History on Horseback – still history-ing, still horse-ing!

I’m just cantering through with a quick update. It’s been a long time since my last post but I’ve been busy – there’s a lot of activity on the History on Horseback Facebook page – why not join us there? I’ve also been making some History on Horseback products which you can find on Zazzle. I’ll be back again soon with more information, new posts and interviews – so watch this space! – Miriam

All the King’s horses

scan0018_638203The horse has always been associated with royalty, and rock royalty is no exception to the rule. In the history of rock and roll, there are many royals, but only one King: Elvis Aaron Presley.  One of the few remaining aspects of a life that is so otherwise so well known is his love of horses and riding. Lesley Pilling believes that Elvis spent his happiest times away from the celebrity circus, with his horses on his ranch, the Circle G. Lesley is now  on a quest to bring the place where he was most at home back to life, with the intention of making it a welcoming communal venue for visitors, locals and the disadvantaged. Lesley talked to Miriam Bibby about Elvis, the man, his horses, and her vision for the future of the Circle G Ranch.

Miriam Bibby:  Lesley, welcome to History on Horseback. Please tell us something about the Circle G and what it meant to Elvis.

Lesley Pilling: Thank you Miriam, it’s a pleasure to speak to you about Elvis, his love of horses and the Circle G Ranch. The Circle G Ranch is located about 15 miles south of Graceland (Elvis’ home in Memphis TN) in a place called Horn Lake just over the border in Mississippi. Elvis bought the ranch in February 1967. He first saw the ranch (then named Twinkeltown Farm) whilst out on a horse buying expedition. Driving by the ranch Elvis was attracted by the 75 white cross which was illuminated at night. As Elvis was quite a spiritual person and he was also looking for a place to house his ever increasing stable of horses, seeing the ranch for sale – Elvis being Elvis, bought the 163 acre property there and then – complete with its own herd of Santa Gertrudis cattle.

The Circle G Ranch was, Lesley believes, the place where Elvis spent his happiest times.  Priscilla Presley wrote in her autobiography of this time: "What seemed like a new life had begun.  We spent our honeymoon at the Circle G.  I look back at those weeks as a remarkable lull in the middle of a storm.  Elvis was between pictures.  I’ve never seen him so ‘free’, free of the entourage, the press, the Colonel and the incessant demands of his career.  It was just the two of us in our ranch house.  I loved cooking his breakfast....  After breakfast we’d saddle up our horses and ride them through the hills."

The Circle G Ranch was, Lesley believes, the place where Elvis spent his happiest times. Priscilla Presley wrote in her autobiography of this time: “What seemed like a new life had begun. We spent our honeymoon at the Circle G. I look back at those weeks as a remarkable lull in the middle of a storm. Elvis was between pictures. I’ve never seen him so ‘free’, free of the entourage, the press, the Colonel and the incessant demands of his career. It was just the two of us in our ranch house. I loved cooking his breakfast…. After breakfast we’d saddle up our horses and ride them through the hills.”

Elvis wanted to register the ranch as The Circle G, but as this name was already taken he registered it as The Flying Circle G – although to Elvis and his friends, family and fans it has always been known as The Circle G Ranch. Elvis’ ownership of the ranch took place at a time of great change in his life. In May 1967, after owning the ranch for around 4 months, Elvis married Priscilla in Las Vegas – they then returned to Memphis and moved onto the Circle G for the main part of their honeymoon. Priscilla is quoted as saying this was probably the happiest time of their married life. She got a chance to cook and clean and just take care of Elvis; they could actually be just a normal couple and she felt that Elvis was able, for the first time, to find peace at the ranch. Shortly after this Elvis would have found out that he was to become a father – another milestone in his life. His movie contracts were also coming to an end and we understand that the peace and freedom that the ranch afforded him enabled him to think very seriously about the direction his career might take in the coming years.

The ranch was a place where Elvis could escape the pressures of being ‘Elvis Presley’ and simply be a normal guy, hanging out with his friends and family and riding his horses.

MB: From your description, the Circle G and his horses were at the heart of Elvis’s life. The Circle G was clearly a place where he felt truly at home. Do we know when Elvis first rode a horse? What do we know about his relationship with them?

LP: Elvis loved horses. Although we’re not exactly sure if he had any experience of horses during his childhood years in Tupelo or Memphis, we do know that he rode horses as early as 1956 and at that time also spoke of his desire to own his own ranch. The collection of horses at Graceland began Christmas 1966 when Elvis bought a quarter horse named Domino for Priscilla as her Christmas gift. His enthusiasm for horses grew rapidly as he bought horses for his friends and family and soon the stable at Graceland was bursting at the seams.

We do know that Elvis loved to care for his horses and there are documented tales of the time and love he took in doing so. It wasn’t at all unusual for him to walk his horse Rising Sun for an hour after riding him for just 15 minutes just to make sure that the horse wasn’t harmed in any way. Elvis loved to work on his own tack – those times alone with his horses allowed him the peace and serenity that his hectic life style didn’t usually permit.

MB: How many horses did he keep on the ranch; and did he have favourites?

LP: We believe that Elvis kept over 24 horses on the Circle G – although we’re still researching. We recently spoke to a gentleman who sold Elvis horses and equipment and we’re constantly reaching out to acquire more information for our Circle G Memory Bank. His favourite had to be his American Quarter Horse, a Golden Palomino named Rising Sun. Most of the photographs you see of Elvis on horseback show him on Rising Sun. He loved that horse and Rising Sun loved Elvis. He did own another memorable horse, Bear – a beautiful black Tennessee walking horse.

Elvis Presley's favourite horse was the palomino Rising Sun. Priscilla Presley wrote: "I remember one day I happened to look out of the window.  It was twilight.  The sky was aglow in misty blue and radiant pink.  There was Elvis walking Rising Sun, his Golden Palomino.  I saw them as silhouettes against the darkening sky.  Elvis was walking slowly, I could practically hear him breathe.  His breath was easy, his body relaxed.  At that moment I was convinced that my husband had actually found peace.”

Elvis Presley’s favourite horse was the palomino Rising Sun. Priscilla Presley wrote: “I remember one day I happened to look out of the window. It was twilight. The sky was aglow in misty blue and radiant pink. There was Elvis walking Rising Sun, his Golden Palomino. I saw them as silhouettes against the darkening sky. Elvis was walking slowly, I could practically hear him breathe. His breath was easy, his body relaxed.
At that moment I was convinced that my husband had actually found peace.”

MB: What role did horses play in Elvis Presley’s professional life, in music and movies?

