The New Forest Pony is considered one of the oldest and most popular breeds in Great Britain. It is native to the New Forest, a beautiful historical region between Bournemouth and Southampton in southern England. Known as the “architects of the Forest,” these ponies, over hundreds of years, have shaped this extraordinary landscape, made up of grassland, marshes and woodland.
Studies in DNA testing suggest the New Forest pony originated from Spanish Celtic-type pony breeds. Hackney, Welsh, Thoroughbred and Arabian stallions have all been used over the years to improve the standard of the breed. The most famous was the Thoroughbred, Marske, during the 1760s. He sired the great racehorse Eclipse, who was unbeaten in all eighteen of his races, and responsible for many of today’s racing bloodlines.
Queen Victoria also graciously lent two of her Arabian stallions for breeding purposes. However, in the 1870s, there was a notable drop in the number of ponies grazing on the Forest, due to the Arabian blood. As a result, the ponies were less able to survive the harshness of the area, so native British Mountain and Moorland breeds were introduced to produce a more robust offspring. However, since the 1930s, only purebred New Forest stallions run with the mares. Due to so much interbreeding, the characteristics of each pony tend to vary.
The breed was often used for farm work before technology took over, with smaller ones working as pit ponies in the coal mines. Many saw active service during the Boer War (1899 to 1902) with the Forest Scouts in South Africa. Renowned for being strong and able to travel long distances, they would carry up to thirteen stone in severe conditions during the conflict.
The traditions from Anglo-Saxon times remain in the New Forest, and each animal is owned by a Commoner, who possesses common pasture rights. To be depastured (put out to graze), each pony has their owners brand mark. The herds are free to roam the whole area but tend to stay in one spot, known as their haunt. Animal welfare groups, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and The British Horse Society (BHS), make regular inspections to check the well-being of the ponies.
Five Agisters, employed by an organisation called Verderers, care for the ponies, with each one responsible for their section. The Verderers, a body of ten people, were initially established to administer the law of the New Forest. Five are appointed, and five elected. A grazing fee is paid annually by the Commoners to the Court of Verderers, and, as proof of payment, every Agister cuts a distinctive pattern on the tail of each pony, exclusive to their area.
Every autumn between August and November, the ponies are rounded up in what are known as “drifts.” As many as forty take place each year.The drifts happen early in the morning with both Agisters and volunteers on horseback, rounding up the wild ponies. The scene resembles that of a stampede, as they gallop flat out towards wooden pens, directed by the Commoners on foot. The general public is discouraged from being in the area when the drifts occur, due to the potential dangers.
Once inside the pens, the ponies are given a health check, wormed, and their details recorded, with any foals branded. A major problem is ponies wandering onto roads and being hit and killed by cars, especially at night. Because of this, many owners request the fitting of fluorescent collars. A few of the ponies are taken by Commoners for handling and training, before being sold by auction at the Beaulieu Road Sales.
Volunteers who take part in at least six drifts can qualify for the New Forest point to point race. Held annually on December 26th, the riders must be mounted on part-bred or purebred New Forest ponies. The departure point is kept secret from the competitors until just before the start. The Riders then race across open countryside, taking any route they wish, to reach the finish line.
The New Forest pony has developed and adapted according to the conditions of the Forest and well-known for being sure-footed and hardy. In winter they survive on holly and gorse, so their tongue has a thick, sturdy upper surface to cope with this thorny diet. In the past, they also grew a moustache on the upper lip, but potential buyers saw this as a sign of poor breeding. Improved feeding standards saw the disappearance of this particular feature.
They stand between 12 and 14.2 hands high, and have a gentle temperament, making them ideal for children and as a suitable mount for small adults. Intelligent and versatile, they are well-known for their agility and speed. They excel in many disciplines, including show jumping, eventing, dressage, showing and driving.
The New Forest pony is a cultural icon with an incredible history and heritage but now listed as a rare minority breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST).
There are now approximately less than three thousand mares in the Forest and only fifteen stallions running with them for five weeks of the year. Jane Murray, Secretary of the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society, was quoted by Mail Online saying, “Rapidly changing market conditions over the last few years have changed the horse world, probably forever.” Maintaining the breed is so important for the Forest’s ecosystem as well as preserving these grazing herds as the most famous and picturesque sight of the New Forest.
By Richie Fingers [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia