by Joel M. Vance

Any western United States horse wrangler rancher would recognize Charley Pollak's place instantly. There's a scatter of utilitarian buildings, mostly in need of paint, which Charley will get around to if business ever slacks off. Of course it probably never will.

But so sturdy are the buildings that they've endured fierce weather for decades and should make it for many more, come shine or, as is more often the case, rain. After all, this is a country where, instead of bragging that George Washington slept there, many homeowners can claim that Owain Glyndwr snoozed away a night (and the famed Welsh patriot died 500 years ago).

Behind the house, the green mountains rise, high and windswept. That's where you, the dude, ride Charley's sturdy little horses. They look remarkably like Western cowponies, but they are Welsh cobs, the mountains are the Brecon Beacons of southern Wales, and Charley is a typically dark- complected, compact south Welshman with laugh wrinkles at the corners of his eye and an ever-present sense of humor.

Charley and Pug Pollack run one of a host of Welsh "pony trekking" ranch/farms. It's a misleading term, for the ponies aren't ponies by Yankee standards and "trekking" connotes a laborious trip.

Neither is true. The ponies are Welsh cobs, reputed to be the ancestors of the Morgan horse and also to be, pound for pound, the strongest horses in the world. They're broad and easy-gaited and the intrepid birdwatcher can use mare's shank instead of shank's mare to track down the rare red-tailed kite.

Welsh Cobs at pasture.


Cobs are aristocratic horses, in their way -- they never were used to plow, but only for cart work and for riding. They pulled carts of coal and slate when that was the lifeblood of the country.

With more than 50 listed riding establishments, it isn't hard for a visitor to find a congenial host and horse. Pony trekking is a relaxed way to cover ground. You share bleak moors with blatting, rag-tag sheep and the moody wind, but also wind down tree-shrouded lanes and along brooks that sing the sweet song of this forgotten corner of Great Britain.

Wales is a mountain country -- about 80 percent of it is "uplands" that range from rolling foothills to rugged Mt. Snowdon, the tallest spot in the country at 3,560 feet. It is rocky and veined with gorgeous rivers that boast Atlantic salmon and sea trout (a sea-run brown trout).

Wales is also a country which encourages tourism, but isn't homogenized by it. You can enjoy Wales, but on Welsh terms -- which is fine because the Welsh have been having a good time for a couple thousand years. Because of its rocky, harsh landscape, making a living has been tough and the Welsh have made-do with country fun. British television is terrible and movie houses are scarce.

So the Welsh sing and quote poetry. They read, watch birds, sail, climb mountains, take hikes, kayak, bicycle, garden and gossip. They are about 50 years behind the rest of the world and totally content with it. Best of all, the grimy image of "How Green Was My Valley" has become "How Green Is My Valley".

Today, Wales is England's Wild West, even to its location, jutting out into the Atlantic on England's southwest boundary. It's roughly the size of New Jersey with half the population and was already settled when Roman legions were intimidated (though not defeated) by its howling heathens. It retains a frontier town atmosphere. About a fourth of the population still speaks Welsh, a liquid language unlike anything else on earth, and all road signs are both in Welsh and English to the considerable puzzlement of travelers.

Tourist guides, which must be written by English authors, tend to lump Wales in with England ... and give it short shrift -- perhaps to get even with the present Prince of Wales. But even though the border isn't marked, Wales is as unique as Scotland or Ireland. To understand this, find a copy of "The Matter of Wales" by Jan Morris, which is a series of historic essays that define the Welsh country and character.

Both the country and its character -- and characters -- seem best met on horseback. You don't need much experience to enjoy this. Riding ranches include instruction, trekking, and riding (which is for the more experienced). Services range from camp-on-your-own to hotels. Cai Iago caters to youth groups and has bunkhouse beds and good, simple country food. The nearby Glanrannell Park Hotel (Crugybar, Llanwrda, Dyfed SA 19 8SA) is a beautiful country farmhouse, converted to an elegant hotel. Owner Dai Davies breeds fine cobs (and will show them to you at the drop of a hint). He also is an experienced birdwatcher and at least half his guests, including occasionally the American Sierra Club, use the place as home base for birding treks.

