As a eager equestrian, I felt a little odd to be pulling on climbing footwear, relatively than using boots, as I ready for a time out with horses. But this wasn’t going to be an atypical hike.
My new good friend Jacko snorted and threw his head to the facet to observe as I fastidiously packed my digital camera gear into the panniers secured to his again. Quickly dropping curiosity, he turned again to his hay internet, which was tied to a fence that framed an expansive vista of the quintessential Welsh panorama: countless fields of lush inexperienced grass, bordered by thick hedgerows and dense woodland and main via the valley towards the distant hills.
During the pandemic, I discovered solace within the picturesque countryside of my homeland in Wales, the place herds of wild Welsh mountain ponies have roamed freely among the many hills for hundreds of years.
Although they’re wild, the ponies are known as semi-feral, for the reason that herds require a point of administration. The primary 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 basic well being and eradicating some 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 have been historically used for a wide selection of farm work. They additionally served a very important function as pit ponies, used underground within the as soon as ubiquitous coal mines which have since disappeared from the Welsh panorama.
No longer required for these conventional roles, their presence within the Welsh countryside is in decline, and the administration of feral herds is beneath risk.
In the hope of reversing that pattern, Graham Williams based Hooftrek, a tourism initiative which seeks to provide the ponies a renewed objective and restored business worth to assist guarantee their survival. The firm employs a herd of semi-feral ponies skilled 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.
When we arrived on the Hooftrek farm, the ponies have been meandering freely across the property. After every hiker selected their most popular companion for the day, Lou instructed us on find out 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 incessantly for an irresistible mouthful of grass, and generally needing decided encouragement to beat pure obstacles encountered alongside the best way. As with the horses I grew up using, the ponies exhibited diversified — and outsize — personalities, with a combine of stubbornness and eagerness.
In addition to carrying our packs, the ponies introduced a component of leisure, companionship and a sense of achievement. All of us needed to learn to talk with our ponies, and lots of of us clearly developed a bond over the course of the day.
The thought for Hooftrek was impressed by the success of French initiatives that overcame a comparable drawback with native donkeys, a working animal that was as soon as central to farm and agricultural work there. “Going back to 1970, 1980, they turned the donkeys into part of the leisure industry,” defined Mr. Williams, the founder of Hooftrek. “Now there are dozens of farms in the hills of France where you can hire donkeys to carry packs along trails.”
He hopes his thought will assist increase 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 used to be thousands in Wales, but now we’re down to less than 500 breeding mares on all the different hills in Wales,” Mr. Williams mentioned. “They used to be useful — they worked as farm animals, they were down the pits, and so the breed became very desirable around the world.”
As a outcome of the ponies’ versatility and recognition, the feral herds have been for a few years protected, and their offspring bought, producing an earnings for the farmers who managed them. Nowadays, domestic-bred Welsh ponies — born from animals which can be mated in captivity — are prolific worldwide as much-loved pets and using ponies, whereas their wild counterparts in Wales face an unsure future.
Training ponies is a time-consuming job, particularly for those who got here from the hills, Lou mentioned. “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.”
Like all wild animals, ponies born on the hill have an innate intuition, Lou defined. “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.
“These are our Indigenous creatures, and it’s quite an honor to work with them,” she added. “They’re as old as the hills.”
Claire Thomas is a British photographer and photojournalist who focuses on battle, humanitarian and environmental crises and social points. You can observe her work on Instagram and Twitter.