Exmoor Pony Trek

18 09 2013

While I was travelling from Leeds to London on the first leg of my travels down South for my much-needed holiday, I received an email from The Moorland Mousie Trust asking me if I wouldn’t mind swapping the day of my trek from Tuesday to Wednesday, or coming an hour earlier on Tuesday if this was not doable. So I swapped days. I never found out the reason for this, but I don’t suppose it matters. Anyway, that’s why this is a day later than intended.

I had a wonderful time out on the moors with the Exmoor ponies this morning. I arrived slightly late due to us getting lost on the drive in to the centre, and unfortunately this meant I missed out on grooming my assigned mount for the day, who was a sweet-natured mare called Abbi (who can be seen on their website on the ‘Pony Profiles’ page), the tallest of two in the Anchor herd at a mighty 13hh. She was perfectly receptive towards me as I went over and introduced myself to her, but was difficult about lifting her back legs up for me to pick out her hooves. She was otherwise well-behaved as I tacked her up, at first placing the saddle too far up her back due to an inability to detect her shallow withers through her thick winter coat. She didn’t take the (snaffle) bit into her mouth willingly, but she didn’t refuse it, either.

As I was doing this one of the centre staff came and chatted to me. She explained that she had a policy of not riding anything over 14 hands, and I told her that I rarely ride anything under that – so this was quite a change for me! I remarked on how lovely Abbi seemed, though, and the lady candidly told me that the purpose of the treks was to demonstrate to people what a nice breed Exmoors are in the hope of raising their profile. She also explained that Abbi was very responsive and would go from a squeeze, but that if I kicked her she wouldn’t do anything. I said that this was fine by me. We all took turns to mount up from a block in the middle of the tiny sand school, and followed our trek leader out onto the moors through the paddock that the Anchor herd currently inhabit.

I will admit that while I came to the centre enthused at the idea of meeting adorable Exmoor ponies in the flesh at long last, I arrived with certain preconceptions about riding ponies. I expected Attitude with a capital A (not necessarily a bad thing), a short stride and poor suspension in the faster gaits, and for them not to be especially comfy to sit on. Nevertheless, I thought that riding Exmoors in their native environs would be exciting, to say the least, and was willing to work with the things I find less agreeable about ponies than larger horses in order to enjoy that. I was for the most part proven wrong, however!

In spite of her short stature, Abbi did not feel at all unlike some of the heavier cobs I’ve known to sit on, and her movements felt extremely similar to those of a horse more like them, too, in spite of her short strides. Due to heavy rain the previous day many of the pathways and tracks we covered over the moorland (which was mainly just open for the majority of the route we travelled) were waterlogged and so we were unable to trot on them, but to make up for this our leader took us back along a route that included more flat or uphill spaces for us to canter in (which was fantastic!), and along some roads, which we trotted the length of. I know I am wont to employ the words ‘lumpy jackhammer’ when describing what it feels like to ride a short pony, but Abbi actually had a lovely, smooth trot that was easy both to rise with and to sit to. She transitioned to canter beautifully, and although I could see the outward flick of her little legs in front of her each time as though she was throwing them out into the transition it didn’t feel like a sudden leap forwards as it might have done on a different equid.

We took in some stunning views along the way, travelling uphill past The Cleaves (which, as an acrophobe, I found it a bit daunting to trot alongside, but okay as long as I ignored the deep valley to my right and kept looking where I was going) until we reached the highest point of the moors we could reasonably access on horseback, and then wove our way back down again gradually by a different route, with our trek leader having to pick a route for us carefully as the moors form bogs after heavy rain that are capable of taking cows. Fortunately, we didn’t recreate any scenes from Never Ending Story. We also passed the Caratacus Stone, which is housed in a little shelter the ponies all wanted to stick their noses into as we passed it, and in the first field (with cows) we passed through I saw some manner of World War II bomber pass over our heads; I at first thought it was a de Havilland Mosquito from the shape, but subsequent internet digging has shown that neither of the two airworthy Mosquitoes surviving today are anywhere near the West Country, so this would seem unlikely. I will keep digging to see if I can work out what it must have been! Regrettably, we didn’t see any wild Exmoors; apparently this can be quite an experience, as they will regard their cousins under saddle with curiosity, but are never aggressive towards them or their riders.

