All in a day’s work: The New Forest commoner *H&H Plus*

  • Lyndsey Stride on catching wily ponies, keeping up the breed’s quality and the joy of seeing the next generation emerge

    At the heart of the New Forest is a core of large commoning families — around 700 commoners who have rights to graze their animals in the forest. Commoners come and go, but nobody starts alone.

    My granny was a romantic, a Londoner who cycled all the way here and camped in the New Forest. She didn’t have a clue when she moved here in the 1930s. She was helped by Charlie Penny, who was my husband Robert’s great-grandfather.


    There is nothing lovelier than going out into the forest and seeing your ponies — especially when they’ve had a foal. It’s magical. Riding in the forest alone a hobby hawk will fly by, or you’ll hear a nightjar. When we open our windows at night they fly round the house, hunting for moths.

    It’s rare to see a mare foal in the forest. They disappear for a day or two and come back with their foal.

    Commoners have a name for every group of trees, green and bridge, like Mallards Wood, Mouse’s Cupboard or Stinking Edge, which doesn’t smell. There is a clump of trees we call Paradise Lost, which was named by soldiers based there before D-Day. When I ride across the forest I often think of those who have been before me.

    Each pony has a haunt where they live — we say they are haunted. In summertime they go and seek shade; that’s when it’s easiest to find them. They’ll find shade in the same place for generations; a tree slightly out in open where the wind takes the flies away, or a dark spinney out of sight. In days gone by, commoners would hide in the shade trees and wait there to catch a pony from the branches.

    The ponies aren’t easy to catch. Some are elusive and they’re the ones my husband likes best; he calls them woodland dwellers. The art of colt hunting is to outwit the ponies, letting them think they are escaping when really they are heading towards a wooden pound where they can be handled safely.

    Verderers oversee the forest and employ five agisters who support the commoners. In the autumn, ponies are rounded up into wooden pounds. At that point some commoners take home their mares and foals or ponies to be sold. When you go to Beaulieu Road Pony Sale there are wooden pounds on bare earth with ponies standing happily — they’re familiar with that environment having been rounded up for generations.

    Before the ponies are turned back out their tails are marked, which shows the owner has paid their commoning fee of £24. You can tell which agister’s area a pony’s owner is from by the tail cut — it might have one or two notches to the right or left.

    Only quality stallions go out, up to 15 of them for six weeks. When I was a child it would have been more than 100 all year round. They were restricted for welfare reasons so we don’t have early or late foals, or too many. It’s improved the quality of the ponies and the prices, which helps to keep commoning viable.

    They don’t get laminitis. They eat a natural diet and their weight varies in a natural way so they go into winter fat. I’ve never had a pony with colic, though I’ve heard of it when ponies have eaten litter.

    Each morning I walk the children through the forest to the school bus, check our forest ponies and Granddad’s, then hay our cattle and riding ponies. I talk at schools and have produced a commoning education toolkit as well as curating an exhibition called “Commoning Voices”. I love helping Robert with the cattle, calving and getting our pigs out in autumn to eat the acorns. Some ponies get acorn poisoning so we’re on alert then.

    The worst thing is seeing your animal in a traffic accident. In the past 15 years we’ve only lost one pony, but it happens. And it feels bigger than losing one pony, it’s those bloodlines from ponies that Robert’s grandfather gave him. It’s lasting.

    We’ve bred ponies like Cuffnells Goldenrod, who was second at Horse of the Year Show in 2018, and Cuffnells Royal Fern, with whom my daughter Milly won last year’s Pony Club junior novice national endurance championship.

    They learn to be ponies in the forest in a herd; they are level, rounded ponies, so when they leave they can be good performance ponies.

    Robert was out riding this winter with our son Ted on Fern and they caught their first mare and foal. I saw the sense of satisfaction on Ted’s face and Fern was pleased with herself, too. It’s the next generation coming through.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 20 February 2020