LP: Some of Elvis’ best known films featured horses – Love Me Tender, Flaming Star, Stay Away Joe and Charro. There was one hairy moment during the filming of Flaming Star when a horse ran away with Elvis – this understandably shook him up for a while but he quickly overcame his fear and was over it long before he bought the Circle G.

MB: It’s astonishing now to think of the many achievements of his all too brief life. What happened to the ranch after his death?

LP: Yes, Elvis achieved so much in a relatively short period of time. The world is aware of much of that but there is so much more to the man than is generally talked about.

Elvis was a very spiritual individual who was constantly searching and learning. He had a deep faith and the Circle G resonated with him for that reason. Even today when you stand and look at that 75 foot white cross that first drew Elvis there you can feel that calm and peace that Elvis did.

Elvis also did a great deal for charity, much of it anonymously. Here at the Circle G Foundation our aim is to continue his charitable and humanitarian legacy at the ranch. At the time of his passing Elvis didn’t own the ranch. Although we do have documented statements that he continued to visit the property throughout his life and spoke to friends and family about it fondly. The ranch has been in private hands for many years. We believe this is our chance to return Elvis’ spirit there and in doing so continue his legacy of helping those less fortunate.

MB: When you became involved with the Circle G, the germ of an idea began. How did your involvement come about?

LP: I have been an Elvis fan since 1968 (aged 7) so obviously I’ve known about the ranch. I didn’t get to visit Memphis until 2008 and then it wasn’t until 2010 when I got the chance to visit the Circle G. Finding it in the terrible state it’s in reduced me to tears and I promised myself (and Elvis) there and then to do whatever I could to save it. On returning home I launched the campaign on Facebook. Now three years later the Circle G Foundation has supporters all around the world. We have a Management Team and 29 Ambassadors working hard to spread the word – and our support grows daily.

MB: Since you first saw the potential in the Circle G, the possibilities have expanded immensely so that it’s now a very rich vision indeed. Tell us something about your plans for the future, and where you are currently.

LP: Yes, since we began in 2010 our vision for the ranch has clarified and expanded. As I mentioned previously we feel this is the ideal location to continue Elvis’ charitable and humanitarian legacy. We would like to establish facilities for the disabled (hopefully riding for the disabled), help the disadvantaged by running programmes on the property and also establish rest and recouperation for service veterans. Of course it will be a wonderful site for Elvis fans to visit and stay but we also want to attract families to what will be a unique visitor experience. We are currently reaching out to potential investors who can help us achieve our dream. Although we realise that there is no quick fix and that such plans take time to come to fruition – we have achieved an awful lot in the past three years. Our profile both inside and outside the Elvis world continues to grow – and we hope that through interviews such as this we can reach out to the equine community, we’d love them to be involved.

MB: Are you finding the support to bring this vision to reality, both locally and internationally?

LP: One of the very special things about Elvis Presley is that he continues to be a global phenomenon. There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t recognise his name and there isn’t a country in the world where you can’t find an Elvis Presley Fan Club! Here at the Circle G Foundation we work very hard on this ‘international’ fan base. We have our own Ambassadors in Australia, South Africa, Italy, France, UK, Canada, Belgium, Netherlands, USA, Denmark – so we have the world pretty well covered and we’ve had messages of support from every continent – so yes, we are finding that international support. That doesn’t mean we will stop reaching out – supporters are always extremely welcome and we love them to get in touch, no matter what field they come from or what nationality they are. If anyone does want to get in touch with us they can visit our website  where they’ll find lots more detailed information, pictures and interesting items to look at. Use our Contact page to send us a message – we’d love to hear from your readers.

MB: How do you think Elvis would feel about the project? What would he say?

LP: This is a question we’ve asked ourselves many times. We hope that he’d be proud of his fans as we work towards continuing his charitable legacy on the ranch. We know he loved the Circle G and we want to return his spirit there. It’s a wonderful thought to imagine him smiling that million dollar smile and saying – ‘I have the best fans in the world!

MB Lesley, thank you – good luck with your project! If any followers of History on Horseback would like to know more, or get involved, check out the project web site at http://www.circlegfoundation.co.uk and the Circle G Facebook page.

Not just for girls: the past – and future – of the pony book

Aside

ImageThe pony book, its cover frequently evoking sunny gymkhana summers, rosettes and pony-mad girls, is a standard of children’s fiction. However, there’s more to it than that.  When Jane Badger, already an experienced writer, blogger and researcher of the genre, set out to write Heroines on Horseback – The Pony Book in Children’s Fiction, she had little idea of just “how many more titles I would uncover.”  The books are not only about wish-fulfilment and ambition, but also about dedication, loss and the cost, in every sense of the word, of turning a dream into reality. I talked to Jane about her work and the history and influence of the pony book.

Miriam Bibby: First of all, welcome to History on Horseback, Jane.  The pony book has been a popular genre for young people (and girls in particular) for decades.  It’s likely to have played some part in the formative reading of anyone with an interest in the history of the horse and I’m sure that many of us recall the experience of our first pony book. Tell me about yours. How did you respond to it at the time?

Jane Badger: Thank you for having me on your blog!  I read anything and everything as a child, so in the scramble to cram in as much as possible, I’m not 100% sure what my first pony book was. I’m fairly certain it was Diana Pullein-Thompson’s Riding with the Lyntons, which is certainly the first pony book I owned. It was the Armada edition with the Mary Gernat illustration and the dung brown cover. In retrospect, it’s an odd book to be completely hooked by, as it launches fairly early on into the death of a pony in the road, and the ostracism of the heroine by her new found friends, but I didn’t care. I read it, and re-read it. My father died when I was small, and I can’t ever remember not knowing that, so death had always been part of my world and so didn’t disturb me. I knew it happened. What I do remember being absolutely enchanted by was this marvellous world where people actually had a pony of their own. I didn’t know anyone who had a pony of their own, so to step into the world of someone who did was heaven.

MB: Your book Heroines on Horseback – The Pony Book in Children’s Fiction traces the development of the pony book from 18th century animal story precursors, with the first “pony-narrated” text that you’ve found dating to 1800, long before Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877). Some recognisable pony book themes began to emerge in this early book, The Memoirs of Dick, the Little Poney (Supposed to be written by himself…)  Can you outline a few of these?

