Well-Suited Welsh Cobs

These do-it-all horses can work the farm and traverse the trails with equal ease.

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by Josephine Roberts

Nestled between England and the Irish Sea, my home country of Wales is famous for its picturesque hills and heavy rainfall. We also have a long history of farming, including several of our own livestock breeds. Welsh cattle and sheep are well-known for their hardiness, but the Welsh Cob and its ancestor, the Welsh Pony, have achieved the greatest worldwide recognition.

The Welsh Cob is a small, stocky animal with a high-stepping movement, similar in size to the American Quarter Horse, but heavier in the limb, with a focus more on strength than on speed. Historically, farmers used Welsh Cobs for endless tasks, from farm work during the week, to hunting on Saturday, to pulling the carriage to church on Sunday at a smart, spanking trot. Welsh Cobs were the perfect all-around equine, and they were easy keepers too. Larger draft breeds might’ve been better suited for heavy farm work, but they weren’t as efficient at the long-distance trips to market, and keeping a draft horse took good fodder and stabling, whereas a Welsh Cob could live comfortably outdoors year-round on fewer rations. Welsh Cobs are “good doers” (able to maintain healthy weight on little food), so much so that our lush spring and summer grass is often too much for them. Unless they’re worked extremely hard, they usually do best on wiry mountain grasses, which they can eat all day without becoming overweight.

welsh pony herd in a field

The toughness of the Welsh Cob comes from its native pony ancestors. Welsh Ponies are descended from the ancient Celtic ponies that roamed the British Isles well over a thousand years ago. As a result of their environment, these ponies evolved into hardy little animals, capable of thriving on the poor grazing found on the mountains and moorlands of Wales. Welsh Ponies have remained small in stature, and today, they make popular children’s ponies and show animals. The larger Welsh Cob has managed to retain not only the hardiness of its ancestors, but also the pretty head and beautiful floating movement that Welsh Ponies are so well-known for.

Today, Welsh Ponies and Cobs are classified as one breed, separated into four distinct types – referred to as “sections” in breed registries – that are determined by height and pedigree. Height requirements vary slightly between registries, but in the United States, Section A Welsh Mountain Ponies must be under 12.2 hands high; Section B Welsh Ponies must be under 14.2 hands; Section C Welsh Ponies of Cob Type must be under 13.2 hands; and Section D Welsh Cobs must exceeds 13.2 hands. (One hand equals 4 inches. For example, a horse that’s 13.2 hands is 13 hands and 2 inches at the withers, or 54 inches.) For the purpose of this article, we’ll refer to the Welsh Cob as a “breed type.”

person riding a horse in the middle of a herd of sheep

Deep Roots

References in Welsh literature suggest that the Welsh Cob was well-established by the 15th century. The breed type came about as Welsh Ponies were crossed with various working horse breeds, including a now-extinct carriage horse known as the Norfolk Roadster. Over time, other breeds, including the Hackney, were crossed with the Welsh Cob to produce the breed type as we know it today. It’s also likely that Arabian stock was introduced to the Welsh Cob early on, possibly after the Crusades, when Arabian horses were brought to Wales with returning fighters.

Before the introduction of heavy draft horses, Welsh Cobs were used for all manner of work, including riding, farm jobs, hauling, and as battle mounts. In 1485, the Welsh militia rode Welsh Cobs as they assisted Henry Tudor in taking the English throne.

Unfortunately, not all royalty looked so favorably upon the Welsh Cob’s capabilities. In 1535, King Henry VIII proclaimed that all stallions under 14 hands and all mares under 13 hands should be destroyed to prevent the breeding of horses that he deemed too small for battle purposes. In 1540, he expanded the order to include all stallions under 15 hands. This ruling was disastrous for Welsh breeds, as many of them fall under the 15-hand mark. Many Welsh Pony and Cob owners hid their animals, or released them into the mountains to fend for themselves. As a result, when Queen Elizabeth I partially repealed the law in 1566, the remaining horses and ponies had developed into extremely tough animals.

brown horse hitched to a plow being steered by a young man

This hardiness served the breed well, as Welsh Cobs became the commonplace mode of transportation for British travelers going long distances. Tradesmen, doctors, and drovers rode Welsh Cobs as well, and the horses also provided transport for the local milkmen and postmen.

Before the advent of the railway and motorcar, a horse that could maintain a good speed over long distances without going lame was a valuable creature. It’s said that many of the choice Welsh Cobs were selected by how quickly they could trot the 35 uphill miles from Cardiff to Dowlais in South Wales. To this day, Welsh Cobs have the most amazing trot. Anyone who’s seen a Welsh stallion trotting in-hand at the Royal Welsh Show can’t help but be impressed by the fast, high-stepping movement of these beautiful animals.

