I remember moving to the sixth form at school, going into my first A level chemistry lesson and being told to forget most of the things we’d learned for (what was then) O levels. We’d been taught useful rules to get us on the right track, the teacher said, but science was much more complicated than we’d been led to believe. It was all about searching for the truth, but nobody knew what the whole truth was. The best we could do was create theories based on knowledge and observation and constantly test them to prove or disprove them. A good scientist, our teacher insisted, should question everything. He or she should be open-minded and prepared learn new things. Nothing was set in stone. I found this both exciting and daunting.
What has this got to do with training an Exmoor pony?
When I was a child I had regular riding lessons and worked my way through Pony Club tests. There were lots of rules, like lead and mount from the near side of the horse. I did these things without question, never wondering who’d made up the rules in the first place, or why. There was even a correct way to put on a New Zealand rug. (I know because I failed my Pony Club C test for doing it wrong!)
As I’ve gained more experience with horses I’ve learned that rules are sometimes useful but observation, empathy and flexibility are crucial. Good horse people are open-minded, inquisitive and willing to adapt.
This was brought home to me when a friend called Vanessa Bee came to the farm to teach me about horse agility because I thought it would be the best way of building up Orion’s self-confidence. Also, I wanted to learn more about horse agility for the new Katy’s Ponies book I’m writing, Katy’s Pony Challenge, and I always love meeting up with Vanessa anyway. She’s taught me a great deal about horsemanship, especially handling newly weaned foals from the moor. In fact, for several years she ran foal handling courses here at the farm. Now she’s busy writing books and developing horse agility, which is turning into a mainstream sport that’s becoming incredibly popular all over the world.
Two ‘rules’ Vanessa had taught me when halter-training newly weaned foals were that the foal shouldn’t run past me when being led and it should face me to be caught. I thought she’d be impressed by Orion because he always faced me (I’d never had to teach him, as he just did it every time) and he had never, ever tried to run past me. In fact, one of my problems with him was that he tended to hang back and walk a few steps behind rather than staying by my side.
“Does he always face up to you like that?” Vanessa asked.
“Yes,” I said proudly.
“Hm, do you think it could be that he’s too scared to let you out of his sight? He’s keeping an eye on you all the time.”
Thinking about it, I could see there was a lot of truth in that.
If you look back at my previous blogs about Orion’s initial handling, he was incredibly ‘good’ in that he stood still for the head collar to be put on first time and never moved away from me. The main problem had been getting him to move at all. I said this to Vanessa.
“Yes, standing still is a common response to stress. It’s a good strategy when faced with a predator. Think about walking through a field of sheep with a dog. The dog’s far less likely to attack the sheep if they don’t run away. Movement excites predators.”
I remarked that Orion had the donkey strategy for survival. A few months ago Vanessa had introduced me to Bart and Sue, who own the donkeys at Clovelly, and they’d told me that donkeys ‘freeze’ when stressed.
“Yes, donkeys are famous for it. That’s why they’ve gained an unfair reputation for being stubborn. They’re actually incredibly intelligent, like Orion here,” Vanessa said. “What we need to do is get his feet moving.”
She began to work with him, encouraging him to run past her and around her.
“But I thought one of your golden rules was ‘don’t let the pony run past you’,” I said.
Vanessa grinned. “Rule number one: there are no rules. He needs to become more confident about moving in all directions, and this is the best way I know of achieving that in a limited space.
That was when I remembered my chemistry teacher all those years ago.
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.