There are a hundred different reasons why people visit the New Forest. They want to see our countryside. They want to experience our quiet, secret coastline. They want to eat fine food in our restaurants, cycle our trackways, and try a little forest bathing.
But we know that one of the major things which draws people to this magical part of the world are our amazing New Forest ponies; all owned by New Forest families. And, as we have more than 5,000 of them, it won’t be long before you spot one, along with the other animals that are also put out to keep the Forest grazed down and of such environmental value.
Whether they are trying to get into a village shop, – rolling on a sand strip by the sea, or quietly chomping the grass near a campsite, our ponies are the stars of our show and in more ways than one.
They are a mass of contradictions. They look modern enough but they are actually an ancient breed – they’ve been here since the end of the last Ice Age with early records showing the bones of a pony at the Roman Villa in Rockbourne. This means that they are adapted to the Forest seasons, able to live off grass, holly and gorse all year round.
According to the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society the earliest proper record of horses in the New Forest dates back to 1016, when rights of common pasture were granted to the people living in what was a royal hunting ground.
They are also the very reason the New Forest looks the way it does and is always accessible on foot instead of reverting to thick scrub. (You must have noticed the wonderful flat-bases of our trees too– just the height for a pony to reach up to…). They munch on gorse and keep this plant in order and their lips have become thicker to allow them to eat at holly. And their grazing and browsing supports rare plant species including wild gladiolus and chamomile. This in turn helps the wider ecosystem and encourages other species to thrive, including the Dartford warbler and the southern damselfly. In fact, the southern damselfly lays its eggs in the water-filled hoofprints of ponies - and cattle - near to the streams that pass through the New Forest.
We may seem to have rather a lot of them but New Forest ponies are actually on the native breeds ‘at risk’ register, with the number of stallions and foals managed to keep vital bloodlines going. And while they may look wild, every one is owned by a Commoner, ordinary local people who have the right to graze them and do this as a vocation alongside their normal lives . These owners are responsible for their upkeep but they are also under the watchful eye of five Agisters, whose job it is to oversee the Forest’s livestock, and ensure that the owners are made aware of any problems they may not have spotted themselves.
During late summer or autumn, ponies are rounded up in ‘drifts’ run by the Agisters. The ponies are checked, and this is often the one chance for them to be wormed, have their hooves checked, and for new reflective collars to be put on. Ponies caught on the drift have their tails cut by the Agister, as confirmation that the owner has paid the year’s fee for the right to graze.
Each agisters has their own pattern of cut.
Agisters also have the sorry task of dealing with road accidents involving the ponies. Not all will always have reflective collars and these aren’t visible from all angles. and can’t be fitted to foals, pigs, cow or sheep which is why EXTREME CARE should be taken when driving, particularly at night. The animals are completely unpredictable, and any near the roads should be passed wide and slow.
The Forest’s general speed limit is 40 mph but we’d advise driving more slowly than that to appreciate the full beauty of this area and to ensure plenty of reaction time when a pony – or her foal – decides to skip over the road.
The ponies are used to humans and and are inquisitive. BUT – they should always be regarded as a wild animal and kept at a safe distance: a pony’s kick or bite can cause serious injury. Never get too close when their foal is with them and don’t offer food – Not only is it bad for them but it attracts them to picnic areas and roadsides, disrupts their vital grazing habits, and can lead to very dangerous situations for anyone nearby and future visitors..
The New Forest ponies are semi-feral and some have never been handled, even by their owners. Once expertly broken, however, they have gentle temperaments and make excellent riding ponies. In fact, ponies sold at the Beaulieu Road sale yard have gone on to perform and win at major competitions and the commoners’ recent efforts have seen continuous improvement in the quality of the ponies they sell.
The one thing we can’t tell everyone, of course, is exactly where to spot them on any one day – they roam where they please. However, in our opinion, these are five of the best places for a New Forest pony encounter. Happy hunting!
1. Hatchet Pond – especially on a hot day as they’ll need to drink. Same goes for any Forest stream or watering hole
2. Bolton’s Bench in Lyndhurst (they shade under the tree there.)
3. Burley – they are often walking through the village from one grazing area to another
4.The B3054 Beaulieu Road on the Forest’s eastern side – the ponies like to congregate along this stretch and there is good visibility to spot them, but please only stop in the car parks and never park on Forest verges, which are damages the Forest grazing.
5. Tanners Lane beach, near Lymington. Walk or cycle (there’s almost no room for the car) and wait a while. If you are very, very lucky you may see the pones paddling, rolling on the sand or even snoozing on a beach!