In 2009, the first foals sired by our stallion Hawkwell Versuvius arrived and what should have been a wonderful experience was marred by the pressure we were put under to have them hot branded. At the time, Exmoor foals had to endure large, agonisingly painful hot branded marks (up to seven) on their shoulders and rump, causing horrible scarring and long-term behavioural issues. As neither of the foals were going to be running out on the moor, we only wanted to microchip them. It took expensive legal advice to confirm that we could not be forced to hot brand our foals. However, as a result of us challenging our right not to hot brand, the breed society's rules were changed.
The campaign to stop unnecessarily hot branding foals (particularly those who were not moorbred) took several years, before DEFRA introduced a Code of Practice in 2014 restricting the practice. During this time, Nick and I became aware of other issues compromising Exmoor pony welfare including high slaughter levels of moorland foals, obstructions to properly registering foals, difficulty in finding good homes for foals and a general despondency amongst some of the moorland farmers/herd owners, some of whom were in despair about the situation.
In 2013, we felt we could do more to help both highlight the issues and work with our fellow farmers to try and improve things. We established our Moorland Exmoor Foal Project to help give some of the foals a good start in life and promote the breed. In that first season, we saved over 20 good quality, pedigree-registerable Exmoor pony foals from being culled. Our main focus that year was one of the free-living moorland herds. Nick and I were horrified to discover that foals from the herds in the wilder areas of Exmoor were being culled, sometimes without being put forward for inspection at all. The farmers were being told that there was no point in registering them as 'there is no market for them'. What these farmers didn't realise was that potential buyers were being told that foals from these herds were 'cross-bred rubbish', 'poor quality' and sired by 'rogue colts', etc, while buyers were being steered to look instead at 'other herds'. After expressing interest in the foals from a particular moorland herd in the summer of 2013, Nick and I were visited by some breed society representatives and experienced what can only be described as a blatant attempt to put us off buying them. The main reason given was that they were likely to be sired by 'rogue colts'.
Shocked at this, we went out to the moor to see the foals for ourselves and spoke with the herd owner, who was sure that the licensed stallion running with the mares was doing his job. The foals looked lovely and we decided to support the herd and buy some of them that autumn, with the view of finding good homes for them in due course. However, when we arrived at the inspection day, the breed society inspectors arrived and announced that they would only take DNA samples and would not be inspecting the foals. (The vet accompanying them told us she had been expecting an inspection too.) Shocked once again, we pointed out that this was highly irregular as it prevented people buying the foals and that the herd owner was unlikely to keep them at the farm for the weeks (or even months) it can take for DNA results to come back, if they were not inspected. Further, yet another inspection would have to be arranged (more cost), where the wild-born foals would have to be grabbed and restrained for a second time, to inspect them. This was not good for the foals or the herd owner. The inspectors would not relent and said the breed society trustees had made this decision at a committee meeting beforehand.
So that day, some of the foals were caught hold of and had DNA samples taken and were microchipped and some did not have DNA taken or receive a microchip. None
of them received a proper physical inspection. We did not want to buy uninspected foals, but we nevertheless purchased four foals that day, otherwise they would have been shot. Two weeks later, the remaining six were scheduled to shortly be culled as there was no sign of DNA results and no buyers willing to take uninspected foals. So we took the remaining six foals into our project. When two more foals were rounded up the following May, we took them as well. We secured the future of all twelve foals. After a long, laborious process, involving considerable resource - of the eleven foals who were DNA tested (one eventual owner didn't want her colt DNA tested), they all turned out to be by the registered stallion! None had been sired by rogue colts. They are all lovely ponies. If we hadn't taken them, they would all be dead.
This particular case highlighted to Nick and I, and other Exmoor farmers and land owners, that there are issues in the Exmoor pony world that need sorting out. The Exmoor National Park Authority had also come to this conclusion and commissioned vet Peter Green to produce a consultation report on The Ponies of Exmoor National Park, which he duly did at the end of 2013. It raised a number of concerns. So, in early 2014, we and a number of other moorland farmers and land owners, including the Exmoor National Park Authority, established the Moorland Exmoor Pony Breeders Group, in response to Peter Green's report. The group's aims are to help improve breeding practices and management, communication, registrations, marketing, promotion, welfare and opportunities for the Exmoor ponies in Exmoor National Park. It has already made remarkable progress.
Also in early 2014, we rescued the starving, orphaned wild-born foal Monsieur Chapeau from the Dunkery Commons and his remarkable story, along with the progress of the Farleywater and other foals, is told in my book Wild Pony Whispering.
