
A cottage small is all I'm after
Not one that's spacious and wide
A house that rings with joy and laughter
And the ones you love inside
Some like the high road, I like the low road
Free from the care and strife
Sounds corny and seedy, but yes indeedy
Give me the simple life
August 23 to 26
Chepstow Summer International Horse Show, Mount Ballan Manor; Chepstow, Wales
The second leg of the Chepstow International Horse Show, (CSI 1*/2*, CSIYH 1*,
Ch-A & P), is being held at the David Broome Event Centre. For show times, refer to
Llanymynech Horse Trials (2)
Lower House Farm, Llanymynech, Wales
The second leg of the British Eventing Llanymynech Horse Trials. Classes from BE90 up to novice. For more info refer to: www.radfords-equestrian.co.uk
The 60th All Wales Ploughing & Hedging Championships, Gwern y Goe Farm; Sarn, Newtown
For centuries, the Welsh farmer rose before dawn, hitched his Welsh Cob to the plough and went quietly about his business, tilling the soil, hoping no late freezes would damage his crops, crossing his fingers for a successful lambing season, for such was the currency of the Welsh ploughman’s struggle against Nature.
Today, agriculture remains the bedrock of the Welsh economy with farmers caring for more than 80% of the land area. While the rural economy of Wales remains in sharp contrast to its service-based engine driver in Cardiff, it has kept alive a way of life and provided a backdrop of astounding beauty.
Nearly 100 entrants from across the UK are expected to compete in this year’s Ploughing & Hedging Championships, which features 10 different classes, including best horse turnout and best working team of horses. Buy a pair of wellies and get close to the action. Look for the straightness and quality of the plow rows, as well as for the quantity of ground plowed and the time it took. The Welsh Ploughing Association has 26 affiliated ploughing societies, everyone conversant in the language of the opening split, the wedge, the closing back pass and the skill that goes into them all. Competitive ploughing is a sport with a governing body and strict rules.
AND DON’T MISS…
Descend 300-feet into the mineshaft of the Big Pit National Coal Museum. See what it took to produce a third of the world’s coal for 150 years. Walk the tight underground passages where the Pit Ponies shouldered their loads of coal for eight-hour stretches—Welsh and Shetland ponies were mainly used for the job, with the Exmoor, Dartmoor, Galloway, Dales and Fells working alongside them. The larger breeds like the Clydesdale and Shires worked above ground.
Tour the mining town of Blaenafon in South Wales, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The well-preserved landscape reflects the early industrialism period of Wales—when more than 150,000 men were being put to work extracting resources from the rich upland strip of the Brecon Beacons, overturning the agri-based economy of the Southlands into an industrialized one. Still, it was a harsh life for the miners and the animals who served them.
To learn more about the Pit Pony and how they were trained, refer to: www.healeyhero.co.uk/rescue/pony.htm
In 1913, roughly 70,000 Pit Ponies were working the mines across Britain. It wasn’t until coal finally gave way to oil that life began improving for them. In 2009, the last surviving pit pony, Pip, age 35 was honored in the UK.
The Pit Ponies
The come like the ghosts of horses, shyly,
To this summer field, this fresh green,
Which scares them.
They have been too long in the blind mine,
Their hooves have trodden only stones
And the soft, thick dust of fine coal,
And they do not understand the grass.
For over two years their sun
Has shone from an electric bulb
That has never set, and their walking
Has been along the one, monotonous
Track of pulled coal-trucks.
They have bunched their muscles against
The harness and pulled, and hauled.
But now they have come out of the underworld
And are set down in the sun and real air,
Which are strange to them. They are humble
And modest, their heads are downcast, they
Do not expect to see very far. But one
Is attempting a clumsy gallop. It is
Something he could do when he was very young,
When he was a little foal a long time ago
And he could run fleetly on his long foal's legs,
And almost he can remember this. And look,
One rolls on her back with joy in the clean grass!
And they all, awkwardly and hesitantly, like
Clumsy old men, begin to run, and the field
Is full of happy thunder. They toss their heads,
Their manes fly, they are galloping in freedom.
The ponies have come above ground, they are galloping!
- Leslie Norris, Welsh poet and short story writer
Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh, Brecon, Wales
The Welsh Horse (Lancers) Yeomanry (1914-1918) is given a small nod in the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh. Its brief but compelling history began at the onset of WWI when the Welsh Horse regiment traveled to Egypt to defend the Suez Canal, joining roughly 70,000 British troops stationed there before moving to the Western Front to serve king and country in a theater of war crowded with newer, more devastating types of horsepower.
