Meet Devon’s very own horse whisperer

PUBLISHED: 14:21 22 September 2020

Jonathan in costume, complete with pince-nez, driving the wedding carriage. Photo: Mary Ann Pledge

Jonathan in costume, complete with pince-nez, driving the wedding carriage. Photo: Mary Ann Pledge

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Jonathan Waterer trains and supplies horses for feature films and Royalty as well as running courses in Devon

Combining the wheat with a team of four. Photo: Mary Ann PledgeCombining the wheat with a team of four. Photo: Mary Ann Pledge

I arrive at Higher Biddacott farm on a crisp, still day, the fields glistening with frost; cupcakes of crystallised mud grinding beneath my wheels. It is hard to locate Jonathan Waterer, who eventually emerges from the back of a vast trailer stamping at the cold: all I see is a huge grin from the confines of an ear-smothering Rastafarian-style woolly hat.

An enthusiastic welcome, followed by directions for locating the coffee, excuses me from perching around outside to wait. Soon Jonathan and his wife, Fiona, bound into the Aga-heated warmth of the kitchen and, as I’d secretly hoped, Fiona delves into a nearby cake tin to produce a sumptuous ginger cake to share. As we eat, their story unfolds...

Jonathan, 60, grew up with his three brothers on a Berkshire farm where, from the age of three, he was rarely out of the saddle. At 14, he was already ploughing the fields with his cob - and certain that he wanted to spend his life working with horses.

“Few people can make a living out of their passion,” Jonathan muses (especially when it is from the age of three, I think!)

Breaking down the plough with a culto-mulcher. Photo: Mary Ann PledgeBreaking down the plough with a culto-mulcher. Photo: Mary Ann Pledge

Amongst Jonathan’s teenage reading material was A.G. Street’s book, Farmers’ Glory, which depicts the breaking up of the prairies in Manitoba and this was enough, after the requisite education, to propel Jonathan to Canada to take part in the process himself. There, he learnt far more about farming with horses and acquired the cowboy skills, which continue to prove useful, of feeding and rounding up the stock on the ranch.

“I can still rope a cow when necessary,” he mentions casually. Cowboy Jonathan remained in Alberta for almost four years before he was ready to return to the UK and implement his skills into a project of his own.

Like so many, Jonathan had holidayed as a child in Devon, and on returning to the UK in 1982, he eschewed his Berkshire upbringing in favour of North Devon.

“It was cheaper and quieter,” is his explanation.

He bought a farm in Twitchen on Exmoor, where he started his own enterprise with 200 ewes and 40 suckler cows; but it was here that he began breaking in horses for riding and driving.

In 1988 Jonathan married the redoubtable Fiona, who immersed herself fully, not only in support of the horse-training enterprise, but by adding her own catering abilities to the mix. Two children arrived and, in 1997, in need of expansion, they moved to the current Higher Biddacott farm, with its 82 acres of farmland and eight of woodland.

The farm was a massive restoration project, taken in stages, and it was here that the Shire horse business really took off. As it expanded, so did Fiona’s catering enterprise, and a burgeoning B&B, initially forged through accommodating those who had come from afar to be trained with their newly broken horses. (Fiona interjects that the word ‘breaking’ horses has become a little sensitive, so we tried to implement ‘training’ instead!)

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Gradually, Fiona gained confidence from being urged by their many delighted guests to make the B&B an official enterprise. Thus, while Jonathan was training horses of all sizes, Fiona’s business was growing in tandem as she began to cater for the many weddings, funerals and events for which Jonathan was also often booked. Jonathan’s clients, too, were a diverse bunch ranging from Prince Charles - for whom Jonathan supplied Suffolk Punches for use on the farm at Highgrove - to the Thelwellian antics of Pony Clubbers!

As Jonathan’s skills with horses became recognised, demand indicated the need to invest in a hearse for their Shire horses to draw at funerals, a wedding carriage to enhance nuptial occasions, and wagons and carts to carry parties taken on picnics, where one of Fiona’s sumptuous hampers is strapped on the back to provide the feast.

Meanwhile, the granary was converted to provide space as an art gallery during their Heavy Horse Weekends and as an extra dining room for 20+ guests attending bookable Higher Biddacott dinner and lunch parties. Next, barns needed converting to houses for both sets of aging parents, now in their 90s, who are afforded a first-hand view of the ordered chaos of farm life.

These days B&B customers are attracted to quirkiness, so they include in their farm holidays a glamping suite, a converted railway goods carriage and a range of rural options, including a Devon wildlife walking trail or, of course, a cavort down the lanes in a horse-drawn wagon!

Furthermore, watch your period dramas discerningly: they are likely to feature Jonathan in a number of guises with his horses and carriages. While his most recent film was Gentleman Jack, he and his equine team are also to be seen in Ladies in Lavender and Pride and Prejudice, to name but a few.

Whilst they use only one tractor on the farm - for lifting purposes - Jonathan’s ethical approach has become topically sustainable and their completely organic farming of yesteryear could not be more in vogue.

When asked, Jonathan says it is hard to compare the ongoing costs of mechanised farming to horse drawn. There is the expense of shoeing, feeding and much greater time spent mucking out, harnessing up and in carrying out each task. This versus pressing a button to start the huge and expensive machinery, plus its maintenance and diesel, is impossible to quantify or compare.

He explains that the horses he trains will always be included in the farm tasks demanded by his home team of Shires, for example pulling disc harrows; therefore, (he attempts not to look slightly smug), he is simultaneously training and reaping the benefits!

And what of the future? Jonathan and Fiona exchange a glance: while they don’t often ‘do’ holidays, they have never considered retiring. They agree that they get a buzz from seeing people have a good time, eating their organic home cooking and learning how to better train and enjoy their animals.

While their children are both involved in carriage driving (their daughter, Tiggy), and agricultural commodity training in Africa (their son, Harry), they don’t envisage the children returning to work the farm full-time. Greater salaries are afforded further up-country, so it would take a dip in revenue and a greater workload.

Their work is a symbiosis: Jonathan may be seen donning a pinny to assist with the catering, while Fiona addresses the crowds at agricultural shows to explain Jonathan’s manoeuvres with his Shire team - and perhaps this inter-changeability may be a part of the reason for the successes achieved at Higher Biddacott.

There is a fluidity and synergy between them that ensures that a task taken on by either of them depends on them both. As my finger chases the last crumbs of ginger cake around the plate, I feel enormous affection and admiration for their laser beam of level-headed positivism in what had seemed an uncertain decade!

Contact the Waterers here to learn more about their work

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