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Adam Henson: The Year of the Horse

PUBLISHED: 16:57 31 January 2014 | UPDATED: 17:00 31 January 2014

When I was growing up here in the Cotswolds dad decided to give me a wonderful Exmoor pony and I’ve loved these small, hardy creatures ever since

When I was growing up here in the Cotswolds dad decided to give me a wonderful Exmoor pony and I've loved these small, hardy creatures ever since

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Adam Henson explains how, when he and his sisters were growing up, their dad decided to give each of them an animal to look after and call their own

Welcome to the Year of the Horse. At least it is in terms of the Chinese zodiac calendar which links each year to one of 12 animals. Last year it was the year of the snake and in 2015 it’s the turn of the goat.

Other signs in the 12- year cycle include the ox, rooster, rabbit and pig. So it’s inevitable that someone like me with a life-long love of rare breeds and a family Farm Park to run would be intrigued.

It just so happens that I was born in the Year of the Horse which might go some way to explain why I’ve always held equines in such affection. When my sisters and I were growing up here in the Cotswolds our dad decided to give each of us an animal to look after and call our own. It was also an ingenious way of getting us interested in livestock at an early age and pass on his passion for rare breeds. I definitely came up trumps because for me he picked out a wonderful Exmoor pony and I’ve loved these small, hardy creatures ever since.

When you look them in the eye you’re gazing into the soul of an animal which links us right back to our Celtic ancestors. They’re the oldest breed of British pony and possibly the most ancient domestic breed in the world. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust rates the Exmoor as ‘endangered’ meaning that their numbers in the UK are below the 500 mark.

My thoughts about these delightful animals are summed up by a quote from a formidable lady called Mary Etherington. She was an Exmoor breeder who really helped save them from extinction in the years immediately after the Second World War. She said: “The coming generations will have good reason to call us unfaithful stewards if, when we are gone, there are no little horses on the Exmoor hills.” Talk about getting straight to the heart of the matter!

What I particularly like about Exmoors are their obviously primitive markings. They have light colouring around the nose, a black mane and tail, fleshy eyelids and sometimes the foals have a little bit of striping on the legs. There’s also another giveaway to their ancient heritage; they have incredibly hard feet and as pony enthusiasts will tell you, primitive horses don’t need to be shod.

Some Exmoors were used as pit ponies but it’s generally their bigger, more impressive cousins who worked alongside man on the land right up until about 80 years ago. The powerful and impressive Suffolk Punch and Clydesdale could be seen ploughing the fields. The slow but strong Shire drew the brewer’s dray or the milkman’s cart while the little Welsh Mountain pony was a familiar sight in coal mines or on postal routes. The wide-spread use of tractors from the 1930s onwards really sealed the fate of many working horses and today very few equines are used in industry. Although there is a renewed interest in using heavy horses in forestry, where they can often be the only means of haulage in steep, rough or densely wooded areas. If you want to get an idea of just how majestic and mesmerising a team of heavy horses can be, just get along to the demonstrations which take place at events like the annual Cotswold Show in Cirencester Park, the Moreton-in-Marsh Show or the Three Counties at Malvern.

But these wonderful exhibitions in the summer show rings aren’t the only way that horses shape the Cotswolds today. There are countless numbers of pony clubs, gymkhanas, treks and point to point meetings. Then there’s the Cheltenham Gold Cup as well as the world-class training stables dotted across Gloucestershire. All in all, I reckon it’s the year of the horse every year in the Cotswolds.

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This article by Adam Henson is from the February 2014 issue of Cotswold Life

For more from Adam, follow him on Twitter: @adamhenson

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