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The native New Forest ponies are undoubtedly one of the National Park’s main attractions, seen wandering freely not only throughout the countryside but also in the area’s towns and villages – a sight not seen anywhere else in the UK. At our New Forest holiday cottages, you may even be lucky enough to wake up and see them over the garden fence.
But how do you recognise a New Forest pony? And who looks after them? We answer these questions and more with everything you need to know about these gracious animals.
Recognising a New Forest pony
Although the New Forest pony is a recognised breed in its own right, their appearance can be quite diverse, as many other breed bloodlines have been introduced to the New Forest ponies. Among the other breeds they have been mixed with to create the variety you see today include Welsh, Arab, Thoroughbred, Hackney, Highlands and Exmoor.
As a result, they come in a number of different colours, with a few exceptions. According to the New Forest Pony Breeding Society, they may be any colour “except piebald, skewbald, spotted or blue eyed cream”. Most commonly, they are a bay or chestnut colour.
They can also have white markings only on their head and/or limbs, and have eyes of any colour except blue. There is also a maximum height for New Forest ponies (but no minimum): 14.2 hands (144cm) from the ground to the top of their shoulder blades.
How New Forest ponies are looked after
There is a myth that the New Forest ponies are completely wild, however, they are only wild in the sense that they are able to roam freely around the National Park. They are in fact owned and cared for by New Forest Commoners.
The principle of commoners dates back centuries to when the New Forest was first established, and refers to someone who owns land to which rights of common are assigned. As part of the rights, the commoners must pay annual marking fees for each pony, and ensure each freely roaming pony has its own owner’s mark, registered with a body called the Verderers. Verderers administer the special laws attached to the New Forest, and have complete administrative control of all of the Forest’s stallions. They also employ Agisters, who take care of the day to day issues involving the ponies.
The jobs of the Agisters includes attending to road accidents and caring for injured ponies, as well as maintaining the stock pounds in the area and managing the rounding up of ponies when needed. They also ensure that Commoners have paid the necessary fees for their ponies by clipping the ponies’ tails in a certain way, indicating to the Verderers that the money has been paid.
What New Forest ponies eat
The New Forest ponies will usually eat grass, especially during the spring and summer when it is plentiful. Their constant grass grazing is incredibly important to the landscape of the New Forest as, without it, the open forest and heathland would soon turn to scrubland.
During the winter, once most of the grass has been eaten and doesn’t grow back as quickly, the ponies may also eat holly and gorse to help supplement their diet. Some ponies also choose to eat acorns, despite the fact that they are poisonous to them due to the high levels of tannin inside. There are however a few ponies who seem to have a higher tolerance of acorns, and usually eating a few acorns is harmless. The problem comes when they are eaten in large quantities, which can cause problems for the ponies’ digestive system and kidneys.
Fortunately, the forest’s ecosystem has a way of taking care of the poisonous acorn problem. Every autumn, during a time of year known as the Pannage season, Commoners release their pigs, who are immune to the acorns, to gorge on them. Not only will the ponies be less susceptible to acorn poisoning but the New Forest’s pigs get fed too!
When the foals are born
Foals are born in the New Forest every spring, and can often be seen with their mothers, helping to bring the forest to life at this colourful time of year.
The breeding takes place every year between April and July, with the mares’ gestation period lasting around 11 months. Breeding is very tightly controlled, with the Verderers deciding which stallions can be released to breed with the mares. At other times of year, the stallions are kept on private land, so for the most part, the ponies you will see across the New Forest are females.
How you can help New Forest ponies
It can be very tempting to get a little closer to the ponies and feed them, however, there is a bylaw which bans the feeding of New Forest livestock. Feeding the ponies can leave you with a £200 fine and a criminal record, and although the ponies may look gentle, they can also kick and bite if you get too close to them.
The National Park also advises taking care on the roads and obeying the maximum speed limit on unfenced forest roads of 40mph. New Forest ponies and other animals also have right of way on the roads of the New Forest. These measures have been put into place as many ponies and other freely roaming animals get injured or killed by cars each year. If you’re driving in the New Forest during your holiday, be sure to carry an animal emergency hotline card so you’re prepared should the worst happen.
If you'd like to know more about other animals found in the New Forest, check out our guide to New Forest wildlife.