The statistics tell the story. At the beginning of the Great War, the British Army had 55 mounted yeomanry regiments, many horses pulling guns and other supplies to and from the fronts. The war ended with just 14 regiments still remaining, their ranks obliterated by the newly-developed arsenal of tanks, airplanes, motorcycles and jeeps.
The Welsh Horse Yeomanry was disbanded in 1918, having been called by its commanding general, George Broadwood “….one of the finest Mounted Britain Regiments in Great Britain.”
BREEDERS OF THE WELSH MOUNTAIN PONY & COB IN MID AND SOUTH WALES
There is an enduring bond that exists between the people of Wales and the Welsh Mountain Pony. The Welsh Mountain Pony serves as the foundation breed for the Welsh Cob, the Welsh Pony of Cob Type and the Welsh Pony of Riding Type. Standing at just 12 hands (in Britain), this diminutive pony serves as a genetic reminder of the small, but proud land from which it came. With its refined head, its large expressive eyes and noble stature, the iconic pony is as much a study in contrasts as the people of Wales themselves—bold, yet even tempered, spirited, yet willing and friendly, made resilient by the challenges faced, he has helped form the backbone of a culture that has struggled against oppression.
The Welsh Mountain Pony is thought to date back to the Celtic pony that established itself in Ireland (Connemara) and the Hebrides (Shetland). After the Roman legions invaded Wales between AD48 and 79, the Welsh pony was bred to their Arabian horses, endowing him with the wide, luminous eyes and the refined quality of movement that’s identified with the eastern bloodlines.
Sturdy and courageous, the Welsh Mountain Pony was forced to call upon his natural attributes when King Henry VIII of England came to power. A large man himself, the king was seeking horses large enough to carry himself and his knights into battle. To that end, he decreed all horses in his kingdom under 15 hands be slaughtered. The year was 1541.
Rather than carry out his demands, some of the Welsh hill farmers brought their ponies up to the isolated mountain ranges of Wales and turned them loose, the result of which only solidified their resilience. After the king’s death, his daughter Elizabeth I assumed the throne of England. Finding herself unable to cobble together enough cavalry horses for battle, she promptly overturned her father’s edict, enabling Welsh farmers to round up their ponies, made hardier and more sure-footed by their struggle.
Today there are four types of Welsh Pony in the studbooks, all with the big eye and small, neatly pointed ears of their ancestor, the charismatic Welsh Mountain Pony (Section A), which considered the foundation of all other types. They are: The Welsh Pony of Riding Type (Section B). Standing at 13.2 hands, this pony is larger than his mountain ancestor, with a longer neck and back, having been crossed with the Welsh Cob, and later, the Thoroughbred and Arab to produce the quality and movement desired. Popular in riding and driving, both Section A and B ponies remain the gold standard of children’s riding ponies given their refined beauty, sturdy conformation and expressive movements.
The Welsh Pony of Cob Type (Section C) stands at 13.2 hands. These ponies once formed the backbone of Welsh hill farms and were used to work the coal mines and seaports of Wales. Muscular, with a good, deep girth, they are natural jumpers and make wonderful hunting, trail or harness ponies. Welsh Cobs (Section D) exceeding 13.2 hands were commonly seen on the streets of Britain harnessed to small wagons or light carriages. Either horse or pony size, they were outcrossed to Norfolk Roadsters, Hackneys, Arabians and others. Known for their kind nature and willing work ethic, they offer a particular appeal to young or beginning riders. All solid colors are permitted in the four types and white markings are permitted on the legs and face. Piebald and skewbald coloring is not accepted in the registry.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Welsh Pony & Cob might wish to dovetail their equestrian trek with the annual Royal Welsh Show. (See above for dates,) or visit one of the many Welsh stud farms in and around Mid and South Wales. Below, is a sampling of breeders in the region. For a complete listing of Welsh Pony & Cob stud farms in Wales, refer to: www.welshcob.co.uk.
Baledon Stud, Wrexham, Wales
Founded some 50 years ago by Anne Bale-Williams, Baledon has produced fully 24 consecutive Royal Welsh Winners and eight Olympia qualifiers in addition to winning championships at major county shows throughout the country. Though Ms. Bale-Williams has retired, her ponies can still be seen winning in the show ring, with some youngstock and foals occasionally for sale. Visitors are welcome to visit the farm with prior arrangements, but consider yourself lucky if you catch her in. She travels the world as judge, has bred the best, seen it all and still maintains a winning attitude. Contact Ms. A Bale-Williams at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Lodge Farm Cottage, Halton, Chirk, Wrexham, LL14 5AU or through www.baledonstud.com.
