The breed that came back from the brink

Cleveland Bays are sought by the Emperor of Japan but have not always been prized here. Helen Hutchinson meets a woman who is committed to maintaining the heritage.

GiLLy Dimmock, six foot tall with a model figure, looks striking in her leggings, boots and puffa jacket. Equally striking are the horses that are her passion. For the last two years, Gilly has been single-handedly breeding Cleveland Bays at Moor Cottage Farm at Harewood Dale in North Yorkshire.

Clevelands are naturally bold and curious – so receptive and intelligent that an outsider can immediately engage with them. Even in winter, their coats feel smooth with a sheen of well-polished mahogany.

It was their strength, beauty, action and style that originally brought the attention of "chapmans" – the first travelling salesmen, who would carry goods to sell at small towns and villages throughout the country. Hence the horses' early name of "chapman" or "Clevelands".

Their forerunners had been bred since the 14th century. At one time they were brought over from Whitby Abbey to the less harsh conditions at Harewood Dale for stud. Their strength and endurance made them ideal coach and carriage horses and Cleveland farmers swore by them as an agricultural and general utility horse.

But the arrival of tractors seemed to spell the end. By the 1960s the Cleveland Bay stock was down to about 30 mares.

Around this time, Gilly Dimmock's own family history became entwined with these horses. Born in Hertfordshire, she started to work for Peter Munt, a well-known coachman who had teams of four-in-hand Cleveland Bays.

They were close to Elstree studios and often trained

and provided the horses required for films and TV.

In the making of an early video for the BBC's Top of the Pops, Gilly worked with The Beatles who had to ride Cleveland Bays for a background for their song Penny Lane.

"My interest grew and I bred several part-breds," says Gilly. "I then had a whim for a pure bred likely to make a stallion. That whim brought me to Yorkshire and America House near Hinderwell."

She joined America Jack – a legendary local breeder known to many in the area for his passion for Clevelands and his skill as a horseman – a Yorkshire version of the Horse Whisperer. It was through this connection that Gilly met Anthony Dimmock, a local farmer and breeder who would become her husband.

This ultimately brought her to Harewood Dale and she moved to Moor Cottage Farm in 1990. Two years ago Anthony died so she has continued to work alone.

"It's winter time that's the hardest to do this on your own," she says. The farm is immaculate and well-stocked with haylage. The horses have a cathedral-like barn with stables attached.

"It doesn't bother me any more when people say 'they don't like Cleveland Bays, they're awful'," says Gilly. "I was once asked if I bred them for their fur or their meat."

Gilly wryly observes that this kind of crass remark usually comes from people who have had no experience with them. Her response is diplomatic. "My reply, if I bother with one, is there are good and bad in all breeds and young horses take time and effort to make."

Gilly insists on a regime of patient mouthing and long-reining to build up mutual respect between horse and handler. This is the legacy of America Jack's unique horsemanship skills.

"I bought Masterful Jack as a foal and he went on to be a prolific winner – three times at the Great Yorkshire Show and twice at the Royal Agriculture Show," says Gilly. "In 1990, he won the King George V Cup and was a very fine example of the breed.

"Oaten Mainbrace followed. He became a dual winner at the Great Yorkshire Show and again at the Royal Agriculture Show."

Gilly's success did not go unnoticed. In 1993, representatives of Akihito, the Emperor of Japan, contacted the Cleveland Bay Society and requested to see Oaten Mainbrace. They needed a stallion for their Imperial stud. A month later, he was sold and on his way to a new life in Japan.

Captain Hornblower was also bred from Masterful Jack, and Gilly bought him as a foal. He was sold and last year went on to win the George V Cup for his new owners which delighted her.

"Botton Grove Brigand was the last son of Masterful Jack and that was why I bought him." Once again Japanese royalty got in touch as they needed a replacement stallion for Oaten Mainbrace.

"Reluctantly I let him go. Two resident brood mares, and one filly foal by Brigand means that I've managed to continue the line."

Gilly has a powerful sense of heritage and gives full credit to the Cleveland Bay Society for keeping up its profile as a rare breed.

The fact that the breed is a national and international asset has been acknowledged by Defra and the Race Horse Betting Levy Board makes an annual grant to encourage the production of Cleveland Bays.

York-based James Stephenson is the president of the Cleveland Bay Society and has been involved for 45 years both as secretary and treasurer.

"The society has a good heart and the breed is generally better and of sounder quality than it was 50 years ago," he says.

"I'm positive about going forward. Last year, the Queen, who has a great interest in the breed, requested a demonstration at the Great Yorkshire Show."

One of the early pamphlets published by the Cleveland Bay Society quotes Sir Alfred Pease, an Edwardian MP for York and later for the Cleveland division of Yorkshire, and a founder

of the Cleveland Bay

Horse Society.

"Some 60 years ago, I stood at the ringside at the Cleveland Show, contemplating with wonder the uniformity in beauty, colour, quality and power of a large class of Cleveland brood mares. Separated from their foals they were a splendid spectacle, and in that hour I realised we possessed an ancient race as beautiful as it was useful, but one of amazing uniformity. We possess in Yorkshire so important a national asset that we will do well to protect and preserve it."

Alfred Pease knew his horses, and it would surely warm his heart to see that this legacy is still being maintained here by people like Gilly.