The New Forest ponies are what many visitors come to the New Forest to see but, unfortunately, the temptation to feed and pet them is too great to resist for some and this creates bad habits. It encourages them to car parks and the roadside where they become involved in traffic accidents – each year around 100 animals killed or injured. It should always be remembered that ponies have the right of way on all Forest roads that are unfenced and speed is invariably a factor in accidents involving them. Feeding ponies also leads them to expect that every human will do likewise and this creates bad behaviors leading to picnics being trashed or people being pestered for food. It can also cause aggression in some ponies especially if denied access to someone’s picnic – a kick from a pony is capable of causing serious injury. If a pony’s ears go back and it starts to turn, it’s a sure sign that they are about to kick out.
As the signs say “LOOK BUT DON’T TOUCH”.
All accidents involving a pony, cow, donkey, dog, pig or sheep should be reported to the Police as soon as possible, and within 24 hours – 999 (in case of emergency) or 0845 045 4545 (non emergencies). Remember, even if an animal runs off it may still be seriously injured and needs reporting. A full record of stock numbers and accidents can be found on the Verderers website.
It is thought that there have been ponies on the New Forest since the last Ice Age. Historically, the ponies were domestic animals working on smallholdings and serving as beasts of burden. Their earliest record in the New Forest dates back many centuries when rights of common pasture were granted to the people living in what was then a royal hunting ground. By this common right they were allowed to turn out their stock to graze the open Forest. This right has continued through the centuries and is still exercised today by those people whose properties have common rights attaching to them (Commoners). These commoners own the ponies and each pony must carry the brand of its owner which must be registered with the New Forest Verderers – these brands are more visible in the summer when the ponies have shorter coats. There are currently around 700 commoners who exercise their right of pasture. Their ponies are left to graze and are handled very infrequently and, as a result, they are regarded as semi feral.
In 2014 the Rare Breeds Survival Trust listed New Forest ponies are in its minority breed category on its watch-list as there has been a significant decline in breeding mares over recent years and there are now fewer than 3,000 on the Forest.
In order to be classified as a pony, the animal should be no taller than 14.2 (1.44m) hands at the withers (top of the shoulder blade). The New Forest Pony is a recognized British breed but has an unusual background for a native pony breed. Over the years, as attempts to improve the breed or just as part of the normal life and trade in the New Forest, many outside breeds were introduced. Notable blood lines were Welsh, Thoroughbred, Arab and Hackney. In addition other British pony blood-lines have been introduced including Fell Ponies, Dales, Highlands, Dartmoor and Exmoor. It was Queen Victoria who, during the 1850s, lent one of her Arab stallions to strengthen the breed. The New Forest breed is known for the friendliness, intelligence and versatility of its ponies. According to the New Forest Pony Breeding Society, “New Forest ponies may be any colour except piebald, skewbald, spotted or blue eyed cream. Palomino or very light chestnut and cream ponies with dark eyes are not eligible as licensed stallions. Blue eyes are not permitted. White markings other than on the head and lower limbs: loss of, or absence of, pigment in hair or skin that is not known to have been associated solely with skin trauma is not acceptable.”
Depastured animals are supervised by five Agisters each having his own district. They are accountable to the New Forest Verderers who are a statutory body primarily charged with looking after the rights of Commoners. The Agisters deal with the daily management and welfare of the commoners’ stock, including dealing with road accidents involving ponies, cattle, donkeys or pigs. The Agisters also conduct the ‘drifts’ when ponies are rounded up into pounds which are situated all around the Forest for worming, tail marking and foal branding. The tail is cut into 1 of 4 marks (dependent upon the jurisdiction of the Agister) to denote depasturing fees have been paid. There are about 44 of these drifts each year between August and October and they also provide an opportunity for owners to take stock off the forest for sale. The Agisters can order any stock found to be injured or in poor health to be taken off the Forest and, for this reason, it is important that Commoners have access to adequate back up land.
Whilst ponies have the freedom to roam the entire Forest, they keep to their own territories, rarely straying any further than a one or two mile radius as they know where to find to water and the best grazing and browsing on their home teritory.
New Forest ponies play an extremely important role in maintaining the unique New Forest landscape as without their constant close grazing, the open Forest would soon turn to scrubland – it is for this reason that they are often referred to as the “Architects of the Forest”. In the Spring and Summer grass is usually plentiful for grazing but during the harsher Winter periods they supplement their diet by browsing holly and gorse. Unfortunately, a few ponies acquire a taste for acorns despite the fact that they are poisonous to them, especially when they are still green, in view of the high levels of tannin. Some horses seem more susceptible to acorn poisoning than others who have a higher tolerance of the toxins. Whilst a few acorns should cause no harm, when eaten in large quantities it has a cumulative affect on a pony’s kidneys and digestive system for which there is no known cure. As a result, a number of ponies die each year and it is for this reason that Commoners’ pigs are released onto the Forest each Autumn for the “Pannage” season when they gorge themselves on acorns with immunity. This is another ancient Forest common right which is known as the right of Mast.
The gestation period for New Forest ponies is eleven months. Foals are born on the open Forest during the Spring and will still be running with their mothers at the time of the drifts when each foal is given the same brand as its mother. The New Forest is a female forest as far as the ponies are concerned as stallions are only released onto the Forest for limited periods between May and June each year. This “Stallion Scheme” as it is known was introduced to help reduce the number of foals born on the Forest at a time of year when mares would find it hard to thrive and support them. In times of poor pony sale prices, the number of stallions let out onto the Forest is reduced in order to control stock numbers – since 2012 only 10 stallions have been used for a four week period. These stallions are carefully selected each year to ensure a good blood-line and only approved stallions can be released. At other times of the year the stallions are kept on private land to the south east of the Forest. Young male ponies (colts) are usually taken off the Forest in January of their second year.
In order to provide Commoners with an outlet through which they can sell their livestock, pony sales have been held in the Forest for centuries. For many years they were held at Swan Green, just outside of Lyndhurst but since the end of the Second World War a purpose built sales yard has existed by Beaulieu Road Station. In 2002 the infrastructure of the yard was completely rebuilt and further improvements have taken place since with the result that it is now one of the best semi-feral handling yards in the UK. The main sales ring was further improved in 2013 with the addition of a roof. There are generally four sales a year taking place in late Summer and Autumn.
Click here for further details of sales dates.