FEATURE: The Moorland Exmoor Foal Project

DAWN Westcott with Monsieur Chapeau, the newest edition to Holt Ball. PHOTO: Tricia Gibson.

DAWN Westcott with Monsieur Chapeau, the newest edition to Holt Ball. PHOTO: Tricia Gibson.

First published in News This is The West Country: Photograph of the Author by

A PROJECT to help find homes for wild Exmoor foals is proving there is a strong demand for them, as long as they are given the right preparation and treatment.

Launched by Nick and Dawn Westcott, Exmoor pony breeders and founders of the Exmoor Pony Club, the Moorland Exmoor Foal Project has been thriving over the past few months.

The couple buy the foals from the herd owners and train them at their farm, Holt Ball, to become socialised using trust-based methods of horsemanship before finding them good homes.

To many, the prospect of taking on a completely wild foal can be daunting, and Dawn helps not just the foals but the new owners too.

Most moorland herd owners are not set up to socialise and train wild foals before selling them.

If suitable buyers don’t emerge soon after the gathering and inspecting, their futures can look bleak.

Dawn said: “It’s worth remembering that until they are gathered these foals live in huge ‘wild’ moorland areas with their herds, with little interaction and interference from humans.

“It’s a complete shock to them to be brought in and abruptly weaned from their mothers, to lose their siblings and lifestyle, while their first contact with humans is being forcibly restrained and examined.

“The experience can leave them frightened so patient socialisation needs to take place to win their trust.”

The old methods for taming wild foals includes shutting them away in a dark stable, often for up to a month, and restraining them.

While that will certainly subdue a foal, it’s not the best way to win their trust and can lead to ongoing behavioural problems and fear-based responses like kicking.

This is The West Country:

TOPAZ learning to accept being touched with the feather duster, with Dawn Westcott. Photo: Tricia Gibson. 

“We appreciate that these foals are used to living free and we help them understand that, although this is no longer possible, if they can adapt, they can still have a great life,” Dawn added.

When the foals arrive at Holt Ball, they live in large barn enclosures together and one of their first lessons is to learn what a food bowl is.

They are also taught to come back in from the pasture when asked.

This then progresses to short handling sessions, where they first learn to accept being in a smaller enclosure with a human.

Dawn explains: “This can be daunting for the foals initially, and we use a technique called ‘Advance and Retreat’ to teach them that this is a two-way communication and that they are listened to.

“When they understand that they can stop us from approaching and even get us to take a step away when they give us their attention, they gradually stop hiding their faces away, and turn to look at us.

“With some foals this can take time while other foals will be keen to interact straight away.

It takes the time it takes and there are no shortcuts to doing the job properly.”

Socialisations are kept short and over time, as the foal gains more trust, more interaction can take place such as brushing or introducing a head collar.

“Although this process takes longer you end up with a much calmer and trusting pony that is less likely to have fear-based reactions and responses,” Dawn said.

This is The West Country:

LADY Stumpkin learning to accept a head collar with Dawn Westcott for the first time. Photo: Tricia Gibson. 

And it’s not just the foals who need to be taught – potential owners also need to acquire new skills to deal with them successfully.

Sensitivity, patience, consistency in communication and being aware of the foal’s responses and how they are feeling are all musts, according to Dawn.

Keeping your adrenalin down is important too, even if theirs rises; it is important to stay calm.

Of the 19 foals helped so far, 13 are already in new homes.

The latest addition to the project is Monsieur Chapeau, a foal spotted in a weak and malnourished state in a forested coombe on the Dunkery Commons by Tricia Gibson.

Realising the foal was in danger, she contacted the Westcotts who went out to find him.

“He was orphaned and had been trying to fend for himself,” said Dawn.

“We weren’t sure which of the two herds running out on Dunkery he was from but both herd owners were happy for him to join the project so we bought him here to recover.”

The first few weeks were ‘touch and go’ as he had pneumonia as well as being in poor condition.

But he has responded well to treatment and is making a good recovery as, Dawn believes, he realised the couple were trying to help him.

This is The West Country:

I MADE friends with Monsieur Chapeau after learning a few techniques from Dawn. He was so lovely! Photo: Tricia Gibson. 

Tricia Gibson, a keen wildlife photographer and Exmoor pony herd watcher, has spent the last two years following the Westwilmer Herd Exmoor ponies which run on the Dunkery Commons.

Last spring Tricia saw foals being born and felt a special connection to two of them – Speedwell, a filly, and Pippin, a colt.

She arranged to buy them, even though both she and her husband, Peter, were a little apprehensive Tricia said: “When I met Dawn with her stallion Hawkwell Versuvius at the Exmoor Pony Society’s annual stallion parade and watched the incredible connection between them, I knew that this was the way I wanted to learn to work with my two foals.”

She attended workshops at Holt Ball, where her two ponies also went for their initial socialisation.

Tricia added: “Since coming home in early December, Pippin and Speedwell have continued to grow in confidence and size and are doing really well.”

Tricia continues to go over to Holt Ball every week to help with other foals and photograph their development.

This is The West Country:

TRICIA Gibson with Pippin, one of the moorland foals she bought. Photo: Tricia Gibson.

Dawn hopes more people like Tricia will step forward to work with the foals with the hopes of finding them homes.

The Moorland Exmoor Foal Project is unfunded and prices achieved for the foals do not cover the cost of purchase, training, keep and re-homing.

The project relies on the generosity of volunteer help, donations and support.

Dawn added: “It’s thoroughly worthwhile to see these foals get a good start in life. “They just need a helping hand to get from living free on the moors to finding the right homes so they can enjoy a successful life.”

For more information on the Moorland Exmoor Foal Project and forthcoming equine workshops at Holt Ball, visit www.ExmoorPonyClub.co.uk.

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