Martin Clunes looks at the important role of the world’s working horses as he begins training his own adored Clydesdales to work on his Dorset farm in Martin Clunes: Heavy Horsepower.
The one off film follows Martin putting Ronnie and Bruce through their paces, and his travels to Europe and America to discover how working horses are proving their value again in the modern world.
Martin added the Clydesdales to his Dorset menagerie two years ago, and describes them as “lovable but uncontrollable teenagers”. Ronnie and Bruce have got a lot to learn, so they are off to hoof camp to be taught commands, how to pull a cart and become familiar with harness and chains, under the expert eye of trainer, Robert Sampson, who says there is a good niche market for trained workhorses.
“If you’d said ten years ago that I would be driving a seven and a half ton truck with my own two young Clydesdales taking them to hoof camp I’d have laughed in your face. But it is a reality and it’s very exciting,” says Martin.
“People say I must get my horses working. Now they are at an age where they need development. They are getting a bit bored.”
Robert Sampson breeds and trains Percherons – a French breed of heavy horse – on his farm in Hampshire. During the two month course he not only has to teach Ronnie and Bruce how to be working horses, but to make sure Martin knows how to drive them.
Heavy horses have been used to work in the mines, on canals and for delivering beer in Britain for hundreds of years. But some breeds, including the Clydesdales were nearly extinct in the 1970s as machinery took over the work.
Martin discovers the traditional uses of the working horse, and how people are finding new ways to keep horses working in today’s world of high tech equipment. He travels to a beautiful vineyard in northern Italy to meet Henry Finzi-Constantine who believes that horses are better for the soil than tractors. He says the horses not only work the land but fertilise it at the same time. Martin drives the cart drawn by the “Rolls Royce of horses”,the Comptoires, as the grapes are harvested.
“A day working in that Italian vineyard is enough for me to think that having working horses on my farm can only be a good thing,” Martin says.
In Oostuinkerke, Belgium Martin joins some of the last remaining horse fishermen in the 500 year old tradition of using horses to trawl for shrimps. Back in England he watches the Household Cavalry training their heavy horses to cope with the cacophony of drum beat and traffic on parade in military ceremonies through London’s streets.
Martin’s journey also takes him to the French fishing town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, where he takes part in a traditional competition with 12 teams of heavy horses harnessed to boats filled with sand, which have to be dragged along the beach. Martin joins the British team with their Suffolk Punch horses.
In the United States Martin discovers that working horses are booming with more than 300,000 businesses registered as regular users of working horses. Martin meets the world famous Budweiser Clydesdales, which have been the public face of the company since the 1930s. Trained and groomed to perfection, the horses are treated as celebrities wherever they go. Martin takes the reins of one of the spectacular horses and wagons as they parade through the streets of New Orleans, greeted by crowds of people.
Martin quickly discovers you need brute strength to hold onto the team of eight powerful horses. He realises it won’t be an easy task to persuade Ronnie and Bruce to graft for their supper. “I can’t help wondering whether Bruce and Ronnie will live up to their American cousins.”
In stark contrast with the razzmatazz of the showbiz horses Martin travels to Indiana to meet an Amish community which has turned its back on using modern machinery on their farm. He gets a valuable lesson in ploughing with their team of eight horses.
Back home in Dorset Martin can’t wait to welcome Ronnie and Bruce home from hoof camp, and see how much they have learnt, and if these two teenagers have finally grown up. He has a shiny new red cart waiting to harness them into, and before long they are trotting triumphantly around the farm and nearby lanes.