Martin Clunes on his love affair with the equine world

Martin has a word

Martin has a word - Credit: Archant

Martin Clunes followed his wife and daughter into riding never expecting that it would lead to a love affair with these giants of the equine world

Martin works on the feathers

Martin works on the feathers - Credit: Archant

Martin Clunes is on all fours, peering up at me from beneath the flank of one of his enormous Clydesdales. He is carefully brushing the glossy white feathery fur that splays across his horse’s dinner-plate-sized hooves. “Real men don’t do plaiting,” says the Doc Martin actor. “I tend to look after their legs and feathers. I leave Holly and Lou, who help us look after the horses, to do all that tricky plaiting stuff.”

Martin adores his horses

Martin adores his horses - Credit: Archant

I’m at Martin and Philippa Clunes farm just outside Beaminster to meet their heavy horses Ronnie and Bruce - the star attraction of this year’s Buckham Fair, the charity dog and pony show that the couple have run every August since 2008 to raise money for local causes. Today is a test run for Ronnie and Bruce to see how they look in their decorative ribbons and to find out how they cope with standing patiently, not an easy task for a couple of lively equine teenagers.

Martin with Penny the newest edition to the family

Martin with Penny the newest edition to the family - Credit: Archant

Holly is plaiting an intricate pattern into Ronnie’s tail, standing on a box so she can actually reach it. Ronnie’s half-brother Bruce, already in all his finery, tries to eat the ribbon and corn decoration that are worked into Ronnie’s mane. Holly is, in equine terms, ‘pimping’ a magnificent monster truck. By the end of the session both horses have manes woven through with coloured yarn, ribbons, raffia and mane flights (bows that run in a line along the mane) and beautifully plaited tails.

Martin with Ronnie and Bruce in their Buckham Fair finery

Martin with Ronnie and Bruce in their Buckham Fair finery - Credit: Archant

One of the sentences you don’t expect to hear from Martin Clunes is: “I rub a mix of pig oil and sulphur into their feathers.” This tip came from Ronnie and Bruce’s breeder Ronnie Black. “It acts as a barrier to stop mud sticking to their feathers,” Martin explains. “When it is really muddy they go like chocolate dreadlocks, which can pull the feathers off. As they are out in the field all year round I’m big on washing their legs, in fact I’m a little bit paranoid because all their feathers came off last year and they looked ridiculous - huge hooves at the end of thin legs!”

The handsome heavy horses are already TV stars in their own right: they featured in the ITV documentary Heavy Horsepower earlier this year in which Martin examined the role of the working horse in Europe and America and learnt how to work his own heavy horses.

“If you’d said 10 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,” says Martin, who is still surprised at how immersed he has become in the horse world. It started when his daughter Emily learnt to ride. Later, Martin decided he wanted to join his wife and daughter on horseback. They now have 12 horses at their farm, ranging from Shetlands to Clydesdales.

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Martin’s lovable but spirited equine teenagers are not long back from getting an education. They spent over two months with Robert Sampson, who breeds and trains Percherons – a French breed of heavy horse –in Ringwood, Hampshire. During that time Ronnie and Bruce learnt how to work together and to pull a cart. Martin then joined them so he could learn how to work the pair – a project which is ongoing.

“They’re shortly going back to school with Robert - just for a top-up. He wants to see how they are getting on, but I have to say I think they are doing rather well,” says Martin proudly, patting Bruce’s glossy chestnut neck. “Everyone I know who works with working horses says the more you work with them the brighter they get and these boys definitely need their minds entertained.”

Martin’s long-term plan is to use the horses on his farm. “There is a little bit of field that we are wondering if we can plough with them and then plant it with asparagus,” he says. In the meantime the plan is to use them like a tractor. Martin points to a shiny, red cart in the yard. “That’s a two-wheeled Amish tractor or hitch. The Amish use it for running around on their farms,” he says. “I can hitch the boys up to this and we can take feed and water out to the sheep, check fences, that sort of thing.”

