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Lisa Unleashed: Riding Among England's New Forest Ponies



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You're never too old to write about what you did on your summer vacation. As I headed to England this summer, my anticipation of doing anything horse and hound related mounted. I spent hours surfing the internet in search of a perfect experience. There is just something different about the culture of canines and equines across the pond. One goal was to go horseback riding - not the nose-to-tail walking at such a slow paced you scream with boredom type, but the exhilarating, breathtaking, memorable one.Riding OutLisa Peterson writes about history, horses, and hounds at lisaunleashed.com. You can reach her at lisa.peterson@barngirlmedia.com.

I found my ultimate riding gig was a "forest hack" in the New Forest, virtually unchanged in its landscape over the last one thousand years. It all began in 1079 when William the Conqueror claimed the area as his new hunting forest. The system established to protect and manage the woodlands and wilderness heaths are still in effect today. There are officials, livestock experts, and land owners (about 300 commoners) who own and mange approximately 6,000 semi-feral ponies, cattle, and donkeys that roam and shape the ancient land. They are everywhere, from the forest to the front of the pub on the main road.

As I approached by train from Basingstoke to Brockenhurst, I looked out the window and saw immediately where the forest begins - where the grazed grass among birch glades and fern beds leaves a smooth finish everywhere you look. And because this ecological maintenance helps with flora and fauna, there are many rare plant and animal species here. According to thenewforest.co.uk there are, "wild gladiolus and chamomile. This in turn helps the wider ecosystem and encourages other species to thrive here, including the Dartford warbler and the southern damselfly. In fact, the southern damselfly lays its eggs in the water-filled hoofprints of ponies (and cattle) nearby to the streams that pass through the New Forest." I even saw a black and white magpie hopping about.

After a 10-minute taxi ride from the train station, I reached Ford Farm Stables, early as usual, and waited for my adventure. Sitting on a bench, I took in the morning routine of the horse yard. An elegant New Forest pony, perhaps one of the stallions, turned out in the paddock near me, loads of manure in wheelbarrows heading to points unseen passed me, and young, fit women lead well-groomed and well-fed horses from their stalls to the mews to be tacked up. They even applied hoof oil, so each stride would sparkle.

There were five of us on a wonderful two-hour journey. I befriended a retired couple from the Midlands, one riding a stunning big-boned black and white Irish Cob named Jimmy and the other astride Chip, a chestnut Irish Sport horse. The Irish Cob breed features white feathering on his legs, just like the Budweiser Clydesdales. I rode Dom (yes, like the Champagne, I decided), a bay, retired polo pony whose mane had been clipped down to the crest of his neck. No holding on to the mane in case of emergency here.

Across the street and we were off. We were engulfed by forest moorlands, heathlands, and woodlands. A brisk wind that day, with heavy cloud cover and cooler temperatures, gave us perfect riding weather. Almost immediately, we saw our first herd of "New Foresters," with about 20 ponies and three foals, one so tiny, it looked barely a week old. It appeared as if someone had let their stuffed horse out into the herd, with its bristle mane; large, dark eyes; and stubby, brushy tail. They come in a variety of colors, bay, blacks, browns, chestnuts, roans, and even white. I wanted to take photos, but I'd have had to take off my glove, take my phone out of my zipped jacket pocket, and then hold the reins in one hand, while trying to shoot with the other... oh, forget it; the moment had passed by the time I wrangled my smartphone. So instead, I just enjoyed the scenery, the fast-paced ride, and the clean forest air coming up from the southern coast.

As trail rides go, this one was full of movement, trotting across the open landscape, cantering to catch up to the leaders, with walking respites between. Our trail guide rode a New Forest pony, and when she saw a herd, she neighed loud and long to them - like an ancestral song that only the ponies know. There were ferns and low spiked-leaf bushes dotting the landscape from horizon to horizon. The ponies never grow taller than these shrubs. As we walked by on a dirt trail, I spotted three bay rumps nestled near the thistle. Heads down grazing beneath the scrub, nature made them grow only as tall as the bushes to camouflage their whole bodies; while heads are down to eat, no predators can easily see them. So quiet were they, I didn't even hear them from 15 hands up on Dom.

Before we headed home, our trail-leading pony got spooked by a massive, shaggy, horned steer the color of a gingersnap cookie. We gave him a wide berth as we sought out one last swath of rolling green grass that cried out for a fast run. Dom and I started out calm, and about two stride later, we hit polo speed! You know, polo ponies have two gaits: walking and flat-out polo galloping. Dom thought he would show me what he used to do during a competitive chukker. The only thing missing was a mallet. Wind spanking my cheeks, thundering hooves beneath, no need to tighten the reins, Dom wasn't slowing down. Loved. Every. Minute.

Lisa Unleashed author Lisa Peterson astride her fearless polo pony, Dom.
Three New Forest ponies make a pub visit in the village of Brockenhurst.
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