All of the New Forest ponies found in the forest are wild in the sense they can roam freely. However, all the ponies are owned by New Forest people known as Commoners.
The Commoners have the right to graze their ponies and cattle on the open forest throughout the year. It is the animals’ grazing which helps to develop and preserve the New Forest’s landscape.
Grazing and browsing by the ponies preserves the open heathland habitat that supports rare plant species including 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 shallow water-filled hoof prints of ponies (and cattle) nearby to New Forest streams.
Commoning and drifts
The ancient tradition of commoning dates back from before the days of William the Conqueror. He made this area his private hunting reserve and imposed strict laws on the locals. In return for this, the locals were given the rights to graze their animals on the ‘common’.
Each year, the ponies are rounded up in what are called drifts. Over thirty of these drifts take place during the summer and autumn. In this way, the commoners get a chance to check the health of their animals and to wean and handle the foals.
Verderers and Agisters
Verderers are the officials responsible for administering and protecting the New Forest’s unique agricultural and commoning practices . And for conserving the landscape and wildlife.
Five ‘agisters’ are employed by the Verderers to watch over the forest stock and ensure that the owners meet the requirements of the Verderers in respect of stock welfare. The Agisters attend road accidents and other incidents involving Commoners’ animals. They also deal with injured animals at the scene and humanely destroy the animal if necessary. They arrange the “drifts” when the ponies are rounded rounding up.
New Forest ponies played an important role in the smuggling activities that were widespread in the New Forest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Smuggled goods such as brandy, tobacco, tea and silks were landed along the coast in small boats. The contraband was then taken inland to secret hiding places using the ponies as pack animals.
Nowadays the ponies are in demand as intelligent and sure footed children’s ponies.