JB: Ah Dick. I can recommend reading Dick, who’s freely available on the internet. He has a voice all his own. Dick starts his story from foalhood, through his capture and breaking in, and then on through several different owners (some good, some not) until he ends up as a happy child’s pony. There’s a strong moral bent in a lot of animal literature: its aim is didactic. It wants to teach the reader how to treat the narrator animal well, and that certainly happens with Dick, who has some fairly grim experiences at the hands of a young and selfish master. Dick is of course saved by the good graces of humanity, as many pony-book ponies after him were. It’s something that’s remained true of most pony literature; the power of humanity over the horse’s fate. Interestingly in the 20th  century you do get the odd story where the horse breaks free and forges its own way (H M Peel’s Jago for one), but it’s rare. Dick’s experience,  where it’s humanity’s responsibility to care, is the norm.

MB: People with a little knowledge of the pony book might think that the books are about upper crust gels who go to boarding school and attend gymkhanas. In fact, as your book clearly shows, that’s simply the over-worked – hackneyed – end of the genre. Themes of class, money and status are, in fact, often developed in ways that people might not expect.

Archetypal

An archetypal image? Illustrator Geoffrey Whittam specialised in pony books. His work extends from the idyllic, such as this, to the dramatic and adventurous.

JB: Yes, that’s true. Diana Pullein-Thompson was particularly keen on showing characters who had money but were still human beings, who didn’t deserve the opprobrium thrown at them because they were wealthy. Her Christina, in Three Ponies and Shannan, has stacks of money; large, beautifully done house, three lovely ponies, a groom, and anything material she wants. It’s Christina though, who’s the heroine;  the poverty-struck child, Charlie, child of the vicarage is unkind, thoughtless and a bully. As well as subverting the accepted mores, you get authors who take a good look at what it’s actually like to have very little money and to try and get a pony. There’s Veronica Westlake’s Ten Pound Pony where the children have a real, hard, slog to get a pony, and probably best of all, K M Peyton’s Fly-by-Night. Her heroine Ruth lives in a family where there is no spare money whatsover, but Ruth buys a pony with her sparse savings and then tries to keep it in her back garden. It’s the best of the books which aims to show that the pony book dream may be achievable, but it won’t be without a cost.

MB: I must say the matter of “pony book poor”, discussed in your book, did make me laugh out loud. It seemed to be a case of: “Down to our last pony and we have to move to a draughty rectory with only three acres on the edge of town – poor us!” That’s definitely not the whole story though. Which writers do you think stand out in the development of the pony book in unique and challenging ways?

JB: K M Peyton and Patricia Leitch. Patricia Leitch is a much under rated author. Her The Magic Pony, reissued last year by Catnip can be read as a (very good) straightforward pony story and a study of what it’s like to die in today’s society. K M Peyton’s characters are always arrestingly real.

MB: I’ve always thought that two important – and undervalued – themes of pony books are egalitarianism and feminism, though that’s perhaps not a word the protagonists would use. They simply get on with what they want to do. However, in your book, Stacey Gregg, successful 21st century pony book author, describes Ruby Ferguson’s heroine Jill Crewe as “funny, feisty and unapologetically feminist.” We can learn a lot from our horseback heroines about independence, responsibility and resourcefulness, amongst other qualities. Are horseback heroines feminists? What else do the books (and the ponies in them) teach us?

JB: I suppose that depends on what your definition of feminism is: if your definition of it is that you get on and do what you want to do, and don’t let yourself be defined by stereotypical ideas, then yes, a lot of them are. I’ve already mentioned the strong thread of morality that’s present in most horse literature: indeed in most animal literature. Caring for the animal properly is paramount; unselfishness – putting the animal’s needs before your own – is key.

MB: Many avid followers of Ruby Ferguson’s “Jill” felt seriously let down by the disappointing end to the series, when, at the end of the book, Jill apparently gives up her dreams and ambitions to work with horses, and to write, in order to become a secretary. Despite the fact that she’s been successfully doing both as a younger teenager, neither is seen as appropriate for her as an adult. Even after fifty or sixty years, it’s clearly something that still rankles with many readers. Why do you think Ferguson took this final course for her upbeat and inspiring heroine?

caney

Jill, Ruby Ferguson’s heroine on horseback, was an inspiration to many; but ultimately the disappointing ending to an otherwise satisfying series is “a puzzle”, says Jane Badger. Illustration by Clifford Caney.

JB: Jill’s a puzzle, or at any rate the situation Jill ends the series in is a puzzle. All through the series, Jill is the girl most pony mad girls want to be. I think it’s because Jill is the quintessential wish-fulfilment figure that it’s such a shocking blow when she gives it all up to become a secretary. Yes, I know you can say that she’s an author, as she’s nominally writing the books, but that’s not the point of the scene in Pony Jobs for Jill when Captain CC tells Jill and Ann it’s time to stop mucking about with horses and buckle down to real life and train as secretaries. It’s the sensible career that’s the focus. No one says to Jill “Oh, and of course you can continue your writing and your job will help you survive.” It’s the conventional job that is the whole point of that last scene. Writing, and indeed working with horses are entirely left behind.

Whilst I can see something in the argument that this might have led some readers to question the beliefs that made Jill act the way she did, I think readers react to Jill too personally to start questioning her actions in that way. For them, she’s not a symbol of oppression, or otherwise: she’s a character for whom the reader cares. It’s astonishing to the reader when Jill happily agrees with the plan of doing a secretarial course. Secretary to the PM! says Jill, in a rather pathetic echo of her earlier career aspirations: a few books earlier she wanted to be an MP.

I think there’s an argument for saying that Pony Jobs for Jill is the rather uneasy intrusion of the authorial voice into a series which was classic wish fulfilment. It’s like Harry Potter giving up defeating Voldomort to be an accountant or going into management at Sainsbury’s. Harry doing a realistic job isn’t the point of the books for the reader, and the same is true for Jill.

MB: It’s interesting that the rise and rise of the pony book heroines paralleled the rise of the motor vehicle and the collapse of the working horse population in general. If Enid Bagnold’s 1935 National Velvet hadn’t “given voice [to].. the great galloping passion” of girls for horses, as you vividly describe it in your book, it might almost appear that girls were inheriting a box of outgrown toys from an older brother who has lost interest, particularly as heroines came to dominate the genre in the 40s and 50s.  However, the only writer to have explored in depth this theme of the rise of the machine versus the fall, or at least diminishing, of the horse – with spectacular success – is K.M. Peyton in her Flambards trilogy. Any thoughts on this?

whittam2

Riding horses is currently seen as a mostly female activity, but there have always been attempts to balance this. Illustration by Geoffrey Whittam.

JB: I’m not sure the horse has diminished: yes, it has as a working animal, but the popularity of riding as a leisure activity has grown and grown. The focus has changed to the horse as a companion in leisure, and pony books reflect that. Your question does raise the issue of the whole position of boys and riding: there are very few, and the number who are members of the Pony Club goes down year by year. Riding’s seen as a feminine activity, though interestingly that very thing is being addressed in Victoria Eveleigh’s latest series, Joe.