Tel: (+44) 01691 773396.
Ringside Stud, Sandy Lane Farm, Marshfield Road; Cardiff, Wales
Tel: (+44) 01633 681557
Three Horse of the Year Show Winners, Two Royal International Horse Show Finalists, Four Olympia Finalists, One Best of Breed at Olympia Winner, One Overall Reserve Supreme M&M of the Year at Olympia, Nine Horse of the Year Show Finalists, One Yearling Colt Winner at the Glanusk Stallion Show, One Overall Female Champion at the Glanusk Stallion Show…the list goes on. Visitors are welcome but call first. Contact: Gareth & Christine Williams. www.ringsidecobs.com/splash.html
Caederwen Stud, 13 Oakfield Terrace, Tyllwyn, Ebbw Vale; Gwent, Wales
Tel : (+44) 01495 305481
One of the newer studs, Caederwen specializes in breeding true to type Welsh Cobs. Their progeny have been major prize winners at the Royal Welsh, Lampeter Stallion Show, Glanusk and many other county shows across Wales. Owner Andrew Thomas has served as a panel judge for the WPCS for Sections C & D and has judged at shows throughout Europe. Visitors welcome with appointment. Contact Andrew Thomas: www.caederwenstud.co.uk
The Welsh Pony and Cob Society of America is based here in Virginia. The Welsh Ponies arrived in the U.S. in 1880 when George Brown of Aurora, Illinois imported some of them and, in the process, spearheaded the formation of the Society in 1906. Today, there are more than 45,000 Welsh Ponies registered in the U.S. For information about Virginia breeders, contact the organization at: 720 Green St., Stephens City, Va. 22655. (540)-868-7669.
Riding schools in Mid and South Wales that stage horse shows
Some of the larger barns and equestrian schools stage local competitions as well as higher rated events. For a listing of their 2019 competitions, refer to their websites.
Liege Manor Equestrian Centre, Bonvilston, Vale of Glamorgan
Liege Manor Equestrian Centre is a 70-stall facility that offers students a riding
school, stables, educational centre and 5* Livery Yard. With accreditations from the British Horse Society and the Association of British Riding Schools. It hosts both affiliated and unaffiliated dressage and jumping shows and pony club events. www.liegemanor.com
Bridgend College, Pencoed Campus; Mid Glamorgan, Wales
The equestrian center at the Pencoed campus is regularly used for grass roots equestrian events and also, higher competitions including the Welsh Dressage Championship and the British Vaulting Championship. Refer to: www.bridgend.ac.uk
Coleg Gwent, Usk Campus; Usk, Wales
Surrounded by beautiful countryside, this campus of Coleg Gwent is located in Monmouthshire on the edge of the historic town of Usk, its agricultural facility including a nearly 300-acre, working commercial farm, and animal care centers, among others. Equipped with both an indoor school and large outdoor arenas, the college runs dressage and show jumping events throughout the year. The East South Wales chapter of the British Driving Society regularly practices here. http://wales.britishdrivingsociety.co.uk/
To see a listing of summer events refer to: www.coleggwent.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=269#.VxUIGLS4k5h
Sunnybank Equestrian Centre; Caerphilly, Wales
Sunnybank Equestrian Centre in Caerphilly offers a national diploma in Horse Care alongside British Horse Society Training certification, delivered both on and off the college premises. Its indoor/outdoor equestrian facility accommodates large crowds who come for hunter trials, training shows, showjumping and dressage events. For 2019 roster of events, refer to www.sunnybankec.com/events.php
Places to go, festivals to see…
The storied and sublime landscape of Mid and South Wales offers an astounding variety of destinations. Visit castles, sample great local food, tour gardens, galleries and vineyards. Perhaps, a little fly fishing on the River Usk. With imagination and a good guidebook, the Mid and Southland regions can exceed your wildest expectations. Below, is a small sampling of festivals and events for the summer of 2019.
May 23 to June 2
The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts; Hay-on-Wye, Wales
Situated at the northeastern point of the Brecon Beacons National Park— a 520 square-mile idyll of hidden valleys, glacial lakes and upland moorlands, Hay-on-Wye is tucked inside a gentle roll of country, nestled along the banks of the River Wye, the hills of Radnorshire to the north, the rugged Black Mountains to the south and west and the farmlands of the Golden Valley to the east.
