The Exmoor Pony Round Up
This is the calm before the storm. As I stand on a quiet hillside in the heart of Exmoor, watching the cobwebs glistening in the early morning dew, its impossible to imagine how different things will be at the end of the day. Then, it begins - a soft hum in the distance that builds slowly, until over the top of the hill comes a stream of 4x4’s and horseboxes, rudely awakening the sleepy moorland.
The Pony round up starts here. Its a major event in the Exmoor Calendar and one that I’m privileged to share in this year. The sudden scurry of activity is like watching an ants nest that’s been poked with a stick and it soon becomes obvious that there are many sightseers present too. Rex Milton dons his red boiler suit which will make keeping track of him easier than I had expected. The horses are unloaded and the ladies head off over Withypool Common like a small group of cowboys. Strangely enough, the lads have decided not to flaunt there equestrian skills and settled for scramblers. Rex has commandeered the only quad bike, but then it does match the colour of his boiler suit. As they head off the crowds begin to dissipate, some heading for the customary river crossing and others to the finishing points, or the roads along the way – keen to watch the action.
Today, the ponies are in an even less co-operative mood than usual. Just as they get them all together, a small group breaks away and heads back the way they came, forcing the ladies to start all over again. The lads don't appear to be getting off lightly though. The ponies have decided to invent a brand new river crossing with a scrambler in hot pursuit, but the water is far too deep and the bike is swept out from under its rider. The poor boy disappears beneath the surface before rising up like the loch ness monster - in a colourful frame of mind. His clothes maybe dampened, but not his spirit as he rescues his bike and returns to the fray.
As I head off to the temporary holding pens, I find myself praying that the second leg of their journey will be a little less eventful.
Eventually, the ponies can be seen heading up the road, but no sooner do they see the start of the natural funnel like hedge formation, then they break away again, resulting in some truly remarkable horsemanship. Then they begin thundering down towards me with the sound building quickly and dramatically. As they swoop past my vantage point I can feel the ground shaking beneath me. If I hadn't been perched on the back of the truck, I think my heart would have been pounding too.
Now comes the arduous task of identifying the ponies and which mares have foals in tow. A crush has been set up into which the ponies can be moved one or two at a time. One surprise is the identification of a mare that hasn’t been seen for a couple of years – I wonder where she’s been hiding. The double bonus being that she has a foal with her. Robin Milton is in charge of spraying the foals with a temporary mark, although Rex thinks his numbers need a little downsizing. It’s no easy task to separate the mares from the foals and takes some nifty footwork. The foals are moved up into a waiting trailer and the mares are released through the side gate.
The mares seem more puzzled then distressed by the separation, reassuring one another with nuzzles and grunts. The foals are less impressed and take to stamping in their trailer and it this that moves the mothers to investigate the trailer which they had previously ignored. I leave my vantage point and position myself closer to the action. The foolhardiness of this manoeuvre is quickly evident when one of the ponies exits the wrong way and I find myself positioned between them and freedom. I slowly move round to keep the camera between myself and the mare, hardly daring to draw breath as she passes within touching distance and away.
With 6 foals safely installed in the trailer and the rest of the ponies free to go, its time for me to head home, leaving the moor to return to its peaceful if somewhat depleted state of beauty.