MB: Leading on from the last question, there’s a case to be made for the most balanced literature in this genre appealing to both boys and girls. You discuss this balance in Heroines on Horseback through various examples.  My favourite pony book (if that’s an accurate description of it), and one of the first that I read (All Change by Josephine Pullein-Thompson) is written in the first person from the perspective of Douglas, the eldest of five children, whose father’s future employment is uncertain.  I found the combination of well-developed and complex characters with two believable strands dealing with secrecy and deception, interspersed with gripping dramatic episodes, very compelling; and perhaps unusually, the protagonist is male.

JB: All Change is a fine book! Josephine Pullein-Thompson was very keen that boys should have an equal part with girls in her stories. K M Peyton also has characters both male and female: it’s interesting that her heroine Ruth goes on to marry bad boy Patrick and gives up horses, turning her passion and single mindedness on a human. It’s the boys, Jonathan and Peter, who keep up with horses. Is it the same in Europe, I wonder, the pony and the pony book being seen as a girl thing? In America, horse books appeal to a wider audience, possibly because of the USA’s Western and cowboy heritage, which forms the subject for a lot of its equine literature. But yes, to return to your question, the best books show a balance, or else take a good look at why the imbalance is so very marked now.

MB: As with all fiction, pony books deal with the big questions in life: death, loss, love, change, war; and, as also, as you comment, “quite rightly, the normal preoccupations of teenagers”, that’s to say who fancies whom. Riding with the Lyntons includes references to a false murder accusation and many of the books have neglected or challenging children in them – and often these are the children of wealthy parents. I was particularly surprised to read about Dorian Williams’ Wendy trilogy, which I haven’t read, which seems to deal with exploitation and hints at abuse; aspects that are certainly found within the equestrian competitive world but rarely openly discussed.

JB: Sexual abuse I think is only really hinted at in the Wendy books: Wendy’s a young girl working away from home for the first time, and my reading of the books is that Dorian Williams was keen to give starry eyed youngsters whose greatest dream was to work with horses at least some idea of what could go on. Having said that, the starry eyed can be enormously obtuse, and I’m not sure they’d have picked up on it. Glenda Spooner’s The Silk Purse looks at the shenanigans of the showing world head on, and there are American books which take a good look at the nastier side of the horse world too. You’re right that they’re rarely discussed: in a genre which is often straightforward wish fulfilment, the flip side of the dream doesn’t often get the room it ought to.

MB: Do pony books and their heroines influence, or rather reflect, successive generations?

JB: Good question. I think it’s a bit of both. One thing that did surprise me when I started researching horse literature was the very real effect Patricia Leitch’s Jinny books had had on people who read them as a teenager. They felt that for the first time, here was someone who felt and acted as they did. If you did a survey of people who have chestnut Arab mares, I’d bet a good proportion of them read Jinny when young.

MB: The pony book is still alive and well in the 21st century, although there’s some discussion – and even concern – about the “pinkification” of the genre. Can you describe this phenomenon and discuss its implications?

JB: Susanna Forrest is very good on this in her equine memoir, If Wishes Were Horses. Some of it is down to the objectification, or even the commercialisation of the horse. When you look through vintage equestrian magazines there are of course advertisements, and if you wanted to spend shedloads of money you’ve always been able to. What’s different now is the massive, massive range of stuff that horses are supposed to need: wardrobes of rugs, pots of supplements, a thousand different grooming tools… That commercialism reflects society as a whole of course. Besides that, there’s the active decision on the part of toy retailers and publishers to market books for girls in a very specific way: the cover must be pink, the characters on it cartoons, and if you can add some sparkles in, so much the better. Of course what’s inside may not be even remotely pink and fluffy, but it all goes to mark the book out as something not for boys. Besides marking out the horse world as something exclusively for women and girls, I wonder if it also changes the way the horse itself is viewed, so that it becomes an object on which time and money is spent, with perhaps its essential horse-ness being lost.

MB: The pony book authors of my youth that I best remember – to misquote Black Beauty – are the Pullein-Thompsons, K.M. Peyton, Gillian Baxter and the two Monicas (Dickens and Edwards). The Jill books were just slightly too early for me, the Jinny books somewhat too late. However, reading the books of my own generation set me on a search for earlier ones and so I did also discover Ruby Ferguson, Mary Gervaise, “Golden Gorse”, Joanna Cannon and Primrose Cumming, amongst others. And, of course, Bagnold’s magnificent National Velvet must be a book that still has power today. Is there any sign that the current generation of “pink and sparkly” pony book readers are discovering the writers of the past? Or has the world simply changed too much for those early writers to have any relevance for 21st century readers?

JB: Well, Jill’s being republished and is selling well. K M Peyton’s backlist has been bought up by Random  House, who must feel there’s some mileage in it, and of course Jinny’s being republished too. As for the earliest authors, if you have an imagination you can make that leap, and I think most people are able to do it – children in particular, as they’re not necessarily as hide bound as adults can be.  There’s also the element of being able to see that years ago, other people loved the horse just as much as you do, with all the issues of continuity and difference that that throws up.

MB: And hoping for a strong future for the pony book provides a good point to conclude! It’s been great fun finding out more about the history of the genre. Jane’s book is published by Girls Gone By (GGB) Publishers and lively discussions on the topic of pony books and their authors can be found at Jane Badger Books http://www.janebadgerbooks.co.uk/   Backcover

By yon bonny brays…Donkey Heaven in the Borders

Not just about horses: The Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells in the Borders opened its doors to the public for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

Not just about horses: The Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells in the Borders opened its doors to the public for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

There were donkeys, donkeys everywhere, and also camelids, pigs, goats, chickens and a pony or two, when The Scottish Borders Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells opened its gates for the Borders Festival of the Horse earlier this year. A good thing too; because donkeys deserve their moment in the sun just as much as horses. They’ve played as important a role in human history, although it might have been frequently overshadowed by their larger and faster cousins. In fact, as I was watching the donkeys watch the humans watching them, I knew that I was going to go home afterwards and ransack the bookshelves in search of donkey related material.

Humans owe a lot to me and my ancestors, you know!

Humans owe a lot to me and my ancestors.

If you were to travel back in time to the end of the last ice age, wherever you went in the northern hemisphere, including America, you’d find equids of one kind or another – horses, zebras or wild asses – roaming free in enormous numbers. Cross from north America into South America, and you’d find horses there too. They have only been hunted to extinction by humans in those two continents since the end of the ice age. It’s perhaps only 8,000 or 9,000 years since the last truly wild indigenous horse in America fell to a hunter’s spear.

