Good-natured and loveable – but hill ponies struggle to find good homes
Behind ever Dartmoor hill pony in the livestock sale ring is an owner praying that they find a good home. Sarah Pitt joined them at Chagford Country Fair and Sale last Saturday
Charlie Caygill used to be a jockey. Now, married with three children, she is engaged in another equine labour of love – raising Dartmoor ponies, bought as tiny foals at the autumn drift sales, as children's ponies.
"There's no money in it," she said smiling, as her children lead the immaculately groomed bay yearling Devon Fudge out of his pen at Chagford livestock market.
"I do it because it is nice to give them a purpose. The Dartmoor ponies that come through the sales are often just going for zoo meat, which is so depressing, horrible really. Yet they make really fantastic children's riding ponies because they have a really fabulous temperament. I think it has something to do with the fact that they have to endure life on the moor, which is pretty hard, it makes them into nice characters."
Unlike the drift sales, when hundreds of this year's foals are brought off the moor, often fetching just 10 guineas (a guinea is £1.05, and is still the currency used) the Dartmoor hill ponies which were sold at Saturday's sale run by Rendells, are a select few. Some, like Mrs Caygill's two, are yearlings, bought from last October's drift sales, while others have been bred from moorland mares with other stallions.
What they all have in common is that they have been trained as riding ponies. Most of them have reserve prices which reflect the work that has gone into them. None of the owners wants to see them go as zoo meat.
Mrs Caygill has put a reserve on both her yearling fillies, Devon Fudge and Purple Heather, and if they don't reach this, she will simply take them back to their stable, at Bridford, a few miles from where she lives with her family, in Moretonhampstead.
"The market is really poor at the moment," she said. "I'm only selling these two at the market today because we are really overstocked, we have 14 ponies at the moment, and I've just had another baby, so I've got a lot on. I normally sell them privately.
"If there is anyone here who will pay good money for them, then I will let them go, but if they don't reach their reserves then we will just take them back and keep them."
Gilly Greenham, from Brixham in the South Hams, has also set a substantial reserve on her Dartmoor gelding Mario, who she rescued as a colt three years ago from a probably fate as zoo food. "He's been living like a thoroughbred in my paddock ever since," she said, well aware that such a comfortable existence is not the fate of most Dartmoor ponies.
The handsome bay, who she has lavished care and attention on, has proved to be too large a riding pony for her young son, so she is reluctantly selling him.
In fact, she's already had an offer for Mario from a neighbour but she's brought him along to the sale anyway in support of the efforts of Charlotte Faulkner of the Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony, who is passionate about giving the ponies a future on the moor.
"This is about showing what can be achieved with this kind of ponies," said Miss Greenham. "As a horse lover, I feel I've saved him from having no life at all."
Mrs Faulkner, from Poundsgate, is herself selling ponies in the sale, in the hope that they will find good homes.
She has spearheaded a project on the moor to give contraception to mares, to reduce the number of unwanted foals. This, coupled with efforts to rear foals from a select few mares – and raise a good price for them as children's ponies – would give farmers with commoners rights a motivation for continuing to graze ponies on Dartmoor.
"When ponies stay on the moor a little longer, if they are on this contraceptive or they are gelded, we can handle them and give them more of a value," she said.
The ponies are important to the ecology of the moor, because they feed on the gorse, keeping the scrub down, but fewer and fewer "commoners" with rights to run ponies on the moor think that it is worth their while.
"I think we shall probably lose another ten farmers this year, and that will bring us down to about 60 farmers grazing ponies on the open common," said Charlotte. "It used to be much higher – when I first started ten years ago, it was probably about 100."
James Cole, from Sowton Down near Okehampton, is one commoner who says he is giving up. He was selling two four-year-old Dartmoor ponies as riding ponies at the sale on Saturday, his four-year-old daughter riding one around the ring. In the event, they fetch reasonable prices, the first 180 guineas, and the second 620 guineas. He has no reserve on them, though, and says he would sell them cheap if he had to, just to get rid of them.
"I'm fed up with it," he said. "I'm giving up my yard in a few weeks' time, and it is sad, but the ones left will go for zoo meat."
From a large family of commoners, he says the costs of raising them as riding ponies is too high. A domestic meat market for unwanted colts, for human consumption, might be the answer, he suggested.
"I think people should start eating them, it is no different to a cow or a sheep," he said. "Eat the worst if you know what I am saying. For a pony like this, you wouldn't want to, because it is a good kid's pony, but there are some that don't come right."
For those who were proudly leading their ponies around the ring, such a fate is just what they hope to avoid.
But, in the event, they were to be disappointed, because with the recession still making itself felt, many ponies did not make their reserve prices.
Charlie Caygill and her children were among those taking their ponies home – the highest offer for Devon Fudge in the ring was 50 guineas, while Purple Heather's highest bid was 60 guineas. "I could sell them for more privately," she said.
Also taking her ponies home was Anne Came of Liverton, who breeds ponies from Dartmoor hill pony mares with bigger stallions. The highest bid for her filly Summerhills Diva, a 15-month-month old filly, was 150 guineas, while her three-year-old gelding Summerhills Gold reached just 70 guineas. Neither price, she feels, reflects the work that goes into them. "I am disappointed, but I was prepared not to sell them for those prices."
Charlotte Faulkner sold two of her prize ponies for the low price of ten guineas apiece, but only because she knew the bidder would give them a good home. She described the sale as "heartbreaking". "These ponies need a market to continue their place on Dartmoor," she said.
With the drift sales in a few weeks' time, Rendells auctioneer Peter Farnsworth said that the poor prices for the yearlings – bought at last year's drift sales and brought on over a year – were a concern.
"It is a worry for the future really, with the drift sales coming up," he said. "People have kept them a year, they are beautiful animals, they have all been trained to be led and people have worked hard on them, and yet there's no money in it. That is the way that the horse trade seems to be at the moment."