Visiting the New Forest ponies and cattle can be a magical experience. When life hands you something magical, you just have to stop and breath it in. It makes for a wonderful free day out if you are near Hampshire. All you have to do is take a slow drive through the New Forest countryside and villages until you see a group of ponies hanging out. It is a perfect experience for animal lovers.
My daughter and I were being driven through the heathland of the New Forest by locals (my lovely aunty and uncle actually). We were sat up straight Awwwwing and Ahhhhing at the beautiful landscape of purple heather and the occasional pony prancing along.
By chance, charging across the front of us came four beautiful deer. To me it looked as if females were chasing antlered males, but perhaps the males were leading the females to safety. Getting out of the car to see if they settled nearby, we discovered a scene that will stay with me for years to come.
Hardly believing our eyes we took a slow walk down the dirt track towards this seemingly favoured water hole.
Aunty Sand and my daughter Charlotte chatted excitedly as the heathland wind swept them along.
There is a carpet of purple heather to the left and to the right.
No sign of the startled deer but there were cattle nested within the heather. So calm and content to munch their lunch while us visitors come to stare and take our pictures.
This young one is a little less sure and gets to his feet. She doesn’t take her eyes off us.
At the end of the track were this beautiful pair. Many of the ponies we saw were in loving couples. They showed strong bonds and affection for one another.
The breed are renowned for their hardiness, gentle nature (most were quite happy to be approached) and good ‘rideability’ (we didn’t try!).
They may seem wild in this setting but they are actually owned by locals or ‘commoners’, a term that dates back to when the New Forest was first created in 1079 by King William I. He allowed local animal owners to graze their livestock on open Crown land. In return they had to stick to very strict Forest Laws put in place to protect the natural wildlife of the area.
Still today these ponies (and cattle) are permitted to graze freely on the open forest.
We feel so lucky to be standing so close.
The ponies in the New Forest are jointly cared for by the owners and by Agisters (their role involves New Forest activity regarding animal ownership and land use).
The Commoners pay a fee to the Agisters (for the management of the animal and the Agister’s fee) who then cut the tail hair of that pony. Each Agister has a unique cut pattern.
A New Forest pony must also be branded to identify the owner, before they are allowed to roam freely.
New Forest ponies can be any colour except piebald, skewbald, spotted or blue-eyed cream ensuring only pure New Forest breeds are here. The most common colours are bay and chestnut.
I adore the colouring of this beauty.
Uncle Paul is enjoying the peace and space. It feels like a unique and special environment.
A fittingly old looking sign, warning not to pop your boat onto the pond…
There were foals all around. These proud and loving parents were a delight to watch as they stood over their little one and rubbed their necks affectionately together.
Selected stallions are only let out onto the forest between April and July to breed with the mares, keeping the breed strong.
The foals are considered to be the property of the mares owner. But right now, this foal is definitely the baby of these two parents.
Twice a year ‘drifts’ take place whereby the ponies are rounded up, counted for, marked and checked over for any health problems that might have gone unnoticed.
But today they wander freely in this magical environment where, right here right now, there is barely a human sound (apart from the odd squeal from me and my fellow humans).
These ponies have wandered on these lands for 2000 years. There are 3000 or so of them. I suspect they have a deep understanding of this environment. They do seem at peace here.
Feeling so lucky and slightly disbelieving of our own eyes (we are townies), we head back up the path.
This time this usually gentle and shy creature stands protectively between us and her young as we pass by.
This time of year in summer, there are up to 3000 cattle roaming the forest. This number drops hugely in the cold months as many aren’t hardy enough for the winter weather here.
The biggest hazard for the New Forest creatures however, are the traffic on the New Forest roads. Sadly, very year a number are killed or injured.
As we head off to our lunch at The White Buck Inn Burley, we spotted this little group at the side of the road.
Many tourists, like us, like to photograph these beautiful animals and they are used to human interaction.
They appear to be treating the bus shelter as a stable.
Then we realise that these wonderful creatures are protecting a pregnant mare that is hidden inside. My heart just swells. This tiny little heavily pregnant female does not just have her stallion protecting her but a small group.
I feel privileged to have seen and spent time with these delightful animals, and proud to be British, because sometimes when we get it right it’s a beautiful thing.
Standing among the New Forest ponies and cattle was a unique experience. Why not make a day of it and lunch at the White Buck Inn, Burley.