At the end of the ice age, various types of wild ass were found across north Africa and parts of Asia (such as Equus africanus in Africa and Arabia, and Equus hemionus and Equus kiang, both onagers, in Asia). The ass extended its range as far as Nubia and Somalia in east Africa, both of which have – or rather had – their own wild versions. After the ice age, as far as humans were concerned, equids of all kinds meant one thing and one thing only – food on the hoof. Masses of skeletal evidence bear witness to this; and so it could be argued that asses, along with other equids, played a part in the inexorable rise of humans long before they were put into service.

Donkeys were domesticated and in the service of man long before horses. This image from an Egyptian 5th dynasty tomb shows a man seated in an unusual carrying chair placed across the back of two donkeys. Image after John Gardiner Wilkinson from Patrick Houlihan's monograph on instances of humour in riding scenes from ancient Egypt, published by Gottinger Miszellen.

Donkeys were domesticated and in the service of man long before horses. This image from an Egyptian 5th dynasty tomb shows a man seated in an unusual carrying chair placed across the back of two donkeys. Image after John Gardiner Wilkinson from Patrick Houlihan’s monograph on instances of humour in riding scenes from ancient Egypt, published by Gottinger Miszellen.

In fact, for various reasons discussed by Juliette Clutton-Brock, Mary Littauer and Joost Crouwel amongst others, equids were domesticated relatively late in human history. The first animals used for drawing vehicles were bovid – ox-type animals – not equid. When – and where – equids were first domesticated is a contentious point amongst researchers, but the strongest claim for the domestication of the horse is Kazakhstan about 7,000 years ago. This appears to have been for meat, milk and skins, and the concept of riding or driving them came much, much later. What we do know is that Mesopotamian cultures such as the Sumerians started to breed onagers and domesticated donkeys together to produce a larger, stronger and more trainable alternative to bovid draught to use in their massive battle cars around 2,800 BCE. Prior to this, they would certainly have used donkeys as pack animals. Donkeys appear in this role in the tombs of Egyptian officials just a little later in time, from the 5th dynasty onwards (about 2,400 BCE). However, Egypt, or rather Nubia, was almost certainly the first place to domesticate the wild ass.

Sadly, it’s around this date that a recurrent theme in the history of the donkey also emerges. In the tomb of the official Ti at Saqqara, for instance, one man is shown in a scene shouting at a group of donkeys that he is going to “beat you on the bum!” Bullying, threats and beatings have all too often been the patient donkey’s lot in life. Let’s not underestimate the importance of the donkey to the emerging Egyptian pyramid-economy, either; one tomb from the period lists a herd of 2,300 donkeys amongst the owner’s – ahem – assets. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Donkeys still play an important part in the Egyptian economy today. In fact, the history of the donkey and its relationship with humans is important – and clearly one of those neglected areas of  which we need periodic reminders.

One of the earliest images of the people the ancient Egyptians called "rulers of foreign lands", and which historians generally call "The Hyksos" arriving in Egypt, from a tomb at Beni Hassan. Whilst the Hyksos have come to be associated with the arrival of the horse in Egypt, this is only partly true; the horse is particularly associated with one dynasty of the Hyksos AFTER they arrived in Egypt. Most, although not all, equid burials in the delta region of Egypt are of donkeys, which played and still play a vital part in many economies, ancient and modern.

One of the earliest images of the people the ancient Egyptians called “rulers of foreign lands”, and which historians generally call “The Hyksos” arriving in Egypt, from a tomb at Beni Hassan.  The idea that the Hyksos brought the horse to Egypt is only a partial truth. It’s associated with a particular Hyksos dynasty AFTER they arrived in Egypt. Most equid burials in the delta of Egypt from that date are of donkeys which have played a vital role in many economies, ancient and modern.

People have come to associate the Hyksos, often described as “invaders” of Egypt, with the arrival of the horse there. In fact, the horse only came to be associated with a particular dynasty of the Hyksos once they were established in Egypt; and the earliest images of the “Hyksos” in Egypt, from Beni Hassan, show a group of people looking very much like economic migrants arriving with – a donkey.

Whereas the horse is frequently described as “noble”, “spirited”, “powerful” and so on, the donkey has always had to make do with more humble epithets – of which “humble” is used most often. Humble, stubborn, lowly, lazy – the donkey, like the mule, has tended to attract negativity from those who view the horse as obviously superior. But donkeys can often do what horses can’t – and they can do much of what horses do, more cheaply and with less fuss. Encountering a donkey, such as those at the sanctuary, reveals them to be creatures with immense patience and affection; and, strangely given the nature of their interactions with humans over the millennia, they have great curiosity in us and what we do. Stubbornness and difficulty in most equids is a consequence of the need to assert their strong sense of self-preservation.

I'm all ears!

I’m all ears!

The word “ass” betrays its Latin origins – asinus.  Where does the word donkey, in use from the 18th century onwards, come from? Anthony Dent, in his book “Donkey: the Story of the Ass from East to West” speculates that it’s from the Flemish “donnekijn”, meaning “a small, dun-coloured animal”; the same language probably gave us “monkey”, as used for the capuchin ape, from the Flemish “monnekin” or little monk. Originally, donkey would have been pronounced in the same way as monkey – dunkey. In ancient Egypt, however, just as the cat took its name from the noise it made – “miu” – donkeys were called something like “ee-aas”, as they still are in France, to which every child can still relate. Hee-haw, ee-aw, hi-han; unmistakeably the sound of the donkey.  And Doris Rybot suggests in her book “My Kingdom for a Donkey” that “moke”, for a donkey, might be from the Dymoke family crest, which sports a pair of donkey ears. It’s not entirely clear which came first, though – the donkey-moke or the Dy-moke. In Northumberland, Durham and parts of the Borders they are known as cuddies, after Saint Cuthbert. They get a passing defamatory reference – are you surprised? – in the Geordie anthem “Blaydon Races”, in which 19th century bookmaker Coffee Johnnie is accused of stealing white donkeys to make a hat from their skins: “Coffee Johnnie had a white hat on – they yelled ‘Wha’ stole the cuddy?’” This was a notorious trade, as the remark suggests. In other parts of Britain the question “Who stole the donkey?” would inevitably receive the reply “The man with the white hat.”

They talk about me behind my back, you know.

They talk about me behind my back, you know.

