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In this article from My Countryside magazine, Mark Cole from Dyfed Shire Horse Farm in Pembrokeshire tells Camilla Swift about his work to preserve this iconic British breed.
For most farmers and landowners the mechanisation of agriculture was a huge benefit, improving their productivity and easing the workload on staff.
But while the mechanisation of agriculture was a blessing for some, it had a drastically negative impact on others. Take the Shire horse. Before tractors came into use, heavy horses like Shires were often the single most important animal on the farm; harnessed to a plough, they carried out most of the work that machines do today. In the early 1900s there were around a million Shire horses in the UK. Today they are a rare breed, with a population in the low four figures. Fortunately, there are still people working to preserve this heritage breed.
Dyfed Shire Horse Farm in Pembrokeshire has been farmed by the same family for eight generations. Mark Cole’s grandfather John Rees Lewis was born on the farm in 1909, before the age of tractors and mechanisation. Growing up as a young man in the inter-war years, horses did the heavy work on the farm and he developed a bond with them which persisted even after the war. “The tractor only came to our farm in 1947, and he still worked with horses until about 1963. The connection ran deep,” explains Mark.
Preservation and diversification
Mark’s grandfather began breeding Shire horses in the 1980s as a retirement hobby, beginning his own registered bloodline. When John died in 1991, the family wanted to maintain the horses in his memory, but realised the only way to cover their costs would be to diversify the farm. “The whole idea of opening to the public in 1992 was born out of grandfather’s passing, and the desire to raise the money to keep his heritage on the farm in to the 21st century,” explains Mark.
The farm operates as a stud, preserving the bloodlines both of his grandfather’s specific Dyfed Shire horses, and making sure that the British Shire horse population remains in existence. One of their mares, Morgana (Dyfed Morgana Le Fay) is the fifth generation Dyfed Shire born on the farm. Mark explains that “two of her great-great-grandmothers were Deborah and Harmony, who my grandfather bought from England in 1981 and 1982 to begin the bloodline. We can trace her bloodlines just like we can trace our own family lines, back to my grandfather’s originals of 40 years ago. I think that’s amazing.”
This year, the Dyfed Shires appeared on a global stage with Ed (now named Major Apollo) front and centre of King Charles III’s Coronation in May. Both Apollo and Willa Rose (now Major Juno – and the daughter of the aforementioned Morgana) also paraded as drum horses for the Household Cavalry at King Charles III’s first Trooping the Colour in June. Not only were they foot perfect in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands, but Willa Rose also made history by being the first female drum horse for the Household Cavalry. “It’s the first time in history that the two drum horses on parade came from the same farm as well, so it was very surreal for us to experience that.”
Ed is not the first horse from Dyfed to join the ranks of the Household Cavalry. That honour goes to Dyfed Grey Celt, Major Mercury, who joined the army in 2008 and performed at his first Trooping the Colour in 2011. He spent over 10 years in the cavalry, including years as lead drum horse, before he sadly passed away in 2021.
The route to becoming a supplier of Royal drum horses was “total pot luck” as Mark puts it. “In 2008 my mother and brother saw an advert in Heavy Horse World magazine. The Queen and the Army were looking for horses to purchase to be trained up as drum horses, and we happened to have a three-year-old named Celt who we thought was everything they were looking for. We gave them a call, they came and visited, and he passed the test!”
Thanks to the connections that Celt created between Dyfed and the Royal Family, in 2018 the-then Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall visited the farm. As well as naming one of their foals (Merlin), the Duchess took up the reins herself in a carriage drawn by Ed. It was a strange coincidence that a year later the Army called again looking for more drum horses and Ed moved to London to begin his new life. He debuted at the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and paraded at her final Trooping the Colour, before having the honour of being the only horse at her State Funeral. “The Army have unwittingly realised that there is a small Welsh farm in West Wales which is an ideal breeding ground for what they want. They need quiet horses with a good temperament who have been broken in to be worked, and that’s exactly what we can provide.”
The ongoing relationship between Dyfed and the Household Cavalry means that the family and staff are often invited to see their former charges in action.
This year, the Dyfed Shire Horse Farm won the Rural Enterprise Awards in the Welsh Countryside Alliance Awards and were invited to London for the national ‘Rural Oscars’ Reception, where their business won the Highly Commended Award. “We are always saying that we are the best in Wales now!” says Mark. “It was great to have that recognition for us as a business, but also it’s a really good showcase for the breed and to talk about all of the work being done by a small number of breeders.”
Victoria Clayton, CEO of the Shire Horse Society was present at the Reception, and “she was absolutely delighted, as it’s great coverage for the breed.”
A minibus full of Dyfed Farm friends and staff went down to London and were able to call in at Hyde Park Barracks before the Awards ceremony to visit Willa Rose and Ed to feed them apples before heading on to the House of Lords. “Our friends and sponsors came with us and it was a great way of saying thank you to them. We also had a guided tour of Parliament with our MP Stephen Crabb, so it was a jam-packed day!”
What is it about the Dyfed Shires that makes them so suitable as drum horses? “The ancestors of our current bloodline were all born and bred on the farm, but they could be flighty and a bit of a handful as we weren’t handling them that much. The ones we have now, we do a lot more work with on the farm. As we are open to the public, they grow up with complete strangers coming in every day, with all their different sounds and noises – dogs barking, children shouting. They go to local agricultural events; all of this is just normal to them, so when they’re working on Horse Guards’ Parade with people shouting on either side, it’s not that different.”
The farm is continuing their breeding work, welcoming two foals this year which is rare for them. “If we get one a year we are happy, so to have a rare breed like this and to have two foals, that’s fantastic.”
There are plenty of other characters on the farm besides the breeding stock; with stallions and geldings as well as the girls. “We all have our favourites, but my wife loves Jonesy as he’s very needy – he loves attention. Then we have Atlas who’s very different; he’s a very handsome grey boy, and he’s a bit of a cool dude. The attention tends to come to him, rather than him looking for attention!"