Devon-based Emma Massingale has worked with horses all her life. She has backed and trained horses in the traditional way, as well as competed. She now specialises in free-riding — riding and controlling teams of horses and ponies without saddles and bridles.
In the summer of 2015, Emma spent a month on an uninhabited island off the Irish coast, where she stayed with six Connemara ponies, two of which, Evenos and Echo, were recently acquired, unbacked three-year-olds. She set herself the challenge of seeing whether she could back and ride these two ponies without enclosures or tack of any kind while they were living free. She slept in a tent and caught her own seafood.
Massingale has now made a DVD of her experience (available at www.emmamassingale.co.uk)
I started free-riding with a team of sport horses — which I still have and use for what they are good at — but I knew they were not the way forward.
They are too big for a start and I wanted to do Roman riding (the rider stands atop a pair of horses, with one foot on each horse), plus they also tend to be plagued with minor injuries such as foot abscesses that interrupt training and events, while ponies are tougher.
I looked at lots of different breeds and then had two Connemara ponies in for backing. They are kind, willing and clever ponies but not complicated so two-years ago I went to Connemara to buy four ponies to make a team.
The original Connemara ponies I bought achieved so much more than I ever expected that I wanted to learn more about them and I wanted to go back to Connemara to learn what it is like to be a Connemara pony.
I rang up the owner of Clifden sales (the Connemara pony sale) to see if he could find me an island — which he did. The Irish are so passionate about their breed and place and I was delighted they allowed me to go ahead.
The island was Freaghillaun South, off the Irish coast in the Connemara National park. It is a 70-acre, privately owned island with just the ruins of a house.
I saw it for the first time last October as I needed to know it had fresh water and was safe for the ponies. It looked really wild but it just felt right. I could never get on it again due to bad weather so had only seen it for an hour before the project started for real.
I felt quite emotional and a bit teary but I think that was due more to the huge relief of getting there rather than anything else.
Travelling with the ponies on the deck of a small boat was scary and I felt a massive sense of responsibility as no way did I want to frighten them — horses do not forget — and I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if anything untoward had happened.
I had prepared the older ponies as best I could and put the two new ones in a trailer on the deck so they couldn’t see. The crossing was all quite terrifying but in the end it was fine and without drama, so the landing was quite emotional. Coming back, they all stood on deck.
Yes — that women are really quite good at survival and better than men, who like to make it look macho, might like to think.
Also, keeping emotions under control sets you up to survive and, because I was training the horses, I realised that you simply can’t be emotional — either way — as they pick it up, so you have to be steady for them.
I also learnt how much difference feeling clean made so I had a bath (upright in a barrel) in fresh water every other day — which was freezing — but was really important to me.
So much. They really do understand right from left and stop and start and without a head collar or anything. Sitting on Evonos and Echo for the first time without an enclosure — no nothing — was incredible.
I could also see and feel the other ponies just willing the new ones to do what I was asking. With my original ponies, I started them with bridles so I had no idea what would happen with Evonos and Echo and was just going to wait and see. I was prepared to fail but would have had an adventure doing it anyway.
The island is very mountainous so I couldn’t always find them but every single morning they were outside my tent and I would wake up to the sound of horses munching.
Believe it or not, it was mussels. I absolutely love seafood and, due to my diet during the project, I have never felt healthier.
For the project, I decided to go cold turkey on caffeine and sugar, so no coffee or tea — at home I used to eat a lot of chocolate and Haribo. I just took rice and flour and caught fish, crabs and shellfish. I lost over a stone.
I don’t really have a horse hero — my heroes are the adventurers like Chris Bonnington, rock climber Leo Houlding and Rannulph Fiennes.
They take what they do and make it their own and do it because they love it. And I try to do the same with my horses — I genuinely love horses — and make it my own.
I would love to do similar with another breed and have another adventure — do something with camels or yaks perhaps? I would love to go the Himalayas where they have Yaks.
No, I was really sad to leave — I felt like I could have stayed forever. But everything ends at some point. It’s quite weird being back.
Watch Emma Massingale and her Connemaras on Freaghillaun South
For more information on Emma Massingale and to order her DVD, visit her website.
Images courtesy of Emma Massingale