Dashing through the snow with man's best friend
It's a beautifully crisp Saturday morning at Knightshayes Court near Tiverton. Visitors are swaddled in hats and scarves trying to fend off the biting breeze, but for the ten inhabitants of two large vans parked on the lawn of the gothic property, the freezing temperature is ideal. For a Siberian husky, this is nothing.
Fay and Rod Frost, founders of Westcountry Sled Dogs, have come to the National Trust house to educate and demonstrate the variety of activities you can do with these distinctive creatures. The couple, from Paignton, regularly take their pets out mushing – where the huskies pull along a wheeled rig – and are keen to share the unusual hobby along with their love of the breed.
Westcountry Sled Dogs was founded in 2006. Fay, a teacher at Torquay Academy, said: "We took on our first dog, Soiux, and had researched the breed but didn't look at the working side. Then I met somebody at a dog show and they asked if we'd ever tried to mush.
"We were just messing about really. We tried it on a scooter and then got given a rig. I sold my car and bought a van and things started to change. Then we had puppies and kept two of them, and decided Rod and I would both like rigs. It escalated and here we are today.
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"Your life changes around them, but I wouldn't have it any other way. It's hard work but great fun."
The couple say huskies are "disobedient" dogs, prone to howling, digging and almost impossible to walk off-lead. On the other hand, they are incredibly friendly, hard-working, strong and magnificent to watch in action.
Rod puts one of their younger huskies, Dyson, into the rig on his own to show me how it works. The dogs wear harnesses that reduce the strain on them and optimise their pulling power. Their rigs are three-wheeled, with the rider standing upright on footplates. They use the same type of brakes on the handlebars as a normal bicycle, but he tells me that if you have four dogs running and they don't agree with your decision to stop, "there's not a lot you can do".
The huskies are attached with a gangline that hooks on to the back of their harnesses, and there is a brushbow – a curved piece running around the front of the rig – that is designed to knock away obstacles.
With an excited Dyson strapped in, Rod yells "hike!" – the command to get moving – and the rig lurches into action. When they reach a crossroads in the path he shouts the left turn command "haw", and Dyson decides to cut the corner, nearly tipping the rig on to its side. I'm amazed at the speed just one dog can reach, and Rod says he has gone at least 20mph with a four-dog team. Professionals can reach an exhilarating 30mph.
"It's such an adrenaline rush," said Fay, "and when they listen to you and follow your commands you get a real sense of achievement."
The couple recently acquired and restored a wooden sled, and are hoping for a smattering of snow in South Devon so they can give the huskies a proper Siberian experience.
Michelle Maton, a police sergeant based in Exeter, is also at Knights- hayes with her four huskies. She got into the breed when she was off work with a shoulder injury and walked her daughter's dog as part of her recovery. Now she also has a rig and enjoys racing at rallies around the South West.
She said: "Some people take it very seriously but a lot do it just for enjoyment. It's good for the dogs, it's in their instinct to hunt and to run and they love doing it. You always keep the pace of your slowest dog and if they don't want to go, they won't."
For those interested in mushing with their dogs in the Westcountry, the options are fairly limited. Rod and Fay use a dedicated running area at Kenton Common and a track at Dawlish Waterworks. Both require permits from the Forestry Commission and are subject to some curfews. They are also restricted by logging being carried out within Haldon Forest Park at the Kenton site.
Rod explained that the group are looking to find some other locations they can use locally. "We're hoping to find somebody that has a large farm with tractor trails going around the edge of the fields who will let us run there. It doesn't have to be very wide and dogs churn ground up far less than horses and trailbikes."
Aside from the thrills of racing and the huskies' sweet furry faces, owning one of the dogs is a big commitment and Rod and Fay say the consequences of not being prepared can be "truly tragic". Huskies need lots of exercise, crave company and mental stimulation and can become destructive when left alone. They also love to howl and shed their enormous coats twice a year. Rod and Fay's group use their appearances at events to educate and demonstrate sled dog activities, but also to raise money for the charity they support, Huskies In Need.
The rescue charity covers the whole of the UK, giving help and advice and taking in Siberian huskies, husky crossbreeds and sometimes other sled dog breeds like Alaskan malamutes and Samoyeds. Rod and Fay collect donations and also volunteer their services locally. "Most people who own a husky get really passionate and want to know everything about taking care of them," says Rod. "But sadly that isn't always the case. For us it is not just about promoting the breed, but also about promoting its welfare."
For more information and a list of events for Westcountry Sled Dogs visit www.wcsleddogs.com or to support Huskies In Need go to www.huskiesinneed.com