Although the Carneddau ponies have shared ancestry with the Welsh Section A pony, they exhibit genetic signatures demonstrating that the population has been isolated for at least several hundred years.
Just when you think you know everything about a subject, along comes someone to blow apart a lifetime of assumptions.
Monty Roberts’ father was virtually destroyed by his son’s belief in ‘horse-whispering’, as a far more humane and less exhausting method of breaking and training horses. It’s no secret that Monty took a severe beating for it.
A remarkable man, Roberts went on to foster disadvantaged children, using much the same wisdom and insight he’d learnt through studying horses and their social groups in the wild. It’s too easy – and often misguided – to bestow animals with human emotion, but maybe trust is rooted in the same place in humans as in horses, and observation and interpretation is all that’s required to make a valuable connection, regardless of language. And isn’t whispering usually far more effective than shouting? Much the same as writing good fiction; and if we’re talking analogies there’s nothing worse than clunky dialogue. Is Natural Horsemanship simply natural dialogue?
Guido Louis Leidelmeyer: “In the words of the horse: ‘Listen’ by observing me, and communication between us will come naturally and silently. In my words: Can I help you do that?”
As with most things that work well, it’s based on a simple concept of alignment with nature. Horses like to hang in a crowd (herd), follow the leaders – usually the older mares – and be out in the open simply because if there’s a predator, they’re more likely to bolt, than stand and fight. That’s about it. If a horse is singled out he is more likely to turn to us without fear or aggression once he comes to realise that we are not predatory, and as a surrogate leader can offer the ultimate protection. And that’s where the ‘following’ or ‘joining-up’ comes in.
This principle works with wild/un-handled horses as well as re-training by reiterating the relationship of horse and leader for equines who have formed bad habits, or those with anxiety issues. Actually, most bad habits stem from anxiety and a lack of leadership. It’s a little like your pet dog – and dare I say children, too? – needing to know their safe and secure place in the family pack, although the body language between dogs and horses is rather different. Flattened ears in a dog is more likely to mean subservient greetings whereas a horse … well, watch out!
Not everyone agrees that these principles are quite so cut and dried, and as is often the case with a lot of unquantified skills, there is perhaps some sixth-sense at work gleaned from years of experience. There are many equine behavourists who claim the ‘following’ principle is flawed. But the proof is in the pudding. I’ve watched Guido use these techniques on a couple of riding-school horses – both of whom he’d never ‘met’ – with amazingly fast results: 20 minutes to resolve a problem with electric clippers on a mare which had for some 12 years, aggressively avoided the issue. The owner was quite rightly, open-mouthed. But the problem isn’t solved in its entirety, as Guido explained: Tilly’s owner needed to learn and understand the process for herself, and as is the case with most success stories, a certain measure of self-belief is required. It’s this psychological leadership which is perhaps where the sixth-sense bridges that gap between human and equine.
I think we can also safely assume that nothing much in life is achieved through bullying or force, certainly cooperation would be bottom of the list so far as horses are concerned; and there’s no way we’d win any kind of fight with an animal quite so strong and fleet of foot as a Lusitano stallion. Yes, Guido’s horses are compliant, but they are also as naturally spirited as they are trusting. Once that bond of trust is formed, the sky’s the limit; demonstrated in perhaps more extreme style by Guido’s stunt riding – swinging beneath galloping horses and leaping fire is pretty spectacular to watch. Some of these moves were developed from Cossack riding, which in turn originated from wartime ploys to fool the enemy.
Guido has an interesting, somewhat unconventional history too. From humble beginnings in a circus, he’s achieved worldwide acclaim in a number of disciplines: Cossack riding in Germany, the formation of Rockin’ Horse Productions, top trainer for the Royal Cavalry in Oman… I’m sure there’s a novel in there!
Horses have been a lifetime’s passion for me. No surprise that they feature in most of my novels, more so in MIDNIGHT SKY and PALOMINO SKY. Both books draw on the principles of horse-whispering and the power of self-belief – but I take on this theme in a fictional sense rather than a technical sense. It’s so easy to swamp the narrative with too much unwanted detail. And yet, it’s the minutiae of life which underpins the storyline in PALOMINO SKY. As with horse-whispering, it’s the observation of perhaps something seemingly inconsequential which can change an entire situation. If you’re not horse savvy or enjoy only a passing interest, I’ve tried to portray the equine aspect as secondary to the storyline in these books. On the other hand, horse enthusiasts will hopefully embrace the setting.
