In our Rare Breeds series we head to the New Forest, where the earliest record of horses dates back to 1016 when rights of common pasture were granted to the people living in what was a royal hunting ground. Susan Dunne discovers more about the breed known as the architects of the forest.

Attractive, kind, sure-footed and strong – what’s not to like about the New Forest Pony? Affectionately known as Foresters, these ponies are indigenous to the New Forest in Hampshire and can trace their ancestry back to the last ice age. Standing between 12hh and 14.2, like many natives they are powerful working ponies and they still remain a “working pony of choice” for farmers and Commoners, valued for their sure-footedness across the uncertain terrain of the forest.

For the New Forest Commoners (local people with common grazing rights) they are known as the “architects of the forest,” having helped to shape its ecosystem over thousands of years. New Forest ponies live a semi-feral existence, with a select number of pure bred stallions running with mares for a short period each year. The ponies are gathered annually in autumn "Drifts" to be health checked and marked.

In 2014, the Rare Breeds Society Trust listed the New Forest in its “minority” category for the first time, meaning there are less than 3000 breeding mares. However, more selective breeding has led to improved quality rather than quantity in foals and has helped to reduce overpopulation, which has resulted in many of these wonderful ponies tragically being sold for meat.

Lesley Hurd

If any pony merits the title all-rounder, it’s Rushmoor Jimmy – aka Jim. Formerly owned by Lesley Hurd, he is now a much loved driving pony at the Cherry Park RDA. Now 17, he did Pony Club, pony camp, and show jumping in his younger days – but driving is his real forte, as Lesley explains: “Jim really took to driving. He was broken at five years old and assessed as an RDA driving pony at seven, when he’d been driving for just 2 years. The assessor described him as a delight to drive, a well-balanced pony with a light mouth who would be a great asset to the group.” As well as an RDA pony he has been driven by able-bodied drivers, taken part in indoor and outdoor competition and been put to as a tandem wheeler for Gemma Casburn. On a more relaxed note, he has also enjoyed doing drives with the South Downs Harness Club.

When it comes to characterising Foresters, Lesley doesn’t hesitate: “They are hugely versatile – I mean what is there that Jim can’t do? He’ll turn his hoof to anything and always tries his best. They’re a nice looking pony with nice natures and easy to keep. They’re small – Jim is 12.3 – but they’re very strong for their size and can carry an adult.”

Jim, is now the only driving pony at the Cherry Park RDA, and is hugely valued and loved by the group. He has competed in driven driving trials at Hartpury (coming second) and to prove his worth, Lesley says “He’s done three drives for the group this morning and he’s not even remotely out of breath!”

Nadia Hughes

Nadia Hughes bought Dandy, a 13.2 New Forest, as a six year old, unbroken to drive. Nadia had been driving since she was eight, and with help from Mike Daniels broke Dandy to drive in 2010. She says: “Although he was very green, we did well in basic competition and we won a lot at regional and club level.” Just two years later, they came third at Keysoe Indoors, second in the Junior Nationals (and Queen of the Cones) and were selected for the Junior World Championship in Austria in 2012. There, they took 4th individual and were part of the winning team: “He was just eight when he went to Austria and I was probably more nervous than him – he just took it all in his stride and tried really hard.”

Of New Forests generally Nadia says: “I don’t know if it’s something generic to them but Dandy was so sure-footed. My back steppers were always amazed by him. He was a character and did enjoy bucking but there was never anything nasty about it. He had a really fun nature and was an absolute trier and he especially loved the cones.”

Nadia had to sell Dandy due to school commitments – fortunately he was returned to his previous owner and has left her with some very special memories of an amazing New Forest pony.

Jacky Cleaver

Jacky owns 28 year old Richard, who stands at 13.2 and might have been destined for the meat man if she hadn’t spotted him for sale. She mainly broke him to drive herself, doing the ground work and putting to with a little help. Now retired, Richard has gone all the way to the top: starting at club events, then Nationals, and finally representing the country in the World Championships in 2005.

Even though he has performed at the highest level, Richard demonstrates the sheer versatility of the breed by doing driving for the disabled at the same time as going to National competitions (and met Princess Anne in the process). Jacky, who worked in the New Forest in the sixties and took part in Drifts, describes him as a bit of a drama queen who is boss of her home herd, despite being the smallest. Like all the best ponies, he has his quirks - fear of puddles being one. Jacky says “He likes his creature comforts although he’s a good doer. The thing about New Forests is you can do anything with them. Richard’s been ridden and jumped as well as driven in the past. He doesn’t bite or kick although he’s still got a bit of ‘wildness’ in him. He’s a very attractive pony. I’d say that there are some beautiful stallions on the forest, and now that the wheat has been sorted from the chaff, they are producing better quality ponies.”

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This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue. Subscribe here to keep up to date with the world of Carriage Driving