Hooftrek founder Graham “Will” Williams offers guided and solo hiking with Welsh mountain pack ponies
We have 16 ponies and three generations of foals that we have bought from the farmers here in Powys who own the feral herds on the hills. The farmers know which ponies belong to which of them. The ponies are all 12hh and will never be ridden; even the 20- to 25-year-olds have had nothing done to them until they come to us and we socialise them.
The best way is to bring the foals in with the grown-ups that know what to do, and they learn from them. Once they see other ponies having headcollars put on and their feet being picked up, they relax. They’re very biddable.
It’s a slow process, from resting a halter over them and brushing them with a pole to get them used to being touched. They’re part of a herd, and they learn their place in it and who’s in charge. There is always a pony in charge of the group to whom they all defer.
Their numbers are declining: there are currently fewer than 500 breeding mares across Wales. They’re not worth anything if you’re not breeding from them. If they have a purpose, people will continue to breed – if they can sell them. We want to find a purpose for these ponies. It’s already been done in Europe; it’s big business in France, Italy, Portugal and Morocco, where donkeys that were farm animals are now an important part of the leisure industry as pack animals.
Hiking guests start by spending time with the ponies; feeding, grooming, and packing kit for overnights or panniers for the day. If they’re confident horse people, they go on their own with our detailed maps, route descriptions and campsite information. Guided or unguided, everyone looks after their own pony.
You can’t go far leading pack ponies. You travel slowly: 2mph, if that. The local routes are for two to four days and we’re planning a 10-day route to the coast.
I’ve been here for 30 years; I founded Freerein in 1989 which remains the only riding centre to offer unescorted trail rides for adults to hire a horse and self-guide. We book their stays in farms and inns.
They take our maps on their rides: we have drawn up details of 800 miles of trails, from the Wye Valley across the Radnor Hill and Cambrian Mountains.
We practise natural horsemanship, which is really just being gentle with the ponies.
Some riding schools like horses not to think; they’d rather have them obedient, but they should all look out for their riders.
I don’t want them super-trained, they need to work out which way around a puddle, they should know what’s going on and be there in the morning ready to start work. I don’t like to see them boot-camped, I like to see them keen to do what they do.
We are well kitted out for Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, school groups and individuals. A woman who was ill with ME stayed here for 18 months. The ponies knew when she was ill and couldn’t cope. She got so much out of them, and is better now. Jacko, the herd leader, would stand for hours resting on her when she was upset. But once she was better, he wouldn’t let her catch him. She took it quite personally!
I feel very much like I need ponies around. We did part ways for a year when I bought some Canadian canoes to hire out for kayaking trips and carrying camping equipment. But you can’t stroke them or groom them, they can’t do much (though you don’t have to find grazing!) and I missed ponies.
When I was guiding I had a 14hh pony – ideal for hopping on and off – he was very good at everything he had to do. I was fond of him. But there was something about him; you could tell he’d have liked to have lived on the hill.
Also published in H&H 4 March 2021
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