There’s a cat called called Snowy who lives on a farm on the Somerset Levels, in south-west England. He’s only four years old, but he’s managed to pack a lot of adventures into his life, including a trip to our farm as a stowaway. Here’s his story (so far!):
Snowy went to live at the Popham’s farm when he was a kitten. Mr Popham buys and sells straw, which he stores in big barns. Snowy made one of these barns his home. It was warm and dry, and there were plenty of mice to hunt, although he only hunted for fun because Mr Popham’s son Tom fed the farm cats every day. Snowy appeared to have landed on his feet (as cat’s often do).
All was well until the winter of 2013-14, when it rained a lot. In fact, it rained so much that before long Snowy found himself on an island of soggy bales surrounded by water. The Somerset Levels had flooded, and he was stranded!
Every day, until the floods subsided, Tom paddled a canoe to the barn, hauled himself up with ropes and fed Snowy. He did that for several weeks, whatever the weather.
As life returned to something like normal, Mr Popham cleaned out his sheds, restocked with fresh bales and began trading again.
One morning in September 2014, he set off for Exmoor at daybreak with a lorry-load of straw he’d prepared the previous evening, aiming to beat the rush hour traffic in Taunton and arrive at West Ilkerton Farm (our farm) at around eight-thirty.
The journey went well, and he arrived to find Chris (my husband) waiting in the field next to the moor, where the bales had to be unloaded and carted back to our barn because the lane to our farmyard is too narrow for large lorries.
“Hang on a minute!” Chris shouted as Mr Popham started to push the bales off the lorry. “I think you’ve got an illegal immigrant on board – look!”
The face of a white cat peered out between the bales.
“Oh no, it’s Snowy! He must have gone to sleep on top of the load last night. I bet he had a shock when it started moving this morning!” Mr Popham exclaimed. “Tom’ll kill me if I lose him, after all he went through last winter. Can we catch him, d’you think?”
Chris and Mr Popham tried their best to catch the cat, but he was obviously traumatised by his unexpected road trip, and as soon as his feet touched the ground he scampered away onto the moorland. The two men searched for him in vain amongst the gorse bushes, but eventually they admitted defeat and Mr Popham drove back to Somerset to break the news to Tom.
“What’s the matter?” Tom’s twin sister asked him when she saw how upset he was that evening.
“It’s Snowy,” he replied.
“Oh no, has he died?” she asked.
“No, it’s even worse – he’s gone to Devon!”
Perhaps Tom was right. Lost and alone in a hostile world, Snowy probably experienced several fates worse than death in the weeks that followed: extreme hunger, terrible weather, being chased by dogs. . .
All our neighbours were watching out for a white cat, and there were occasional sightings, but after a while the telephone calls stopped and we had to face the possibility that Snowy had died.
But one morning, as we were turning our horses out in their field, our daughter Sarah spotted something white moving slowly between the gorse bushes on the opposite side of the farm. Chris fetched his binoculars, and confirmed it was a cat – a very thin, bedraggled white cat. It had to be Snowy!
Chris rode the quad bike to the gorse bushes, and left some cat food there. A few hours later it had gone – eaten, we hoped, by a cat rather than a fox or badger.
Every day, morning and evening, Chris put cat food in the same place, and before long Snowy was waiting for the quad bike.
By this time the weather had turned wet and cold, so Chris used food to lure Snowy back to our farmyard. Soon he’d made himself at home in the same straw bales that had been his downfall in the first place.
With regular feeds, Snowy became fatter and tamer by the day. Before long he was allowing us to stroke him while he ate, and he became very loud and demanding when he thought it was time for the next meal!
The Pophams were delighted that Snowy was safe and well, and said they’d collect him next time they were in the area. We knew he wouldn’t be with us forever, but even so it was a bit of a shock when Mr Popham phoned to say he was visiting friends nearby, and could he drop in to pick up the cat?
Chris caught Snowy easily, with the help of some food, and bundled him into a travelling crate – much to his fury! He growled, hissed, bit and clawed at the sides of the crate as he was carried back to the Popham’s car.
In my latest trilogy The Horseshoe Trilogy a Romany lady called Nellie tells Joe that horses mirror our feelings. I often notice this when I’m with our horses. My niece Sophie was staying with us a couple of years ago. She got on very well with our Exmoor pony Gaia, who was then about one and a half years old. While she was playing with her in the barn one day I took these photos. It was only afterwards, when I looked at them closely, that I realised Gaia was mirroring Sophie’s expressions and body language. Fascinating!
