Exmoor Ponies - conserved by conserving

Sustainable
Development

A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO HANDLING FREE LIVING EXMOORS

In April 1997, I convinced my managers at Suffolk County Council that the answer to our grazing problems at Knettishall Heath Country Park was the establishment of a semi-wild herd of Exmoor Ponies, owned and managed by the County Council. The project was rather a step in the dark, as this was the first time that the Department had actually owned and been responsible for living, breathing animals which had the potential to run away, fall ill, injure themselves, staff or members of the public. I sought and gained a great deal of useful advice from the Exmoor Pony Society, the local Wildlife Trust and other experienced horse people. The common wisdom was that dealing with ponies was all a matter of confidence and experience.

I am, by trade, a Countryside Ranger. I was happy enough planning the project, begging for the resources and putting up the fencing, as this was all familiar territory. The ponies arrived, in ones and twos until there were six, later to become seven with the birth of the first foal. They started to rub on my new stock fencing and push it over. No problem, I added one internal strand of electric tape and the situation was restored. This is fairly easy, I thought, all I have to do now is to catch and worm them.

It was then that I stumbled against the biggest problem that I believe all site managers, running a grazing project themselves, will eventually have to overcome. How on earth do catch a herd of semi-wild ponies in a thirty acre meadow armed with a rope and a confusing tangle of straps and buckles, which my equine supplier called - a head collar? Once released in the same field, our ponies bonded and formed a cohesive unit, which was much faster, smarter and better co-ordinated than the poor soles I had cohered into the "Knettishall Livestock Team". Incidentally, the agony of all the fruitless chasing and shouting was compounded by our desperation to catch a flock of Hebridean sheep, which were grazing in the same meadow. The sheep made a formidable alliance with the ponies, all running in different directions when they were cornered. To be fair, we eventually caught a few of the tamer ponies once I had worked out which way round the head collar went. But this was not good enough; we had to catch them all, quickly, reliably and safely.

At the end of a very long day, just when our resolve was about the crack, we eventually captured the sheep, which were wormed and released into an adjacent paddock. Anybody who advises mixed grazing has obviously never tried to catch ponies and sheep at the same time. Now they graze the same areas, but not at the same time - break the problem down and it becomes easier to resolve.

As far as the ponies were concerned I realised that further chasing and shouting was only going to cause distress all round. The project had come to turning point. We had to decide what sort of herd did we want? Did I have to spend every waking hour gaining the confidence of each pony, segregate the difficult ones, get them all trained to head collar, walk them around the field every day? I knew I did not have the time or the inclination for this and after all, I had no desire to show them, I only wanted them to eat the grass and be maintained in a healthy condition. Furthermore, I had always envisaged the herd as free living, in one herd - a cohesive social unit. There was also the matter of their own security; the more difficult they were to catch the safer they would be.

The approach that I settled on was that of a "semi-handled state" and in the last six months the handling problem has been resolved. Worming, tetanus inoculation, horse box transport has now become a smooth operation, with no shouting, running, kicking or biting. So how did a complete equine novice achieve this state of relative calm?

The first step was admit my limitations, in terms of time and expertise and accept the semi-handled state as a good compromise between chaos and show ponies.

Following the advice of our vet, I now worm all the ponies with granules in the feed bucket, which is far easier than attempting to syringe paste. I carry this out on an eight week cycle and I do not have to lay a hand on any pony. If the number of feed buckets matches the number of ponies and they eat at a constant rate (which they seem to), this method is efficient and accurate.

Because I am a better engineer than I am a stockman, I put considerable thought and effort into designing and building a pony corral. This is the secret weapon of the equine novice and the details are illustrated in the field sketch I have submitted to the editor. Make it tall and small, build it to last and it will repay the effort many times over. The material cost is about 500 and it took about five days to construct.

The next stage is to get the ponies trained to the feed bucket, which is far easier than a head collar. Use a good quality "quiet mix" as this is very appetising to Exmoor's and avoids all the chasing and shouting. I feed two days prior to the catch and then place the buckets in the corral and simply shut the gate once they are safely in position.

I have a suspicion that the mint with the hole was specifically designed for the novice equine handler, as a sedative pill will fit exactly in the middle. Two pills per pony and leave them stand for one hour before the vet or horse box arrives. Check with your vet concerning the suitability of sedatives and the exact dose required prior to handing or veterinary treatment.

Once in the run and crush section of the corral even the most difficult pony has no choice but to stand still or move forward. This system has worked several times for injections, feet trimming and transport. The latter requires a head collar but even I can manage this when the pony is completely restricted in the crush. To assist with loading, we added two sets of guide rails on the crush exist the same width apart as the transport box ramp. This prevents a last minute dash for freedom, when the crush gate is opened.

Throughout the handling process we are calm but firm, it is not a case of master versus animal but a matter of respect on both sides. I have to admit that I could not enter any of my ponies in an Exmoor gymkhana, but even if I could, I would have to overcome my fear of heights as an East Anglian Ranger!

Stephen Grimshaw Countryside Ranger 25/08/98

EPIC()