Why are Exmoor Ponies gathered in from the moor?
The ‘wild’ Exmoor ponies that live freely on Exmoor in Somerset are all individually owned, are all registered with the Exmoor Pony Society with their own names and registration numbers and each pony is also branded with their herd number and individual pony number. Their owners are resposible for their welfare and have a responsibility to ensure that the ponies are appropriately managed to ensure the future of the breed and the gatherings play an important part of this management. Ponies are usually brought home to their owners’ farms (known as ‘in ground’) at least twice a year for two major reasons:
- To remove the resident stallion from the moor to restrict further breeding or to change a stallion to introduce a new strain of blood to the herd.
- To inspect, DNA test and hot brand the foals before registration and then some foals will be kept ‘in ground’ to be sold, any colts that have the potential to be used as stallions are retained to see how they mature and some of the fillies will be returned to the moor.
What happens during a gathering of Exmoor ponies? This is my experience…
I was most lucky to be able to attend three gatherings this weekend on the moor following an invite from Jill Langdon and Jackie Abblett to be part of the gathering of their Tawbitts herd. Jill and Jackie were enormously welcoming of my husband, Jonathan, and I and we were greeted at Dunkery Gate on a crisp October morning by a group of helpers; some on foot, some on quad bikes and two riders. At 10am, the quad bikes and riders set off to collect the ponies from Codsend Moor and about 20 minutes later, we had the most amazing experience as we heard the ponies’ hooves approaching. About 25 beautiful Exmoor faces rapidly greeted us through the gorse and heather and in a split second everybody launched themselves into position; a car was quickly parked across the cattle grid, approaching traffic was held and Jill’s old Land Rover leapt into action to stay ahead of the ponies and slow them up as they were herded down the road. Jon and I, along with some others were given various roads and gateways to block and we all jumped into our respective cars and followed the ponies down the road. They move very fast and take a short cut down to Luckwell Bridge, so as soon as the ponies turn off the road the cars have to race to beat the ponies to the main road at Luckwell Bridge. We arrive with some time to spare and get into position as the ponies once again come clattering down the lane and onto the road. Within a few minutes all of the ponies are safely back at the farm and we quickly learn that we must recongregate back at Dunkery Gate to collect the Hawkwell mares, foals and resident stallion ‘Ebony’ who are kept in a neighbouring enclosure.
Back at Dunkery Gate, Ann Western (joint owner of the Hawkwell Herd with her husband, John) and Maddy Buttner, take over the organisation of the gathering. The ponies take a very similar route back to their farm as the Tawbitts ponies but with one major change: the Hawkwell ponies are always held for some minutes at Dunkery Gate to ensure that all ponies are present before they are taken down the road to the farm. After the ponies have been counted, they set off at a canter down the road. We leap into cars and for a second time we race back down to Luckwell Bridge in time to see them arrive up the hill to their farm. With both herds safely home before lunchtime, we are able to spend time admiring the beautiful ponies and talking to all the enthusiastic people. The ponies were amazingly settled after their blast to the farm. Maddy Buttner explained that the mares are so accustomed to coming home to the farm, she is sure that they would find their way home without any assistance!
We returned down the hill to see the Tawbitts herd and I was really taken with a beautiful old mare, Golden Toffee, as she so reminds me of my old Exmoor gelding, Helmantor Hedrok. I then find out they have the same sire, Tawbitts Mr Toff! Jill and Jackie are very proud of their ponies and spend a great deal of time with them when they are at the farm preparing for the foal inspections and generally enjoying their company. The mares were so very, very friendly and even though they had just been herded back from the moor, they were very happy to come and talk to us! The day was made extra special as not long after the gathering, Jill had the exciting news that their own Tawbitts Mystic Major had qualified for Olympia with his young jockey, Jess Please.
The following day, we were lucky enough to watch the gathering of the Anchor herd. We arrived at 10am at Comer’s Gate and found an enormous number of people preparing to gather the ponies and a host of BBC cameramen who were there to film all the action in preparation for a screening at the end of the week on ‘AutumnWatch’. Owners of the Anchor herd, David and Emma Wallace, were very welcoming and mounted on his Welsh Cob, Jemima, David gave a lovely opening speech and a small group of quad bikes and plenty of riders set off to sweep the moor around Winsford Hill. Five of the steeds were Exmoor ponies, four from the nearby Exmoor Pony Centre (Moorland Mousie Trust) and one gentleman who comes each year from Oxfordshire to be part of the gathering! One rider was even fitted with a camera on her hat to film the gathering from a slightly different perspective.
We shared a car with Pete & Alison Yates who had come from Dorset to watch the event. It was amazing as we got our first glimpses of the ponies and we had a totally breathtaking sight as nearly 70 ponies appeared from around the hill and came one after the other, right past where we were watching! At Mounsey Hill gate, the ponies are held while the area is prepared for the ponies to be herded down the road. Fencing is put up to prevent the ponies from heading straight back onto the moor, once again cars are parked across the cattle grids, the traffic is stopped and a row of people are put in place to keep the ponies on the correct route to the farm. The riders are given the nod and the ponies are once again on the move. The sound of hooves and the exquisite mealy muzzles once again come flying straight past leaving us all in awe.
Back at the farm, the ponies are relaxing in a grassy field and everybody is invited to look at the ponies. David Wallace was keen for people to look at the ponies as selling many of the foals is all part of the process and we were invited to make offers on any foals that caught our eye! Emma kindly gave us the opportunity to go and look at the stallions who were sharing a field on the other side of the farm. Sue Scott escorted us and we had the honour of meeting three very handsome stallions and some beautiful young colts that are being ‘run on’ for a few years. All the stallions and colts live peacefully together until they are required for their turn to run on the moor with the mares. We finished the day with an invite from herd manager, Derek Sparks, and his wife, Cath, for some tea and cakes in their bungalow on the farm and we met even more of the Exmoor community.
We thoroughly enjoyed our weekend on Exmoor and would like to thank so many of the Exmoor people for making us so very welcome, it really was a perfect gathering of Exmoor ponies and Exmoor people!
If you would like to watch the 2012 pony gatherings on Exmoor, contact any of the herd owners and they will be able to supply with you with dates, times and good spectator points.