The donkey appears in many legends, reaching his finest hour in Christian belief with the Nativity and the humbleness – humility again – of the ox and ass. A donkey is supposed to have carried the holy family into Egypt. Also, there’s the arrival in Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, with Jesus riding on a donkey, although it’s not actually entirely clear in all English versions that a donkey – as distinct from a horse – was intended. However, that, in Christian tradition, is why many donkeys have a cross formed from a dorsal stripe and lines going down over their shoulders. Scientifically, however, it’s likely that it simply indicates their descent from the Nubian wild ass which has similar markings, suggesting that upper Egypt is the likeliest place for the earliest domestication of asses. Darker strands run through the mythology of the donkey, with a possible association with the Egyptian god Set, or Sutekh, and his link to the forces of chaos. Anthony Dent mentions the use of the donkey as an anti-Christian and anti-Jewish symbol in graffiti from Roman contexts. And of course, there’s G.K. Chesterton’s famous poem “The Donkey” with its cutting description of the donkey as “the devil’s walking parody on all four-footed things”: “When fishes flew and forests walked/and figs grew upon thorn/one moment when the moon was blood/then surely I was born.” Then there’s Midas, with the ears of an ass; not to mention infamous Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In fact, the more you examine the history of the donkey, the more you find projections of human fears and foibles onto this unsuspecting animal.

Open wide and say ee-aah. Donkey feet and teeth, like those of horses,  need regular treatment.

Open wide and say ee-aah. Donkey feet and teeth, like those of horses, need regular treatment.

Mini-moke...miniature Mediterranean donkey Basil.

Mini-moke…miniature Mediterranean donkey Basil.

The sanctuary at St Boswells is also called Donkey Heaven, and it’s easy to see why. Beautiful, sheltered paddocks offer a safe haven away from those human fears and foibles. Sadly, abuse and neglect still play a part in donkey rescue, but that’s not the whole story.  When people buy a donkey they might simply find they’ve taken on more than they realised; or as they age or their needs change, the responsibility becomes too much for them. Keeping a donkey is no less expensive or time-consuming than keeping a horse or pony. They need time, attention, footcare, dentistry and veterinary treatment as required. During the course of the day, we are educated in the grooming and coat care required for a donkey as well as watching the sanctuary vets at work on an elderly donkey’s teeth. With over 70 donkeys currently in the sanctuary, there’s a lot of teeth and feet to look after.  Donkeys are affectionate and need companionship and specialised winter care, too, as unlike that of the horse, the ancestor of the domesticated donkey did not come from a continental climate zone with extremes of cold and heat. Whilst they have adapted to other climates, their bodies were originally intended to cope with hot, dry conditions.

To find out more about the Scottish Borders Donkey Sanctuary, visit http://www.donkeyheaven.org/ and for more information about donkeys in general, http://www.donkeybreedsociety.co.uk/

Donkey heaven.

Donkey heaven.

Timbah! Forestry offers working horses room for growth

It's no teddy bear's picnic down in the woods; it's a working day for Caitlin Erskine and her pony Angel.

It’s no teddy bear’s picnic down in the woods; it’s a working day for Caitlin Erskine and her pony Angel.

It’s a gloomy and slightly wet day in the Borders, but the new leaves and grass are glowing with an intensity that is only seen in spring. Despite the weather, people and trailers are gathering in a small car park over the road from the impressive new visitor centre at Abbotsford, the former home of Sir Walter Scott. We’re here for a demonstration of horse logging, organised by the British Horse Loggers for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

There goes one fast pony!

There goes one fast pony!

Timber extraction by horses is an unusual phenomenon: a growth area for working horses offering opportunities for new businesses. Forestry is an important activity throughout the Borders, and on both sides of the border. Mostly it’s carried out by extremely large machinery. Areas are clear-felled by harvesters and the timber stacked by forwarders. It’s then transported for various industrial and commercial uses and the ground is picked clean of the remnants (the brash) and eventually replanted. This works well for quick-growing conifers but when it comes to sensitive or protected areas of forest, horses can’t be beaten, as both Iain Laidlaw of the Forestry Commission and Robert Gray, the Woodland Manager for Abbotsford agree.

“Modern horse logging is often a viable option for timber harvesting. Rising fuel costs for mechanised transport are helping to make bio-fuelled horses even more competitive,” says Iain. Robert agrees, commenting that “We are keen to try horses rather than machines for timber harvesting on what is a fairly sensitive site. Whilst it may be slightly more expensive than the most efficient modern machines, we think it would be worth paying a premium to minimise disturbance, for example around streams, footpaths and roadside verges. We are aiming to make the woods more attractive by selectively thinning out some of the trees and we hope to make a small profit from the sale of timber to a local sawmill.”

Only the second time out in the woods for Katie but she's soon in the swing of it.

Only the second time out in the woods for Katie but she’s soon in the swing of it.

Nor is a mighty heavy horse necessarily required. All the horses working today are 15 hh or under. Scout, a blue roan coloured horse owned by Danny McNeil, is 22 and about to retire. Danny’s new mare, 9 year old Katie, is just learning the ropes. “It’s only her second time in the woods,” explains Danny. He goes on to tell us that she was nervous and inexperienced when he acquired her. She’s clearly a little uncertain at the start, but by the end of the afternoon has settled into the working routine and even looks as though she’s enjoying herself.  Danny is involved in conventional forestry using large harvesters as well as using horses so he can provide a range of  flexible options suited to individual needs.

Caitlin and Angel carry down timber quickly and efficiently for her father Rab to stack.

Caitlin and Angel carry down timber quickly and efficiently for her father Rab to stack.

Caitlin Erskine is moving logs of trimmed timber quickly and efficiently into place with her pony Angel, whilst her father Rab stacks it neatly. Angel is just 14.2 hh and she is fast. It’s pretty hard to get an action shot of her as she nips competently through the leaves and under the boughs of trees. All the horses in use today wear open bridles. It might seem logical to provide some cover for their eyes against the whipping branches, but in fact it makes more sense to give the horses the freedom to make their own judgements once they’ve learned the ropes. It’s not a job where horses can be micromanaged all the time. They need to work as part of a team.

Caitlin and Angel have really grown up together since the mare joined the family when they were both quite young. Angel is a good all-rounder, her owner advises me, having tried a bit of everything from cross-country to dressage before starting in forestry work two years ago. Caitlin has nothing but praise for the good reliable type of cob that Angel represents, especially having also had experience of high-maintenance thoroughbreds.

Julian Philipson, treasurer of the British Horse Loggers Association, is quick to comment when I tell him I’m doing a piece for my web site on the event.

Not the past, but part of the future of forestry: logging with horses is perfect for sensitive sites.

Not the past, but part of the future of forestry: logging with horses is perfect for sensitive sites.