The Carneddau Ponies of Snowdonia.
The summit of Drum, a small peak nestled in the Carneddau range of Snowdonia, North Wales, can be an inhospitable, dangerous place. On day two of the annual pony-gathering a heavy shroud of fog obscured the dense landmass to within a few feet. Someone once said, ‘It’s the centuries of men’s hands on the stones that puts the heart into a place.’ The beating heart of the Carneddau for me, has to be the wild ponies, and they were the reason I found myself on top of a bleak mountain in the Welsh hills in November, 2014. The ponies of the Carneddau have access to some 27,000 acres, and there are less than 200 of them out there… somewhere. Ancestors would likely have used dogs and followed on horseback but sadly, modern times dictated the use of quad bikes and scramblers.
The rest of us walked, across a vast mattress of sodden heather. Within the hour though, the sun pierced through the fog and it dispersed like skeins of gossamer, revealing the full majesty of the Welsh hills and the Irish Sea. This dramatic landscape marches towards the foothills of Snowdon in one direction, and in the other falls in a crumpled stone-hewn scree to the west coast. It is both magical, and awe-inspiring. Add into this mix the sound of drumming hooves and you can feel the beating heart of this place match your own. Too whimsical? Probably, but the sight of these spirited ponies galloping across the heather, manes and tails flying; is a hugely emotional sight.
The romance and beauty of the Welsh hills is well documented, but some of the hill farmers are struggling to find definition in an increasingly faster, more cosmopolitan world. Despite this, there are 350 years of family history behind their passion for the hills, the ponies and their way of life. Scattered across these hillsides the remains of farming settlements, Roman forts and the slate industry epitomize the hardships, the triumphs and the disasters – but this history is part of our roots and part of what defines us. I love the honesty of this way of life, but like millions of other people feel powerless to nurture it when something fails to protect those issues which are out of our control. In the past – and we have to acknowledge our farmers have been through desperate times – the ponies have been collected off the mountain and herded into meat wagons.
Now though, I read somewhere that these ponies fetch less than a fiver at market. If something doesn’t bring financial reward, the worth of it is compromised – which is perhaps a sign of our times. And it’s disappointing that there’s a red tape fight over DNA proof to achieve rare-breed status – and therefore some protection – for this unique bloodline of Welsh Mountain ponies, a pure line which is specific to the Carneddau. I feel justified to feel both whimsical and passionate about the ponies fate and concerned for the welfare of these animals, left to survive on their own wits through sometimes intolerable winter conditions. And although it is this very hardiness which makes them what they are, I do find it sad that the larger welfare and equine bodies don’t recognise a need to support and sustain this breed by at least maintaining and documenting the bloodlines.
For the uninformed, the native Welsh Mountain pony is a larger, more elegant version of the Shetland. The Shetland was epitomized by Thelwell – short legs, profuse mane and tail and as stubborn as they were fiery, depending on mood and opportunity. The seven Mountain and Moorland ponies of Great Britain were considered to be the hardy ground stock of children’s riding ponies the world over and crossed with larger, finer breeds to produce, well, anything you wished for. Emotional bonds have a value of their own which is difficult to define. I’ve been around horses for 50 years – although, coming from a working-class background where money was tight, I wasn’t born into a situation which easily accommodated them. Every Saturday, I would cycle fifteen miles with my father to have a riding lesson on a Welsh Mountain pony called Merrylegs. In the early sixties we were taught to stay on by clamping a threepenny-bit between our knees and the saddle. If it was still there after an hour, we got to keep it. Thankfully, gripping-on is no longer considered good practice! Ironic too, that the three-penny bit is extinct.
