Urban Cowboys of Swansea
ALL OVER the country, boys can be seen riding their battered bikes around housing estates. But in one town it is more like the Wild West as groups of teenagers gallop past, bareback, on ponies whose manes rustle in the wind.
When spotted they dig in their heels and the ponies clatter off at breakneck speed.
The urban cowboys of Swansea are wary when questions are asked about where they find the horses.
It is an attitude which is supported by their elders who are conscious that if they can't afford luxuries for their children, like the latest mountain bikes, the youngsters will find their own amusement somehow.
But there are particular reasons for this growing cowboy culture. Across town at the horse sales they have been selling Welsh ponies for 1 each.
But in the local council housing estates you could probably find someone who will give them away.
Everywhere you look there are ponies - not in the hills but down on Swansea's bustling streets.
Locals have adopted these crossbreeds and misfits that roam wild like feral dogs. The horses are the result of indiscriminate breeding from the descendants of the famous Welsh mountain ponies, bred 25 miles away on the Brecon Beacons.
To a stranger, parts of Swansea appear to be one vast council estate of uniform pebbledash terraces - a legacy of World War II bomb blitzes - set down by beaches washed by the polluted Bristol Channel.
Here, an easy-to-acquire but equally difficult-to-keep status symbol is the pony. Every patch of green seems to have ponies illegally grazing on it.
They are turned loose in school grounds, munching the sparse grass of roadside verges, tied up in postage-stamp back gardens.
THE RSPCA, which receives calls every day about horses, compares them to stray dogs put onto the streets to fend for themselves by owners who find everyday life a struggle, let alone the responsibility of looking after an animal.
On Mynydd Garn Lwyd common, a patch of rocky land with a commanding view of Swansea and the sea beyond, 12 horses and three foals skitter in the sun.
Their owner, Dean Tucker, looks like a man well able to defend 'his' patch and wears earrings and a wisp of a ponytail.
Ask where he gets the ten gallons of water that each horse needs every day in the summer and he says he leads his animals to a distant brook from which he siphons water into an old bath 'maybe five times a day'. He insists he gives them high quality feed to supplement their diet.
Nobody would deny his love for horses. Unemployed and living in a council house, he spends his time looking after his 'herd' and says he pays for their upkeep and vets' bills by selling two or three foals a year.
'Gipsies offered me 250 each for those two,' he says, pointing to two youngsters called April and Lightning.
'I was tempted, but I didn't know the people so I didn't let them go.' He says he will have nothing to do with the meat trade, where many less fortunate feral ponies end up.
His horses are a ragbag of equine styles. Hope was clearly mothered by a shire while Jet is a chestnut mare, with a six-week- old foal called Rebel, and shows the last vestiges of Welsh mountain pony ancestry.
He points out a dark bay. 'That's my first, Lucy,' he says proudly. 'I got her 17 years ago from a horse mart.' He was something of a pioneer in colonising public land for horses.
Some are tethered on long chains or ropes which are disliked by the RSPCA because they can tangle around a pony's feet and cause painful injuries. Mr Tucker says: 'I have to tether the horses because people complained after they ran into gardens and wrecked their flower beds.' As he speaks, a man arrives with a saddle to take away a horse, walking it to his home on a council estate.
RSPCA inspector Elaine Spence says: 'When ponies are given away they are taken on by people with little or no experience of handling horses.
When it becomes too much they abandon it like a stray dog or cat.' Local authorities occasionally remove them to horse pounds where owners must pay a fine to reclaim them. Those that are unclaimed are found new homes or put down.
All are vulnerable to being stolen and to traders in horsemeat. There are four RSPCA inspectors dealing with horses in the Swansea area and just 320 cover the whole of England and Wales.
Semi-feral horses in built-up areas are a nationwide problem exacerbated by falling prices at auction and indiscriminate breeding.
But 40 years ago, Welsh mountain ponies were such a prize that one was sent as a gift from Britain to King Mahendra of Nepal.
They were seen as ideal children's riding ponies, standing about 50in high (ten inches taller than the Shetland) and capable of carrying a nine stone youngster over 3ft jumps.
The pure-bred ponies have prospered on studs, where an outstanding champion sells for 25,000 or more. But on the hills, the pony has crossbred and each new generation weakens the bloodline.
At a secret rehabilitation centre there are 25 rescued animals waiting to be found homes by the RSPCA.
Many are the subject of court cases - usually the result o f neglect.
One pony looking for good home is Maggot, a tiny fellow who barely reaches your waist.
He is currently moulting from chestnut to grey , skidding about on white socks, cute and confident.
He was found by ramblers on the hills in May. He was an emaciated and distressed foal keeping guard over the maggoty body of his mother , who had died days earlier from pneumonia and neglect.
An RSPCA inspector carried him for two miles to the nearest road.
At the rehab centre Maggot wasn't expected to survive. He was a walking can of worms and his bones stuck out at angles through a pathetic covering of flesh. He was soweak he refused to eat.
Staff stayed up all night as he lay there, tubed up and barely alive on a drip. He was soon being bottle fed every two hours.
When he started feeding himself milk from a bucket and eating hay and grass he never looked back , and is now well on the road to recovery .
But in the Swansea suburbs there are hundreds more still suffering .
The young urban cowboys who career around the streets on ponies they can barely control dump them like the latest Star Wars gun when the novelty wears off.
Copyright: The Daily Mail, August 25, 2000 by June Southworth