When my friend, Leela, asked me if I fancied a ride whilst we were on holiday, I knew it would have to be good. Bearing in mind we weren’t on a ‘Sun, Sea, Sex and Sangria’ type of holiday, I narrowed it down to possibly not involving all 4 of those elements!
Due to the Covid pandemic, we took the opportunity to explore more of our wonderful island that the UK has to offer. We booked a week long holiday in The Lake District and hired a magnificent country house for the 14 of us to stay in.
Amongst our action packed week, Leela had read about Cumbrian Heavy Horses, the world’s only BHS (The British Horse Society) Approved riding establishment for Heavy horses. This refers to the huge, gentle giants such as Shires, Clydesdales, Ardennes and Suffolk Punch breeds.
When you think of Shire horses, you are right in thinking of the massive, muscular breed with long hairy fetlocks that used to be used for weight-pulling work. Common in the eighteenth century, they were put to work by farmers to pull machinery to harvest fields and to tow barges at a time when canals where the principal means of transport for goods. These strong horses were also used as cart horses for road transport. To this day, they remain used for forestry in some parts of the world.
Equally, the Clydesdale is a large and powerful horse which originated in Scotland when Flemish stallions were imported there and mated with local mares.
In the nineteenth century Shire blood was introduced and these horses spread through much of Scotland and into Northern England. After seeing the success of this beautiful breed, they were exported to other parts of the world and used for agriculture and during the First World War.
By the 1970s the breed was considered vulnerable to extinction and is still on the ‘at risk’ group of Rare Breeds Survival.
Cumbrian Heavy Horses Equestrian Centre
It was this fear of them becoming extinct that made Annie Rose take action and put her passion to good use. She started West Highland Heavy Horses many moons ago to encourage people to fall in love with these divine animals. Starting with just 2 horses, and working hard for over 10 years, she grew it into a family business.
It became a thriving, friendly yard, achieving BHS approved status which means it is officially recognised for its high standards and care towards both horses and rider.
She moved the business (and I use that term loosely, as her priority remains the horses over money), down to a beautiful area in the Lake District. These are expensive horses to keep and by offering easier access to tourists and passing trade, she could expand and breed them to help stop the decline of these stunning equines.
Now based in the most beautiful part of the Lake District National Park, the equestrian centre is situated in the Whicham Valley, surrounded by the hills of Black and White Combe and only a few miles away from the coastline of the Irish Sea.
We did, in fact, visit the beach there (Roanhead Beach) which has miles of wide shore and the Equestrian Centre offers a 3 hour ride in the shallow waters along this stretch of coast. Leela and I were extremely tempted to do this hardcore ride as it’s for experienced riders. It would have been superb but we were worried about our legs and thighs holding out for 3 hours on such large beasts! It was for this reason alone that we left our ride for the last day of the holiday, to minimise the time we might be walking like John Wayne whilst away.
We opted for the ride up in the Fells, as the best views are seen on horseback plus it gave us an opportunity to see what these marvellous animals can do on such a landscape.
It was a scorching hot day (there was a heatwave in the UK that week, so we did at least have the ‘sun’ element) and what I loved most was the care and consideration given to these horses.
Simone (our escort/superhero), explained that we had to ride the horses selflessly to stop them from overheating and getting too exhausted. They were hosed down before the tack went on, and then hosed down again once we were mounted. It’s fair to say that we also enjoyed being hosed down – as any rider knows, riding gear is very hot!
I found it rather amusing that something as simple as bending down to tighten the girth or shortening the stirrups was impossible. When mounted, my arms didn’t stretch down far enough under the belly of the horse. It put into context just how high up you feel on these four legs. The yard staff came round several times to do all of this for us and were so on the ball, not once did I need to ask for assistance.
In addition to Simone, Leela and I had a very lovely couple on the ride with us. Emily and Nigel were regulars on holiday here and were camping in the glorious surrounding fields of the yard. This equestrian centre also offers camping and facilities including showers and a very good café.
They love it so much, so when they are not away skiing, they come up here to ride at this stable – this holiday alone they managed to fit in 4 rides on these wonderful horses. On our ride, Emily rode Nemo (a gorgeous Suffolk Punch), Nigel was on a horse called Henry, Leela was on Deeks (named after a very handsome character in a TV series, NCIS) and I was on a Clydesdale called William.
Simone rode Annie’s horse called Little Prince (nicknamed LP) who seemed to forget he was an old boy and thought he was about 3!
The 5 of us set off up the hill, leaning forward out of the saddles to take our weight off the horses backs where we could, to be kind to the them. We were able to canter on flatter areas of land and kept an eye out to swat horse flies off of our horse companions.
The sun was shining, we all chatted away, the views were breath-taking and the ride was simply incredible. Watching the movement of the horses, their huge strides, muscles rippling, mane flowing and long fetlocks swaying, I was in awe. They are both handsome and beautiful.
From the views up high, we were on top of the world. Not a single person in sight, no roads, no sound of traffic. The sounds I am conditioned to were replaced by the lambs and sheep baa-ing and the call of a buzzard above us. When we cantered, the ground shook with the thud of hooves.
Despite their power, the heavy horses were deceivingly elegant and dainty in how they carried themselves. My horse, William, was an excellent jumper and beautiful dressage horse. Not what you’d expect at all.
The width of the saddle felt like I was sitting in an armchair – it felt safe and comfortable. The tack was of high standard and extremely well maintained.
The most interesting thing about riding these amazing horses is that they like to actually be ridden. As any rider will know, often school horses will just plod along and follow the horse in front of them. In contrast, these horses wait for command and respond accordingly – they will give what you ask for. It offers a rewarding ride for the person and your technique enables you to get the best out of them.
Simone showed us so many stunning sights along the way, including a willow tree (over 300 years old) which had grown hundreds of roots and made its own whole wood next to a swamp area which was safely cordoned off. We reached an area called Photo Field (for obvious reasons) and from there we could see the sea and on a non-hazy day, Blackpool Tower (over 80 miles away).
Emily, Nigel and Simone shared stories with us of previous rides and particularly memorable moments on them. Each ride was different and filled with a reminder of just how strong our gentle horses were that trusted us on their backs. Simone’s passion was clear – she had even given up life as a Head Teacher in Surrey to dedicate her time to working with these kind-hearted creatures.
By the time we got back (over 2 hours later), I was worrying about the dismount and being able to stand up straight, let alone walk. Simone encouraged us to do leg exercises, rotate our ankles and bring our knees up like a jockey, and she took all that worry away. Wow, that woman was good!
Dismounting consisted of me sliding a leg over and lying sideways on my front across the saddle. I remained there for a while to mentally prepare for the landing. Someone stood there to make sure I didn’t slide down and right under the belly of the horse (yes, it’s been done!), and with a deep breath I was down. And standing on my own two feet.
Leela and I both agreed, we can’t wait to do the beach ride and will be back as soon as we can.
William got lots of kisses and cuddles from me and my family. He was a true gent who gave me everything I hoped for and a bit more.
Other members of our holiday party did a beginner’s ride which walked around the farm and they also loved it. It gave them a little taster of these magnificent horses.
(One of their foals named Captain Tom, after the man himself)
Cumbrian Heavy Horses is a remarkable yard. They need visitors and riders to keep these breeds going. They breed and raise their young with love and they are treated as family.
Please do stop by and support them, and if you are fortunate enough to ride or see William, please give him a kiss from me.