A Breed Apart

A Breed Apart

For generations, they were a common sight, hauling ploughs and bales of hay, and carrying heavy loads of lead across the countryside. Strong and sure-footed, Dales ponies were integral to much of rural northern England.

One man who knows more than most about Teesdale’s native breed is David Eccles, who has completed an undefeated season showing his pony, Westwick Heather, across the region. It represents perhaps the best year yet for Mr Eccles, who farms at Hardberry Hill, near Middleton-in-Teesdale, with his wife, Alison.

He began breeding the ponies 30 years ago, armed with a knowledge that has been passed down through the generations. Mr Eccles names Leaman Wall as one of those who passed their knowledge on to him. “I used to help out at Leaman Wall’s farm in Lartington” he said “He had two or three ponies, he saw I was keen, and I started showing them. I bought one from him and that’s how I started. I sold that first pony and worked my way up from there, always trying to better myself. I’m still trying to better myself now, and that’s the secret – I’m always trying to improve.”

In 1987, Mr Eccles moved to a smallholding in Westwick, and to this day he still gives his ponies the Westwick name. Mr Eccles began winning competitions in the early 1990’s with Bolam Lady Rose, and Westwick Primrose, amongst others. He won the Yorkshire Show in 2002 and 2006, before having perhaps his most successful season to date in 2008, with his new Champion, Westwick Heather – the granddaughter of Bolam Lady Rose.
Mr Eccles was unbeaten throughout 2008 with Heather, winning a hatful of titles and trophies. They won every competition they entered, taking championships at Wolsingham, Reeth, Ryedale, Streatlam, The Yorkshire Show, and everywhere. “A lot of work and effort goes into it – it doesn’t just come overnight”, said Mr Eccles. “It takes commitment and patience, and we are only really seeing the results over the last few years.”

Much of Mr Eccles’ success has come since he moved to Hardberry Hill six years ago, but Dales ponies have an association with the farm that goes much further back in time. Records show that a man called, appropriately, William Coltman, bred Dales ponies at Hardberry Hill in the late 19th century. One of his ponies, Little Wonder II, became a champion in 1886.

At this time, the ponies provided valuable service to the dale before the arrival of the engine, working on farms and in the lead mining industry. “They are good workers,” said Mr Eccles. “They’re not big, but they have big hearts and they are very strong – they can work all day long.”

Numbers fell as the twentieth century progressed and they came close to extinction in the 1950’s and 1960’s. A small group of enthusiasts decided to keep the breed going, and today the numbers are much healthier, with the ponies becoming increasingly popular for riding and driving.

“They make a good family pony,” said Mr Eccles. “They are sensible and have a good temperament, and they are very hardy and low cost – they rarely have anything wrong with them.” The Eccles receive regular enquiries about their ponies, and recently sold one to a family in Germany.

One pony that is not for sale, however, is the celebrated Westwick Heather. “Nobody could afford Heather,” said Mr Eccles, “she is worth too much to us”

Andrew Dowson (Reproduced with kind permission of the Teesdale Mercury)

Dales Ponies at the RDA Nationals and World Championships

Dales Ponies at the RDA Nationals and World Championships

At least 2 Dales Ponies and 1 partbred were at the RDA National Championships at Hartpury in July 2007. Maidendale GJ (Biggles) qualified

Elaine Goodall (Crispin's owner & Otley RDA instructor) with Crispin and Otley Group riders Lynne Burnley (mounted) and Bernadette Spellman

in the Working Horse/Pony without

needing his hair extensions that year, thank goodness. He and his riders did well, but weren't placed.

The partbred Maidendale Grenadier had won his Regional dressage qualifier, so great things were expected of him. He was very calm and quiet during his warm-up, so his rider went through a full run-through before his test in the main arena. He remained calm and quiet, made a nice transition into his first canter on the corner ……….. and continuing straight on, popped over the 3'6” rails dividing the practice arena. His poor rider, taken by surprise, fell off and his entry was scratched.

