Two Dartmoor ponies demonstrated their impeccable temperaments, helping a group of diasadvantaged teenagers to complete a 15-mile moorland trek when their team leader suffered a sudden leg infection.
George and Smartie, who belong to the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust, were taking part in the “Fresh Tracks” walk, which forms part of the British Army-organised Ten Tors challenge.
The Fresh Tracks programme caters for students who cannot tackle the full 35-55 mile, two-day hike but do not face the complex challenges of those taking part in the Jubilee Challenge, which is aimed at disabled teenagers.
“We were asked to set up the special Fresh Tracks category,” explained Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust spokesman Clare Stanton. “It runs as part of our Ponies Inspiring People programmes.
“We exist as a charity to promote and raise awareness of the ponies on the moor and show people why it’s important to keep them there and why we shouldn’t lose them.”
The programme invited 12 students from two local schools “with no pony experience or enthusiasm” to undertake a ten-week course in pony skills, moorland skills and first aid.
“We took 12 youngsters with no self-esteem, confidence or belief they could walk a mile let alone 15 miles across a rugged moorland landscape and also got them to camp out the night before,” said trek leader Dru Butterfield.
“Last Friday night (11 May) it was pouring with rain and cold and they were not in the best spirits. My night-before briefing was more of a bawling-out saying I was in doubt whether they were going to succeed.”
But it was experienced team leader Dru who nearly could not complete the challenge, as she nearly lost a pony and was then struck down with red and painful legs at mile four.
“We started out with helicopters giving us a wonderful display, eight paratroopers came down with Union Jacks and there was canon fire, and then nearly 3,000 very fit, well-trained and motivated teenagers leaving for the Ten Tors,” Dru said. “The two ponies had been incredibly well-behaved with all of that going on
“George did start side-stepping when the bagpipes started and I was thinking ‘I hope I can hold him’ when the halter decided to unclip. Fortunately with some help from our chairman Judy I managed to hold on and clip it back.
“We then led out the whole of the Jubilee Challenge with parents applauding, the local TV filming and bagpipes playing,” she said.
But as her students “started to get stronger”, Dru found herself getting increasingly weak.
“I know now I had a major infection in my legs,” she said. “Four miles in I had huge red swelling start but despite constant helicopters above us, the ponies kept us going.
“What we have on Dartmoor is a pony that evolved over many centuries a temperament and tenacity to deal with the terrain, an ability to deal with all sorts of environments and an ability to work with people. That particular day it got me ten miles in a lot of pain,” she said.
“I worked with a young man who held my hands last four miles while I was leaning across George and it got me through. I was in doubt if the kids would do it but on the day it was actually their trainer who nearly gave up. I’m normally chivvying them but in the end everyone was chivvying me.”
Not only did the normally tough Dru go down with an infection, but photographer Malcolm Snelgrove, who had been chronicling the programme, also suffered a low blood sugar episode.
“Malcolm had a stroke in November and it was his longest walk since recovering — he went low on sugar and had a blood pressure crash, so the two people who should know better made the whole thing much more dramatic!” Dru said. “He trains with the Bear Grylls team and is a real hard man and I’m usually pretty tough really!
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“I just want to pay enormous thanks to the ponies.”
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