Pack Ponies in Medieval Times

Rough Roads

The Roman legions withdrew from Britain to defend Rome in the early years of the 5th Century AD, and in the centuries that followed, the impressive straight Roman roads were only kept in order where there was plenty of traffic between important towns. The links between small settlements, though direct, had often been narrow, uneven and winding to follow easy gradients or avoid obstacles. Tracks which saw little traffic apparently coped, but were not actively maintained. This did not make travel difficult enough to be complained of: John Leland, the preacher, travelling around 1540, rarely complains of bad road conditions (Hindle). It was not until Tudor times that the monasteries were forced to give up their control of local lands, and therefore also cease the road maintenance that they had done in support of their huge trade in wool and other produce; this combined with a rapid growth of the economy under the Tudors may have combined to wear local roads beyond their normal tolerance. William Harrison in 1586 said that roads had deteriorated in the past 20 years.

So, as for centuries past, pack horses remained the major means of transporting goods. They could cope with the difficulties of narrow or eroded tracks much better than carts or wagons.

Pack ponies carrying woolWhen pack ponies were the only reliable means of transporting goods in any quantity, the Fell was particularly good for this purpose, being a fast and steady walker and small enough to be easily loaded. Ponies quickly learn their place in a line and would walk nose-to-tail along the pack trods and over the pack bridges which were specially designed for this traffic. The bridges are typically a single span round arch just wide enough for one pony at a time. The parapets are high enough to prevent a pony stepping off the edge if it missed its footing in wet weather, but they are lower than the possible bottom edge of a pack-load or wool-sheet. (music and animation)

A pack or "sheet" of wool today weighs around a hundredweight and a half (80kg or 180lbs) when full and it measures 6 feet by 4 feet by 1 foot thick. Packs used on the ponies must have been smaller so that two men could easily load a pony with them. One man rode solo with a pack train to a destination if it was within a day's journey, where help was again needed to unload the ponies. Longer journeys taking stops at many places on the road needed more men to travel with the train.

The dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s is said to have "released" the grey ponies that the abbeys had kept into the wider Fell breeding stock. (Richardson). However, there were grey horses around before then, and I have not yet found evidence that the colour was exclusive to the Cistercians. After the Battle of Branxton Field - better known as Flodden Field, where the English army defeated the Scots in 1513 - the Chapter House Books of Jervaulx Abbey detailed the horses that were returned to demobilizing soldiers. 252 were described, of which 95 were grey, 43 white, 55 black, and 46 bay(Dent). 163 were described by their gait, and most of these were trotters (129).

The "rakker", ambling nag or palfrey seems to have been less in favour here than in earlier ages and lowland areas.

Committee meeting or race meeting?

On 20 March, 1584–5, Queen Elizabeth issued a commission to Robert Tempest and seven other esquires of the counties of York and Westmorland to enquire about the late fall of Rawthey Bridge, over the river Rawthey, between Ravenstonedale and Cautley, and to take measures for the rebuilding of the same. On 13 April following Richard Dudley wrote that he could not meet the Commissioners on the 26th inst. for he had a horse to run that day in the race at Langwathby. And so the matter rested for a year until the earl of Huntingdon wrote again to Robert Tempest, on 5 May, 1586, saying that her majesty's subjects were much troubled for want of repair of Rawthey Bridge. (British History)