They are the giants of the equestrian world, a nostalgic link with the past when ploughs were pulled by horsepower and breweries delivered their beer by cart. Heavy horses were the workers in a pre-industrial age, but too much romanticism has not helped their cause and some breeds are severely endangered.

Passionate about these big beasts, breeder and business owner Annie Rose is determined to raise awareness about their untapped potential in the leisure sector as she works to secure their future. Annie moved to south west Cumbria in 2006 and set up Cumbrian Heavy Horses. It’s been a challenging few years on a personal and professional level, but now, post-pandemic, her vision for her horses’ place in the tourism landscape is clear. Reviving our admiration and love forShires, Clydesdales and Suffolk Punches, and educating people about upland farming, will allow her to help save these special animals.

She says: “There’s something special about them, they are so honest, friendly, big hearted and kind, yet they have fabulous paces, are surprisingly fast and such fun. They are my passion, and around them I feel calm, I learn so much about myself. They have much to offer us in return.”

Great British Life: Annie riding her favourite horse, Little Prince, a Clydesdale with whom she has done endurance riding, dressage and cross countryAnnie riding her favourite horse, Little Prince, a Clydesdale with whom she has done endurance riding, dressage and cross country (Image: Cumbrian Heavy Horses)

Annie’s route to Cumbria has taken several twists and turns, many of them accompanied by horses, whether relocating them from one Scottish island to another or riding them almost 500 miles to their new home. It begins when she was a child and would get up eagerly at 6.30am to cycle to the local riding stables near her home in Cambridge, waiting on the doorstep for it to open. “My parents wanted the best for us but we were not terribly well off. I used to help out at the stables to earn my rides, and later I loaned a horse when I was a student nurse,” she explains.

Working for nursing agencies in London allowed her to earn the money to travel. On returning to the UK she did a distance learning course while working in a ski resort in the Cairngorms and sat maths, double chemistry and physics A Levels before taking up a place at Edinburgh University to study ecology. “I was chomping at the bit to learn but I had just three lectures a week. I was 32 and the other students were younger, felt immature, but I wanted to study, not party and drink.”

The summer before Annie had worked as an outdoor instructor on the island of Raasay, between Skye and the Scottish mainland. She met her partner there and fell pregnant with their first son, Jamie, while she was a student. “The university offered to hold my place, but I didn’t go back. Having an enquiring mind and being rather bored whilst pregnant, I bought two heavy horses, a Clydesdale and a Shire, had a cart made and taught myself to drive them.

Great British Life: The horses live in beautiful surroundingsThe horses live in beautiful surroundings (Image: Cumbrian Heavy Horses)

“I had the idea to offer tours of Raasay and was a founder member of the Isle of Skye, Raasay and Lochalsh Tourism Association. I knew how to manage groups from my time in mountain education and I learned how to run visitor tours.

“I soon realised that Raasay, being a small island with low visitor numbers, didn’t make sense for the business so I moved to Skye with the horses. I bought a static caravan, learned how to employ people and be a better horse person and did some equine qualifications.”

In time, her relationship began to falter and, by now, they had a second son, Jack. “I became a single mum with two kids, two dogs and a cat living in sheltered housing. It was as basic as can be.

“I was driving the horses for work but started to ride them too and realised what lovely horses they were under saddle. I applied for a council licence and took out insurance and started offering accompanied rides too as part of the experience. I have a natural aptitude for marketing I think, and I began to develop the business – West Highland Heavy Horses – more professionally.”

Great British Life: Annie Rose with one of her horsesAnnie Rose with one of her horses (Image: Cumbrian Heavy Horses)

Her natural wanderlust, however, soon had her thinking of leaving. “Skye is a lovely place to be, but it was a very short season and the midges on the west coast are absolutely horrendous. Equally I had people wishing to join us from further away in the UK but getting to Skye for a weekend break, for example, was impossible, so my customer base was limited. I decided to relocate to be nearer the market, but it also needed to be a location that had beach access and hills.”

Not many places in the UK fitted the bill; Cumbria was one of them, although it was by chance that she ended up here.

“I run an off-season loan scheme for the horses. Cumbria based Robert and Rowena Morris-Eyton got in touch to ask if they could have a heavy horse for the winter months. I came down to look at their operation – which I always do if someone’s taking one of my horses – then they agreed to take another for my best friend who lived nearby.

