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Horse Heaven

When I first heard about the wild ponies in Southern England’s New Forest National Park, I knew I wanted to go and explore the beautiful landscape and its famous four-legged native inhabitants on two wheels.

The easy access by train and abundance of trails make New Forest the perfect place for a quick cycling getaway — my first since England’s lockdown had begun to ease. What better way to end many months of intense COVID restrictions than by cycling with ponies? Luckily, the trip didn’t disappoint.

I’ve learned that if you wait for a clear window of weather in England, you’ll never go anywhere. So despite the forecasted strong wind and heavy rain, my partner and I booked a campsite, packed our bags, and boarded the train to Brockenhurst.

“Do you think we’ll really see ponies?” I asked my partner excitedly as we watched the countryside whiz by through the train window. I soon learned that asking if you’ll see any ponies at New Forest National Park is like asking if you’ll see any bison at Yellowstone (which I embarrassingly did ask before my first visit there several years ago!). It’s basically guaranteed.

Even though I knew what to expect, I couldn’t believe it when we arrived at our campsite and immediately saw a group of ponies roaming freely around the tents, chomping on bits of grass and likely crumbs left by previous campers. My partner and I stood slack-jawed and gawked for a while before realizing that we’d better snap out of it if we wanted any chance of pulling our gaze away from the ponies long enough to make it onto an actual trail.

I learned that the New Forest ponies are not actually wild like I thought but rather owned by locals and allowed to roam free throughout the park. The campground host informed us that the ponies this year were a “new batch” and had not yet developed the habit of rummaging through people’s tents for abandoned scraps of food. Thankfully, this proved to be true, and both our food stores and tent were kept pony-free, although whenever I heard a sound outside the tent during the night, I did wonder if a pony stampede was coming for my last granola bar.

Ponies cluster under a copse of trees along the trail.
Pony stampede not incoming.
Lettie Stratton

After a bit of a sleepless night due to the howling winds and possible impending pony stampede, we hopped on our Kona Mahuna hardtails (conveniently rented from the bike shop right next to the train station), and set off.

We were instructed to give the ponies a wide berth, especially the protective mom ponies with their foals. Although they look friendly, the host said, they’re known to kick and bite. Not keen to add a pony bite to our list of adventure stories, we did indeed give the furry creatures a wide berth while on our bikes. They didn’t so much as glance at us, surely used to seeing all sorts of people come through gawking and pointing at them.

My previous hiking and cycling experience in England has taught me that the country’s take on accurate and helpful signage leaves a bit to be desired. Paths often disappear or simply fail to inform you of which direction to go when faced with an intersection. However, the signage and paths in the New Forest were thankfully clear and easy to follow.

Two bike lie on a dirt path while a cyclist checks her phone for navigation
A wide path through New Forest National Park
Lettie Stratton

What started off as a wide path through an open, pony-strewn field quickly turned into a trail through a thickly wooded forest that smelled of fresh pine in the pounding rain. We pedaled into a strong headwind and heavy rain, and although I often find a bit of a thrill in being outside in bad weather (it heightens the sense of adventure, I suppose), I was more thrilled to find a little forest structure someone had built to eat lunch in, sheltered from the elements.

It was difficult to stay moving on the bikes and not stop every time we saw a particularly cute pony (which was a lot), but we did cover some good ground. We continued on, and it seemed like there was a new landscape to look at around every bend. The trail continued to snake through the woods before opening up to heather-covered fields and a wildlife sanctuary. Eventually, we came out on a beautiful backroad beneath a canopy of trees and followed it back to town.

A cone-shaped hut made of branches shelters the riders during their lunch break
Lunch break away from the wind and rain
Lettie Stratton

We stopped in town for supplies and — you guessed it — there were ponies everywhere there too. They were crossing the road like they owned the place, taking naps next to the road, and even grazing in a roadside ditch. Everywhere I looked there were more ponies. It was amazing.

While this trip surely would have been more enjoyable had the sun been shining, the novelty of being somewhere new after months of sitting in my flat during lockdown, coupled with the uniqueness of cycling amidst forests and fields full of ponies, kept me happy and fortified despite the poor weather. If you’re ever looking for an easy-to-access and unique place to ride your bike, New Forest is a great choice.
 

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