If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise! Well, to be accurate, it is a forest, and you won’t spot bears, but you will find New Forest ponies.
I have been visiting Hampshire for many years and still think one of the best things to do in the New Forest is to drive through and see the free-roaming, wild ponies. And if you visit in Spring, you may witness the “Bambi legged foals” learning to become part of the herd. However, never come between a mare and its foal; view from a safe distance.
The ponies roam freely around unspoilt woodland, heathland and river valleys in the New Forest National Park and help to keep the landscape and rare species in good order by grazing on the land.
And it won’t take you long to spot one of the 5000 ponies as they will either be happily grazing on the moorland or wandering down the high street (yes, you read correctly). They have lived in harmony alongside their human counterparts for over 2000 years and are not phased by visitors stopping for photographs or the hustle and bustle of cars and people on the high street.
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Are The Ponies Really Wild?
They are classed as free-roaming or wild but are owned by 700 ‘commoners’. The commoners are people from the farming community who have the right to turn out livestock, ponies, cattle, and donkeys into the forest. Common rights have existed since the creation of the New Forest by King William I (the Conqueror) in the early 11th century.
Another “common right” is to be able to turn out pigs in the autumn, in the period known as “pannage season”. Around 600 pigs feed upon fallen acorns, chestnuts and other nuts, which are toxic if consumed by the New Forest ponies, deer and cows. This symbiotic relationship means the pigs are fed, and the ponies and other animals remain safe – proof of nature working in harmony with one another.
Who Looks After the Ponies?
“Verderers” are forestry officials who determine the Common Laws and control their execution. The role was developed in the Middle Ages to administer forest law on behalf of the King. Verderers call upon “New Forest Agisters” who assist them each year when the ponies are rounded up in what are called “drifts”.
Over thirty of these New Forest drifts take place each year, giving the “Commoners” (pony owners) a chance to check the health of their animals, wean and handle the foals and put on new reflective collars so ponies can be seen on the roads at night.
At this point, the commoner may want to sell his pony and take it from the forest. Ponies sold unhandled, straight from the forest, generally do not fetch much money as they are semi-feral and unmanageable, and commoners often take them home for handling before a sale.
If a pony is to be released back into the wild following ‘the New Forest Drift‘, their tail will be cut by the agister as confirmation that the owner has paid the year’s fee for the right to graze in the forest. The cuts vary in style to show which forest agister is responsible for each pony.
What Are The Ponies Characteristics?
Hardiness, intelligence, and strength are qualities for which New Forest ponies are valued. They are most commonly grey, chestnut or white and have a long head, short neck and back and muscular hindquarters. Being between 12 and 14 hands high (122 – 148 cm) makes them excellent riding ponies, and they are often used in gymkhanas.
Can You Feed the Ponies?
Admire them from a sensible distance and don’t be tempted to stroke or feed them as this could land you in trouble. Feeding the New Forest ponies in a big “NO NO” as they are wild and dangerous; one kick could seriously injure you.
If you are caught feeding them, the police will serve you a £200 fine and a criminal record. Touching or petting the ponies is forbidden, and an agitated pony will have his ears back against his head. Make sure you move away swiftly if you see this, as the ponies can move very quickly.
Where To Find the New Forest Ponies?
Everywhere is the answer! Drive through the New Forest, and you will see them gathered together, grazing on the moorland or close to the New Forest villages. You won’t have to search for them too long as they are evident all around.
The best places to spot new forest ponies are:
Beachern Woods and Horseshoe Bottom in Brockenhurst
Hatchet Pond in Beaulieu
Abbots Well and Godshill in Fordingbridge
Boltons Bench in Lyndhurst Village
Burley Village (also famous for witchcraft!)
Map of New Forest Pony Hot Spots
Do I Need a Car to See the Ponies?
Driving yourself is the best way to see them. The speed limit in the New Forest is 40mph, but common sense will tell you when to slow down. If you don’t own a car, you could hire one from Europcar or book a New Forest Bus Tour.
Please park carefully on the grass verges and watch the ponies go about their everyday business from a distance; it is a magical sight to behold. Make sure you have your camera at the ready for some incredible shots.
If a pony starts to make its way towards you, then move away; they can bite as well as kick!
Can I Get to the New Forest By Train from Central London?
New Forest National Park has a primary rail line running through it, stopping at Ashurst, Beaulieu, Brockenhurst and Sway. The journey takes 90 minutes from London, making it possible to explore the New Forest in one day. A lovely way to get around the forest is on two wheels from the bike hire shop in Brockenhurst near the train station.
The New Forest Code
The nine ways to help keep the New Forest safe:
- Keep your distance from the animals – don’t feed or touch them.
- Take home litter and dog waste.
- No fires or barbecues.
- Keep dogs under control. Don’t let dogs approach or chase any animals.
- Park only in car parks
- No wild camping.
- Stick to the permitted cycle tracks.
- Drive with care – animals on the road!
- Help wildlife by keeping to the main tracks.
Are there Other Animal Encounters in the New Forest?
You can enjoy quite a few other animal attractions in the New Forest. There is something for all the family from the Deer Sanctuary at Bolderwood to the Reptile Centre in Lyndhurst.
Luxury Hotels in the New Forest
There are plenty of beautiful hotels in the New Forest if you want to stay the night. I have listed some of my favourite luxury hotels with links to pricing and availability.
Limewood Hotel – an upscale boutique hotel located just outside the village of Lyndhurst. Beautiful interior design and a restaurant run by Angela Hartnett and her team. I have stayed here on several occasions and love its manor house meets chic boho vibes.
The Pig – the hotel is a modern twist on a country-house hotel, with a relaxed, laid-back feel, effortless grandeur and incredible local produce.
Carey’s Manor Hotel – A charming manor house, excellent restaurants & the award-winning Senspa.
Montagu Arms – the 18th-century manor house hotel offers a cosy homely feel in a picturesque setting.
The Master Builders’ House Hotel – Set on the banks of the Beaulieu River within New Forest National Park, this hotel offers an AA Rosette restaurant and luxurious rooms.
Rhinefield House Hotel – this uber grand 19th-century country house features a spa, swimming pools, ornamental gardens and fine dining.
And the hotel featured below is the beautiful Burley Manor which comes complete with a herd of deer on the estate!
And if you fancy a trip to the seaside while you are in this neck of the woods – excuse the pun – you can visit Hengistbury Head, Christchurch, Mudeford and Bournemouth, all just a short drive from the ponies in the New Forest.