When horses were no longer required for transport and farm work, the Welsh Cob, like many other breeds, suffered a decline. Thankfully, Welsh farmers don’t easily turn their backs on tradition, and many kept breeding their Welsh Cobs, even if it wasn’t lucrative. Thanks to these stalwarts, the breed type survived the transition into the mechanized era and managed to establish itself firmly as a pleasure horse.

Today, the Welsh Cob’s long history of being sure-footed over rough terrain has resulted in them being popular riding and driving horses, and they make excellent trail mounts. The Welsh Cob has also been crossed with taller, lighter breeds, such as the English Thoroughbred, to produce sport horses that excel in jumping and dressage.

black horse

Welsh Cobs Around the World

In order for a breed to truly thrive, it needs to appeal to a wide market, and Welsh breeders are proud to send their ponies and horses out into the world. Welsh Ponies and Cobs have been exported as far afield as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and various parts of Europe. Welsh Ponies were sent to the United Sates in the late 1800s, and by 1907, the Welsh Pony & Cob Society of America was established as a breed registry. Today, many excellent Welsh Ponies and Cobs are bred in the U.S., although stock is still regularly imported from Wales as well.

Welsh Cob breeder Dewi Glyn Roberts runs Trofarth Stud in North Wales, and says he’s proud that some of his cobs have traveled to new homes in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and the United States. “Our prefix, ‘Trofarth,’ stays with the horses wherever they go,” Roberts says. “It’s fantastic to think of them in all these different countries.”

Roberts says he likes to remain in contact with the buyers, particularly those in other countries, because it’s interesting to know how the horses are getting along. “I love to follow the successes of my horses,” Roberts says. “And it’s so rewarding to learn they’re performing well for their new owners and flying the flag for Welsh horses.”

brown horse being led

Roberts comes from a long tradition of breeding Welsh Cobs on his family farm – his son is the fourth generation, and the tradition is very much in their family’s blood. “I can’t imagine not having the horses,” Roberts says. “They’ve become a part of who we are as a family, a part of our own history, and we all share the passion for the bloodline we have created over the generations.”

The horse market has been poor at times, but Roberts says that giving up the stud has never been an option. According to him, that would mean not only losing a long-held family tradition, but also losing the bloodline his grandfather founded all those years ago. Nowadays, the internet makes selling horses easier, particularly when communicating with overseas buyers. Social media has also proved to be a great platform for sharing photographs and videos to promote not only the stud, but also the breed as a whole.

Personal Connections

You never forget your first horse. Mine was a Welsh Cob mare. My parents had no idea how dangerous an untrained horse can be (or they wanted to be rid of me), because when I was 13, they gave me a 3-year-old mare called Brwynog Fancy that had only briefly been sat on. That mare and I grew up together, both of us giving my mother a few gray hairs by tearing around the lanes; cantering on whatever piece of grass we could find; jumping gates into the forests; and generally making nuisances of ourselves. Growing up in a quiet rural part of Wales as the only girl in the family, I would’ve been bored and lonely had I not had my quirky black mare. She not only kept me occupied for the 18 years I owned her, but she also instilled in me a love of horses that has remained with me to this day.

man adjusting a tool hitched to a brown horse

My brother Andrew now owns a Welsh Cob mare called Del, which means “pretty” in Welsh – and she is that, with her golden-brown buckskin coat, flowing mane, and big dark eyes. Welsh Cobs have always varied in build, with some having a lighter and sportier frame than others, but Del is definitely one of the heavier types. She was raised in a herd on the Welsh hills in the time-honored way. It’s long been customary for Welsh farmers to breed Welsh Cobs or Ponies on their upland farms – a tradition that continues today. Many people believe that the best Welsh stock come from those breeders who rear their animals on the mountains. The rough terrain and inclement weather sort out the wheat from the chaff, and the hills help create strong, sure-footed animals.

When Andrew bought Del, she was semiwild, and it took some time and patience to gain her trust. After two years of using her as riding horse, he trained her to pull small pieces of timber and brash. Today, Andrew uses Del to clear land that’s difficult to access with a tractor, and for transport when tending and moving his sheep. His sheepdogs are happy to follow commands from him when he’s in the saddle, and Del provides a great vantage point from which to view the herd. Plus, she allows him to move among the livestock without startling them.

There’s a beauty in the silence that comes with traveling on horseback. Without the noise from an auto engine, it’s possible to hear the bleat of a sheep, the cry of a lost lamb, and the sounds of nature. And there’s a unique bond with a horse that you don’t get with a farm bike. With a Welsh Cob, you’ll also experience the satisfaction of knowing that you’re seated on hundreds of years of tradition, on an animal that’s been bred to work hard and thrive on little – an animal that has stood the test of time.

Josephine Roberts is a freelance writer based in the foothills of Snowdonia, North Wales. She lives on an old-fashioned smallholding with chickens, ducks, sheep, and vintage tractors.

  • Updated on Oct 8, 2021
  • Originally Published on Oct 7, 2021
Tagged with: Celtic, equine, horses, ponies, pony, Wales farm, Welsh cob