Martin has also been training the horses to go away and come back with a clicker, just like you would do with a dog. He is hoping to take this training a step further. “There is an amazing horsewoman called Emma Massingale, who does a display at Buckham Fair with her horses. She can get her horses to sit like dogs, then you climb onto them and they pop up like camels,” he chuckles. “It’s a perfectly natural movement, it’s how they get up from lying down.”

Though riding Ronnie and Bruce is still a little way off yet, Martin got a taster of what this could be like when Philippa gave him a 50th birthday present of a three-day Clydesdale trekking trip in Cumbria. “Cumbrian Heavy Horses is a very smart outfit that appeals to the epicurean market for people who like giant horses. We had an absolute ball. The first day we hacked around the fields and got used to the feel of riding them. The second day we went trekking into the fells and the last day we took them to a beach. There were miles and miles of sand and we just galloped…it was fantastic. There’s a lot of flying through the air as you can imagine on a horse that size. We had a race along the beach. Philippa, who as a dressage rider is all about containment and control, was whooping like a cow girl! It was a massive blast,” he says grinning broadly from ear to ear.

“There is a particular kind of punch in the gut I get when I see a heavy horse. I saw it in France when we were filming Heavy Horsepower. A man started crying when he saw a group of Percherons. It reminded him of a time when they were a common sight in France, though in some areas of France they are now using heavy horses to collect recycling, which is as green as it gets. There is something about a heavy horse’s honesty, stoicism, size and reliability that just gets to me and it clearly does to other people because they hang on at Buckham Fair to see the Heavy Horse Show at the very end of the afternoon.”

The interaction between man and horse clearly fascinates Martin and he tells me about a local project run by Harriet Laurie, the founder of The Horse Course charity in Dorchester. Harriet has been using specially trained horses to reform the behaviour of violent and disruptive inmates in local prisons.

“I went in for half a day to watch her horses in action at Portland Young Offenders. The idea is that the boys have to build a relationship with the horse so they can work together. There’s a natural resistance to authority, but if you put an angry young man in a round training pen with a horse, the horse will win. If you’re aggressive the horse will run away, if you’re anxious it will ignore you, so to engage with the horse you have to be calm and focussed.”

Watching with Martin was a case worker of one of the boys. “She said she had never seen him smile before. I saw him smile half a dozen times that day. Another boy was keen to show off what he had been doing - he could get the horse to stand on a box. He was so proud.” The results of Harriet’s work were monitored by Rosie Meek, Professor of Criminal Psychology at Teesside University, who reported that of the 28 Portland prisoners who took part in one of the courses, disciplinary hearings were down 74% after completing the course.

“Harriet has now got a bursary to go to America and I have put her in touch with Monty Roberts, (aka The Horse Whisperer), who I met when I was filming my series on horses, he does this sort of thing too. It’s great that someone is taking the time to shine a light on a problem like this and make a real difference.”

With the photo shoot done we return to the house where Martin introduces me to the latest addition to the Clunes menagerie, Penelope Jennifer, a Jackahuahua (Jack Russell-chihuahua cross). “We got her while filming Doc Martin. A local Cornish girl who works with us came in with a litter so – obviously - we got one!” Martin recalls. Penny joins Cocker Spaniel, Tina, black Labrador, Arthur, and Jack Russell, Jim - and they will all be at Buckham Fair along with the hundreds of other dogs that flock to this popular local event.

Martin clearly loves its dog show and judges the novelty classes. “My favourite is the fancy dress class. Last year there was a rescue dog dressed as Sherlock Bones – he even had a pipe. I sent Benedict Cumberbatch (who play Sherlock in the BBC TV Series) a picture of it. He very sweetly emailed me back asking ‘How is he coping with success – I bet he’s lapping it up!’ Hopefully Penny will be able to join in all the fun of the Fair this year too.” Penny Jenny curls up in Martin’s lap - no doubt dreaming of her fabulous fancy dress outfit.