The star of the show, though was Elaine Goodall's Hillbro' Crispin, at the time, the current holder of the Lizzie Shield for Veteran Performance Dales Pony. Not only did he compete with his own riders from the Otley Group, but helped out one of the riders from the Meirionnydd Special Riding Group when his own horse became upset in the collecting ring and couldn't compete. Crispin's record in the Nationals is impressive and in 2007 year included:

Crispin competing in the Arena with Maria Zagorskaya

4th Led Dressage
5th and 7th Countryside Challenge
5th Grade 1a Dressage
1st and 3rd Combined Training

Before setting off for the RDA National Championships, Elaine was approached by Russia and asked if Crispin could stay on for the FEI World Para Dressage Championships the following week.

The Russian team couldn't bring their own horses, so were looking for suitable mounts in the UK. Crispin was ridden by the Russian Grade 1a Champion Dressage Rider, Maria Zagorskaya. He became very popular with her and the rest of the team and well known to everyone as “the little, black, Russian horse”. He did a brilliant job with Maria.

Despite the Russians being an 'emerging' nation in dressage, the team took 18th place and Maria was 17th both in the Team test and individually in her grade. The pair then went on to take 15th place in the Freestyle Dressage to Music, all thanks to the world's first Russian Dales Pony.

Maggie Tansley

All in a Dales Work

All in a Dales Work

Twenty odd years ago I was talked into taking part in a course teaching ‘snigging’.

I’d never even heard of the word before, however, it was to change my life. I started my forestry work in 1971 and at that time horses had virtually disappeared from the woods

Charlie Parker with Lowkbers Bracken near Moffat

about 10 years previously. In my wood yard at Ingleton, I was well equipped with modern day machinery, tractors, Unimogs, etc., so going on a ‘snigging’ course was taking a step backwards or was it?

On the course I was introduced to George Read. George had been using his ponies in the wood since Adam was a lad! A real down to earth chap, we got on well and are good
friends to this day. Firstly I met Danny, a Dales type cob with a hint of Clydesdale about 14.2hh, who had been working with George since being 4 years old. Then there was Candy, of no fixed breeding, but obviously a lot of native blood standing around 14hh. Watching George working his ponies was inspirational and that led me down the route I was to take.

Charlie Parker with Lowkbers Bracken stacking tree trunks ready for further transportation

Why Dales ponies? Gina had ridden Dales ponies as a child and I am a staunch supporter of our native breeds and being a Yorkshireman, so Dales it had to be. Dales ponies are intelligent, agile and sure footed, incredibly strong for their size, have immense stamina, keep sound and are good doers. We needed ponies that could do various tasks, snigging (timber extraction using horses and ponies), farm work, riding and driving. Gina enjoyed hunting so the ponies needed to be true all rounders and they proved their worth time and time again.

In my line of work I am often called in to ‘thin’ plantations which are inaccessible for machinery, usually tight awkward places or in area’s of special significance where they don’t want huge ‘ruts’ leaving behind, my Dales ponies and cobs can get where many machines can not, as they can turn tighter and negotiate steep banks. These ponies are environmentally friendly. They leave little if any mess and they don’t destroy the flora and fauna. No damage is caused to the trees left standing or their delicate root systems. They create no noise or air pollution.
Timber extraction using horses and ponies is still viable: I have proved this time and time again. It is an age-old skill that we must strive to keep alive. Dales ponies can turn their hoof to so many disciplines as they are agile and clever. These past years a special bond has developed with my ponies. When you are working alongside them day after day you get to know your animals very well. Dales are quick to learn and willing to please, they thrive on varied work and enjoy a challenge. A Dales that is naughty and stubborn is usually a bored pony with little to do: these quick-witted ponies need a job.

In this country we have wonderful native breeds. Most have played some part in the country’s development. They are part of our heritage and should be treasured. However for me it has to be a Dales pony, whether I am snigging timber, chain-harrowing the fields, taking a bride to the church or riding along the country lanes, it’s all in a ‘Dales’ work……

Charlie Parker