Treasuring fond memories of family life on a farm in Sussex, Charlotte Faulkner is no stranger to rural communities and the animals that shape them. Now a pioneering force in securing the future of the Dartmoor Pony, she recalls how it was her “incredible” first Hill Pony Collie who has played a significant role in both her childhood and now her life’s work.
“My mum was found riding the cows on the farm when she was 14, and her dad was so cross with her. He did feel bad for my mum after though, and went and got her a wild pony which arrived in Hastings on a train from Dartmoor.”
A source of great happiness for her mother and later a young Charlotte herself, the pony, named Collie, was known to “put the potatoes back in the bucket if you missed during gymkhana games” and features in many of Charlotte’s childhood memories. It was these memories that sparked Charlotte’s interest in the versatility of the ponies found on Dartmoor and have inspired the work she still does today.
Having grown up around one of Dartmoor’s most iconic residents, it wasn’t long before Charlotte herself came to call Dartmoor home. Moving to the area as her husband Tim became manager of Powderham Castle in Exeter, Charlotte fell in love with the landscape of wild Dartmoor and was anxious to live on the moor itself after realising that “this was where I wanted to be”.
Luckily for Charlotte, her mother soon followed the pair to Dartmoor and fell in love with a derelict farm on the moor that was up for auction. Having restored the beautiful collection of farm buildings, the family ended up calling Dartmoor their home after the farm was bought, much to Charlotte’s delight.
With the farm came grazing rights, which Charlotte’s mother decided to use to house her own Hill Ponies. Attending the sales in Ashburton after moving to the area, Charlotte recalls how as ponies were sold for as little as 50p. “I was absolutely mortified that these icons of my childhood suddenly seemed to have no value.”
It was perhaps this moment that cemented Charlotte’s devotion to the Hill Ponies and her desire to grow their value in the eyes of local people. “When we moved here, I realised there was a problem, I had a young family who I wanted to see enjoy the Hill Ponies, and so I just started from there.”
Noticing the first ‘problem’ in changing the image of the ponies on Dartmoor was their name – ‘unregistered Dartmoors’ – Charlotte coined the term Dartmoor Hill Ponies. From this small step came bigger things however, as the organisation ‘Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony’ was formed soon after to help support the ponies on the moor. Becoming a charity ten years after it began, the group has grown to become an “amazing, incredible support system to support the management of the ponies on Dartmoor and to ensure they are here for our grandchildren in the future”.
“The initial ideas were all some 20 years ago now; back when I was headcollar training and working with the ponies to try and market
them.” Gradually then partaking in the pony drifts, Charlotte’s involvement with all things Dartmoor Hill Pony grew as she became fascinated by Dartmoor life and the pony’s role within it.
Looking back on the 4000 year old role that the Hill Pony has played on Dartmoor, they have been working with the people, alongside cattle and sheep, throughout history. A history that Charlotte and her team are immensely proud of, the charity has been evidencing and showcasing the story of the Hill Ponies through research and exhibitions over the past 3 years, ensuring that people engage with Dartmoor.
With a real passion for wild farming and the contribution the pony provides in securing biodiversity and enabling farm life, Charlotte shares how her understanding of being a Dartmoor commoner has grown since she first arrived here decades ago.
“When I first went to the pony sales I thought I’d want to end them…but then I realised that the sales are such an important part of Dartmoor life and the rhythm of Dartmoor. The sales are intrinsically valuable to the value of the ponies as well, as they are their first chance at a future.”
With Chagford pony sales having taken place this month, Charlotte is proud of the family that has grown around the event, with the strong bond amongst the pony keepers and sellers alike creating a unique atmosphere.
“Our work isn’t just about Dartmoor ponies anymore because on the ground, all the pony keepers work together as one no matter what type of pony they keep.” For Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony, the day “embodies our work and is so important in allowing the community to help in securing the future of the ponies”.