“History on Horseback? We don’t want any of that history and heritage stuff,” he warns me sternly. “This is about what’s happening NOW and the economic contribution that horses can make in the future. And horses work alongside the most modern forestry equipment.”

“Quite right too,” I respond. “I’m all in favour of that – it’s not just about what horses have done for us, it’s what they can do for us – what we can do together.”

“That’s all right then,” he says, going on to explain the finer details of the specialist harness in use today. “You see the collars? They are made to an Amish design and much of the rest is Swedish in origin. Can you see the wooden peg there? That will provide a quick release if the horse gets into trouble or falls down in the woods.”

Open bridles, Amish collars and Swedish harness; a typical mix for a logging horse.

Open bridles, Amish collars and Swedish harness; a typical mix for a logging horse.

I observe the collars closely, as they are unlike anything I’ve seen before. The Amish are members of a chiefly north American religious and social community which has never moved beyond horse traction. This unbroken tradition, and their adherence to traditional pre-mechanised farming methods, clothing and so on, is seen as odd by many but is in fact an invaluable resource and example for those who wish to return to equine power. Sweden is another source for experience, knowledge and equipment in this field.

DSCF3311Gratifyingly, there’s a good turnout today despite the weather, and, perhaps amongst the visitors watching the horses at work under the dripping leaves, there’ll be someone who will seriously consider horse logging as a business option. The British Horse Loggers organisation is not just an industry support group; under the patronage of Prince Charles, it’s also a charitable organisation via its trust which has been set up to encourage and assist in training “new growth” for the future. It’s important that apprentices learn to do the job the right way and have a good understanding of health and safety principles. As well as working with timber, horses can be used very effectively in bracken and weed control as well as many other areas of general transport in forestry.

Most horse loggers are private contractors although some are on semi-permanent contracts to major landowners and estates. “It is the ultimate low impact extraction system and out performs all other small scale systems including quad bikes and mini forwarders,” maintain the British Horse Loggers. “Horse logging allows for a highly selective silvicultural management of our woodlands resulting in a quality of woodland management and care that cannot be equalled by any other system.”

And, of course, there’s always public interest and appeal in watching horses at work. The PR aspects though, are definitely secondary to the practical and economic ones; and it’s encouraging and exciting to think that this is one area where working horses might genuinely make a major return.

To find out more about forestry work using horses, contact The British Horseloggers via their web sites, http://www.britishhorseloggers.org or http://www.britishhorseloggerscharitabletrust.org

To discuss forestry requirements in Borders region and northern England, visit the Erskine’s web site http://www.homestead-horselogging-company.co.uk or telephone Danny MacNeil on 01830 520457 & 07774 616576.

The Ancient and Royal Order of Poop and Scoop

For research purposes, I’ve recently found myself reading a number of non-fiction books about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her “Sweet Robin”, with whom she carried on a long and flirtatious relationship. They had known each other most of their lives and had both been incarcerated in the Tower of London at the same time whilst young. They each had a parent who had died as a traitor under the blow of the headsman’s axe. Their support for each other through the stress and trauma of their early lives undoubtedly contributed to the length, and indeed success, of their unconventional friendship, or love affair – however you want to view it.

Dudley was Elizabeth’s Master of the Horse; and the interesting thing about that is how few historians comment on the significance of it. Biographers are happy to discuss whether the relationship between the two of them was sexual; whether or not they were complicit in the death of Dudley’s wife; whether or not a certain portrait depicts Elizabeth and Leicester apparently doing the “Volta”, which looks like an early version of the jive. Whoever they are, the man has his hand on an intimate part of the woman’s anatomy as he throws her into the air and the woman doesn’t look in the least offended. Far from it.

Being Master of the Horse to a monarch means taking on a historically powerful role along with the title. When the ancient kings of Egypt, their courtiers and military leaders adopted the use of the horse and chariot, there was not only a requirement for a “Master of the Horse”, but also a pre-eminence and importance conveyed by the title to its holders. One of the best known of these was Ay, Master of the Horse at the court of King Akhenaten. Sadly, no manual of responsibilities or training, horse care and management has yet been found in ancient Egypt, although we can reconstruct a certain amount of knowledge from one or two remaining stable block foundations and other archaeological remains, from chariotry and equipment, mainly from Tutankhamun’s tomb, and from some royal inscriptions, particularly those of Amenhotep II and Ramesses II.

What we don’t know is how much of the ancient role required a hands on approach. It seems unlikely to have simply been a status title. Some knowledge of horse care and management would be required, but possibly that wasn’t the key skill in acquiring the title. The author of the most ancient treatise on horse training, the Mitannian Kikkuli, was neither royal nor a courtier. He was a practical trainer recruited to impart his knowledge to what author and hippologist Anthony Dent calls, with his usual forthrightness, “the thickear squadron-leaders of the Hittite Chariotry Corps.” From the beginning of the relationship between horses and humans, horses have conveyed status to those who could understand their natures and make use of them for display, in warfare and in hunting. Mostly, though, the trainers and grooms could probably only bask in reflective glory as they watched the cream of their various national elites claim the horsemanship credits. King Amenhotep II of Egypt claimed that he was given the best horses from his father’s stable and that he understood their nature and behaviour better than anyone else; Ramesses II said that after the Battle of Kadesh he would visit his stables every day to feed his horses, Victory-in-Thebes and Mut-is-Content, with his own hands, so valiantly had they performed on the battlefield. Thanks to him – and the unseen, unacknowledged army of trainers, handlers, veterinary specialists, water and fodder carrying grooms and underlings, of course. Many of the grooms appear to have been Nubians and it’s highly likely that Nubia had its own extremely knowledgeable horse culture before that of Egypt. They were specialists, specially recruited for the job; but most of the status-bearing roles went to Egyptians.

And so, through the ages, from the wily old courtier Ay, through the dashing Duke of Buckingham in the reign of James VI/I, right up to modern times, rulers and their Masters of the Horse go together like a – well, like a horse and chariot. Or two horses and a chariot. So, what do you think Elizabeth and Robert talked about when they got together? Did they share sweet flirtatious nothings or discuss the Spanish situation or laugh over a scandalous poem about the court? Of course they didn’t! They talked about HORSES, for goodness’ sake. And where there are horses, one thing predominates, the most significant and difficult part of horse-keeping. A stable of 200 horses produces a LOT of muck. It is either a useful by-product or a damn problem. If you can’t manage muck, you can’t manage a stable. A modern day riding stable near the Giza pyramids took its muck out to the desert for years, resulting in interesting stratigraphy that archaeologists have come to call the “HSS layer”. One of the “s’s” stands for “sand”. You can guess the rest. Meanwhile, back in Elizabethan England…

“Robin!”

