New Forest: tracking the ‘wild’ pony herds

The New Forest swathed in dawn mist is a sight that rewards the early risers.

Studying the landscape of New Forest helps in the search for the ‘wild’ pony herds.

Early morning walks in the New Forest are a perfect combination of relaxation and stimulation. Listening to the bird song, seeing the colours of the landscape stretching out before me, smelling the perfume of wild honeysuckle or the pine from freshly sawn evergreens in the woods, and feeling the summer breezes on my face is, for me, the best start to the day. As I set out searching for my free-roaming ponies I am always on the look out for clues as to their whereabouts. The ponies do not seem to follow a set daily routine but roam according to the fulfilment of their needs, the prevailing weather conditions or levels of disturbance from human activity. These are factors that often dictate the direction of my search. I know the area of their haunt fairly well but still require use of all the senses that attune me to the wonders of the landscape if I am to find them. My sense of hearing is particularly important. Listening out for the sounds of the herds is especially useful when the bracken gets taller or other natural features conceal their presence. Ponies can be quite vocal and call to one another to stay in contact or learn the on-going direction of their herd. Their whinnies, neighs and snorts can be heard over long distances, making it easy for me to eavesdrop into their ‘conversations’ to get an idea of which direction to take. I also look on the ground to see evidence, such as fresh droppings or hoof prints, which might indicate that they passed that way. Hoof-prints that present iron horseshoes can be discounted, as the free-roaming ponies are not shod.

Target enlargement
The ground reveals much about the movement of the animal and, indeed, human traffic across the New Forest landscape. Tracks left after a rain shower often give a useful timeline that helps in the search. Overturned stones on the gravel tracks, which are still damp on the underside, reveal that they were disturbed only recently. These tracking techniques, known as ‘target enlargement’, are based on the principal that you don’t need to know the exact location of what you are looking for if you can read and follow certain indicators that lead to its position.[1] For example, anyone who has ever gone in search of a horse show but only had the vaguest notion of where it is knows to get as close to the area as possible and then follow the horse-boxes and livestock lorries to the event. It’s the same principal. These techniques can be easily practiced and provide more interest to any walk. Observing the landscape’s features and its natural markers with such intensity means that I am constantly learning about the flora and fauna that contribute to the habitat in which my ponies roam. Of course the searches for my ponies don’t always end in success but the exploration for them is always guaranteed to be an achievement.

The New Forest ponies roam freely in small family herds that can consist of mares, fillies, colts and geldings.

Finding my ponies and checking their health is the best conclusion to my search for them.

[1] Tristan Gooley, The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs (London, 2014), p. 36

About newforestcommoner

Keeping the history, ecology and cultural traditions of the New Forest alive through practice of 'commoning'. Sharing information about #NewForest & #commoning.
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