We asked Andrew Lever to discuss the wild and sensitive nature of these New Forest ponies and why they are his source of inspiration.
Two years ago, the New Forest ponies in Southern England went viral when a herd of horses appeared to mourn the loss of a nine-year-old mare who had been hit by a car. After she died, several other horses gathered around her body and stood watch throughout the night.
For many locals, it served as a poignant reminder of the importance of respecting — and protecting — these semi-feral animals, who have roamed the New Forest landscape for more than 2,000 years.
Andrew Lever, an artist based in Bournemouth, knows these world-famous ponies better than most. He visited them as a child, and as an adult, he’s returned to them often, sometimes for weeks at a time. The New Forest ponies, numbering around 5,000, are unusual in the sense that they’re owned by people — the New Forest Commoners — but are free to explore the forest as they wish.
Lever has seen up-close the powerful bonds that form between these horses as they navigate a lush and magical landscape. And, for him, they’ve become an enduring source of inspiration. We asked him to tell us more about these wild and sensitive animals.
Shutterstock: When did you first learn about the New Forest, and, of course, the ponies?
Andrew Lever: “I was aware of the New Forest ponies from a young age. On weekends, my mother would take my brother and me there for picnics and days out. We were excited whenever we saw these herds of horses roaming the forest and the small villages in that region.’
“The New Forest was created as a Royal Forest for the Royal Hunt by William the 1st in 1079. It is the perfect place for long walks and cycle rides. The only sounds to be heard are those created by nature. The landscape is beautiful and varied, consisting of forests, lakes, grassland, and bogs.’
“Apart from the summer months, when the New Forest receives many visitors, the area can be uncrowded. One can take long walks away from the allocated trails and not bump into anyone else. The environment is a paradise for any lover of nature. At a size of 566 square kilometers, this area is home to all kinds of wildlife, including deer, cows, rabbits, pigs, birds, and insects. ”
SSTK: What does daily life look like for the ponies? What separates them from horses who are 100 percent wild?
AL: “Daily life for the New Forest ponies consists of grazing, resting, and sleeping. The horses have a daily routine and rhythm where they seem to do the same thing every day at the same time. At dusk, they gather together and make their way to sleep at a place of shelter, which is usually under the trees.’
“The forest ponies are semi-feral. Usually, they have little or no contact with people. Some of them can be friendly enough to be stroked at times, where others can kick and bite if approached. The Commoners are the owners of the ponies and pay annual marking fees for each pony. Agisters are employed to take care of any day-to-day issues involving the horses. This is what separates them from being 100 percent wild.”
SSTK: What has been your most memorable experience with the ponies?
AL: “Several years ago, there was a summer where I spent a great deal of time with a particular herd of horses in the New Forest. It actually started in springtime, and I photographed this thirteen-strong group of horses two or three days a week, just waiting and watching their daily behavior and taking pictures while doing this.’
“My goal was to get some images of horses that were different from what I had seen before. The more time that I spent around them, the closer I could get to them, and the more intimate the pictures would be. The herd was wary of me when I first started to photograph them, but as the days rolled on, they really seemed to accept me as one of the herd.’
“At the beginning of spring, the mares of the herd were starting to give birth to their foals. Although I did not witness an actual birth, I was around very soon after to see these beautiful young animals. Usually, the mothers of these newborns are very protective of them and do not let any other horses or people near to them. But, to my surprise, they allowed me to come right next to them, where I could photograph the foals in close proximity.’
“It was thrilling for me and I felt privileged to be able to do this. I found myself laying on the grass with them and, in some cases, leaning my head against them. This taught me a great deal about animals. If they trust you, they accept you.”
SSTK: Do the horses within a herd form strong relationships with one another? And, have you witnessed any of these friendships?
AL: “There is a definite hierarchy within a herd and very strong bonds exist between all of them. They are highly sensitive animals and are hyper-aware of everything going on around them. They can communicate with body gestures, vocally, or even with their ears, which, in effect, act as flags or signals, depending on which position they are in. Most of us know to keep away from horses whose ears are turned back.”
SSTK: What are the biggest challenges facing these horses today? Are cars and human activity still a threat to them?
AL: “There are several roads that run through the New Forest, and, although there is a speed restriction, horses do lose their lives or get injured by cars, especially at night time. Just recently, reflective collars have been put on many of the ponies to prevent these accidents from happening.”
SSTK: What has your time with the New Forest ponies taught you?
AL: “Photographing horses has taught me to be patient. It can take many hours, days, or weeks to take a great picture of them. They can often do surprising things or nothing at all. So, you have to wait and wait and watch and be ready when you see something special that would make a good image.’
“I usually wait for horses to approach me. They are naturally curious when they see me and want to work out what I am and what I smell like. Once they realize I am no threat to them, they just accept me and let me hang around with them.’
“If I do approach a herd or horse, I walk very slowly, stopping and frequently looking at the ground or away in another direction, pretending that I am not interested in them. This almost always works and allows me to get close to them.”
SSTK: You’ve photographed so many animals (and people) from around the world, but horses seem to be a subject you return to again and again. Why do you think this is?
AL: “My early memories of horses were from my childhood. Our family had a beautiful white horse called Saint who was our pride and joy. As an adult and photographer, I have found out that just being around horses is good for me.’
“There is an aura of calm that comes from them and soaks into me, leaving me feeling relaxed. I think it is similar for people who get close to dolphins. They say that they feel different somehow after their encounter.’
“I have spent many hours throughout the winter in rain and snow to create an original horse image. I especially like photographing horses in the snow. The forest turns into a beautiful white landscape, which can make for fairy tale-like pictures.’
“I truly believe that I have a natural affinity with horses, and that helps me connect with them. I am not saying that I am a horse whisperer, but other people have noticed this in me as well. My childhood growing up with a horse has shaped my life and also my photographic career. I find myself grabbing my camera whenever I see one of these stunning animals.”
You can learn more about Andrew Lever and his work by visiting his Offset portfolio, website, print gallery, Instagram, and Tumblr. He continues to visit and photograph the New Forest ponies several times a year.
Cover image by Andrew Lever.
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