David Percy and his wife, Jackie, run Boeveys tea room and restaurant at Simonsbath, in the heart of Exmoor.
Nine years ago, I sold David a cross-bred Exmoor filly. She’d been born on the moor and had run wild for almost a year before being rounded up, weaned and handled for a while at our farm.
Last year David got in touch with photos and news of his pony, Freyer. We met up, and I was delighted to see that she’s a contented, useful and very much loved member of the family.
David says he thinks Freyer’s initial handling at our farm (with the help the well-known horse trainer Vanessa Bee) had a lot to do with how she took to being trained later on. I think he shouldn’t underestimate the time he has spent with her, his unconditional love and his determination not to give up on her when she contracted laminitis. Freyer obviously sees David as her best friend,and she makes it clear she resents other people joining them when they go for a walk together!
Freyer’s story is particularly wonderful for lots of reasons. It’s about a man with hardly any knowledge of horses buying an unregistered pony from the wilds of Exmoor and forging a close bond with her, but it’s also about empathy, trust, loyalty, courage and much more besides.
Many thanks, David, for letting me share your stories about Freyer on this website:
Last year, I did something I had been meaning to do for some time. It was a simple act: a photograph sent to Victoria Eveleigh, the breeder of my pony Freyer, eight years after they had last seen each other. Victoria’s interest and enthusiasm took me by surprise. It made me realise how difficult it must be for a pony breeders to launch animals into the world and never hear about their lives, achievements or wellbeing.
Having met up with Freyer again and heard my stories, Victoria asked me to write about her for this website. So here is a brief account of the life, so far, of one crossbred native pony.
Having moved to the edge of Exmoor with my wife, I decided I wanted to get a horse to ride. I didn’t know a great deal about horses, but one thing I had learnt was that they like the company of their own kind, so I thought it would be a good idea to get a pony as well.
The opportunity to buy a pony came sooner than I’d expected. As the summer of 2005 turned to autumn, I heard from a friend that there were some young ponies for sale on a farm nearby. My friend, Sharon, was looking for a pony too, so we went over to West Ilkerton Farm to meet Victoria and her husband, Chris. They showed us ten or so ponies corralled in the barn. Victoria explained that she’d turned her pedigree Exmoor mares onto the moorland, thinking that they were in foal to an Exmoor stallion, but they weren’t. An unregistered Welsh cob stallion had escaped onto the moor, and all her mares had given birth to his foals instead – in the middle of winter!
My objective was to get the biggest pony there, as it would be the most useful, but Sharon had exactly the same idea and I ended up with the second biggest.
Gypsy becomes Freyer
So there I was, a forty-eight year old man with his first pony, a head collar, a passport and the information that all the ponies had been handled with the help of a horse trainer called Vanessa Bee. I had no idea of the significance of this at the time.
After saying our goodbyes, we took my pony (then called Gypsy) and Sharon’s choice (Merrylegs, now called Mary) back to Sharon’s yard in her trailer. There we parted company, and I walked Gypsy through the village to her new home – not realising that it was a lot to ask of a pony who’d been born on the moor and handled for a couple of weeks on a farm!
I left Gypsy in the stone-built stable in our field, with water and hay. When I returned, after a couple of hours, she was standing in the middle of the stable, shaking like a leaf, and I realised it was probably the first time she had ever been alone. I went into the stable, took her head in my arms and whispered ‘Ssssh! Ssssh!’ in her ear. She calmed down immediately. The same technique still works today if everything gets a bit too much for her. I kept Gypsy in for the first week, spending as much time sitting with her as I could. Then she was turned out to get on with her life.
We really wanted a name that was a bit more personal, so my wife chose ‘Freyer’, and that’s what we’ve called her ever since.
It was almost two years before I found myself a horse to ride, so Freyer had quite a lonely life for a while. I took her on occasional walks around the village, and she had great fun playing chase with our dog. They developed an intriguing love-hate relationship.
During this time all she really had to work on was a talent for escaping. I had numerous calls from people who’d seen her wandering up the lane or running with the horses and sheep next door. I would then spend hours trying to catch her, and even longer trying to discover how she’d made her escape in order to put a remedy in place. Eventually I caught Freyer in the act of putting her head under a fence rail and lifting the fence post effortlessly out of the ground, like a crane, and I realised that what she needed was a reason to stay put.
I was right. As soon as she had company she didn’t stray from the field – unless I left the hook out of the eye in her field gate, in which case she’d waste no time in making straight for the herb garden. Perhaps she liked herbs, or perhaps she knew that it would get me into trouble!
