In The Country Magazine
shire horses pulling cart
In The Country Lifestyle

The return of working horses to Britain

‘Shires? They’re amazing beasts!’ – Sir David Attenborough.

Horses have long been the work-force of our society. Right up until the early 1900’s, before the arrival of the steam engine and automotive vehicles, horse-drawn vehicles were the ultimate mode of transportation and an essential feature in farming. In the 18th century horses and ponies were used underground in Britain’s coal mines, with many of the ponies being Shetlands, due to their small stature. I can only assume the breed had a less cheeky nature back then, or those pits would have been carnage…

In 1917, the First World War brought many a horror for both man and horse, as Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse or more recently, Sam Mendes’s award-winning film 1917 both attest. Horses were used in combat for cavalry charges and moving artillery, supply wagons and even as ambulances. This had a catastrophic and devastating effect on Britain’s horse population, with an estimated 8 million horses – as well as countless mules and donkeys – having lost their lives during the fighting.

Due to their strength and reliability certain breeds such as the Suffolk Punch or Shire suffered such devastating losses they were almost deemed in danger of disappearing altogether. Once a common sight pulling brewer’s wagons or drays across the city, after the closure of Young’s Brewery in London’s Wandsworth in 2006, this saw the end of more than 300 years of horse-drawn wagons and today working horses have all but disappeared from Britain’s streets and farms, with those remaining seen as a novelty.

In some of the country’s more rural areas, horses are still used to check on and round-up livestock, including the thousands of semi-feral ponies on Hampshire and Wiltshire’s New Forest. Yes, we do see the police using horses to monitor areas and control crowds, the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment is part of the British Army’s two most senior regiments, however the use of horses is primarily tasked with ceremonial duties, such as the display we see at Olympia most years.

This said, one organisation tackling the stark fall in the use of working horses is Operation Centaur. Feeling passionately that working horses still have an important role to play in society when it comes to modern conservation management and not just ceremonial performances, Operation Centaur are on a mission to provide solutions to modern conservation challenges, such as controlling bracken in sensitive acid grasslands using innovative horse-drawn machinery.

Dozens of habits can benefit from reintroducing traditional land management practices in place of tractors or other heavy motorised machinery: Cutting hay in regenerating wildflower meadows, cultivating areas of sensitive areas of land, forestry and timber extraction, mowing grass verges and even collecting recycling. Using heavy horses to carry out such work has additional conservation benefits, offering lower noise disturbance to wildlife, lower soil compaction and impact on flora in comparison to heavy machinery.

Working horses also have a low carbon footprint and are therefore a sustainable alternative, so reintroducing them on a larger scale, to support both the environment and the equestrian population would seem the obvious choice. Another great benefit working horses have is on the community. I for one am instantaneously filled with joy whenever I see a mounted police officer or the cavalry horses hacking in Hyde Park, and in a world where decreasing mental health is rife, strongly believe these working horses have a positive affect on people’s mood, often attracting crowds of curious onlookers.

When I first saw Claire at Equipassion UK’s photographs of these glorious Shires (featured within this article) working in urban areas, I was entranced and I wanted to know more. Working with Historic Royal Palaces and The Royal Parks for the past 25 years, Operation Centaur work on tasks such as grassland management, with Richmond Park being one of the team’s biggest projects. The largest area of lowland acid grassland in Greater London, this rare habitat contributes largely to the parks status as a National Nature Reserve, and its designation as a ‘Site of Specific Scientific Interest’.

In addition to their grassland conservation work Operation Centaur have expanded their reach to include a members’ riding club, carriage rides, equestrian therapy clinics, development courses and other charitable work.

The work they do and their ethos is admirable, with working horse teams thriving up and down the country, showing horses can work in harmony with today’s society, to compliment modern machinery and larger agricultural outlets. At a time where sustainability, living more responsibly and reducing our individual carbon footprint is more important than ever before, horses are here to help.

Adam Curtis, Assistant Park Manager at Richmond Park agrees: ‘Using Shire horses is a sustainable way to manage parkland. Not only are they are offering a much-loved service to London’s landscapes, the figures stack up and it totally makes sense environmentally and economically.’

With stables in the heart of Richmond Park, Operation Centaur offers some of the most exclusive and breathtaking riding in London and the South East. I for one have always wanted to ride in the city. For anyone who is interested, you can sign up for a short trial ride here, where together with the team you’ll select a horse that is right for you. Regular members are even able to take horses out solo round the park – imagine being free to roam with no instructors or guides in the UK’s capital city – it sounds heavenly to me!

Alongside the working horses and the Member’s Club, Operation Centaur is proud to offer 1-1 psychotherapy and coaching with Professor Andreas Liefooghe, a leading psychologist and author in equine-assisted psychotherapy. In recent years the evidence around horses playing a pivotal role in coping with anxiety and stress, as well as facilitating change is patients with certain disorders is compelling. And as someone for whom being around horses has always felt therapeutic, this comes as no surprise.

Being able to run my hands through a coat or stroking a velvet muzzle almost always helps to soothe a tough day and it seems others can now agree that horses hold a natural, unintentional magic that encourages us to take stock and slow down; both mentally and physically. To be able to work with and communicate successfully with them, one must be silent and calm. Perhaps in this ever uncertain and rapidly changing world we could all learn a thing or two from them?

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