The beauty of the New Forest is a stunning backdrop in which to practice commoning. The open heaths, ancient woodland pastures and valley mires have been shaped by the commoner’s free-roaming animals. The animals, in their turn, have been shaped by the landscape and are ideally suited to life in the wild. I love watching the ponies in their family herds, and I am beginning to recognise individuals and their character traits. They maintain a nonchalant, but watchful, attitude as I pass by them when out walking or riding on the Forest. Being around domesticated horses and feeling comfortable in their presence has given me an advantage in developing a certain degree of ‘horse sense’, which has been invaluable when dealing with their ‘wild’ counterparts.
Knowing the subtle (and sometimes downright obvious) clues given off by a horse’s body language goes a long way to developing a mutual understanding and respect. Our own body language too, including attitude, mood and volume can impact on a semi-feral pony and magnify the results disproportionately. Any sudden move or burst of volume on our part, even if it is to attempt a hug or give a cheer in praise, can be interpreted by them as the prelude to a predator attack! They will use all the instinct and learning that Nature and their mother’s gave them to get away from you, even if it means biting or kicking you. The last thing you want is an animal that either has no respect or any confidence in you. It is imperative to get the language right.
Fortunately modern technology has made the dissemination of best practice in horsemanship freely available for those who want to learn about ‘talking’ with horses. There are endless tracts on the Internet and even videos on You Tube. I have read books written by people with incredible intuition with horses – the so-called ‘horse whisperers’. Monty Roberts, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman are the obvious mentions. But I am also aware of practitioners who work on a practical level with owners and their horses. Sarah Weston, who is also from the New Forest, is a good example and a true advocate for semi-feral and wild ponies. Her methods of socialising and befriending unhandled, poorly handled or manhandled ponies are, thankfully, being more widely adopted to the benefit of the ponies.
The Commoner’s pound
This week I brought my two mares in for worming. Some very experienced commoners helped me. These are young ponies that have had the minimum of human contact. I was impressed by the calm and quiet manner in which the ponies were handled. Generations of commoners have been handling wild ponies and they have passed on the knowledge and practice of how to get the best results. We herded them into a small compound, which had a chute at the end. The whole contraption looked like something you would see in a cowboy film. It is of sturdy wooden construction high enough to prevent ponies trying to climb over the top of it but low enough for the commoners to be able to attend to the ponies from above. There are many of these ‘pounds’ dotted around the Forest. They are used regularly by the commoners in times of need like this and also during the annual drifts.
Quickly, quietly and calmly
When the mares were in the chute thick poles were placed behind them and in front of them to keep the ponies in one place. One of the commoners quietly and nimbly climbed up the outside of the chute and very gently stroked the bay filly lifting her head ever so slightly. Before the little creature had time to resist she’d been wormed. Using a paste squirted by syringe into her mouth she will be protected against internal parasites until the next wormer is due. The process was repeated with the chestnut filly. When we had finished the poles were quietly removed, the chute door was opened and the ponies were released. There was no mad scramble to get out. No wild galloping away. There was so little to remark about the whole incident that, hopefully, their experience of gentle handling done quickly, quietly and calmly will mean that they will not be afraid to come in next time we have to catch them up again.
For more information about Sarah Weston visit: http://www.logicalhorsemanship.co.uk