I think the next three or four years were Freyer’s happiest time. Tuff the thoroughbred became her great friend. Although Tuff was much taller, Freyer was the dominant one. Tuff was so meek that she even let Freyer share her food. This was a problem, because thoroughbreds need to eat much more than native ponies.
Tragically, Tuff broke her leg and had to be put down. Freyer seemed to know something terrible had happened, and for a few days stayed very close to me. Since Tuff there have been a few loan horses, which Freyer has accepted but hasn’t liked nearly as much, and now I have Lem, another thoroughbred. This time the underdog is Freyer, but she’s building a good relationship with him.
In 2008 I thought it might be a good time to get Freyer broken to ride. I certainly didn’t have the skills to do it myself, so I took her to a local lady who I knew would be up to the job.
A week passed… nothing. Another week… still nothing. I was getting anxious, I admit, and then I received a video clip by email. First there was a shot of the sky, then the camera panned down to a familiar mane and a pair of ears. The penny dropped: the person making the film was riding Freyer! I was delighted, and picked her up a few days later. Apparently the task had been unusually straightforward. Personally, I believe the halter training she was given before she came to me was crucial in making the job as easy as possible. Throughout her life her behaviour has changed from feisty and independent to compliant as soon as a head collar or bridle is fitted.
They say you never realise how much you love someone until something happens to them. Well, that was certainly the case with Freyer.
I hadn’t had much experience of illness in horses, although one hears horror stories all the time, so it was a shock when I went to get Freyer in from the field one day and found that she could hardly walk. She just stood there, rocking her weight back onto her heels. It was early winter, and there didn’t seem to be much goodness in the grass, but it was obvious she was suffering from laminitis.
I put her head collar away and called the vet immediately. He confirmed laminitis and, with wonderful bluntness, told me to work Freyer or lose her. The disease, he explained, is similar to insulin intolerance or type two diabetes in humans. He prescribed Bute to reduce inflammation and numb the pain she was clearly feeling, and said she should have as much exercise as possible.
I left her for an hour or so for the Bute to start working, then off we went on the first of our many daily walks. Apparently, walking not only provides much needed exercise but also promotes blood flow to the hoof and improves hoof growth.
For the first four months we walked every single day – for at least an hour and sometimes two or more, whatever the weather and often in the dark after I came back from work.
To begin with it was clear she was uncomfortable. She hated stony paths and sought out the softest ground all the time, but our reward for all our hard work was a gradual improvement in her soundness.
And then, just when I thought we were winning, she became terribly lame again. I had to tug hard on the lead rope just to get her to move. Eventually we negotiated a circuit of the field with her leaning on me, twice falling in a pile in the mud. I ended up pleading with her while tears ran down my cheeks. We had failed. Was this it? Would she have to be put down this time?
The vet arrived, and we hurried out to the field to see Freyer, but she wasn’t where I’d left her. She was moving around, hardly lame at all! The vet soon found the reason for her extreme pain and miraculous recovery: she had a huge hole in the coronet band of one of her forefeet, accompanied by the unmistakeable smell of a burst abscess. He explained that laminitis produces voids in the white line, which can pick up dirt and become infected.
Since then, with careful management, Freyer has been sound. Her weight has been reduced and kept down with work, and I’m just a bit more sensible with her food – although she still gets an occasional treat.
I came to carriage driving by accident. I’d always admired a nicely turned out team of horses and had enjoyed seeing the power of a big working horse, but I’d never imagined that driving a horse was something I’d be able to do. It was really Freyer who taught me to break a pony to harness and drive.
As I’ve mentioned, I spent many hours walking with her to reduce her weight and improve her circulation. To begin with I held a lead rein and walked beside her, but as she became more confident I used a pair of long reins. Having been led and ridden, I could steer and stop Freyer easily, and she quickly became responsive to verbal commands to walk on, trot on and whoa.
During these walks behind Freyer, my mind often wandered. I thought about how much good all this exercise was doing me…Actually, it was hard work! How long could I keep this up? What if I could rig up some way she could pull me along? Then dawned on me that people had already thought about this – it was called driving, and what I needed was a wheeled vehicle that Freyer could pull.
Hours were then spent looking for something suitable. Eventually I found a proper gig, did the deal and brought it home in the horsebox. I didn’t know it then, but this purchase was a great move. The gig had large wheels, a high seat, a swingle tree and storage. Also, it was adjustable for weight distribution and could be dismantled if necessary.
