Britain’s unsung equine heroes: the 33-year-old riding school pony with no desire to retire

Every day, our horses work for us tirelessly, teaching riding skills, providing therapy and promoting equestrianism. In our new series, Sara Walker meets some of the horses and ponies who are Britain’s unsung heroes, such as Baldrick from Birtles Equestrian

Set in the heart of the Cheshire countryside, Birtles Equestrian Centre was started in 1958 by Adeline Darbyshire and is now run by Adeline’s daughter Sally Darbyshire, BHSAI.

“We’ve been here as a business for over 60 years now, in fact my mother used to teach former H&H editor Lucy Higginson!” says Sally. “I took over running the business about 12 years ago, and my elder son Daniel helps out as well while studying for his Association of British Riding School (ABRS) exams. We’ve got 16 horses and ponies here, and we offer group and private lessons, pony days and pony loans. I like to offer my riders a full experience, including stable management and equine behaviour, as well as just riding.

“We got Baldrick, a 12.2hh Welsh pony, in 2006. My mother actually found him, as we were looking for another little one at the time. He was quite sharp when he first came — my mother always preferred lively, forward going horses and ponies rather than plodders. She said it was easier to teach on a forward going pony as you don’t end up flapping and it’s easier for the rider.

“When we first got him, after a few days I noticed he wasn’t standing quite square behind and we worked out he’d had a shoulder injury at some point. In our care he came sound, but we did have one blip the first winter we had him, as I rugged him up and he went unsound again. I worked out that the rug I was using was too big on the neck and was slipping down and aggravating his shoulder. I altered his rugs to fit him better and he’s never looked back since.

“Now, 13 years on, Baldrick is still one of my star ponies. He’s still in full work, including cantering and jumping, and I also use him to teach on the lunge. All my horses are pretty laid back, and nothing ever bothers Baldrick. He’s very attached to his field companion, Eros, and he has a special funny little whinny when they’re separated. He’s also expert at undoing stable doors!

“He’s the ideal riding school pony, as he’s sensible but forward going. There’s no malice in him at all, he must have taught hundreds of children to ride over the years.”

Rosalie Natar, age seven (pictured throughout and top with Sally), has been riding Baldrick for around 18 months.

“He’s my favourite pony because he’s really cuddly and I like cantering on him because he’s really smooth. He taught me to canter and jump,” says Rosalie.

“Baldrick is very good with nervous children, and he’s one of those ponies that really looks after his rider,” explains Sally. “Rosalie is a very determined little rider now, but her mum says she’s grown a lot in confidence since we’ve teamed her up with Baldrick. We have another little boy who talks to Baldrick constantly — it’s very therapeutic.

“As far as keeping my horses healthy goes, I think that prevention is better than cure, and I try to look after them holistically. I feed turmeric which is a natural anti-inflammatory, and I’m experimenting with magnetic therapy as well which does seem to be working. I never seem to need to give them bute, anyway! They all live out as much as possible too, and they all have their own field companions.”

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At the age of almost 33, Sally says she has no current plans to retire Baldrick.

“As long as he’s happy and healthy he’ll carry on. In fact, I think that his work keeps him interested and is keeping him going,” she says. “He’s still a fantastic games pony — you should see him move in a bending race! He’s not showing any signs of ageing at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes on for years and years — you do hear of horses in their 40s and I think he’s heading that way! He’s so loved and happy, I don’t think he’d like to retire.”

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