We left Italy in pouring rain and after what by Australian standards was a short flight; we landed at Gatwick airport in brilliant sunshine.
After collecting our hire car we headed for Hampshire where we would be staying at Applewitch Stud with Kay and Alan Bailey, this is the home of New Forest stallion Applewitch Pure Magic. This was to be our fourth visit to the New Forest in recent times, it is a favorite destination for Jim and I, not just because we breed New Forest ponies.
To truly understand the New Forest ponies you need to know and feel the New Forest, this is what it is all about, why the ponies are what they are, an all-round hardy pony with a kind temperament. The New Forest is the only truly pristine forest and heath land left in the United Kingdom. Not only does it still have ponies living wild, it has deer, cattle, badgers and many other native species. It is steeped in history, once the private hunting ground of kings, it is still governed by ancient laws and charters.
Much of the land is open heath where ponies and cattle graze on the sparse grass and bracken and then there is the forest itself. Ride deep into the forest and you enter a magical kingdom. The crowds cease to exist and massive ancient trees filter an eerie yet beautiful light onto the forest floor, the forest envelops you. Damp ferns brush your legs and the smell of warm moist soil and grass assault your nostrils. There are treacherous bogs and quicksand's, which must be avoided at all cost. You might suddenly come across a stallion with his mares and feel like an intruder as you quietly ride away. You truly feel transported back in time.
The forest and heath are the ponies’ haven, but the heath is crossed by roads and every year there are pony fatalities. Most of the offending drivers are locals who have become blasé about the speed limit.
This year the ponies are looking well it has been a good season with excellent rain so feed is plentiful. Come winter and it is bitterly cold, the forest and heath are covered in snow and the ponies work hard to find enough feed to stay warm. They lose and enormous amount of weight, some are lucky and have caring owners who bring them feed, many don’t. This is the natural course of nature, then come Spring the feed becomes plentiful and the thin ponies are able to graze to their hearts content with no fear of founder. All the ponies on the forest belong to someone and generally they bear little resemblance to the Foresters that are stud bred.
We were lucky enough to attend a ‘drift’. This is when the mares and foals are herded from the forest and yarded. Many of the foals are removed for weaning and the ponies’ tails are cut in a particular way to identify their owner. Riders set out in groups to various parts of the forest to bring the herds in, they gallop flat out and drive the ponies into the waiting pens.