Before we can talk about the New Forest itself, I have to let you know a horrible fact. There are no wild horses. Bono may have sung, “Who’s going to ride your wild horses?” to stadiums full of people swaying under lighters in the night, but that doesn’t make wild horses a thing. They don’t really exist.
I know this because as we were driving through the New Forest on our way to Bournemouth for the first time in mid January, I told my beloved that it was my dream to see the wild ponies of the New Forest. He replied with exasperation, “There are no wild horses.” Dream killer.
We had had this conversation before, probably twice. It’s just that I didn’t want to believe it. Horses were just too useful for their own good. Wild horses make up the species called Equus ferus, with subspecies divided into domesticated horses (Equus ferus caballus) and undomesticated horses (Tarpans, Equus ferus ferus, and Przewalski’s Horse, Equus ferus przewalski). The Tarpan became extinct in the 19th century. In 1945, only nine Przewalski’s Horses remained alive, all of them in captivity. Today there are small numbers of Przewalski’s horses in nature reserves in Mongolia, China, Russia and Hungary thanks to the success of an in-captivity breeding program carried out by the Zoological Society of London, in conjunction with Mongolian and Chinese researchers.
Most of the horses we consider “wild,” are actually herds of feral horses descended from domesticated ancestors – the Mustang in the United States, the Brumby of Australia and the Wild Ponies of the New Forest. But you know what? The New Forest Ponies are wild enough for me. And anyways, who wants to sing along to, “Who’s going to ride your feral horses?” It’s just not the same.
So where were we. Oh, right. The New Forest. At the beginning of March we were once again staying in Bournemouth, only this time with a hiking backpack! Less than an hour from Bournemouth, the New Forest is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB – this is a real thing in the UK), with miles and miles of walking paths criss-crossing its heaths, mires and woodland pastures. Plus, it has wild* ponies! It was an obvious day trip.
The afternoon we arrived, the clouds were gathering overhead, and the heath stretched out around us in every direction. Tourists clustered around the parking lot, twittering with delight at the more brazen ponies, nosing their way into backpacks and under coats searching for a carrot or an apple. For all of my excitement about wild* ponies, it was a bit unnerving to actually meet one, face to face. (Immediately preceding this photo I’d thrown myself behind J and announced that if the pony attempted anything he was going to take the brunt of it. Bravery, I’ve got it.)
The walk itself was breathtakingly beautiful. There was something about the combination of the silence and the grey blue green ash colors of the heath and the magical presence of wild* ponies that elevated what looks like a soggy slog through mud into an afternoon that I hope I always remember.
Towards the end of the hike we decided to let Leo out so that he could “hike” with us. As anyone with a small child can attest, walking is less about the virtue of carrying oneself from Point A to Point B and more about picking up every single stick and jumping in every single puddle and stopping to inspect every single piece of garbage. Or, in this case, treasuring every single iota of dried animal poo (we think deer?).
I absolutely love this photo. My two favorite people, on one of my favorite afternoons. The thing is, if you were there, you would know that while Leo trudged along he was cradling a small chickpea-sized kernel of dried deer poo like it was the Hope Diamond while coo’ing “poo poo….poo poo.” At one point he dropped his poo, and we could not go further until we’d found it (thank goodness dried deer poo is plentiful in the New Forest!). Later, his poo got stuck in his sweater. Drama ensued. While you might think that the whole poo situation really killed the romance of the afternoon I am here to tell you that it did not. It just made it…interesting and hilarious. #parenting
The moral of this blog post is that sometimes dreams come true even if there are no wild ponies and you lose your sh*t. Ha!