Encounter on Exmoor

Dulvderton Rd Exmoor ponies
Exmoor Herd

The Exmoor pony still roams the picturesque heather moorland of West Somerset. The herds are owned by local farmers or land owners. The ponies are protected and cared for. Rounded up every year the yearlings are counted and branded.  The Exmoor pony is one of the last pure wild horses untainted by cross breeding surviving today.  It is believed to be a direct descendant of the horses that crossed over to England 60,000 years ago.

After the Second World War the ponies nearly faded 1nto extinction, as with food shortages the pony once again became a source of nourishment. 50 ponies were left. This dire situation was stabilized by the forming a formal centre for the ponies and taking some up to North to form another herd. Should anything happen to the Exmoor herd they could now be replenished. Their numbers are now around 2000, which still makes them a very rare breed in need of serious care and attention.

The pony is distinguishable by their buff colouring around the nose and eyes and their black points, Their coats are dark brown in the winter and lighter in the summer blending in marvelously with the flora of the moor. They are not easy to see especially in the half-light and great care must be taken when driving in the night across their designated territory. Warning signs are in evidence.

I have been lucky enough to work near Withypool to care for an elderly Naval commander when his wife goes away.  Richard and Emma have a menagerie of horses, bantams, dogs, ducks and a Siamese cat, but not necessarily in that order. My first visit was two years ago. I did wonder where I was headed as following instructions, I seemed to drive off the map over the brow of a steep hill and plunge into the depths of a combe.

Exmoor was and still is a bit of a mystery to me. During that visit I was lucky enough to meet the old lady of Exmoor, Hope Bourne. Now sadly deceased, but still spoken of with great reverence. Hope knew everything there was to know about the wilds of Exmoor. She lived at Ferny Ball on a remote farm where she had a caravan, a small garden and lots of books. He existence intertwined with Exmoor, such was her love of the landscape and its inhabitants both flora and fauna, the moor was her inspiration, her passion, her soul mate. I am only very slowly discovering the depths of Exmoor’s charm.

I rode up through the fields to the heathered top of Withypool hill every day on ‘Tiger” Emma’s indomitable Arab-Dartmoor cross pony, tough and pretty, surefooted and knowing.  Many days of rain and mist swirled alternately, painting the rolling moor with soft swathes of grey, muting the landscape, hiding it in mystery. The moor has its own music. If you listen you can hear the water seeping, creaking, rushing, trickling through the peat and down across the stony rivulets and through the fields. Exmoor is alive in the wild of winter. In the frost the boughs of the great beech trees crack with cold. The sheep baa and the lowing herds of cattle are never far away.

In spring and summer the skylarks sing incessantly their joyful trills fill the air, their tiny forms hardly to be seen against the blue sky. I used to sit and watch a great moon rise over Dunkery Beacon, its huge pink face glowing at the receding day, wondering how I had lost touch with the real world. Such are those magic mesmeric moments, filled with awe at nature’s beauty.

During the cold and windy winter the ponies hide in the combes, the grass still thick and lush. In the snow they vanish to some warm and secret place. I encountered them one evening wandering down the road towards the little village of Withypool. I was going very slowly in my car and just stopped and waited. On seeing me they vanished, melted into the hill, turning their quarters towards me their dark forms disappearing into the landscape chameleon like. I chuckled. I had asked at the village shop if they would be around on the hill. “It’s Friday so they will.” Came the knowing reply.

One day I was driving to Dulverton and took the high road that passed through two sets of cattle grids and two different herd areas. Passing the second moor I saw a distant herd and decided to stop and see if I could photograph them. I walked towards the herd very slowly not making eye contact and holding my camera at the ready.

He has noticed me.

I then using the zoom got it a bit closer and took the next two photos having no idea what was about to happen. Here I was able to capture a serene picture of life on the moor. The foal happily lying down. The fat sleek ponies munching the lush grass and a sense of peace and happiness abounds.

The young colt staring straight at the camera was getting interesting in my activities.  I was too busy noticing the way the herd interacted and how well they looked and what pretty faces they had. You can see how they would be so well camouflaged in the winter, but now in the summer they stand out against the rich green of the grass.

I’ve been noticed and I was not aware at all. This young horse should have been moving away from me, but he wasn’t. The young colt on the left seemed quite happy with his young friends behind him until; Here he comes, I have been singled out for an inspection.

noticed and walking
Notice me

The young colt was eyeballing me. Have you ever been picked out by a wild horse?  Well it is a little intimidating. If caused me to reflect on the effect we have on people when we eyeball them. It is predatorily behavior and coming from a horse surprised me.

As they came closer I noticed their hooves, small black shiny and neat. How handsome their faces, how charming, those clean black points and lovely flat knees. Their manes burned by the sun with blonde ends their beautifully mealy noses and black nostril tips so pretty, you could not design a more delightful creature. So with his nostrils extended he approached me.

Exmoor encounter
Having a good sniff.

The young blade came straight up to me, leaving his friends playing with each other but taking no notice of what he was doing. I wondered what I should do and decided to use Monty’s body language so I took my eyes off him and rounded my shoulders and stood at a forty-five.

He began by sniffing my shoes, they seemed to pass muster, and they were full of horse smells. My legs came next; he sniffed up my legs and crotch. I stood quite still, my eyes off his eyes and my head down with my shoulders at a forty-five. He continued sniffing my body and then my face and ears. I blew gently back into his nostrils in friendship. This he found quite interesting and as his friends surrounded me he continued his examination.

Once satisfied he and his friends resumed their grazing rejoining the herd. I kept clicking the camera, amazed that I had got these pictures. I wonder if I will meet him again? I wonder if he will remember me? I have a sort of feeling he will. How odd this life is. How strange to have dreamt of getting close to these dear creatures and to have my wish finally granted.

Caroline Baldock

June 2011