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Perfect time to find young stock a home as gathering of Exmoors begins

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 12, 2012

A mare and foal from James Bryant's moorland Exmoor pony herd running on Countisbury Common  Picture: Rosie Schneider

A mare and foal from James Bryant's moorland Exmoor pony herd running on Countisbury Common Picture: Rosie Schneider

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There are strict grazing quotas for farmers and landowners with common grazing rights, which means that most of the Exmoor pony foal crop must be found alternative homes or grazing schemes. While some fillies are kept for future breeding and the occasional colt is run on as a potential stallion, the majority of colt foals and some fillies will be available for sale. As there are not often facilities to keep them, "in ground" homes must be found soon after inspection, or they can often be sold for meat and culled.

Exmoor ponies are one of the oldest, genetically pure breeds of equine and have evolved with relatively little interference from man, shaped instead by nature and "survival of the fittest". They are strong and well conformed with distinctive characteristics and intelligent minds. The Exmoor pony is an endangered breed with between only 2,000 and 3,000 ponies in the world today (current breed population figures are still unavailable from the Exmoor Pony Society). So preserving bloodlines and finding good homes for moorland ponies is important. Exmoor ponies are strong, attractive and well moving. Once you have won their trust, they make excellent riding and performance ponies. They thrive in the showring –reaching the top levels in Mountain and Moorland competition – and make fantastic jumping, endurance, dressage, driving and family riding ponies for adults and children. Exmoors are also excelling in Horse Agility – the current world champion is a moor bred Exmoor pony stallion.

Once gathered, the semi-feral foals are shy and apprehensive about their new environment, having been newly weaned and unhandled by humans. They are caught and inspected to ensure they meet the strict Exmoor pony breed standards. Once the inspection is passed, ponies are micro-chipped for individual ID and unless the breeder or new owner has requested otherwise, also hot branded with visual marks. Until recently, hot brands were applied to the foal's shoulder and flank. However, the rules have changed and a maximum of four marks will be branded onto the rump only. The process is extremely painful and traumatising for the foals, who are restrained throughout and receive no pain relief. The brands cause third degree burns, which produce painful lesions lasting up to a week. So if you are interested in purchasing a moorland foal – contact the breeders before inspection day and request that your pony is not hot branded. Most moorland breeders are delighted not to hot brand a foal leaving the moor. At the time of inspection, a DNA sample is taken from each foal to test and prove parentage. It is advisable to check that the breeder is sure which stallion sired the foal, so the chances of an "inconclusive" test is minimised. Results usually take about eight weeks but can take a lot longer so check this out with the breeder.

Foals are a lot easier to socialise and train if they are handled sensitively during their first contact and not hot branded, so therefore have no trauma to overcome. Try to be there at the inspection to see what your foal has experienced, and if possible, arrange to take him home afterwards. It may also be worth attending a foal handling clinic, or Horse Agility workshop, to brush up on your handling skills so you can give your foal the best start without making too many mistakes. Winning the foal's trust is key – Exmoors will reciprocate with a relationship that you will treasure. Positive, trust-based training methods such as "advance and retreat", "pressure and release" and learning the ways that horses communicate with each other, are highly successful with Exmoor ponies and are straightforward to learn. They enjoy loose schooling and liberty work and being given challenges and tasks which enable them to explore, play and use their intelligence to work things out. When good foundation work is achieved, it becomes more straightforward to back Exmoors to saddle.

Anyone interested in buying a Moorland Exmoor Pony foal can contact the moorland farmers directly and ask to attend a gathering, where you can gain first sight of the foals and then return on or after inspection day to purchase your foal. You can also buy a foal from the "in ground" breeders, who handle and socialise their stock before selling them. Most of the gatherings start around October 20, so now is the time to make inquiries to the moorland farmers. I can honestly say that socialising and working with Exmoor pony foals is one of the most rewarding things I have done in my life.

For help in contacting the moorland farmers and information about Exmoor ponies and moorland herds, visit www.equinetourism.co.uk, email marketing@equinetourism. co.uk or call 01643 862785.

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