In The Nature Of Spring Thoughts

Birth of a foal

I had been walking for several hours on the high moor with my collie Moss when I found the mare. She was alone, and very heavily in foal. I recognised her immediately – it was Pear, one of more than 70 pedigree Exmoor ponies that graze the open acres of Dunkery hill above Porlock.

I often walk more than 20 miles a day to check the ponies, observing quietly from a distance.

Over the years I have got to know their characters well – and they have become used to my presence. Usually, I watch for a while and then move on, but this day was different. I sat down to rest in the heather with my dog a little way off and Pear grazed her way towards me. It was a peaceful spring day and the loudest sound was the gentle, soporific munch as she cropped young shoots of whortleberry.

When she was about 20 feet away, Pear sighed, laid down, and went to sleep. It’s an immense privilege and honour to be trusted in this way by a free-living, unhandled pony. By allowing me to keep watch, she showed she accepted my presence.

While she slept, I kept vigil, my thoughts vanishing in a sense of connection with her and my surroundings.

After about a quarter of an hour, Pear stood up, looked directly at me, sighed heavily once again and turned her rear towards me. I expected her to wander off as she’d had her nap and there would be more things she wanted to nibble. But then she lifted her tail – and revealed a tiny, protruding hoof.

Pear seemed content for me to keep watch over her, a role that usually falls to another mare during foaling. The timing was unusual, these mares generally give birth in the hours of darkness and not in bright sunlight. I kept very still as she laid down once again on her side.

I could see the immense yet silent effort going into the birth. Mares in labour make no sound because that could draw a predator’s attention when they are most vulnerable.

I sat in silence with her, following her every breath. Within three minutes the foal was born, shrouded in the cloudy membrane of her foetal sac.

Exmoor pony mare giving birth to foal. Photo by Tricia Gibson

Seven minutes later the foal’s head and shoulders were free of the caul. Pear stood up, tumbling the foal out of the remainder of the sac and severing the umbilical cord in the process.

It was quite a while before the foal started to attempt to stand. With no control of her spindly legs, she kept falling flat. It was heart-in-mouth time for me watching.

I glimpsed the soft “feathers” covering her sharp hooves; these protect the mother and ensure the sac isn’t breached too early. They shrivel and disappear almost immediately a foal is born.

Exmoor pony foal and mare soon after birth. Photo by Tricia Gibson

What I hadn’t expected was the terror the filly showed when her mother approached and started to lick her. Her instinctive reaction was to move away backwards in crab-fashion, crumpling onto the ground. Pear kept nuzzling and licking, absorbing her scent and cleaning her. As the foal’s coat dried, the fur began to show its lovely rich, warm brown colours.

About an hour and a half later, Pear lay down to rest, and the little foal put her nose to her mother’s nostrils, absorbing her mother’s scent, and breathing in her breath: all was well. When I eventually walked away, the little filly was beginning to suckle, and Pear was on her feet grazing. That year’s foals all had plant names beginning with C, so we called her Ceanothus.

Exmoor pony mare and foal a few hours after birth. Photo by Tricia Gibson

I was given a great gift that day. I’ve seen other foals born since, but never in such proximity. Ceanothus is an adult now – here she is with her own filly foal, Gentian (below).

Exmoor pony mare and her first foal. Photo by Tricia Gibson

On my pony-checking walks I make full records of which ones I see where, who they are with, when the foals are born and which sex they are. Come the autumn inspection when the ponies are gathered from the moor and taken to the farm, my role is to say which foal belongs to which mare, which is easy when I’ve watched them growing up through the spring and summer.

It’s physically hard work walking the moor, especially in harsh weather, with my rucksack packed with camera, water and flapjacks to keep me fuelled. I used to wear a pair of tightly-laced walking boots, but have recently discovered fell runners’ hybrid boots, which are much lighter and grippier. Walking fast between groups of ponies keeps me warm and fit on the rugged moorland ground. And once I’m among the ponies, I’m oblivious to all else.

Exmoor pony stallion on Exmoor. Photo by Tricia Gibson

Tricia Gibson with her yearling stallion at a show

Tricia Gibson is retired and lives on Exmoor. She spends much time walking and taking photographs. Over a decade ago she entered the world of Exmoor ponies when a young mare and new-born foal came close to her. That day led to her owning and showing Exmoor ponies in-hand (led not ridden). The picture shows Tricia with her then yearling colt Westwilmer Euphorbia when he won the youngstock cup at Hawkridge Revels in 2019. He is now a mature stallion – that’s him on the moor in the last photo above.

All photographs © Tricia Gibson, 2023.