“Hay-on-Wye? What’s that, some kind of sandwich?"
So quipped Arthur Miller about this charming, medieval river village. Were the American playwright alive today, he’d be eating his words, given Hay’s literary reputation on the world stage. Populated by roughly 1,500 people, this self-anointed ‘Town of Books’, swells to fully 80,000 people when the popular Hay Literature Festival comes to town. Each May, for ten days, its cobblestone streets—already enlivened by restaurants, galleries, boutiques and bookshops, burst at the seams with lectures, poetry readings and impassioned philosophical debates, the sum of which former president Bill Clinton has called “the Woodstock of the mind.”
While in Hay-on-Wye, visit Hay Castle where the great equestrian, Oliver Cromwell, lay siege to the Royalists during the English Civil War (1642-51). An excellent horseman, Cromwell fashioned a cavalry to match his equestrian skill and devout Puritan beliefs, eager to root out those still loyal to the crown. To that end, his religiously fervent, highly trained cavalrymen employed a new military tactic that had them charging across battlefields, riding knee to knee, attacking in tight, three line formations. They scattered foot soldiers, broke formations, creating mayhem among the ranks, knocking the Royalists right off their feet, helping to elevate horsepower over firepower within the military. The strategy, combined with the New Model Army incentivizing soldiers with regular pay, allowed Cromwell to chart a course away from the divine rule of kings toward a parliamentarian governance, elevating him in the process to ‘Lord Protector of England’, having practiced what he preached, namely:
“Put your trust in God, but be sure to keep your powder dry.”
September 21 and 22
The Abergavenny Food Festival; Abergavenny, Wales
Called “the most respected exhibition of the culinary world," the Abergavbenny Food Festival has helped encourage people to look differently at where their meals come from. The annual, two-day event draws 30,000 into this small, Welsh border town, everyone seeking a gastronomic weekend of master classes, food markets, lectures, exhibits and parties sponsored by top chefs putting cooking to higher standards. What the Book Festival is to Hay-on-Wye, the foodfestival is to Abergavenny.
And while you’re in Abergavenny….
Winemaking in Wales has risen 70% over the past decade, with Welsh vineyards producing crisp whites, rosés and sparkling wines worthy of accolades. White Castle Vineyard in Abergaveny has won everything from Welsh Wine of the year to the International Wine Challenge, including 2 Silver & 4 Bronze awards at the 2018 Welsh Vineyards Association Wine Competition. There’s Sugarloaf Vineyard in Abergavenny and the 22-acre Llanerch Vineyard, near Cardiff, with its award-winning Cariad wines. Meadow View Vineyard has a pesticide free production process; the Glyndwr Vineyard, near Cardiff, is the largest winery in Wales. Take a tour. They’re worth a look.
The hills and moorlands along the borders of England and Wales are rich with outstanding private gardens, a surprisingly large number of which are available through the National Gardens Scheme – www.ngs.org.uk/gardens. To locate their full range of sites, refer to:
Welsh Historic Gardens Trust - www.whgt.org.uk
Garden History Society - www.gardenhistorysociety.org
Historic Gardens Foundation - www.historicgardens.org
Forget sightseeing altogether and check into Gilaffs, a late-19th-century manor home where modernity slips away. Take a leisurely stroll about the 33-acre, arboretum-like grounds, enjoy meals in a restaurant that garners awards for its culinary excellence. Do a little fly fishing. This four-star luxury hotel, near Crickhowell, (Crucywel in Welsh), is a sportsman’s paradise when the Sea Trout and Atlantic Salmon are jumping. Feel the calm rising within as you indulge in a mile of left bank fishing. In short, relax.
Leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes
but of the one who opens himself;
not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go,
who lets himself go, and “go under,”
almost as someone who falls asleep must let himself go…
- Josef Pieper, from his book Leisure, the Basis of Culture
BEFORE YOU LEAVE…
Who could possibly close the book on Wales without giving a nod to that venerable supporter of the Welsh Corgi—Queen Elizabeth? The Pembrokes in particular, are her favorite. Once, she had 13 of them romping the halls of Buckingham Palace, lovingly referring to them as “family”. A gift from Wales to England.
EDITOR'S NOTE: While every effort is made to ensure details on this website are correct, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of all the information. Dates change and events are sometimes cancelled. Avoid a wasted trips. Always confirm event details ahead of time with event organizers.
by Catherine R. Macaulay
The Welsh Pony of Riding Type (Section B)