As a eager equestrian, I felt a bit of odd to be pulling on climbing sneakers, reasonably than using boots, as I ready for a day trip with horses. However this wasn’t going to be an atypical hike.
My new buddy Jacko snorted and threw his head to the facet to look at as I fastidiously packed my digital camera gear into the panniers secured to his again. Rapidly dropping curiosity, he turned again to his hay web, which was tied to a fence that framed an expansive vista of the quintessential Welsh panorama: limitless fields of lush inexperienced grass, bordered by thick hedgerows and dense woodland and main by way of the valley towards the distant hills.
In the course of the pandemic, I discovered solace within the picturesque countryside of my homeland in Wales, the place herds of untamed Welsh mountain ponies have roamed freely among the many hills for hundreds of years.
Though they’re wild, the ponies are known as semi-feral, for the reason that herds require some extent of administration. The essential infrastructure of roads, fences and concrete areas restricts the pure motion of the ponies, which may result in overpopulation and well being points. Farmers subsequently assist handle the herds by conducting roundups, checking their normal well being and eradicating a number of the ponies (particularly the younger males, or colts) to forestall inbreeding.
The animals have lengthy been a supply of delight and affection for the Welsh farmers who handle the herds. The sturdy, trusted ponies had been historically used for a variety of farm work. Additionally they served a significant function as pit ponies, used underground within the as soon as ubiquitous coal mines which have since disappeared from the Welsh panorama.
Now not required for these conventional roles, their presence within the Welsh countryside is in decline, and the administration of feral herds is beneath menace.
Within the hope of reversing that development, Graham Williams based Hooftrek, a tourism initiative which seeks to present the ponies a renewed objective and restored business worth to assist guarantee their survival. The corporate employs a herd of semi-feral ponies educated to hold packs and accompany hikers within the hills and mountains of Wales, whereas additionally persevering with the custom of breeding feral mares to assist preserve the wild herds.
In September 2020, on an unusually sunny autumn day, I joined three pals from London, together with Louise, or Lou, a pony coach and trekking information, and Regina, a Hooftrek helper, within the Radnor Hills of Central Wales, for a stroll alongside 4 semi-feral ponies.
Once we arrived on the Hooftrek farm, the ponies had been meandering freely across the property. After every hiker selected their most well-liked companion for the day, Lou instructed us on learn how to groom the animals and put together them, and us, for the trek.
As we began climbing, it turned clear that the strong-willed animals could be setting their very own unhurried tempo, stopping ceaselessly for an irresistible mouthful of grass, and generally needing decided encouragement to beat pure obstacles encountered alongside the way in which. As with the horses I grew up using, the ponies exhibited assorted — and outsize — personalities, with a mixture of stubbornness and eagerness.
Along with carrying our packs, the ponies introduced a component of leisure, companionship and a way of feat. All of us needed to discover ways to talk with our ponies, and many people clearly developed a bond over the course of the day.
The thought for Hooftrek was impressed by the success of French initiatives that overcame an analogous drawback with native donkeys, a working animal that was as soon as central to farm and agricultural work there. “Going again to 1970, 1980, they turned the donkeys into a part of the leisure trade,” defined Mr. Williams, the founding father of Hooftrek. “Now there are dozens of farms within the hills of France the place you may rent donkeys to hold packs alongside trails.”
He hopes his concept will assist elevate the profile of the Welsh herds, whereas additionally encouraging others to purchase semi-feral ponies — particularly the colts, who’re taken away every year to forestall inbreeding. “There was 1000’s in Wales, however now we’re right down to lower than 500 breeding mares on all of the completely different hills in Wales,” Mr. Williams stated. “They was helpful — they labored as livestock, they had been down the pits, and so the breed turned very fascinating around the globe.”
On account of the ponies’ versatility and recognition, the feral herds had been for a few years protected, and their offspring offered, producing an revenue for the farmers who managed them. These days, domestic-bred Welsh ponies — born from animals which are mated in captivity — are prolific worldwide as much-loved pets and using ponies, whereas their wild counterparts in Wales face an unsure future.
Coaching ponies is a time-consuming job, particularly for people who got here from the hills, Lou stated. “It takes time to construct up their confidence and belief in people — longer than with home bred foals, which is why it’s not so common to breed on the hill anymore.”
Like all wild animals, ponies born on the hill have an innate intuition, Lou defined. “They’ve, over the centuries, developed the talents and data of the land that allow them to outlive in several environments and seasons that domestic-bred horses don’t essentially have,” she says.
“These are our indigenous creatures, and it’s fairly an honor to work with them,” she added. “They’re as outdated because the hills.”
Claire Thomas is a British photographer and photojournalist who focuses on battle, humanitarian and environmental crises and social points. You possibly can observe her work on Instagram and Twitter.