The ponies we rode with from John O'Groats to Lands End, and from Skye to Smithfield, are registered Fell ponies, the hardy, hairy breed of ponies native to the Cumbrian fells, characteristically black with very long manes and tails. For our kind of riding (and driving), they are ideal. Although not necessarily the fastest breed on earth, their stamina and strength is second to none, and when faced with a difficult situation, their intelligence, bravery and instinct for survival has proved invaluable time and again. Even if there are times (quite often) when we could do without their cussed insistence that they know best, and a little less character would make for an easier life (or ride).
Lancer, aged 20 at the time he set off from John O'Groats to Lands End, now 24, is (uncharacteristically for a Fell pony but not surprising given his past misdemeanours) now showing his age (he's not the only one!) with a grey muzzle and forehead, and a dodgy hip and shoulder. But don’t be tempted into sympathising with him or get any ideas about cruelty at even contemplating taking him on our trip. Much of the time, he still behaves like a two year old, shying at each and every tractor or grouse, and leading the rest of the gang a merry song and dance around the field with his tale in the air pretending to be an Arab stallion. We concluded it would be churlish not to give him his chance to once again prove his prowess as the horse who can be relied upon to give you his all, good or bad - still as keen and strong after 30 or more miles as at the start of the day. Officially registered as Linnel Lancer, he goes by various names, depending on the mood: Mr. Horrid, Lolloping Lancer, Pea Brain, Lawrence of Lanark (where we previously lived) …. and many others with four letters! His registration papers say he stands at 13.1hh but presumably that was at birth, he’s more like 14.2hh, which makes him technically over-sized for a Fell pony, but ideal for riding and driving.
Greenhead Rowan belongs to Elsa. I bought Rowan at 5 days old with her mum, Sleddale Polly. She was 16 when we set off from John O'Groats. At 13.1hh, Rowan is a really good example of a "true to type" Fell pony, incredibly versatile, equally good at riding as driving. Never having seen an arena until relatively advanced in years, dressage is not exactly Rowan's thing, but riding on the hills, jumping ditches or even out hunting, Elsa's Rolly Polly, as she is affectionately known, is second to none. Before we set off on our ride to Lands End, Rowan had a rendezvous with a magnificent 16.1hh Friesian stallion, Wessel. The resultant foal Queen of the Night (Queenie) is now rising 4 years old, drop-dead-gorgeous, Elsa's future riding horse.
Murthwaite Mikado was going to be our pack pony on our ride to Lands End but was then reassigned to being our spare on standby at home in case anything happened to Lancer or Rowan. After three weeks stuffing his face in a field without moving an inch, you would have thought it would be a shock to his system to be boxed up to Balquhidder and suddenly to find himself riding over 25 miles a day each and every day. As with everything else, Micky rose to the challenge without any hesitation and reached Lands End just as full of energy and enthusiasm as when he set off. Four years on, he is no different at all, riding into Smithfield Market at the end of another 8 week marathon as though he had just set off, and keen to be heading off again. Fast!
We bought Micky off the Howgill Fells at 2 years old, thinking he would make 13.3hh, but he just kept growing sideways instead of vertically, and stands at only 13.1hh (on a good day). He makes up in character, stamnia and good nature for what he lacks in height, and you cannot help but laugh at his snorts and other antics - except when he is spoooking sideways at a flat-out canter. When the mood suits, he can do very nice dressage, and he has a fantastically big jump, but his greatest joy in life used to be dumping Jake in cow pats in front of all the girls at Pony Club, so Jake got a bigger horse and Elsa and I share Micky.
Murthwaite Magic Spell (Magic) came from the Howgill Fells in Cumbria from the same breeder as Micky - Tom Capstick. Tom's Murthwaite ponies are true to traditional Fell type world-renowned prize-winners, but just as important to us, they are exceptionally nice natured, with fantastic bone, and have incredible stamina. Being born and bred on the fells, their instinct negotiating bogs and other difficult ground is second to none. I bought Magic in 2004 as a yearling to grow on as a replacement for Lancer. The only time she had previously been touched by human hand was when her ear was marked to show that she was part of the Murthwaite herd. It took quite a while before she came round to accepting humans, but she is now one the most affectionate pony I have ever known, and very strongly bonded to me. As a four year old, Magic rode across Wales with me, and the following year around the Cheviot hills. She'll be 7 when she travels from Skye to Smithfield. At nearly 14hh she's at the top end of the range for Fell ponies in terms of height, and the same could be said of her width! She's jet black like Lancer, but in other ways very different to him, thankfully no issues with tractors or tying up, but tests me in other ways, other than high on the hills when I could not ask for a better pony.