It was time to have a think about what to do next. Freyer was fine as far as we’d got but it was a big step to go out on the roads with her pulling a cart. And I didn’t have any harness. Luckily, a local man who was used to getting horses going, driving them and working them on his farm agreed to help me.
The first thing was to get Freyer used to traces. To start with I just let the reins drop as we were walking, purposely rubbing them up and down her legs. She never once reacted badly, and in fact was just as happy long reining with the reins running between her hind legs. Then I spent some time getting her to move away from the whip in order to allow a bit more control, and also to trotting on command. Tyre pulling came next. I made traces from some old rope and attached them with more rope to a Land Rover wheel and tyre. This is not recommended; on our first outing she performed faultlessly but the equipment didn’t. The tyre bounced about all over the place, and it wasn’t long before it flew forward and hit Freyer’s rump. Luckily, she looked round briefly and didn’t even break pace.
It transpired that the bits of harness I had been borrowing were parts of a complete harness. Furthermore, it was surplus to my mentor’s requirements, so I bought it. Now I had all the kit.
Putting the carriage to Freyer was done very carefully, quietly and gently, but with absolutely no adverse reaction. With someone by her head holding a lead rein and me in the cart, we set off. After 45 minutes she was happily pulling the gig on her own.
One thing Freyer had never experienced properly before was the feeling of breeching, which is the part of the harness that runs around the rump, underneath the tail. Driving horses lean back into this to brake or back up their vehicle, and as our gig had no brakes we had to make sure Freyer knew what to do. We pulled uphill, then turned to descend. As we did so, the breeching made contact, pushing her on until she broke into a fast trot, head up and eyes rolled back, trying to see what was happening but blinded by her blinkers. I feared we were heading for a bolt situation, and tried my best to soothe her. Thank goodness she seemed to listen to me, and soon she’d worked out what she was supposed to do – she walked down the rest of the hill, accepting the weight on her breeching and slowing the gig down.
So that was it: forward, left, right, away from whip and whoa. Back up would come later, and practice was still required, but we were driving!
A pony for life
Freyer is ten years old this year. It’s unlikely she will ever compete in a gymkhana or win a rosette, or have a young lady dote on her, grooming her for hours and sharing all her secrets.
That doesn’t mean to say she hasn’t had a valuable life. She has learned to be ridden and driven, and she has patiently and forgivingly taught me a great deal about horses.
Even though I am a man and in my 50s, she brings me as much joy as she would have to any schoolgirl.
(This story first appeared in The Exmoor Magazine “My Favourite Horse” feature. It was written by our daughter, Sarah.)
I was about 8 years old when Sherman arrived at West Ilkerton Farm, and I was rather scared of the snorting, fire-breathing beast that stood at the top of the lorry ramp. He was by far the biggest, most powerful horse I had ever seen.
However, my initial fears went very quickly and, being slightly naive and fearless, I was soon climbing on his back and riding him about the yard. I created a bond with him that I had never had with a horse before. I would tell him about my life and what was happening at school. I soon came to the conclusion, after some difficult times at school, that he was the ideal friend as he was never mean to me, always accepting and always pleased to see me. We all loved him. He was such an impressive horse with such immense power, yet so kind.
When I was about 15, Sherman and his working mate, Spec, were sold and my parents gave up the horse-drawn tour business. I understood why my parents had to sell Spec and Sherman, and I tried to keep a brave face on the whole situation as I could see that Mum and Dad were as upset as I was. I went with Dad in the lorry to deliver the two horses. It was possibly one of the hardest days of my life so far. It was an end of an era for us all, and a big part of life at West Ilkerton seemed to have gone.
Years went by, but Sherman was always playing on my mind. The horses had been sold on condition that we would have first refusal if they were sold, but we found out they had been sold on, and we couldn’t find out where they’d gone. Mum eventually managed to track Sherman down through his passport number and reassured me he was alive and well in Dorset.
I finished my finals at Cirencester, and on the 1st June this year I decided to go home for a break. I arrived home and everything seemed normal. Mum came out of the office when she saw my car, and suggested I should go and see Winaway, my horse, in the barn. As I went into the barn to say hello to Winaway I saw a big, white unmistakably shaped blaze. I did the biggest double-take I have ever done in my life! There, standing back in his rightful place, was my gentle giant, my friend, my Sherman!!! I flung my arms round his big neck in an overwhelming whirl of emotion. Mum and Dad had tracked him down and bought him back so he can spend the rest of his days back home for retirement!
Now he’s back it seems like he’s never been away. I go down to the barn every day, climb on his back and tell him what’s been happening, I’m sure he must already be bored of my stories, but like a true friend he never lets on.