A breeding legacy: The three pioneering women behind Llanarth Stud *H&H Plus*

  • Behind the world-famous Llanarth Stud were three pioneering women who put Welsh cobs on the map after World War II, and their legacy still endures today.

    When the striking dun mare Llanarth Fair Lady topped the Brightwells’ Autumn Cob Sale at £25,500 last year, the prolific Llanarth Stud was thrown into the spotlight once again; another star to come from Len and Ann Bigley’s Herefordshire operation. Rewind more than 80 years, however, and the future of Welsh cobs looked considerably more precarious. At the time of World War II, the breeding of cobs was at an all-time low as financial strains took their toll and motorised transport replaced horsepower. But the formation of the Llanarth Stud, pioneered by three trailblazing women, was about to help change the breed’s fortunes.

    “The partnership formed by Pauline Taylor, Barbara Saunders Davies and Enid Lewis at Blaenwern, which established the Llanarth Welsh cob stud, meant that things would never quite be the same again in the Welsh cob world,” wrote William Lloyd, former president of the Welsh Pony and Cob Society, in the foreword to Teleri Bevan’s 2010 book The Ladies of Blaenwern, which charts the stud’s history.


    Together the women were known as the Dorian Trio, a musical partnership who travelled around schools in Wales performing and educating children, but by the outbreak of World War II — and now middle aged — they had embarked on a joint farming venture in Llanarth, eventually settling at Blaenwern.

    They began breeding a variety of Welsh native breeds from cattle and corgis to sheep and pigs, with a particular focus on the Welsh cob. But it was not without controversy; they were encroaching on the closed and male-dominated world of cob breeding in Cardiganshire and raised eyebrows with their opposition to docking, penchant for palominos and open-mindedness to part-breds.

    “The ladies were all ahead of their time and were very intellectual,” says Ann Bigley. “But the cob breeding world thought they were funny old dears — I remember my grandfather, who was a breeder himself, saying it to me. They were women in a man’s world. At that time, women would never even have been on the yard if there was a covering, and my grandfather would never have covered on a Sunday for example. It was a different time.”

    As Teleri writes in her book: “It was no mean job to load and unload strong, frisky stallions and drive them along the narrow Cardiganshire lanes, and then to handle and control them. The old breeders found these farmyard scenes of procreation handled by two women quite embarrassing and totally unacceptable.”

    Performance animals

    Unfazed by any disapproval, Pauline and Barbara — who harboured the equine interest, while Enid’s later involvement was financial — had the foresight to realise that for cobs to prosper in this new era, their role needed to be redefined; in addition to driving and harness work, they needed to be suitable to be ridden.

    “We like to think that our cobs and ponies today are performance animals,” says Ann, who runs the stud with her husband Len, breeding sections A, B, D and part-breds, and traces this emphasis back to the women’s breeding ethos. “I know they look lovely and we can run around a field with them in hand, but they’re also broken in and you can ride them. At the end of the day, any pony has to have a job and be ridden, so they need the right conformation and the soundness. And that’s come through from the ponies and cobs that were being developed at Llanarth all those years ago.”

    Judge, breeder and former editor of the Welsh Pony and Cob Society journal David Blair adds: “The Llanarth cobs are conformationally correct animals and their attributes make them ideally suited to riding. They are active, free-moving cobs, without excessive knee action, combined with the much-needed trainability essential for success in the modern performance world and something witnessed in Fair Lady [at the 2019 Brightwells Sale].”

    The stallion Llanarth Braint, bred in 1948, marked a turning point for the stud, with a movement that showcased the Llanarth cobs’ quality, and one that can be seen in the stud’s current progeny.

    “Braint really was quite prepotent in that so many of our animals have this fabulous action, where they use themselves behind and in front, and it comes through from him,” says Ann.

    It was not until Pauline and Barbara ventured beyond the confines of Cardiganshire, however, that his quality was recognised.

    “There is no doubt that Braint was viewed with suspicion, as he was the only cob stallion at that time not docked,” adds Ann.

    The women had a vision to showcase the breed beyond Wales, however, and it was in England that Llanarth Braint garnered the praise he deserved, standing supreme at the Ponies of Britain Show at Harrogate in 1958.

    “In the early 1950s the women set their goals at a high level, but the market was limited because few people outside Wales realised or understood the merit and quality of Welsh native breeds. It was imperative to put the emphasis on promotion and to show breeders outside Wales the quality and distinctiveness of their product,” writes Teleri.

    They travelled across the country from Ascot to Edinburgh with the cobs and, by the late 1950s, they had become well known and respected. Back at home the estate had expanded to 300 acres, but in 1961, despite the prosperity, Barbara decided to leave Blaenwern for London, prompted by her mother’s ill health. It was at this stage that Enid retired from her professorship at the Guildhall School of Music, sold her house in Regent’s Park and moved to Blaenwern, investing in the farms and stud.

