The Gathering

WORDS by Cindy Cowling
PHOTOS by Andrew Hobbs
From issue 64, autumn 2013

Ponies have foraged on Exmoor, adapting to its ever-changing, harsh climate since the last Ice Age thaw around 10,000 years ago and, it is believed, they pre-dated human inhabitants.  When humans did come, they brought change.  Initially the ponies were hunted for food.  Later they were captured and became beasts of burden, working the land as well as being ridden by men, sometimes all day hunting.  During the Second World War, the number of Exmoor ponies plummeted, with only around 26 of the 44 blood lines remaining by the end of the conflict.  The Exmoor pony became an endangered species.

Thankfully, today the pony’s value, in terms of conservation and versatility as a tough, sound riding and driving pony, has been regenerated.  Behind the idyllic scenes of Exmoor ponies roaming the moorlands, there is an army of farmers, volunteers, inspectors, rangers and charities, who are working tirelessly to secure the breed’s future.  An important part of the pony’s management, which takes place each autumn, is an event known as ‘the gathering’.  It is a task that requires great skill and knowledge – not only of the ponies, but of the moor itself. Ponies are gathered in from their moorland enclosures and herded to their owner’s farm, where they are inspected, sorted and a proportion sold.

Currently there are around 16 individually-owned Exmoor pony herds, some breeding, some non-breeding.  In 2012, I was privileged to attend the gathering of one of the largest; the Anchor herd includes around 80 animals that live on Winsford Hill.   The Anchor herd is owned by farmers David and Emma Wallace, and has been in the family for generations.

Normally the gathering begins on or around the third Saturday in October; however, in 2012, due to the wet season it was slightly later in the year.

At 9.30am, at Mounsy Hill Gate, I watched as the fog swirled around my feet.  People, horses and cars began to congregate at our meeting point. I noted an apparently trunk-less tree some yards away; its bare arms, reaching south, held clear-pearl water droplets formed from the cold damp air, which swelled and then fell, patting the bracken bed below.

gathering 01“We’re hoping the fog will lift,” David Wallace remarked cheerfully, if not convincingly, as he and his wife Emma greeted old friends and new.  David rode a fine cob, with ‘the head of a duchess and the backside of a cook’; I could have taken her home!  Three ridden Exmoor ponies from the nearby Moorland Mousie Trust joined the group to lend their support. One Exmoor pony approached, cocking a ‘toad eye’ and avoiding the puddle in its path.  “She won’t go through,” the rider told us, “She thinks it could be a bog.”

Warnings of bogs and such things might have come in useful to the lad on the trials bike, who was later ‘claimed’ (and, thankfully, unhurt except for his pride) when crossing a river.  Some half-hour passed and David gathered his helpers.  He welcomed everyone and thanked them for their assistance. Some visitors had come from afar, but all were made welcome. However, David asked that spectators did not get in front of the ponies as ‘heading them off’ once they were travelling towards the Ashwick estate, their homestead, would be very frustrating!

gathering 03With several riders gathered, they were asked to fan out as usual, so the ponies could be brought down quietly. The older mares would start to make their way in, but one or two of the more strongly willed mares should be prevented from slipping through the lines.  And, without much more ado, the riders set off into the mist.

“How long does it take?” I asked Emma Wallace. “Usually between two and three-and-a-half hours, sometimes over a couple of days,” she said, making her way towards the Land Rover in order to follow events.  I went ahead to my designated spot beside a hedge; I was told the ponies would approach this spot.  And, later that morning, they did exactly that. First, through the lifting mist, came the faintest sound of drumming.  Towards me they came, eyes bright and keen, nostrils wide checking for danger.  The ground now shook as I stood transfixed, worried I would be in their way.  But the lead mare, flanked by, possibly, a daughter, who one day may take her dam’s place in the herd, knew where she was going, even if I didn’t! Barely able to draw breath, the herd passed by, their ‘roebuck-coloured’ tummies already darkening, their coats thickening, double insulating, in preparation for the winter that lay ahead. Hard, black shiny feet now clattered on tarmac, as well-grown foals stayed close to their mothers’ sides.

Moorland Mousie Trust instructor, Linzi Green, told me, “Each owner has a different strategy for gathering their Exmoor pony herd.  When helping with the Anchor herd, some of the older mares know the routine and when they hear us coming, start to make their way home.  Others,” she added, “have a mind of their own!”  The Moorland Mousie Trust charity takes a representation of Exmoor ponies from herd owners that have asked them.  “Over the last seven years the trust has taken around 230 ponies, nearly 600 in total if you include ponies taken before we had charitable status.”  The priority is to break in ponies and find them new homes on a foster scheme which can be either temporary or permanent.  The centre is open for much of the year, enjoying visits from groups across the board from rotary to art, walkers to schools and birthday parties.  During the summer months there are escorted Exmoor pony rides and, for the less energetic, delicious tea and cakes in the rebuilt Green Room, provided by Foxes Academy students on a couple of days per week.

gathering 02After the gathering, once they are settled at Ashwick, the animals are inspected by the Exmoor Pony Society (EPS).  Formed in 1921, for almost a century the EPS has been the guardian of the breed and is dedicated to safeguarding the future of the Exmoor pony, being responsible for the Exmoor pony stud book, inspecting, registering, licensing Exmoor stallions and maintaining the breed’s genetic diversity.  In more recent years, DNA samples have been used to give a much clearer picture of bloodlines.  The EPS also encourages the breeding of pure-bred Exmoor ponies, organises shows and promotes the ponies through publicity, a website, literature and films.  The Society attends events with an exhibition unit around the UK and abroad.

All the foals are microchipped and then the breeder decides whether they also wish the eligible foals to be registered in the main section of the studbook.  If this is the case, foals are branded by one of the Society’s inspectors; the brand shows the herd and an individual number.  Branding with a hot iron is controversial, but it provides a unique visual identification mark. While the Society continues to look for viable alternatives, there is yet to be agreed a better way to instantly identify an animal – and therefore its owner – in the case of an emergency or injury, where quick decisions have to be made for the welfare of the animal.

With their foals weaned and sorted, the older Anchor herd mares, without so much as a backward glance, make their way back to the hill.  With a gestation period of around 11 months, or 340 days, some will already be carrying next year’s foal.  Younger mares and brood mares due to foal late are kept ‘in ground’ around the farm.  And the stallion is kept home.

The Wallace family likes to keep a representation of ponies for the breed show in August and the foal show in November.  Three or four colt foals are kept as prospective stallions for the future, with the remainder being either sold privately or going to the Moorland Mousie Trust, as conservation grazers or for pony trekking.

Exmoor ponies have been gathered from the moor to the fields at Ashwick since Sir Thomas Acland was warden of the Royal Forest in 1797; long may the tradition continue.  Here’s to an amazing pony, living in an amazing place, alongside amazing people.

Birth of an Exmoor Pony - Prince Benedikt

Here's a little video we found of an Exmoor Pony being born and taking its first wobbly steps.