Great British Life: A Cumbrian Heavy Horses Riding ExperienceA Cumbrian Heavy Horses Riding Experience (Image: Cumbrian Heavy Horses)

“They were very kind and invited me and the boys to stay a few days in their house and get to know the area, I was so grateful. One evening, over a whisky, I mentioned that I was looking for another farm base further south. They said they had a farm down the road, Chappels Farm, that I could use. I couldn’t believe it.

“I walked into this farmhouse with its traditional slate floor and baby blue AGA and just cried. I had serious imposter syndrome. Of course, moving meant taking the boys further away from their dad. We were, and are, very good friends and if he’d said ‘no’ then I couldn’t have done it, but he came down to see the farm and said he understood why I wanted to do it.”

This led to what she called The Great Clydesdale Migration. Annie, a team and paying clients rode 12 horses, from Skye to their new Cumbrian base in 2006, an expedition that took five-and-a-half weeks. “We made the news,” she laughs. “Clients paid to join us for days or legs of the journey. We arrived here on October 31 and I knew we would be going straight into the winter season with no client base, therefore no opportunities to earn money, but would still have all the costs associated with the horses. The money raised on the migration enabled us to set up ready to open.”


With planning permission granted, Cumbrian Heavy Horses opened in March 2007. “We had our British Horse Society (BHS) Approval on Skye, we secured it here and we’ve been BHS Approved ever since which is vitally important.

“It’s been hugely different here in terms of the opportunities. It’s easier access to market, there are more riding routes and it’s allowed me to be a better employer providing better opportunities for our staff, so they stay. It’s been a huge learning curve as we’ve grown.”

After eight years at Chappels Farm, the Morris-Eytons were ready to take it back into the family. “They generously gave me a year’s notice and I had to decide whether to quit with the horses and go back to nursing, but I wasn’t ready to do that,” says Annie.

At the same time Baystone Bank Farm, nearby in the Whicham valley, had come up for sale. Annie had a close friend who became her business partner and he suggested they try and buy it. “That was huge for me. I’d never had a mortgage, but between borrowing, my parents and all our friends lending us the money we did it. It was so kind of everyone to cough up so I could work myself to death,” she jokes, “but really, I am so grateful to them.”

“We can offer more to customers here because we have a small shop, the lodges, bookable through, a campsite with tent pitches, hard standings and a nice shower block, and The Roundhouse for Airbnb.

“We were doing a week-long holiday called the Cumbrian Classic staying in hotels, B&Bs and bunkhouses with six days of riding in the Lake District National Park, but it all stopped with Covid. Now we’re offering Wild Weekend short breaks, with two or three days riding, alongside all our other riding experiences, of course.”

They include one-hour Farm Riding Taster Experiences for novices; two-hour Farm Riding Experiences in small groups at a faster pace according to competency; Fell Riding in the Duddon Valley or the farm’s fields and on the wild fells; group Beach Riding Experiences for confident, fit and experienced riders, or individual Private Beach Riding Experiences for inexperienced or nervous riders; and tailormade ‘Hands On’ Heavy Horse Experience Days that include riding. Two- and three-day Wild Weekends are set to take place in May, June, July and September.

Annie’s father passed away in 2020 and her mother followed last summer, which she says has been very difficult to come to terms with, but it left an inheritance allowing her to buy out her now ex-business partner.

Both her sons work at Baystone Bank: Jack on the farming side of the business, and two years ago Jamie joined too as “tech guy”, which, along with a dedicated team of staff, means Annie is in a strong position to move forward. She admits income has been tight especially with the pandemic when she had multiple equine mouths to feed but no income, which caused considerable stress and hard work. But it hasn’t all been bad news since then.

“The last three years have been a write-off in terms of business development, so being nominated in the Equestrian Business Awards by our Facebook and Instagram followers and people who ride with us, friends and family – people who can see the passion, quality and care that goes into what we do – was amazing.”

Winning the Riding School of the Year 2023 National Award is a huge boost to promoting heavy horses and is some payback for the faith Annie has in them. “At the beginning of my journey with the heavy horses a lot of people were telling me I was doing the wrong thing,” she says. “Their role was as agricultural vehicles from yesteryear, but they are amazing horses. Something had to change for them to be of use in this modern world, and I could help make that happen.

“We were involved with the first show classes of ridden heavy horses in Scotland and I would hope we have played a part in promoting them as ridden animals, which has certainly helped their cause.

