For a small country tagged onto the side of England, often forgotten and largely mistaken as being "a part of England," Wales has a surprising number of native breeds of livestock. We have our own cattle, sheep and horse and pony breeds, many of which are the prettiest and most durable animals you can find anywhere in Britain.
Welsh ponies are descended from the ancient wild Celtic ponies that roamed the British Isles well over a thousand years ago. Because of the harsh conditions in which they have lived, these ponies have evolved into tough, wily animals capable of thriving on the poor grazing found on the mountains and moorlands of Wales. Harsh conditions and poor quality fodder have meant that the Welsh pony has remained small in stature, but given that people were considerably smaller and lighter in the past, adults have tamed and ridden these nimble little creatures since time immemorial.
The perfect all-'rounder
Evidence found in Welsh literature suggests that the larger Welsh Cob was developed as a breed as far back as the 15th century. The Welsh Cob as a breed was created by mixing several horse breeds, including of course the Welsh pony, but draught and carriage horse breeds (like the long extinct Norfolk Roadster) were also added, along with some Arabian blood brought in by Crusaders returning to Britain from the Middle East with Arabian stallions.
The Welsh Cob was bred to be the perfect all-'rounder, capable of being ridden at speed across rough ground, useful for pulling a cart and for ploughing, all whilst retaining the hardiness associated with their smaller wild ancestors. It is said that the farmer of the past could use his Welsh Cob for farm work all week, then take it hunting on a Saturday, and use it to pull the cart to take his family to chapel on the Sunday.
Larger draught horses of course had more strength for farm work, but they couldn't trot at speed for 10 miles pulling a carriage like a Welsh Cob could, so if you owned a draught team, you would also have to own a lighter, speedier animal for carriage work and riding, whereas the Welsh Cob was capable of performing all of these tasks, and it could survive on far less fodder than a large draught animal.
Welsh Cob a versatile choice
It wasn't only farmers that used Welsh Cobs. Tradesmen, doctors, drovers and those delivering mail throughout Wales used these strong but lively creatures as transport. It is said that many of the choice animals were selected by their ability to trot quickly over the 35 uphill miles from Cardiff to Dowlais in South Wales. Before the advent of the railways and the motorcar, a horse that could maintain good speed without lameness over a long distance was a valuable creature.
Some breeders selected a lighter type of cob suited for this work, whereas others favoured a heavier-built cob more suited to slower farm work. In 1901, however, the breed became standardised by the advent of the Welsh Pony and Cob Society, which was established to preserve the unique characteristics of the breed. It is not only the oldest but also the largest of all of the native breed societies in the U.K. The Welsh Pony and Cob Society has more than 7,000 members worldwide.
Welsh ponies were first exported to the U.S. in the 1880s, with large numbers being shipped over between 1884 and 1910. It was found that they adapted easily to the climate and the terrain in both the U.S. and Canada, and in 1906, an American Welsh Pony and Cob Society was founded.
Welsh Cobs today
With horses no longer necessary for farming, mining or for delivering our nation's mail, it's easy to envisage our traditional Welsh breeds dying out. Thankfully though, that hasn't happened. Due to our nation's enduring love of horses, we've continued to keep horses for pleasure and the Welsh breeds have remained popular to this day.
Welsh ponies, due to their prettiness, are popular for showing and as children's ponies, whilst the Welsh Cob is still considered an excellent all-'rounder, and for those seeking larger and more athletic horses for jumping and eventing, then the Welsh Cob crossed with the thoroughbred has proved to be an excellent cross. Welsh breeds excel at jumping, dressage, carriage driving and endurance riding, and have therefore retained their status as the ultimate all-'rounder.
Very few people now use Welsh Cobs for farming, however. These days, people who plough competitively with horses tend to use the heavier, slower breeds like the Shire and Clydesdale, as the Welsh Cob is considered a bit quick for competitive ploughing. Here in the U.K., the term "cob" is applied to any type of riding horse that is heavily built and placid, but Welsh Cobs aren't as docile as the large draught breeds like the Shire.
In fact, they have quite a bit of spirit, something that can be seen if you attend the Royal Welsh Show in Builth Wells, Wales, where you will see the crème de la crème of Welsh Cobs, snorting and dancing proudly around the show ring. Welsh Cobs are traditionally shown in hand, and they are famous for their extravagant trot, with the handler having to be quite fit to keep up with the speed and power of the Welsh Cob's gait.