It's about four miles from Glanrannell to Ffarmers, the wide spot in the narrow road where Cai Iago, the Pollack ranch/farm, is located. In Welsh, two "f's" are an American "f" and one is a "v." And the double "ll" in Glanrannell or any other Welsh word defies translation, but sounds most like someone trying to dislodge a popcorn husk from the roof of his mouth.

Cai Iago lies on the west side of the 519-square-mile Brecon Beacons National Park. The Beacons are great green domes, often tree-clad and invariably scenic. Sheep dot the high meadows like white boulders and gorse tinges the slopes with yellow. There is a Welsh saying that it's all right to take a drink when the gorse is in bloom. Since some gorse "always" is in bloom, the thirsty never suffer.

Wales has a wet, cool climate (it lies on a latitude with Canada, but is warmed by the Gulf Stream) and rain is frequent. In June, rhododendron blooms profusely and any American landscape gardener would kill for the immense bushes that grow wild.

Farther to the north, in the Snowdonia National Park, there is no doubt the mountains are mountains -- harsh crags jut into the sky and roped climbers cautiously edge up sheer cliffs.

Much of south Wales is treeless, like Scotland, but there is extensive conifer reforestation and the scenery is varied and never boring. A typical half-day ride will take you to the top of the mountains where you can see (assuming a clear day, but never forget your rain gear) for miles. The sturdy cobs are gentle and intelligent and respond quickly to rein commands.

As is true of all riding establishments, Pollak will tailor your ride to your abilities and wants. You can spend a week for about $170 which includes room and board (the room is a bunk in a communal bunk room), and the trips include an overnight trail ride to an isolated youth hostel.

Day rides include lunch on the trail and stops at scenic pubs. Whether you inhale the superb Welsh bitter or not, the pubs are worth the stop for their unspoiled and quaint atmosphere. If nothing else, Wales is notable for its absence of fast food joints.

A half-day ride is plenty for the novice backside. That will cost about $7-10. A full day runs from about $10 to $30. The minimum age for riders at most Welsh trekking centers is 10.

Beginner's rides follow well-defined trails, with no precipitous drops, nor steep climbs or descents to trouble the acrophobic. Advanced riders can be more adventuresome and enjoy a brisk gallop over the windswept ridges or pick their way along tortuous mountain trails.

In addition to the stated adventures, there often is serendipity. At Cae Iago, it is tea with Charley and Pug and a chance to rest abused backsides. It also can be a red-tailed kite, performing avian ballet high above the ridgetops.

Charley and Pug's guest register contained comments that ranged from, "Very enjoyable...I suppose..." to "From sheer terror to sheer enjoyment in one ride!"

"Candy's a cool mover!" Presumably Candy is a Welsh cob mare, though she possibly could be one of the fetching country wranglers who work for Charley Pollak.

Another rider wrote, "Porgy's enjoyable to ride, but painful in the backside."

When one woman rider expressed a desire to pet a lamb, Charley exclaimed, "Oyl do betteh than that, my deah, oyl place one roight in yuah ahms!"

And he did -- grabbing the half-grown sheep and handing it to the startled tourist. Only the sheep seemed not to enjoy the encounter. The woman was enchanted by Welsh magic.

For straight-out tourism information, write the Wales Tourist Board, Dept. WB, P.O. Box 1, Cardiff CF 5 1 XS, Wales, England.

Pony trekkers should ask for the free brochure "Pony Trekking and Riding In Wales." (Some publications are priced.)

Included in the brochure is a list of outfitters and their services, and a booking form. For additional details, write the Pony Trekking and Riding Society of Wales, 32 North Parade, Aberystwyth, Dyfed SY23 2NF. Do send an international reply coupon, available at the Post Office.

Joel Vance Autographed Books