Tide turns against riders on the sands

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As the waves washed on to the foreshore beneath the cliffs of the Pembrokeshire coast, the sounds of the sea were joined by the snorting of horses cantering through the surf.

For their riders, with the wind and the sea spray in their faces, it was an unforgettable experience of getting close to nature.

Not so for the startled holiday-makers who, during the summer, have looked up from their sand castles and games of beach cricket to see up to 50 horses coming towards them.

Their complaints to the Pembrokeshire Coast National Parks Authority have led to the drafting of by-laws which would ban the horses from the beach from May to August every year.

For the organisers of the rides, who have been taking horses on to Druidstone beach since the last century, the ruling could be disastrous to their livelihood and the end of a local tradition.

Tessa Thompson, of the East Nolton Riding Stables, said it now organised rides on the beach for up to 6,000 people a year.

"Lots of people who ride don't own a horse and are restricted to riding in a school in circles. Riding on the beach and through the surf is a complete fantasy," she said.

She agreed that up to 40 public riders, plus a high ratio of mounted helpers, often took to the beach at the same time.

The riders were split into five groups depending on ability and then came down the beach at a walk or a canter.

For five generations, the Owen family, which owns the stables, has been taking horses down to the beach. At first it was to wash the animals and bring back firewood, then, 35 years ago, the family began offering a novel form of riding holiday.

But the sight of large animals crashing through the water has alarmed parents of children playing in the rock pools or paddling in the shallows.

Jane Bell, owner of the nearby Druidstone hotel, has had to placate a succession of angry guests who have been upset by the horses.

"It's a lovely thing to see but there has got to be discretion and sympathy for other people on the beach," she said.

John Faulkner, footpath secretary of the local Ramblers Association, said the fall-out was part of a 20-year battle between the stables and other users of the coastal paths and beaches.

He claimed that one woman had fallen into a stream as she jumped out of the way of a column of horses headed for the beach along a footpath. "There is an enormous number of horses and it can be quite intimidating," he said.

Charles Mathieson, recreation management officer for the Pembrokeshire Coast National Parks Authority , said: "We have had regular complaints over a number of years.

"It's a very attractive activity and we have a role to promote enjoyment. But it is creating significant problems and we also have a role to promote balance." He added: "We had a gentleman's agreement with the stables over sunny days in the summer when there is likely to be a lot of people around. That agreement clearly has not held good."

After a period of public consultation the new by-law will be sent to the Welsh Office for ratification.

The horse-owners claim the area would lose a major tourist attraction.

Ms Thompson pointed out that on tourist maps promoting local beaches Druidstone was singled out only for its sea angling and dangerous tides.

Ms Thompson said: "There are 35 beaches on this coast and 34 do not have riding on them. There are fields and valleys all over the country but riding on the beach is different. It is a dream come true."