The New Forest is a peculiar place. Blanketed by mist off the sea, its flat miles of gorse and woodland are broken up here and there by wide expanses of heath. There is water in the spongy soil; the air smells of mud and dead leaves.
The park is known for its “ponies,” which amble around freely and slowly. We stayed on New Forest’s edge for three nights as we prepared to ship our car home, taking a few trips into its interior. We weren’t really looking for anything in particular, and the horses captured our attention and imagination.New Forest was formed in 1079 by William the Conqueror as a royal park in which the king and his court could hunt and raise game. Some number of households were displaced when this happened, and the resettled families were given a kind of grazing right for their animals. Although the land is now public, these rights have persisted until the present - anyone who owns one of the houses granted permission is allowed to pasture animals in the New Forest, even if they have just purchased the land.
The horses are really considered ponies, but they're generally quite large. Since 1930, they've been purebred, and are prized for their hardiness and gentle constitutions - the breed has been spread through much of the world, though it's often mislabeled or not recognized.
In a pub one night, we asked about the animals. The patrons there regarded them more as a nuisance - a traffic hazard - than an attraction, but recognized their uniqueness. “It’s hard to believe,” one man said, “but they tell them apart by the cut of their tails.”As it turns out, he was partially correct. A peculiar British authority exists, called the "Verderers," to administer parkland that was once owned by the crown. In the New Forest, the Verderers are tasked with annually cutting the tails of the grazing horses in special layers, to make note of which areas they are supposed to graze in. Because the park's ecosystem is rather fragile, gates and fences have been set up to keep specific animals in separate sections. The owners of the horses brand or ear-tag their livestock to show ownership.
We were amazed, initially, to find these almost feral animals in the park. A sign by one gate proclaimed, in large letters, "Ponies don't dent - they die!" There was something very British about the forest and the animals, something medieval, quaint and foggy. We were left with an impression of dulled color and indistinct edges, like a watercolor that has run together.