Sparky the Pit Pony’s Days in the Sun

The last working horses at a colliery in Britain retired – astonishingly – in 1999. Here’s a story from The Mirror about one of the other “last pit ponies”, Sparky:

Since his retirement in 1988, Sparky has been taking it easy at the National Coal Mining Museum and has been looked after by Wendy and her colleague Bonnie Littlewood.

“When he first came out of the mine, he had to blink his way into the light,” says Wendy. “He hadn’t seen much sun and wasn’t used to it. The change in pace also took some adjustment.”

Now, Sparky’s life consists of staying out in a field overnight and spending his morning in the stable eating oats and barley, and meeting visitors.

The oldest pony in the museum, he is something of a living legend. “He’s a real charmer,” says Wendy. “It takes a while for him to warm to someone but once he does, he’s your friend for life. He’s stubborn and knows his own mind. He’s a real Victor Meldrew. But eventually, if you’re patient, he comes round.

“And he likes women. The gentle touch is what works with him. If you shout at him you have no chance.”

 

The Language of Riding: A piece for the New York Times’ Menagerie Blog

Sasa’s name means “so-so” in Portuguese. It’s a little joke, because the gray lusitano gelding is anything but — he’s a beautiful horse who can, like many Iberian equines, claim descent from the war horses of the Renaissance. Look at Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano” and there’s Sasa’s likeness carrying a Florentine general: compact as a rubber ball, strong enough to balance on his hinds, and with a crested neck that ends in ears tilting forward like his rider’s lance.

This a piece I’ve written for the New York Times‘ Menagerie blog and horses and how we communicate with them. When I publish something I like to provide a little cheat sheet and some links to source material, because most of the readers who like this blog also want to do their own investigating and reading around.

Here’s the paper on horses and heart rates.  This is the Uccello painting, The Battle of San Romano, which is at the National Gallery in London.

People have (rightly) wanted to know how on earth a horse could realise that its rider was pregnant. Here is the anecdote behind it, from the Horse and Hound Forum. The horse in question was a challenging ride for its owner. One day, its behaviour changed, and it was good as gold. This was odd, and odder still when the good spell went on for weeks. The owner happened to take a pregnancy test after a while, and had a positive result. The horse (a mare, if that’s relevant) continued to be biddable and obedient until the owner’s baby was born, at which point it reverted to its old, challenging behaviour.

What this doesn’t tell us, of course, is HOW the mare knew, and WHY she acted differently. But if there are dogs and other service animals that can detect an oncoming epileptic fit or a cancerous tumour, I see no reason why a horse should not.

A little “unpacking” for the term sprezzatura, as some of the sense of the piece got lost in a series of last minute additions and edits. There’s a line missing before that sentence, which is, “My instructor calls this the art of doing bugger all.” Sprezzatura is indeed a Renaissance term, but I’m not sure if it was directly applied to riding by contemporaries. It’s championed by Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, and there’s a little explanation here. My source/inspiration was a really excellent thesis on riding, the Renaissance and sprezzatura by Treva Tucker, called Destrier to Danseur: The Role of the Horse in Early Modern French Noble Identity. She unpacks it far better than I can in my wee NYT piece, so hunt it out.

This is the page for my memoir, If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession, and some more photos of Tav. You can get a US Kindle edition here.

Here’s a couple of videos of Sasa in action with a much better rider than I (he and Holly Barber are currently ranked 10th in the world in Working Equitation). And here’s the school that owns him: Pine Lodge in Norfolk, UK.

Collateral Damage in Victorian Divorce

From Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review of Jane Ridley’s new biography of Edward VII in the NYRB.

In a scene too lurid for the trashiest episode of Downton Abbey, Sir Charles Mordaunt returned unexpectedly from a fishing holiday in Norway to find two white carriage ponies in front of his country house, and his wife Harriet talking to the Prince of Wales [Edward VII to be], who had given them to her. Bertie left hurriedly while Harriet rushed indoors, but she was dragged back outside by Sir Charles to watch as he shot the ponies.

Mordaunt went on to divorce his wife, forcing “Bertie” to appear in court and deny any connection. Poor ponies.

The Old Story of the End of Ponies on Dartmoor

The Guardian has a piece on the plight of the Dartmoor Hill Pony. Apparently prices are falling, and by the close of a recent auction only 20 of 60 animals had been sold. The piece goes on to say that “in the last century” the hill pony thrived.

This isn’t strictly true. I’ve blogged about this before – pony prices frequently tumble, causing fears that there will soon be no ponies on the moor. There’s also a long-standing debate as to whether the Hill Pony should even be there in the first place – purists think the “true” Dartmoor pony has a better claim than the Heinz 57 Hill Pony. On the whole it’s one long decline, which is unsurprising as a) ponies have fewer uses these days, thanks to cars and b) we’re in the middle of a long recession.

  • Here’s a 2010 piece which echoes a 2001 article and one from 1998.
  • And here are historical sources including one from 1928, showing concern at the end of the Dartmoor Pony breed, and one from the 1950s that makes the distinction between the true Dartmoor Pony and the Hill Pony. Both are pretty fascinating reads if you want to understand more about the story. Even with no adjustment for inflation, the ponies sold in 1928 fetch more than those in 2013.
  • This is a 1920s letter from Ada Cole concerning the shipment of Dartmoor Ponies to Belgium for slaughter.
  • Whole Heap of Little Horse Links: the Pony Adventure Edition

    DSC03552

    • A sanctuary in Devon provide an orphaned foal with teddy bears for company. Video ensues. (ZapIt)
    • A pony in Canada is attacked by a bear while minding its own business. (Kamloops)
    • A cob called Buddy goes for a swim in Kent, and requires the help fo the fire brigade. (Kent Online) A pony in Essex also took a dip with the same results. (Epping Forest Guardian)
    • Two-headed pony discovered in Wales. Sort of. (Daily Mail)
    • A man in Rhode Island took a shetland pony called Willy Wonka into his local Liquor store. Something entirely predictable ensued. (ABC News – thank you Ed Ward)
    • A psychic helped rescue an adventurous Norwegian Fjord who wound up in a ravine in Seattle. (Seattle Times – thank you to Christina Wilsdon)
    • Edinburgh decides it’s really rather nice to have pony rides in the centre of town. (The Edinburgh Reporter)
    • Mumbai teenagers rescue a tiny, sick pony they found grazing on a garbage dump. (dnaindia.com)

    Plus Ça Change: British Ponies To Slaughter

    Letter to The Times, September 22nd, 1928:

    “I am taking all possible measures to find out whether the Dartmoor ponies are going to Belgium for slaughter, and, if so, how and where they are killed. We have already traced one truckload which was travelling from Friday to Sunday in England.

    Miss A. M. F. Coles, International League Against the Export of Horses for Butchery, 11, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, W.C. 2.”

    And yes, that’s Ada Cole, founder of what is now World Horse Welfare.