Exmoor ponies & where to find them

I’ve been quiet lately on here and on my social media, but now the semester is over and I have time for life! I feel reborn *cue the theme of The Lion King* This one’s going to be a pretty short post but next up I’ve got another story coming out so stay tuned!

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I’m that girl who, as a 10-year-old, would’ve had a screen name of “xxPonyLover93xx”. I did horseback riding for about ten years, and during that time in my life I was CRAZY about horses. I probably borrowed every single horse related book from my local library at least twice; when my parents took me travelling, I always took pictures of statues of war heroes on their horses; Alexander the Great was my favourite historical figure literally only because his horse always got mentioned alongside him.

I’m a lot better now (I’d like to think…). However, when Ben and I planned our October roadtrip in England, one of my only requirements was that he’d take me somewhere with wild ponies. There really isn’t a shortage of places like that in the UK; Exmoor, Dartmoor and Newforest all have some half-wild herds, and up in the north in Scotland you still get Highland ponies roaming relatively free. We got settled on Exmoor National Park, mostly because it fit our planned route the best.

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Exmoor National Park is located in Western England and mostly lies in Somerset – parts of it, however, belong to the county of Devon. It’s an array of small, winding roads between quaint little towns, cutting across the lull of traditional English countryside landscapes and moors fit to play a part in The Hound of Baskerville. The region is renowned for its excellent ciders and dubbed one of the best bases for walking in Europe. It is also, as you surely know by now, the home of the native Exmoor pony.

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What are Exmoor ponies?

These “wild ponies” are only wild by name. They are allowed to roam and graze freely on the moors of the National Park, but in truth somebody owns every one of the horses. According to the National Park website, 13 herds – two owned by the National Park Authority – reside currently in the park. They are small, sturdy, brown ponies with lighter marking around the nose and the stomach. If they’re domesticated, much like most smaller ponies they are rather gentle and good with kids but horribly stubborn.

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Where to find them?

The ponies live on the moorland areas of the park. I managed to find a map which had actually marked the locations of some herds with red icons, but since horses in the wild can cover large distances in a day, obviously the herds move from place to place. In general you might have luck seeing the ponies anywhere on the moors.

Be warned, though – the roads that cut through the moors have not been fenced off in any way so reduce speed unless you want to have a pony crash through your windshield. They don’t really care to look left and right before they cross the road. In addition, the moors are often covered in such thick mist that you’d be lucky to spot the ponies from twenty meters away. The day that I took most of the pictures on this post, the weather was nice and visibility was good, but the other two days that we drove through the moors, we had to crawl along at the speed of 20-30 km/h because visibility was simply so bad.

If the visibility is good, you stand a pretty good chance of seeing the ponies; after all, the park doesn’t cover a huge ground. However, it’s also possible to miss them.

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The grim reality of a life of a pony

All of the herds in the park are owned and managed – that means that every autumn they are brought in for inspection. Foals, that have been born the previous spring, get branded and microchipped and sent on their merry way. However – in order to preserve the valuable heritage of the wild ponies, it is regarded crucial that the ponies stay pure breed. The new foals are also inspected for any deviations from the norm; marks that might indicate that they might be cross-breed.

Here’s the kicker: the ponies that don’t pass the inspection get killed.

This was told to me by a stable owner. I went for a ride on the moors with her as she revealed, to my dismay, how they really manage to ensure the purity of the breed. She had one of those unfortunate foals in her stable. A young colt that she had saved from the unexpected fate, just because he had a small white mark on his head. When I offered him my hand to sniff, he seemed wary but curious. She told me that he was still a wild one but hopefully soon he’d be fully domesticated.

Now, I don’t want to comment on the fate of these ponies too much. I realise it’s not my place to say anything. I understand the preservation side of the argument – but at the same time, as a life-long pony lover, it shocks me that such a tiny detail could amount to a death sentence.

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Widget, the cross-bred Exmoor pony

Anyway, seeing the ponies in the wild was one of the highlights of my time in the Exmoor National Park. Even if you’re not a fan of horses, the region offers a lot more to a nature lover, and I’d highly recommend a visit to the park for its many walks, untamed nature and excellent stargazing.

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Have you ever seen wild horses? I’m a huge animal lover, and if you are one too, you should check out my other posts under the tag “animals“. Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more of these kind of short, informative posts!

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