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E p i c e n t r e
Issue 3

Handling Exmoors

Having been asked to comment on 'handling' for this edition of Epicentre I spent some time reflecting on my approach to the subject. Since I am no expert and a lot of the mechanics have been rather well covered previously I decided to plump for a personal view-please read it as such!

To put it in perspective I am a mature pony mad 'girl' with 9 native ponies (8 of whom are Exmoors) and 12 years of practice as a vet to reflect on. By some peoples recent standards my ponies are virtually 'free living ' in that the bulk of them are running in 15-20 acres of parkland living as a mixed group of mares and youngstock with me doing a daily walk or drive by as a minimum. When the occasion calls for it I will spend half an hour or more worming or vaccinating or longer periods with our farrier. Every now and again myself or a small friend will descend on the herd and haul out an appropriate beast and expect it to hack out; give pony rides or provide other entertainment. Most of the ponies take this completely in their stride-they have all had basic handling, those who are broken have had appropriate work put into them and they have all 'moved house' regularly including a mass emigration to Ireland (and back). By 'horsy' standards they receive a bare minimum of attention and this is a similar situation to many conservation sites i.e. running as a herd but required to have basic husbandry tasks performed and sometimes to be transported between sites. If, in addition, ponies can be used for PR and useful jobs in hand, in harness and under saddle it is a lovely bonus for all concerned. We have to remember that a lot of day to day dealings and other non routine procedures such as treating or even euthanasing sick ponies may be done under the watchful public eye. Its amazing how many people carry camcorders now and the high velocity rifle destruction of ponies doesn't look good though I know for a fact its been done!

Bearing all this in mind perhaps the best advice to embryonic sites is to beg borrow or buy handled stock. Everyone’s life is much easier and happier as a result. Perhaps one or two unhandled wild ones in a group will come to hand in time, especially if other tame ponies set a good example, but it is taking quite a chance to assume this.

unhandled ponies require skilled volunteers and strong equipment

unhandled ponies require

skilled volunteers and strong equipment

We all know 'wild' ponies can make lovely creatures but it is usually after an initial intensive period of stabling and handling. One of my Anchor mares came to me after 9 years of true free living in Cumbria and Scotland. The friends we got her from were very honest and warned us we would never ride or show her-in fact we have done both but it was never a relaxing experience and she is now left more or less to her own devices like a site pony. I still find it intensely frustrating not to be able to guarantee catching her on any one day-she is especially good at spotting when we actually want to 'do 'something no matter how devious we are and despite the fact that once caught she is actually rather good. It is also very noticeable that her foals are always shyer and initially harder to deal with than the other mare’s offspring. Even so all our foals do come to hand despite a complete lack of official handling program. It works by just being a benign presence, letting them come to you, taking advantage of opportunities and making friends. In this way despite the fact that there are inevitably bad experiences such as injections they generally associate us with good things.

handled ponies are so much easier to treat

handled ponies are much easier to treat

All our foals are sold /re-homed catchable, leadable at walk, touchable all over and used to having legs / feet handled. I personally consider this a bare minimum.

I learn an awful lot from watching my own and other people’s equines together and in their dealings with humans. I feel the 'think equus' approach advocated by Monty Roberts and others is very valid. One of my mares went out recently for a week’s refresher to a professional trainer who uses the join up technique. I found it fascinating to see a sweet but independent pony following a stranger like a dog and standing untied and stock still for tacking up without any of the usual face pulling and barging associated with girthing up. She came back like a new pony. Learning from this lady I first practised join up with this mare myself, then less handled mares and finally youngsters had to loan the use of a menage but it works a treat. I look forward to trying it on our 'wild lady' and our stallion when I can get the chance again. To join up properly an enclosed space is needed-usually a round pen-but the principles can be applied in a field or on a hillside-if you talk their language interaction becomes a whole lot easier.

So unless you have limitless time and patience and a good sprinkling of common sense and experience try not to land yourself with wild ponies especially in groups. Sites are not a dumping ground for stock that cant be re-homed elsewhere unless you want to put people off Exmoors as grazers for life. A good handling facility, such as at Knettishall, is a godsend but doesn’t solve all the problems. There are plenty of youngsters and adults out there whose owners/ breeders have done them the service of trying to ensure a more secure future by handling so take advantage of this. They generally cost no more than unhandled stock and your farrier and vet will love you for it! Let’s have less of the rodeo and more of the communication and long may Exmoors thrive as conservation grazers.

by Fiona MacNee (e-mail )