“Yes, my liege, my most adorable Gloriana, what is it?”

“Grey Tilbury refused his breakfast this morning! Even though I offered it to him with my own fair hands! Robin, what is amiss with him? Is it colic, think ye?”

“Nay, most supreme monarch, it is simply the fresh spring grass. That is the only thing that tempteth him…”

“Oh. Have a care, Robin, that he overindulgeth not. For the pony gout is a terrible scourge. Why, only yesterday I was reading in the “Proclamation of Ye Oddfellows of Ye Noble Horse” that – “

“Fear not, Ma’am, for I will restrict him to but a few hours in the forenoon.”

“Two hours, Robin! But two hours, for according to the Proclamation…”

“Aye, Ma’am. As Your Majesty wills. And, if you would care to cast the Royal gaze upon this?”

“What is it?”

“It is the proposed arms for the collectors of dung from ye royal paddocks. A crossed shovel and broom argent, over bucket or, from which steam is rising, with the motto “ordure et endure” on field vert…”

Queen (clapping hands with joy): “Just the job, Robin! Just the job.”

From Skyros to Scottish skies

Last spring, I met some unusual and really delightful ponies. I’d read about them in one of the local papers in south west Scotland and was curious to find out more. They certainly looked right at home in the Scottish Borders, in the fields belonging to vet Sheilagh Brown where they live. However, their ancestors were used to the much hotter and drier, although equally challenging, environment on the Greek island of Skyros.  I discovered that the Skyros ponies I went to see have a long and interesting history.

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Affectionate and curious, the Skyros ponies seek out the company of humans

The origins of the Skyrians and how they came to be associated with the island are lost in the mists of time, but they are certainly ancient. They are one of the breeds included in Elwyn Hartley-Edwards’ “Standard Guide to Horse and Pony Breeds” in which he mentions that parallels have been drawn with the horses of the Parthenon. The small horses on the famous frieze are clearly tough, fiery little animals. Looking at Sheilagh’s Skyros ponies, it seemed to me that there were certainly similarities; but the most striking thing about the Skyrians was their fineness. Their legs were clean and straight, their feet strong, dark and hard and the quality of their limbs would have graced any ridden show pony. I could also see similarities with the Caspian type of pony (or small horse).

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A soft grey coat, which grows very quickly in winter, is typical of the ponies.

They are typically grey in colour, a rather warm-coloured grey with rose or dun tones. True dun is also frequently seen, and also a rich dark brown and a red bay, often with mealy muzzles. The breed description mentions a tendency to cow hocks but that wasn’t obvious in most of the ponies. In profile, their noses are straight and distinctive without any trace of concavity. They have broad foreheads and calm, curious eyes. From the start, they showed an interest in our arrival but they were neither pushy nor alarmed.

“That is one of the most noticeable things about the Skyros ponies,” explained Sheilagh as her gelding Danila (Danny) gave her an affectionate nuzzle. “They are very curious about humans and actively seek them out.  They are known for this sociability on the island.”

I soon learned that they are exceptionally docile and relaxed. The mares in particular realised very quickly that we were harmless and carried on grazing whilst one foal came right up to investigate us. Just as Sheilagh’s gelding Danila had done, the foal put his nose up towards Sheilagh in friendly enquiry. I was rapidly gaining the impression that the Skyrians bond quickly and their temperaments struck me as being ideal for ponies for small children.

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Looking right at home in the Scottish Borders – a Skyros foal and his mummy

Although the very early history of the Skyros ponies may prove difficult to discover, their more recent history is much better known. They were used for centuries in an unusual agricultural role. For most of the year they lived freely on the island, being brought in only during harvest when they were harnessed up to three or four together and used for threshing the corn. They would receive additional feed during the winter to help them survive. As in other places, when mechanisation took over, the ponies ceased to have a function and their future became very uncertain. As tourism began to flourish in the 1970s, various options, including racing, were attempted to ensure the continuity of the ponies of Skyros. However, as the 20th century drew to a close, it was clear that they were endangered and serious action would be required if they were to survive.

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The foals are affectionate and curious, their dams calm and trusting.

And that is where the connection with Scottish Borders region comes in. Steps were taken on Skyros and on the Greek mainland to ensure the survival of the ponies and in 2005 five animals – three fillies and two colts – were brought over to Scotland by veterinary surgeon Alec Copeland who had a long-standing personal and professional interest in the Skyrians and other endangered ancient types such as the Exmoor pony. By 2010, when the Skyros ponies came into the care of Sheilagh so that Alec could concentrate on some of the other endangered breeds, their numbers had grown to 14. A further eight foals were born in Scotland in 2011. In 2012 there were another four births, but one foal sadly died. Two surviving colt foals are those featured in the photographs accompanying this blog.

I wondered how the ponies coped with the Scottish winter. The season can be harsh in their homeland too, of course, but the recent bitter winters with deep, long-lasting snow that we’ve seen in the UK have been exceptional even for Britain.

“They do grow a thick coat,” said Sheilagh (and the remnants were still visible when I went to see them in May last year). “They also need a lot of supplementary feeding in the winter. I’ve found that Dodson and Horrell stud cubes provide the best all round nutritional support for them.”

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This colt foal shows the mealy muzzle that some of the Skyros ponies have

Sheilagh advised me that the Skyros ponies have been the subject of several scientific papers and were believed to be entirely separate from the seven known breeds of the Greek mainland. It has been concluded that they are phenotypically unique, and of course equids that have lived for centuries – possibly even millennia – literally in isolation on an island provide a very rich subject for investigation. However, funding that was provided for a time by the Greek government in order to support this endangered breed is now no longer available and the few projects, such as the Silva Project, that were attempting to ensure its survival now have to be self-sustaining.

These are uncertain times for all horses and ponies and in parts of Britain there is a serious equine welfare crisis. Sheilagh is aware that the horses and ponies with the best chance of survival will be those for which there is a genuine requirement. Clearly these unusual and little-known ponies don’t fit into any of the standard classes of use in the UK. There are no showing classes for them and their size at maturity (around 11 hands) means they are only suitable as ridden ponies for small, lightweight children. However, their outstandingly amiable natures are a real plus and I am sure they would make excellent, sensible driving ponies. There is one equine growth area where they are proving to excel, too: that is in the emerging field of equine assisted therapy and riding therapy. Shortly after my visit, Danny was off to his new home and his new role with an organisation called Festina Lente in Ireland. I wish Sheilagh, Danny, and the rest of the Skyros ponies all the best for the future.

Miriam Bibby