Meet the Thirsk farmer who keeps a Victorian tradition alive by training Clydesdale horses

Breaking heavy horses to work either as singles or in pairs pulling carts or a plough is a long, arduous but ultimately fulfilling process for a North Yorkshire owner who has had Clydesdales since buying his first, Ted, thirteen years ago.

The Clydesdales pulling an 1860s shooting brake through Birdforth
The Clydesdales pulling an 1860s shooting brake through Birdforth

Heath Darley of Amber Field, Birdforth, near Thirsk, knows all about dealing with things that are broken in his full-time occupation of agricultural and commercial vehicle repairs, but the art of breaking horses is far different and was completely new to him. Over the past eighteen months he has gone through it all again with his latest gentle giant.

Countless hours of breaking, starting with the use of long reins and pulling a wagon tyre has led to six-year old Buddy forming a new team with Bill, Heath’s other strawberry roan Clydesdale

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This week the pair were leading out a beautifully preserved breaking cart dating back to 1860 along the country lane near Heath’s farm and their debut public appearance took place at Ironbridge last weekend. It was the culmination of a great deal of hard work. Heath said he’d started breaking Buddy at four years old.

Heath Darley with his Clydesdales

“Some start earlier but I like them to mature and have the right muscle structure. I showed Buddy in-hand for the first couple of years before starting to long rein him at four. I’ve taken my time with him, nice and slow to avoid any disasters.

“My neighbour Alan Lees is my mentor. He has had Shire horses all his life and he helped me break Ted and Bill for pulling carts or ploughing.

“I start with long reins and blinkers. That’s the way they learn to listen to you, getting used to turning left or right. It’s about getting them used to everything. I have dummy shafts fastened to a shed where I stand them so they begin to understand what they are like. Chains are a different experience, making sure they know where to put their legs.

“From trailing the wagon tyre you move them up slowly to slightly bigger weights taking them on to hauling a sledge and then various sizes of cart or carriage. The 1860 cart is an early example of what was called a breaking cart.”

They make regular appearances at heavy horse shows and even wedding shoots

Heath said it is vital that everything is handled step by step and that the horse feels capable of what it is being asked to do.

“They need to feel confident they can pull the weight, so it is important to build up very slowly. The last thing you want is the horse to take off on you, to bolt because it can’t cope. If it knows it can do that you have then lost the trust you’ve been working at.

“The more you do with them the better they are. The more respect you have for them, they will then have for you.

“When your horse is broken it still doesn’t know anything. It’s then about experience, educating them to different scenarios so that when you go to a show or an event you don’t take an animal you are in any way unsure about.

“It has probably taken me two and a half years to get Buddy to the point where I can trust him as much as you can trust any flight animal. None of them are 100 per cent bombproof.”

Heath hasn’t shown them as a pair yet, but Bill and Buddy have been a regular sight around Birdforth and the local villages.

“I first put them together just before the first lockdown last year and I’ve been driving them ever since. I find them more pleasurable to drive than Bill and Ted were. I can’t knock Ted. He’s done everything I’ve asked of him but it’s just that these two seem more relaxed, more laid back. Ted always wanted everything to be done in five minutes.”

Heath said the changing of the guard to the new pairing of Buddy and Bill would not see an end to Ted’s days of attending shows and heavy horse weekends, but that his rheumatism and age were against him continuing to haul.

“Ted was back involved with Bill last September at a photoshoot for a new outdoor wedding venue at Low Osgodby Grange in Balk. He will still be coming with us to all of our shows and events as he’s part of the family and the three horses are the best of friends back home in the paddock.”

It’s a real family affair for the Darleys as Heath’s wife Liz and their two teenage daughters Katy and Anna all play their part. Heath said it was Liz who started working with Ted before he broke him.

“Liz has always had lighter horses and we bought Ted when she lost Louis. Liz went jumping and hunting with Ted. The girls have their own horses. We love our three Clydesdales and we enjoy that they bring us together with like-minded people.”