At the charity’s heart, there is a key focus on giving each pony on the moor a value, and as a result Charlotte and Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony’s work has grown to include many different projects and ideas. Involving everyone from the farmers and pony keepers themselves, to equestrians and researchers, a real community of people has been growing around the Hill Ponies.
“I’ve stumbled my way through and learnt as I go with the help of amazing people who impart you with information that makes you just go ‘oh my gosh that’s amazing’!”
At any one point in time, there are at least 10 dedicated people working to maintain the presence and impact of Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony, and a great pool of resources and strengths allow an ever-evolving approach to ensuring the ponies’ future. The charity also plays a role in presenting issues to the government and authorities – with particularly vital work having begun in 2003 in the midst of pony identification laws and passporting requirements.
With many different courses of action, Charlotte tells how the Hill Pony is part of the unique interdependent system that is wild farming, where many elements come together to ensure not only the future of the pony, but also the future of the moors and its communities. Similar to the pony’s role, Charlotte’s charity also uses varying methods to demonstrate and give purpose to the Dartmoor Hill Pony.
Working to show the value of the pony on the moor through research such as genetics and grazing studies, Charlotte has organisations such as Aberystwyth University and Woodbury Common, as well as international research groups to thank for providing evidence of the crucial part the ponies play in maintaining the moor.
For example, ecological studies have shown that the ponies are key in maintaining habitats for rare moorland species such as Marsh Fritillary butterflies, whilst genetic studies have shown that the origins of the Hill Pony may date back as far as the Ice Age and their genes may be important in the future of horse breeding.
Knowing the value of Hill Ponies as riding and driving projects herself, Charlotte also provides a key contact point between Pony Keepers and potential buyers, becoming an intrinsic part of the pony sales and rehoming process. Having begun working with the wild ponies some 20 years ago, Charlotte and her team also take on and support the rehoming of ponies from the moor that aren’t successfully sold or become too much for owners to cope with.
As a result, Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony and their network of contacts help successfully rehome over 400 ponies a year through the ‘Wild to Wonderful’ website, as well as through foreign contacts, where the Hill Ponies are highly sought after in countries such as Germany. “You really can take a pony from Wild to Wonderful and its lovely because at Christmas I get all these cards telling me what the ponies are doing and you think yes, they really do have a value.”
A rewarding process, the Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony have also run a popular therapy scheme since 2001 which allows up to 30 disadvantaged and troubled children to become involved where they may otherwise not have the chance to interact with Hill Ponies.
Giving a platform for young people, the therapy scheme has evolved into a popular display team that attends local events. Charlotte says: “The children work jolly hard all through the winter to be able to show people at events how wonderful the ponies can be when you put the effort in.”
On the flip side, and perhaps more controversial, is Charlotte’s involvement in producing and selling pony meat. A concept which has proven popular with local young farmers, marketing ponies as a meat source allows those who are unsuitable for riding to still have a purpose and monetary value in the eyes of farmers.
Acting as an incentive to keep ponies, the idea is developing alongside Charlotte’s other work and is growing in popularity as a ‘super meat’ with many health benefits. While it may seem strange to some,
Charlotte is clear. “The ponies are allowed to roam free and live longer than any other animal we chose to eat.”
For Charlotte and everyone at Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony, it appears that no one approach will provide a solution to ensuring the ponies’ future. Charlotte’s passion is clear to see as she jokes that a recent trip to Prague for a Wild Equid Conference was her idea of a ‘dream holiday’, and she talks of Dartmoor life, not just the ponies, as a spirit that needs to be preserved for years to come.
Charlotte is also eager, however, to share that it is the people who are behind her work that allow it to evolve at such a pace. “It’s very humbling working with so many kind and enthusiastic people who want to make a difference…it’s all about the Dartmoor Family Spirit.
‘The passion for being allowed to live on Dartmoor and knowing the value of what’s here, and watching it as it’s disappearing, has made us all work harder and harder to ensure we don’t lose the precious things we have. We need to appreciate what we have and not take it for granted, because if we take it for granted, it won’t be here.”