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)