DECATUR – If Triple Crown chasers such as thoroughbred California Chrome are the Ferraris of the horse world, the equine equivalent of the all-terrain vehicle is the cute and unstoppable Welsh pony.
Of course, “pony” implies a certain size to the nonhorse-familiar, but you think again on making the acquaintance of Bristol Victorio. The Welsh pony stallion stands 4.5 feet at the shoulder and looks like he was built by the same firm that did Stonehenge.
He is busy passing along his vibrant and muscular bloodlines at Sangamon Welsh Ponies in Decatur, a stud farm that treats preserving the true nature of the animals as a sacred trust.
It turns out the history of the ponies goes way back to the land of Wales that would, after a prolonged and frank exchange of views involving mass battlefield slaughter, eventually became part of Great Britain. These powerhouse ponies, known as “section B” bloodstock bred from ancient ancestors intermingled with Arabian stallions brought over by the Roman Empire, became tough, go-anywhere animals that could carry a rider over rough country all day without getting pooped.
“Welsh ponies have a lot of courage and stamina and they are very brave,” explains Zach Shields, who owns Sangamon Welsh Ponies with his wife, Julie. He said no Welsh pony could outrun a thoroughbred at a race track, but turn that racehorse loose cross-country against Victorio and the bigger but infinitely more delicate animal would be toast. “Welsh ponies could beat their [rhymes with grass] cross-country,” said Shields, the light of battle in his eyes.
He’s got a real burr in his saddle about over-selective breeding in other types of horse that yields animals that look ever-prettier but are about as handy as a hamster when it comes to everyday riding or jumping or pulling something.
“A lot of horses are just bred for looks,” explains Shields, 40. “Put a saddle on them, and most of them will fall over backward. But we want to preserve the old bloodlines of the blocky and built ponies that go back to the well of foundation bloodstock.”
Shields has been drinking from the well of the true believer since he was about 9, growing up in a horsey family in Ohio. His wife, who teaches entrepreneurship at Millikin University when she isn’t up to her saddle in ponies, became a later convert after meeting him.
And while you can lead a pretty filly to water but not necessarily make her sip, Julie Shields soon caught fire with her husband’s religious zeal and recognized a sound business strategy. She also just fell in love with those photogenic ATV ponies.
“What really drew me into them is that they all have personalities, just like kids,” she said, and the Shields’s have four of those. “But in some ways, they are a little more gracious than kids.”
Offspring from the Sangamon stable are now doing well in competitive riding events, and the little stud that could is making quite a name for himself based on the bloodline qualities he’s bearing into posterity like the Holy Grail. At the end of the day, Welsh ponies are the horse for all seasons, and they even smell pretty good, too.
“Sophie, our big bay filly, she smells just like maple syrup, she smells wonderful,” Julile Shields said.
“But Lord knows why,” adds her husband. “If we knew, we’d bottle it.”