As an avid equestrian, I find it a bit odd to wear hiking boots, rather than boots, as I prepare for a day out with the horses. But this will not be an ordinary hike.
My new friend Jacko snorted and turned his head to the side to watch as I carefully packed my camera gear into the panniers strapped to his back. Quickly losing interest, he returned to his hay net, tethered to a fence framing a vast vista of the quintessential Welsh landscape: endless fields of verdant grass, surrounded by dense hedges and dense woods and led through the valley toward the distant hills.
During a time of pandemic, I found solace in the picturesque countryside of my homeland in Wales, where wild herds of Welsh mountain ponies roamed freely among the hills. for centuries.
Although they are wild, ponies are considered semi-wild, as herds require some level of management. The basic infrastructure of roads, fences and urban areas restricts the natural movement of ponies, which can lead to overpopulation and health problems. Thus, farmers help manage herds by conducting rotations, checking their general health, and removing some foals (especially young males, or ponies) to prevent cross-breeding. inbreeding.
These animals have long been a source of pride and affection for the Welsh farmers who manage their livestock. Traditionally, sturdy, dependable ponies were used for a variety of farm work. They also play an important role as ponies, used underground in the once popular coal mines that have disappeared from the Welsh landscape.
These traditional roles are no longer needed, their presence in the Welsh countryside is dwindling and wild herd management is threatened.
Hoping to reverse that trend, Graham Williams founded Hooftrek, a tourism initiative to give ponies a new purpose and restore commercial value to help ensure their survival. The company employs a herd of semi-feral ponies trained to carry and accompany hikers in the hills and mountains of Wales, and continues its tradition of breeding wild mares to help maintain keep wild horses.
In September 2020, on an unusually sunny autumn day, three friends came from London, with Louise, or Lou, a horse trainer and climbing guide, and Regina, a helper. helping Hooftrek, of Radnor Hills, Central Wales, take a walk. along with four semi-wild ponies.
When we arrived at Hooftrek Farm, the ponies were roaming around the property. After each hiker chooses their preferred companion for the day, Lou walks us through how to groom the animals and prepare them, and us, for the hike.
When we started hiking, it became clear that the strong-willed animals would establish their own unhurried pace, stopping frequently to find an irresistible mouthful of grass and occasionally needing some movement. Members are determined to overcome the natural obstacles encountered along the way. Like the horses I grew up riding, the ponies display diverse personalities – and sizes – with a mixture of stubbornness and eagerness.
In addition to carrying our packs, the ponies offer an element of entertainment, companionship and a sense of achievement. We all had to learn how to communicate with our ponies, and many of us have clearly developed a bond over time.
The idea for Hooftrek was inspired by the success of French initiatives that have overcome a similar problem with the local donkey, a working animal that was once at the heart of farming and farm work. career there. Mr. Williams, founder of Hooftrek, explains: “Back in the 1970s and 1980s, they made donkeys part of the entertainment industry. “Now there are dozens of farms in the hills of France where you can hire donkeys to carry goods along the trails.”
He hopes his idea will help raise the profile of the Welsh herds, and encourage others to buy feral horses – especially ponies, which are taken away each year to prevent inbreeding. Mr Williams said: “There used to be thousands in Wales, but now we have under 500 mares breeding all over the different hills in Wales. “They were very useful – they were farm animals, they worked in the pits, and so the breed became very popular around the world.”
Because of the foal’s versatility and popularity, wild herds are protected for many years, and their foals are sold, generating income for the farmers who manage them. Today, domesticated Welsh ponies – born to animals that were mated in captivity – are proliferating worldwide as beloved pets and ponies, while their wild counterparts in Wales face an uncertain future.
Training ponies is a time-consuming business, especially for those from the hills, says Lou. “It takes time to build their trust and confidence in humans – longer than domesticated ponies, which is why hill farming is not as popular anymore.”
Like all wild animals, ponies born in the hills have an innate instinct, explains Lou. “Over the centuries, they have developed skills and knowledge of the land that allow them to survive in different environments and seasons that purebred horses don’t necessarily have,” she said.
“These are our native creatures, and it has been an honor to work with them,” she added. “They’re as old as the hills.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/24/travel/welsh-mountain-ponies.html Can A New Line of Work Help Save These Wild Welsh Ponies?