Dealing with abuse:
From the moment we established the Moorland Exmoor Foal Project, Nick and I have been subjected to considerable hostility from some people within the breed society, which has included verbal and physical abuse, social media abuse, heckling and intimidation at events - and we have also received poison pen letters, unpleasant 'anonymous' telephone calls, and been subjected to a nasty public campaign to have our memberships terminated from the society. The 'official' reason given for this is that we had taken up too much of the trustees time with our 'complaints'. One of the specific eventual reasons given for terminating our memberships was that Nick had challenged the decision of the Chairman of the breed society at the 2013 moorland foal inspection when he, as one of the inspectors, had refused to inspect the foals. In May 2014, against legal advice, a resolution raised by a number of breed society showing competitors/breeders asking for the trustees to consider terminating our memberships, was put to the vote at the AGM - without Nick and I being given a right of reply to the membership. A one-sided postal vote had been posted out to the members before we were even informed about it. In July 2014 the trustees voted to terminate our memberships without meeting with us or discussing the matter with us - and against the advice of the independent mediator. All of the trustees failed to declare conflict of interest. The trustees will not discuss the matter again until 2019. In the meantime, we are banned from exhibiting our Exmoor ponies at the annual breed show (at which we have twice won the supreme in hand championship) and we have to deal with continual denigration of ourselves, our project and our ponies by breed society officials, officers and members (a recent example being pointed comments within the published material circulated with the breed society's 2017 AGM information ).
Of course, none of this behaviour helps the Exmoor Pony Project and the ponies - and we continue to work to promote positive change so that people who ask searching questions about bad practices cannot be persecuted and discriminated against in the way we have experienced - without suitable recourse. It should perhaps be noted that Nick Westcott's great grandfather was a founding committee member of this breed society in 1921.
Despite this, Nick and I have continued to help herd owners and ponies on Exmoor, across the UK and overseas. We both sit on the Exmoor National Park Exmoor Pony Steering Group, and I sit on the Exmoor Pony DNA Whole Genome Project Team. Nick is Chairman of the Moorland Exmoor Pony Breeders Group, for which I handle PR & Communications, and together we continue to run the Exmoor Pony Project and Holtball Herd 11 Exmoor ponies. Together with other moorland farmers and land owners, we have established the Heritage Exmoor Pony Festival to celebrate and promote the Exmoor ponies of Exmoor National Park. Our stallion Hawkwell Versuvius 'Bear' and I have won two world championships in international horse agility - in which we competed to promote the incredible trainability of Exmoor ponies. I have written two books - Wild Pony Whispering
and Wild Stallion Whispering
- which have topped the equestrian best-sellers lists, and Wild Herd Whispering
is in the pipeline. The Exmoor Pony Project is making a significant, positive difference and we are successfully safeguarding the future and finding good homes for Exmoor ponies, while providing vital help and support to new and existing owners.
Our vision is to work to improve welfare and ease the transition from the moor to good homes for the wild-born ponies, while also encouraging the nurturing of Exmoor ponies in ground - particularly where important genetics can be safeguarded. At the same time we are working to embrace, recognise and give status to the perfectly good Exmoor ponies who are currently excluded from pedigree registration through no fault of their own. We are also encouraging better understanding of socialising, handling, taming, training and managing these very special, intelligent, independent-thinking ponies - and helping people learn how to communicate with and treat them, for better all round results. This starts with the way we treat the ponies (mares and foals) during the autumn gatherings, how we handle them to inspect them as part of their first contact with people, as well as what happens to them thereafter. Part of our work is to educate, inform and promote the breed to the wider world and endeavour to generate interest and enthusiasm in the ponies, drawing more people into the breed. Here on the farm, we are also working to develop the right management systems, studying individual and herd behaviour and working out how the ponies like to live, to best enhance their wellbeing and health. As the ponies mature, they need development and training and we are keen to source the right opportunities for some of them, so that we can continue to help others.
How you can help:
This work requires considerable time and resource and we welcome support, sponsorship and backing for the project. If you would like to support us, then please email firstname.lastname@example.org and you are welcome to contribute using any of the links below. Every contribution helps, no matter how small. There are over thirty ponies here and we are also helping many others - in some cases helping to secure the future of entire Exmoor pony herds. Thank you for your interest in our work and project.
With support, sponsorship and backing, we can do more development work with the ponies here; help more ponies elsewhere; offer more support to herd owners and pony owners; better promote the breed, herds and ponies; organise more talks, demos, workshops, visits, education opportunities; enhance the care of the ponies; improve the facilities and get more help.