    In October 1964, Pauline turned her attention to bringing people to Llanarth, with the first sale of Welsh cobs at Blaenwern — and the only one of its kind.

    “That first sale was Miss Taylor being very forward-thinking,” says Ann. “She had a very broad vision and wasn’t at all parochial.”

    For David Blair, Pauline was “the pioneering ambassador of the Welsh cob”.

    “She campaigned the breed beyond the boundaries of the Principality [Wales] to places where the cobs were unknown other than by name, and the 1964 sale brought the people to the Principality,” he says, with subsequent sales flourishing in popularity.

    In Pauline’s 1964 catalogue foreword it read: “Llanarth Stud is the largest stud of Welsh cobs and ponies of cob type in existence and was founded some 20 years ago. The aim was to breed a type which, while losing nothing of the true native pony quality, substance and stamina of the old-fashioned cob, would also have real riding quality and above all free forward action from the shoulder.”

    These are qualities Ann hopes “we are striving to carry on after all these years…”

    ‘Rack and ruin’

    In 1964, Len Bigley had arrived at Blaenwern for a holiday job from Shropshire and never left. “He had a place at college and everything, and I don’t think his mother ever forgave him,” laughs Ann. His first day was not without incident; after failing to secure a stable door, a stallion made straight across the yard to fight with another through the top door.

    “Never having dealt with stallions, I raced across and tried to separate them,” Len remembers in The Ladies of Blaenwern. “The stallion kicked out and caught both my knees. I caught the stallion but I was feeling very sorry for myself.”

    By the end of the 1960s, however, this unpromising start was a distant memory; he’d become an accomplished handler and judge of cobs, the stud was producing a long line of champions and their cobs were being transported across the globe, with the palominos in high demand in Europe’s circuses.

    But with old age and retirement looming, by the 1970s the women began turning their attention to who would inherit the stud to ensure a secure future. It was eventually agreed in 1976 that the estate and farming enterprise would be gifted to the University College at Aberystwyth — a decision that was ultimately to bring the stud to the brink of collapse. Just seven years later, the estate was on the market, there was unrest among the Cardiganshire farming and breeding community at the dismantling of the stud, and Len and Ann had started afresh at The Quakers Farm in Herefordshire, where they embarked on running a producing yard.

    “It’s interesting how quickly downhill a breeding operation can go,” laments Ann with hindsight. “Len managed to survive for a year or two [under the ownership of the university] but he couldn’t stand it. There were four years between us moving to Herefordshire and the university selling it all up, but already their breeding policy had gone a bit to rack and ruin.”

    When the final lot of 14 cobs came up for sale, the Bigleys were able to buy them through a friend — “we knew the university would never sell to us because it had got very politicised,” says Ann — and the Llanarth prefix would continue in safe hands.

    “It was very important to Len to continue Pauline’s legacy, because that’s the last thing he promised her when she was on her deathbed,” Ann adds. “She knew they’d made a terrible mistake and they were devastated that it was all going so wrong. Len had promised he would keep it going.”

    Seven of the stud’s section D stars…

    LLANARTH FAIR LADY: The dun mare, a Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) finalist in 2019, was sold for £25,500 at the 2019 Brightwells’ Autumn Cob Sales.

    LLANARTH BRAINT: “Llanarth Braint is himself undoubtedly an unusually prepotent sire and stamps his type, action, stamina and temperament on his stock to a marked degree in successive generations, thereby giving unity and character to the stud,” wrote Pauline Taylor about the stud’s grand champion in 1964.

    LLANARTH FLYING SAUCER: The chestnut roan mare, by Llanarth Braint out of Llanarth Rocket, produced 19 foals between 1954 and 1976 and is considered to have had a notable influence on the Welsh cob breed.

    LLANARTH FLYING COMET: By Llanarth Braint and out of Llanarth Flying Saucer, Flying Comet was champion at HOYS in 1975 and supreme champion in 1979 and 1980. He was also never beaten at the Royal Welsh Show, where he won the show’s prestigious The George, Prince of Wales Cup on four occasions in the 1970s.

    LLANARTH PRINCE OF WALES: One of the stud’s current senior stallions, he qualified for the Cuddy in 2013 and 2018 and has been champion at nearly every county show in the country. His stock are now winning both in-hand and under saddle.

    LLANARTH SELDOM SEEN: A stallion shown successfully both in-hand and under saddle, he qualified for the Cuddy in 2011 and for HOYS under saddle three times.

    LLANARTH FIERY JACK: The bay qualified for the Cuddy in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017. Already a champion sire, his first produce is out under saddle this year.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 20 February 2020