Abbi proved to be willing and responsive, but not especially forward-going, preferring instead to plod along sedately behind the leading pony, Peter, who our trek leader said was the same in her experience, in spite of having a reputation for being a ‘pocket rocket’ for his performances in their sand school. In fact, both Peter and Abbi were terrors for suddenly and strongly pulling their heads forwards to snatch a mouthful of ferns as we went along – almost as though the minute you relaxed, they were taking liberties. In fact, at one point I had issues getting Abbi to go forwards to trot because she had a mouthful of ferns she was unwilling to surrender, and each time I asked her for the trot while she was still chewing on them, she grumbled at me defiantly as if to say, ‘Will you cut that out? I’m eating here!’, eventually catching up to Peter when she’d swallowed them all. Just enough to keep me on my toes! The more forward-going ponies of the group were actually at the back, and their names were Rama and Yorrick. Yorrick is apparently the largest of all of the Anchor herd at 13.2 hands.

At the end of the ride, we rode our ponies back into the centre, into a fenced-off concrete rectangle, so that they were each facing a metal ring mounted on a post with a loop of string threaded through it. As we dismounted, we were each given a headcollar and a body brush to tether, untack and groom them before returning them to the paddock. Abbi seemed to really enjoy being groomed, but looked like she enjoyed being released in the paddock even more, walking away and putting her head down to graze as soon as I unfastened her headcollar.

Abbi

Abbi is the larger, darker of the two on the right.

I’m really surprised at just how taken with Exmoor ponies I am. I fully expected to enjoy myself, but I didn’t expect to come away from it actively wanting to own one, nor to be finding myself later looking online at prices to buy one. I recall that based on illustrations such as the ones found in illuminated manuscripts and the Bayeux Tapestry, it’s assumed that early medieval warhorses would have been similar in stature to an Exmoor, and I found myself wondering if they might be any good at jousting. Daydreams spiralled out from there.

Unfortunately, just as I had arrived late due to the centre being a little hard to find, I then had to leave in a rush after turning Abbi back out due to catching a lift back to my parents’ with them and it being a rather long drive. While I was changing back into my normal boots, however, I met Winston – one of their other ponies, and one I’d been hoping to meet after reading in his pony profile, ‘He likes everything!’ Sadly, he is now missing an eye (which is present in his profile picture, so this must have been a fairly recent occurrence) – although he seemed no less friendly or cheerful in his demeanour for it, and politely snuffled my hand as I held it out to him by way of saying hello. I wonder what happened to it?

Winston and Friend

Winston is the one on the left. I was seated on a platform above them. I don’t recall the other fellow’s name, but they were grooming each other’s withers so they must be good friends.

http://www.moorlandmousietrust.org.uk/

http://www.facebook.com/ExmoorPonies

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5 responses

19 09 2013
Sparrowgrass

Sounds great! Yay ponies! Sounds like they stole your heart, the cheeky little things 🙂

21 09 2013
Soapy Photo Girl

They certainly did! I see Exmoors in my future.

19 09 2013
theInelegantHorseRider

That place sounds fun, I like the phrase ‘I expected Attitude with a capital A (not necessarily a bad thing)’ as this is what I have experienced on the exmoor pony treks I have been on! One of the Universities have a wee herd up here and they are invariably fun but all a little mad, to be fair to the ponies it might have been the leaders. I still love them though, they have so much character don’t they? 🙂

21 09 2013
Soapy Photo Girl

They really do. And I like that! It’s nice to be kept on one’s toes, so to speak 😀

24 09 2013
gsug

Grrrrrr – to spoil sports who don’t want to play with ponies. Hurrah for Exmoor ponies though.

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