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Britain’s unsung equine heroes: Fairmile — ‘She’s hardy, courageous and full of heart and personality’

Every day, our horses work for us tirelessly, teaching riding skills, providing therapy and promoting equestrianism. In the next part of this series, Sara Walker meets some of the horses and ponies who are Britain’s unsung heroes, such as Hades Hill Fairmile, a Fell pony who’s helping to keep the heritage of this ancient breed alive

Tom Lloyd is passionate about the Fell pony breed, having inherited both his enthusiasm and some of his ponies from his father, Walter. Walter started breeding his own Hades Hill ponies in the 1950s, in an effort to help keep the hardy hillside herds going.

“Fell ponies are very versatile and make fantastic family ponies,” says Tom. “These days, though, there are very few of the old semi-feral herds still living on the fells. If those are lost, I think it’ll be a sad day for the breed — these are extremely tough, hardy ponies and living out all year on the Northern fells is what keeps those characteristics going. The biggest threat to the Fell pony is the loss of the semi-feral herds due to an ageing population of breeders. Although there are Fell ponies all around the world, there are currently fewer than 200 mares living out in their natural habitat. I’m secretary of the Fell Pony Breeders Association, an organisation set up to help preserve and promote these semi-feral Fell ponies, and my own ponies are helping me with that work.”

Tom got his first pony when he was four, and still has the great great granddaughter of his original mare. He spent his childhood travelling to Appleby Horse Fair with a bowtop wagon drawn by a Fell pony with a sideliner (a second horse working with the shaft horse and running at the side of the shafts). In 1995, he was working as a film producer in London.

“Dad was finding it too hard to look after the ponies, so I came back up north to help,” he says. “I now have eight mares and one stallion in the Hades Hill herd, all broken to ride and drive. They work doing the traditional work that these ponies have been doing for hundreds of years — snigging (pulling timber), driving and carting our own hay. My 14-year-old daughter, Flo, also does dressage and showjumping with the same ponies. I generally have two or three mares in foal every year, so I’ve got a constant stream of youngsters coming into the herd.

“At the beginning of 2019, I set up Fell Pony Adventures, wild walking and camping expeditions with pack ponies over the fells. It’s liberating to get off roads and into the hidden places of the fells, and it’s low impact eco tourism as well. It brings in some income to help support the herd, and means I can promote the work these ponies are doing.

Hades Hill Fairmile with Tom Lloyd

“My ‘breed champion’ pony, Hades Hill Fairmile (pictured top left), is the matriarch of the herd. She’s 23 now, and still working happily as a pack pony. We’ve done everything together — she’s pulled a bow top caravan to Appleby many times, and she helps me teach the other ponies. I didn’t put her in the shafts until she was 10, and now she’s my number one driving pony. She epitomises the breed — she’s as steady as a rock, has endless stamina, is sure footed and has a great temperament. She’s 13.2hh, and while the breed standard can range from 12hh to 14hh Our ponies tend to be around the 13.2hh, which means we don’t have to lift the pack saddles so high! My ponies graze on 100 acres of enclosed fell, and I have a smallholding where they come to foal. My dad used to say that you can’t put a Fell to the wrong job, and once you’ve gained their trust they’ll do anything you ask of them — that’s certainly true of Fairmile. She’s hardy, courageous and full of heart and personality.

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The breed is currently classed as ‘vulnerable’ by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, so it’s very important to me to keep these bloodlines going.

“I have four bloodlines in the Hades Hill herd, and Fairmile was the last of one of them, so I was always keen to breed from her. I tried to get her in foal for many years and had almost given up when she foaled seven years ago — a little grey mare called Faye, who is one of my best driving ponies ever.

“Fairmile is still my go-to pony for teaching adults or small children. I trust her implicitly; I could lead her through the middle of London and she’d be fine. She’s not only taking her place in the heritage and tradition of the breed, but she’s also very much part of our family.”

For all the latest equestrian news and reports, don’t miss Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday

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