When you think of endangered species, you immediately think of tigers, pandas and all manner of exotic creatures.
So it might come as a surprise to be told fewer than 500 heavy horses remain in Britain today and are now firmly on the at-risk register.
The Clydesdale breed is in sharp decline, once a common site on farmland and city streets, the impressive equine has now been replaced by modern machinery.
These worrying figures have struck a nerve with Clydesdale enthusiast Viv Cockburn, who heads up the Milfield Heavy Horse Association in Northumberland.
“We have 12 Clydesdales here and a full breeding programme in place,” she said.
“Our aim is to raise awareness of the importance that heavy horses played within not only farming, as they are most commonly associated with, but also many other activities throughout their era.
“We came here three years ago and have been slowly building the visitor centre since.
“Now we can help to promote the old working skills and practices, that now sadly are disappearing, while trying to encourage younger generations to participate in some of these skills.
“The public can integrate with horses, learn of their history, view old working horse machinery and watch skilled people at work.”
More than 100 years since the start of the First World War, now is the time for remembering the crucial role heavy horses played between 2014 and 2018, says Viv.
“They were the forgotten army during World War One,” she said.
“More than eight million horses died during the fighting and a tremendous amount of heavy horses went out to join the armies on both sides. Very few returned home as there was a tremendous loss of life.
“But technology quickly caught up and the number of heavy horses really started to decline between the two world wars.
“The tractor stepped in and the heavy goods vehicle stepped in and they were no longer needed.
“In 1936 a farm would have up to 100 stallions standing because back then they were sorely in need.
“They were so versatile and used in equal measure out on farms and in the city. All the inner city transport companies started off by using horses.
“The anchor of the Titanic was moved to Liverpool by 25 heavy horses. Their pulling power was unmatched.”
In a bid to raise their profile and ultimately ensure the breed’s long-term survival, Viv has organised one of the country’s biggest heavy horse festivals for the past three years.
Thousands of visitors flock to Northumberland’s Festival of the Heavy Horse each year and the numbers were once again high at the event’s new venue at Etal Showground, on Northumberland’s Ford and Etal Estate.
The weekend’s saw the introduction of the rare stallion cart class and was a qualifier for the British Ridden Heavy Horse national finals.
Popular features like the magnificent driving teams and working horse displays were back again.
Clydesdales are the breed traditionally associated with Northumberland but the festival brings together heavy horses from all over the UK, including Shires and Suffolk Punches; a breed now also registered with the Rare Breeds Society.
“For many older generations the heavy horse was a common sight but sadly today this is not the case,” said Viv.
“The festival gives the opportunity for people to rekindle memories and to see skills, crafts and horses that are not so common in modern times.
“The Suffolk punch was almost extinct not so long ago.”
While the heavy horses are the central part of Viv’s agenda, the equine enthusiast is also keen to promote the importance of home produce and the craftsmanship that once pulled rural communities together.
“Heavy horses are the foundation of Northumberland’s farming industry,” she said.
“But now everything is so driven by technology and productivity. Farming has changed so much.
“From making your own produce to the pressures of producing food for millions, it has become so much more intense.
“I feel as though we are losing a bit of that connection from the land. The horseman always did have that connection.”
The Milfield Heavy Horse Association is busy organising an event for later in the year, called Looking Back.
Here, visitors can see heavy horses doing what they do best; working in the fields, with a chance for the public to have a go.
“Last year we had 1,500 through the gates so we’re going to host the event again in October this year,” said Viv.
“We’ve got a massive collection of horse drawn machinery and it always sparks a discussion between the older and younger generations who visit here, which is lovely to see.
“Everything associated with the heavy horse is slowly dwindling away. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get a hold of a farrier who has the skills to show them and also traditional harness makers are in short supply.
“Progress in machinery and technology is inevitable so it’s important that we promote Clydesdale horses as a full riding horse.
“Our horses are all broken to ride and that gives them a new lease of life.
“We also use them as an educational aid. Schools come here and learn about the history of the heavy horse and because of their gentle nature we’ve been known to take the horses to old people’s homes for a visit.”
For further details visit the website : http://www.heavyhorsefestival.co.uk/
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