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Heavy horse driving: on board with a giant

PUBLISHED: 13:54 21 January 2016 | UPDATED: 14:35 21 January 2016

Jacob leads the way (view from the mansion)

Jacob leads the way (view from the mansion)

Archant

Traditional heavy horsepower is alive and well at Wimpole Home Farm. Gillian Thornton takes the reins for a day

Fitting the harness - with shires you need to work from the front so they can see youFitting the harness - with shires you need to work from the front so they can see you

‘Now who’d like to be first with the hoofpick?’ Head horsewoman Emma Warner looks round her four cadets for volunteers. We all hold back, not wanting to seem too eager, then everyone speaks at once. But there’s no rush. With two magnificent shire horses to work with, there are plenty of hairy feet to go round.

I’ve picked up – and picked out – a lot of hooves in my time but never feet with shoes weighing 1.2kg. But then none of my horses has weighed in at half a tonne, nor towered above me at 18 hands high. My grandfather farmed in Yorkshire with heavy horses before the Second World War and now I’m rolling back the years on the Hertfordshire border.

Home Farm at Wimpole Hall neare Royston is owned by the National Trust and approved by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Here, in picturesque parkland and among period farm buildings visitors can admire rare horses and cattle, sheep, pigs and goats that were once a common sight on British farms. These breeds were replaced in the years following the war for those that gave better yields or simply took up less space. And as I watch an eclectic group of cattle constantly reposition their horns around a manger, I can see why they these glorious animals fell from favour. As livestock breeds changed, so traditional horsepower also gave way to tractors, heralding the decline of the heavy horse.

At Wimpole Home, however, you can still spend a day with these magnificent animals on one of the popular heavy horse driving courses for beginners. There are currently seven shires on the yard, five geldings plus a brood mare and filly, and my first sight of them is memorable in the extreme – enormous equine backsides lined up in stalls, heads buried deep in breakfast hay.

Gillian takes to the sledge behind Jacob. Shires are trained by voice commandGillian takes to the sledge behind Jacob. Shires are trained by voice command

Driving days run between April and October and are limited to four participants, working in pairs with a horse. No previous equestrian experience is necessary, just sensible clothing and bags of enthusiasm. In our group, Peter, Kate and I have all owned horses, but Bill, a garden volunteer at Wimpole, is a non-rider.

We’re in the capable hands of Warner, who’s impressively qualified in both horse driving and teaching, and George, another volunteer who came on this course some years ago and ‘somehow never left’. Warner starts by talking us through the safety issues of working with such huge animals as we make friends with Jasper, a 17.3 hands high, seven-year-old gelding, and Jacob, or Jake, 18 hands and more experienced at nine years.

Backs and ears can be hard to reach from ground level but Jasper’s eyes close blissfully and he obligingly drops his head as I gently brush his face. Peter meanwhile tackles the hindquarters. Beauty routine completed, we lead our charges into the yard, their slow clip-clop echoing around the barns and stables as they have for centuries.

This morning we’ll be mastering steering and commands from the ground, long-reining on foot with Jasper and piloting a sledge behind Jake. But first Warner explains the purpose of every buckle and hook on their harness. We learn to put Jasper’s head through the widest part of the heavy straw collar before turning the collar through 180 degrees, and watch the technique for fitting the heavy bridle. I’d do this from the side with a riding horse, slipping the bit gently between the teeth, but with shires we have to manoeuvre from the front so the horse can see us round his blinkers, attaching the second side of the bit only when the leather is in place.

Jasper is readied for workJasper is readied for work

Once we’ve mastered tugs and terrets, whipple trees and swingle trees, it’s time to put theory into practice in the paddock. All the shires are trained for both ride and drive, and Warner has even competed with Jake. ‘Cantering can be quite exciting when you’re hacking out,’ she laughs. ‘But fortunately they can’t keep it up for long!’

Young horses are initially taught to long-rein, which gets them used to the feel of things moving behind them. ‘It also builds their confidence in you,’ Warner explains. ‘You’ve taken them away from the herd and need to show them you’re boss. They’re trained to respond to voice commands early on, not just because they’re so big, but because a ploughman wouldn’t always have had both hands free for steering.’

We learn the right tones to apply ‘Walk on!’ and ‘Whoah!’, ‘Steady, come over’ for left and ‘Wheesh’ for right. ‘It just has to sound different so there’s no confusion’ explains Warner. I take first turn at long-reining Jasper, coiling the ropes in slack loops from my hands. The trick is not to get too close – not to avoid a face full of fresh manure, but to make sure I can see round him and steer away from rough terrain or overhanging branches. I’m instantly in awe of those powerful black hindquarters, but ever-so-slightly chuffed to find how willingly Jasper responds to my novice commands.

We all swap places and by the time I take up my seat on the sledge behind Jake our two teams are sufficiently proficient to pass closely without collision. Warner and George keep pace with every long shire stride, offering advice and checking constantly that our horses are listening to us and working well.

The morning races past and after lunch, for horses and humans, it’s time to put Jacob in the cart. More straps and buckles to master, plus traces and shafts, then we’re off, two on the driving seat, four in the back, bound for the front door of Wimpole Hall.

From high up, we can really appreciate how Jake works, watching him literally put his shoulder into the job as he switches from tarmac drive to deep gravel. We stop for a series of Kodak-moments outside the elegant 17th-century mansion, then it’s my turn to take the reins again as we head back down the drive towards the long avenue of trees, past Wimpole’s listed red telephone box, and back to the Home Farm gate.

I can’t claim to be a horse driver yet, but my fast-track from ploughman to coachman has been a delight in every way. Grandpa, I think, would have been quietly chuffed.

Wimpole Estate is at Arrington on the edge of Royston. Call 01223 206000 or visit nationaltrust.org.uk/wimpole-estate

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