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Piskie Riders

Piskie Riders

Some nights when out on the moor it’s possible to see or hear a herd of ponies thundering across the open wastes, the snorts and whinny’s suggest that they are running scared. At first it may seem that they are stampeding at a reckless pace but if the moonlight is bright enough it may be possible to see that their frantic race is being controlled by unseen riders. These days this type of event is less common than it was a hundred or so years ago mainly because most of the ponies are now roaming free as to being kept on or near the farms. But what causes the ‘pony panic’?

For the answer our eyes must turn towards the piskies, or more specifically to a certain type of piskie – the ‘pony riders’. It must be realised that with any race of people there are good and bad sorts and the little folk, albeit they’re not human, are no exception. Some piskies will help the moorfolk and others will do their utmost to hinder and annoy those living on and around the barren wastes. The piskie riders take their sport from riding either the wild moorland colts or the domestic ponies at breakneck speed across the tors and plains. It goes without saying that it’s easier to catch a ponies penned in a newtake than those running free on the open moor so guess where their preferred mounts came from. You could say what harm can that do providing the ponies aren’t hurt in anyway? Remember though, the ponies that live on the farm were primarily beasts of burden and their daily tasks were carrying loads, dragging carts or sleds and in general the ‘donkey work’ of the farm. So imagine a farmers annoyance when say on market day he goes to fetch his pony and finds that it’s mane is all tangled, the animal is covered in sweat and breathing relentlessly from the previous night’s exertions. What good is that beast for carrying a heavy crook laden with produce for market? It might be prudent at this point to explain the tangled mane, well in truth the hairs aren’t tangled, the piskie riders have the knack of platting the mane in such a fashion as to make long loops which they use as stirrups. In has been known for these ‘stirrups’ to be so long that the pony has managed to get its hind legs entangled in them which led to the poor beast tripping up, bowling over and breaking the entwined limb. This, as any horse owners knows, can only mean one thing, the poor animal has to be destroyed and in the days of horsepower that would be the modern equivalent of losing ones car.

For those who laugh at such stories may I suggest that the following true account which is often told around the peat fires of the Dartmoor inns is taken in consideration:

Not that long ago a moor farmer sent one of his workers up to a certain newtake to bring back some ponies that had been running there for the summer. When the lad got to the moorgate he noticed that the whole herd were bunched up in the far corner of the enclosure which seemed mighty strange. As the creaky old hinge of the gate opened the whole herd began to gallop and cavort around the newtake in a demented fashion. When the ponies charged nearer the lad could plainly see that upon each one was a small human-like figure dressed in gaudy clothes and upon the wind he could plainly hear the chuckles and hollers of the piskie riders. Immediately the lad stepped out into the path of the oncoming ponies in an attempt to stop the stampede which considering who was sat on the animals backs was a brave thing to do. The riders simply steered their mounts neatly around the lad and then goaded them even faster, around and around the newtake the frightened ponies sped like a turbo charged merry-go-round. The tiny jockeys were twisting the poor pony’s manes tighter and tighter in an effort to make them go faster and faster and on their second lap the lad could see the poor animals eyes bulging with fear. Thud, thud, thud went the drumming hooves as the riders weaved the ponies in and out of the granite boulders, occasionally a metallic ‘click’ rang out as a horseshoe clipped a rock. The labourer’s head was spinning from the effort of following the pony herd around and around the enclosure and just as the lad thought he was going to be sick the riders galloped the ponies into the far corner walls of the newtake. Suddenly all the ponies screeched to a slithering halt just inches away from the high, granite wall, the lad closed his eyes for he could just imagine the whole herd crashing headlong into the huge stone boulders. A high pitched whooping made the hapless spectator open his eyes when he then saw all the pony riders leap off the ponies backs and bound across the wall where they disappeared from sight. By the time the breathless lad reached the ponies all sign of the piskies had gone, the moor had returned to its normal tranquil self. The terrified ponies were nervously huddled in a bunch, their tangled manes hung limply down upon their foaming flanks, each animal was snorting through flared nostrils whilst scraping the ground with their hooves. When the animals had got both their wind and wits back the labourer gently ushered them through the moorgate and down the stroll towards the farm. The only comment the lad would ever make on the events was: “twudn’ the fust time they piskies had been up to thackey !”.

There, sure proof of the piskie riders, but if you need further convincing then take a trip up to Joan Ford’s newtake early one morning and if your very, very lucky you may see the piskie riders in action. If you are too late there will at least be the ponies huddled in the far corner of the newtake and one look at them will be enough to convince anyone of the existence of those mischievous piskie riders.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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