As a child around ponies, I learnt how everything was connected by a purpose and why even small things should be respected, because there’s a reason they are there. (Sharing this landscape with several thousand head of sheep impacts on the benefits of cross-grazing, the ponies eat the vegetation the sheep won’t and vice-versa, the parasites which develop in sheep are inhibited by the ponies and vice-versa.) I learnt how to give and take, I learnt that physical knocks or disabilities were not a barrier to success. My friend at the time – at age ten – had one-and-a-bit-arms. One side of the reins would be up round an amputated stump, but she was a more effective rider than I!
I learnt respect and humility, and all those invisible things we maybe cannot quantify or explain, but we know are there. But above all, I learnt to love the hills.
WORDS by Jan Ruth: PHOTOGRAPHY by Sandra Roberts
Aerial footage of the 2014 gathering: http://vimeo.com/112336601
I do wish my mother wouldn’t answer the door or phone in my absence with, ‘Oh, she’s not in, she’s riding Tom.’
Most callers probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but I can guess that the postman probably smirked. Let me tell you about my love affair with Tom. He’s so tall I have to stand on a box to mount him. He’s very dark, apart from a couple of white socks, very male, and impossibly handsome but he knows this, so that’s possibly a minus. He always smells divine too, although I appreciate this is an acquired taste. He ran away with me once, and you might think that an incredibly romantic thing to do, but Tom’s idea of excitement was tearing hell for leather across open parkland whilst I danced that crazy line between exhilaration and terror.
Tom is, of course, a horse. A Thoroughbred-Welsh cross, no less. I’m not new to riding horses but Tom sometimes makes it feel like the first time… I should probably stop with the double entendres now, but in some ways I can draw comparisons with riding beyond middle-age, with getting back into writing from a long, dormant absence. Getting back into the saddle as an author has been challenging, sometimes painful, sometimes rewarding, much like my obsession with horses.
I thought I’d reached the finishing line about twenty-five years ago when my third attempt at a novel (Wild Water) attracted the interest of an agent. If you are a self-published author yourself, you can probably guess the rest of the story. I fell ‘between genres’. The experience was not unlike hurtling across a cross-country course, bravely leaping the enormous fences, not always with style but nevertheless safely over, even to a smatter of applause here and there, before stumbling over an inconsequential rut in the ground, to fall between a rock and a hard place a few feet before the winning post, no podium, not even a mention, despite the glory of the race.
Before Tom came along, I rode Ted. He was a racy fellow, a little out of my comfort zone. If Ted had been a man, he’d be very upper class with a dicky bow. If Ted had been a book, he may well have been hovering on the periphery of my reading list, like those books you know you ought to read and admire but find them too hard going to really enjoy. The afternoon started well, with Ted and I leaping gorse hedges and huge granite rocks with no effort whatsoever on his part. I don’t mind admitting that I started to feel youthfully confident. Hey, I thought, as we cantered along the tracks, I can still do this! He made me look rather good too, with his elegant prancing and the flicking of his fancy forelock.
My companion took up the pace and we galloped side by side, slowing only to take a watery ditch shivering with sunlight, and cantering on. Far more athletic than myself, Ted turned on a sixpence to head back, but I didn’t. I fell between a rock and a hard place. Ted careered back over the ditch, stirrups flying, and disappeared over Halkyn Mountain. My friend caught up with him eventually – he was discovered browsing the borders of a rare cottage garden – and yes I did get back on, despite a bright blue hand and a broken finger. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve fallen from horses, probably on a par with the number of times I’ve fallen off the keyboard, so to speak. So, my mixed genre novel went in the bottom of the wardrobe and that was that.
The advent of e-books coincided with my son’s passion for web development and computer programming, and so began the process of converting typed manuscripts into computer files. And now here I am, pulling on my body protector and logging onto the internet. Body protector, you ask? Oh yes, I decided it would be sensible to invest in one of those. I went to have a ‘fitting’ at the local saddlery and equipment suppliers, whereupon a handsome young chap strapped me in to the equine equivalent of a bulletproof vest. It was awfully uncomfortable but he told me it would mould to my body in time, and to wear it around the house, you know, to break it in.
So here I sit many weeks later, astride the old kitchen chair, alarmingly upright and still un-moulded. It doesn’t help with writer’s block but at least I’m protected from spinal injuries, should I fall to the floor.