Cob vs. Quad
My brother Andrew, like myself, learned to ride as a child, but he never actually owned a horse until a couple of years ago, when he decided he could justify owning one only if he could use it to replace his quad bike for going around the sheep.
Andrew farms Welsh Mountain sheep here in the foothills of Snowdonia, and works as a ranger for the conservation organization, the National Trust. Ever the practical sort, Andrew was keen to own a useful horse, one that could earn its keep, rather than something that would exist purely as a pet.
He liked the idea of a Welsh Cob because it would be hardy enough to live out all year 'round, small enough to get on and off easily, yet strong enough to carry an adult. He found Del (Welsh for pretty) for sale as an unbroken, unhandled 4-year-old Welsh Cob Section D mare living as part of a herd owned by a local family of breeders.
Andrew had decided that, firstly, he didn't want to pay a lot for a horse, and secondly, he wanted one he could train to work alongside his sheep and dogs, so his best option was to buy an untrained youngster. Getting a lively unhandled young horse into a trailer to bring it home proved to be the first stumbling block, but that was overcome eventually.
Borrowing a saddle from Down Under
The next task was to try to bond with the mare who was, as expected, a little shocked at having to leave her surroundings. A lot of walking the lanes and seeing the world eventually prepared Del to be ridden, though there were a few unplanned descents in the early days of riding.
The English saddle Andrew borrowed from me soon gained the nickname the "easy exit" saddle, due to the number of times he had fallen out of it, and it wasn't long before he started to look around for a saddle that offered a bit more security.
Watching DVDs of Australian cattle herders on horseback, Andrew decided that the saddle he wanted was an Australian stock saddle. These saddles offered a deeper seat, and the option of a horn at the front, unlike the more minimalist English saddles that we had grown up using. The Australian stock saddle is similar to the Western saddle in that it is comfortable to ride in for long distances and offers a lot more security for riding on rough terrain. I also like to joke that it is easier for novices to stay on in one of these saddles, but that's a matter for debate amongst brother and sister.
The Australian stock saddle is shaped in the style of the English saddle, but it has a higher pommel and cantle, providing greater security, and it has the addition of outer blocks that sit in front of the thigh and help hold the rider in place. Some Australian saddles come with a horn and some don't, but for general riding, a horn isn't commonplace. Andrew's saddle came with a horn, and he thought about removing it, but now he's got used to it he finds it useful for hanging things onto, as well as for hanging onto from time to time.
Balancing the books
Two years down the line, Del is a good little horse for shepherding. She is unfazed by the dogs working around her, and she doesn't get over-excited when moving sheep. Some horses get very agitated when livestock begin to run, and they want to join the stampede at great speed, but Del is quite relaxed and has had sheep and dogs run right underneath her without becoming upset.
"One big advantage of using a horse instead of a quad bike is that I can get right up to the sheep and look at them when I'm on the horse," Andrew explains. "The sheep are used to grazing with Del, so they don't see her as a threat and they don't run away like they do from the quad bike."
The idea too is that Del will work out cheaper to run than a quad bike. Whether this is true or not is hard to tell. A horse has to be fed even if it isn't being used, whereas a quad bike doesn't. But a horse can live on the same grazing land as the sheep, and during the winter she eats the hay cut from the land, just the same as the sheep do, so in that respect Del's living costs are minimal.
As far as shoeing goes, Andrew has decided not to have Del shod with conventional horseshoes. Not only is shoeing expensive — around £70 (roughly $95) every six to eight weeks — but it is also unnecessary on a horse that is ridden mostly on fields. If Del is going to be ridden for a long distance on roads or stony tracks, Andrew puts Cavello horse boots on her to protect her hooves, and these have worked out to be very cost-effective, with one set lasting well over a year.
It might take slightly longer to catch and tack up Del than it takes to fire up the quad bike, but there's nothing like being able to enjoy the views over the valley on a summer's morning from the back of a horse, with nothing but the sound of more peaceful activity than driving a quad bike, the horse can also go places that the quad bike can't.
Maybe it's because Del grew up like a wild horse on a steep hillside, or maybe it is just in the breed, but either way, she is incredibly nimble and can climb over the roughest terrain and is quite happy travelling up and down some very steep, narrow paths. The only disadvantage of a horse over a quad bike is that there is less space on a horse to carry things, though the addition of some good panniers might overcome that particular shortfall.
One day Andrew hopes to get Del working in harness, and to use her for extracting a bit of timber from time to time. That will give her another string to her bow, proving the point that the Welsh Cob really is the ultimate all-'rounder. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at email@example.com.