Without exception, our native equines were originally bred for a purpose – to fulfil a specific working role. Those roles may have diminished or disappeared, but due to the attributes bred into them, natives are still capable of taking on a different kinds of work in the modern equestrian world. A prime example of this can be found at Monach Farm Riding Stables at Hilton in Cambridgeshire, which has been built around native breeds.

Monach Farm was established by Dreda Randall, supported by her conservation lecturer husband Roland, in 1977, both RBST members from the outset. Originally part of the business at Hilton and at their other small farm in Essex was breeding pedigree dairy goats, cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, while Dreda’s hobby was keeping native horses and ponies. Over the years, the native ponies contributed to farm diversification and Monach Farm Riding Stables and Education Unit evolved from that.

Dreda had taught able and disabled horse riders since the late and ‘50s and both her daughters hold classroom and vocational teaching
qualifications. With husband Roland a Life Fellow at Girton College Cambridge, Dreda describes Monach Farm as a “house full of teachers”

Extraordinary ability
As the riding establishment developed, it became obvious that there was an extreme lack of facilities locally, both for beginner and for
‘restart’ riders and for those who had physical or learning difficulties, to participate in equestrian exercise. Gradually, Monach Farm found itself developing the educational and special needs access, including an RDA group. The RDA group is no longer hosted, but the Monach team deliver lessons and pony care sessions to many home educated and special needs children, including three school and college groups.

According to Dreda, the success of the education diversification, particularly the RDA aspect, can be attributed in large part to the native breeds. She says: “There is a quite extraordinary ability of the horses and ponies to understand that the human on their back, sometimes making unusual noises or movements, is not a threat to them and they will continue to behave as if everything is quite normal. The same animal might well behave quite differently and with much less tolerance when it senses someone more competent on its back!”

The riding stables is now run by daughter Emily and there are over 30 horses and ponies on the yard and the vast majority are native breeds, including Suffolk, Fell, Dales, Welsh and Eriskay. Dreda herself started her riding career on a Dartmoor although the breed is not currently represented on the yard. When acquiring new horses or ponies, the Randalls like to take on youngsters which “have not been messed around with” and once on the yard, as Dreda says: “Nothing ever leaves, our horses and ponies stay for life.” They also breed some of their own and currently have a Dales and an Eriskay mare, which because of their quality they intend to breed from after they have done a few years in the school. Their offspring will also stay on the yard.

Bred to do a job of work
So why natives in an equestrian teaching environment? Emily says: “Natives were originally bred to do a job of work, and often to
multi-task, which meant that each breed developed some specific attributes. The pony breeds were mostly used for carrying loads; for example, Dartmoors were used by tin miners and quarry workers while Highlands were traditionally used as deer ponies to carry carcases down from the hills. Add to this the terrain they worked on, and you find an animal that is very sure footed, robust and able to adapt to carrying weight that is sometimes unbalanced.”

Zoe Basford with Fern, a 10 year-old Highland Dales Pony Prince, aged 17 Five-year old Eriskay, Star in the School

Dreda also believes that by choosing a pure-bred native, you can generally rely on them remaining true to type. She says: “As well as conformation, each breed has its own attributes and characteristics that evolved from the way in which they were originally bred. I believe that these have continued through to today so that, on the whole, you can be sure of what you will get in terms of temperament and attitude. With a horse of pony that has an unknown mix in its breeding, you can’t be sure what characteristics might emerge but, certainly in my own experience over many years, you can be much more sure of what you will get with a native. That’s not to say that they don’t have their individual personalities, but in terms of breed traits I have always found natives to be consistent.”

Looking at individual breeds, Dreda adds: “Suffolks and Highlands make very good riding horses capable of carrying large adults. Similarly Dales, originally a farmer’s horse, and Fells which will adapt to whatever you ask. Fells will go up a gear or down a gear, depending on what you want of them. And, of course, the smaller breeds are useful for children; Shetlands don’t really come into it nowadays because modern children tend to be so much longer in the leg so Welsh and Dartmoor ponies can be ideal for children, although I wouldn’t recommend a young Dartmoor for a five-year old as they tend to be a bit too bright and forward going for inexperienced children of that age.

“For our RDA riders, the Highlands, which are naturally very docile, sensible and sure footed, and the Dales and Fells are particularly suitable. We have one Fell pony, Tramp, who is 31 and has taught no end of children to ride. He is a ‘union man’ though, and knows exactly when he has done his 30 minutes in the school!”

Natives an ideal choice
Whether for work in an RDA or teaching establishment or for private ownership, Dreda and Emily can point to a whole range of attributes that make a native an ideal choice. Size is one factor. Technically, ponies are smaller than horses, with a pony measuring up to 14.2hh and anything over being a horse which might lead people to believe that ponies would only be suitable for small adults. In fact, some pony breeds, such as the Highland, can make around 15hh which would make them suitable for an adult of average height. With the difference in conformation, a sturdy native breed of 15hh makes a much better weight carrier than its equivalent height in other breeds.

Native pony breeds can also be much more economical to keep. Having evolved to live on mountain or moorland, they can happily live out year round on low quality grazing. In fact, rich grazing is a distinct disadvantage as Dreda explains: “When they are not working, our ponies are out in the fields and we tend to put them on sparse grazing as much as possible. They will get supplementary feed when they have been working, but you wouldn’t expect to have huge feed bills with a native.”

The same goes for vets’ bills in Dreda’s experience. She adds: “Apart from routine vaccinations, Tramp, the oldest on the yard, has never needed the vet. In fact, I would say that 90% of our natives don’t need veterinary attention. The same goes for the farrier; natives tend to have good feet and if they are not doing roadwork they may not need shoeing, just regular hoof trimming.”

With around 200 children and adults per week passing through its riding school, Monach Farm describes itself as “an inclusive establishment that welcomes people of all abilities and those with challenges” – a claim that probably wouldn’t be possible without the abilities and adaptability of its native breeds.

Tom the Suffolk Punch, aged 14 Belle, a nine year old Fell Pony Laddie an 11 year old Fell Fell Pony Tramp, aged 30