Great British Life: Annie's breeding programme is enjoying great successAnnie's breeding programme is enjoying great success (Image: Cumbrian Heavy Horses)

“The foals now have value. When I started they were almost worthless, around £400; now you’d be lucky to buy one for £4,000. It is worth people breeding them, there’s a purpose, a value, even for those who previously wouldn’t be considered to be ‘show quality’.

“Some folk, used to warmbloods, thought of them as hairy plods, but in fact heavy horses are good at dressage, hacking out or belting up the beach, and they can jump as well. But they are big!” she acknowledges.

With more facilities at Baystone Bank Farm, Annie has been able to start a breeding programme. Her first homebred mare was a Shire called Conker then the same year a Clydesdale called Harry.

“When I moved to Cumbria it opened the door for me to breed, with more fields and access to a wider range of stallions. It’s been wonderful learning more about the genetics and increasing our knowledge in this area.

Great British Life: Riding experiences can include the beach Riding experiences can include the beach (Image: Duncan Ireland)

“We also have Suffolk Punches both as ridden horses and for breeding. As they are rare breeds, I was offered my first Suffolk Punch, Thor, who came in 2009. That led to more and I was increasingly being offered those big chesnut horses.

“People wanted to know about them. I posted about them on social media and they were very popular. People also took our Ardennes Dingle to their hearts because he was a hero who survived an operation.

“Suffolk Punches can be difficult to get in foal. I bought two mares from a breeder from Cornwall and we only managed to get one in foal that first year, had a Covid break then were successful in 2022 with two foals, a filly and a colt. Thanks to a friend, I bought another Suffolk mare this year, so we now have three Suffolks and a Clydesdale mare in foal for 2024, which is really exciting.

Great British Life: Annie's breeding programme is enjoying great successAnnie's breeding programme is enjoying great success (Image: Cumbrian Heavy Horses)

“If I had to pick one, I’d say Clydesdales are my favourite heavy horses. I like their intelligence and the way they move.”

In total, Annie now has 21 heavy horses under saddle which pay their own way and for the keep of the breeding stock, which includes foals, young horses and the breeding mares. “It’s insanity!” she says. “I like breeding them, but I don’t like selling them because they’re my babies.”

She also takes in rescue heavy horses on behalf of the RSPCA. In hope that the difficulties of the past are behind her, she has big plans for Cumbrian Heavy Horses and the farm in 2024, including a new website and a sponsorship scheme for which she has recruited someone to manage. “A lot of people who follow what we’re doing want to help, so by having a sponsorship programme we can give supporters something in return such as exclusive Sponsor Open Days and other events. It’s lovely for people to be kind and we need to give something back for their help.”

Great British Life: The team celebrate winning the Riding School of the Year 2023 titleThe team celebrate winning the Riding School of the Year 2023 title (Image: Cumbrian Heavy Horses)

There are exciting potential developments too. “We’ve applied for planning permission for an indoor arena which will broaden what we can do in terms of training and schooling horses, demonstrations, events, school visits, developing a show team, offering equine assisted therapy, BHS Challenge Awards and qualifications and horse camps with accommodation packages. It’s very exciting because it will allow us to become more mainstream.”

Annie also believes the farm can play a role in educating people more widely about upland farming, with horses as the draw. Baystone Bank Farm is a 176-acre farm where they also keep Belted Galloway cattle and sheep.

“It’s a traditional Cumbrian fell farm. Like everyone, we are trying to maximise income from the farm and it needs to complement what we do with the horses, campsite and lodges. I came into upland fell farming not knowing anything. I have learned a lot but am still an amateur, and I realise very few people know anything about it.

Great British Life: A Cumbrian Heavy Horses Riding ExperienceA Cumbrian Heavy Horses Riding Experience (Image: Cumbrian Heavy Horses)

“Land does need managing so I would like us to become a visitor centre for educating people about fell farming, its history, livestock, breeds and its management, and encourage people to visit, which is different to a lot of working farms where they quite reasonably don’t want anyone disturbing stock or damaging crops on their land.” The plans include creating wheelchair accessible paths and planting new woodland, as well as developing the shop. She adds:

“I’m an incomer but I really do want this farm to flourish. I’ve been stymied for three years and now I feel we can get on and do it. A lot of people have supported me financially with loans, their time, their expertise and with their continued help I want to make a success of it.”

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