Winner of the wild, bold and eccentric New Forest Point to Point, ex-Royal Clerk and Vogue features writer. Hicky Gibbs lives in Beaulieu.
The New Forest National Park has over 3000 wild ponies living wild within the boundary. Ponies have been part of the living landscape here for over 2000 years. They are interwoven into the culture and joy of life here. None more so than the Gibbs family of Beaulieu.
When did you start your equine love affair?
So what happened next?
My first job took me to London answering fan mail for the Royal Wedding of The Prince and Princess of Wales, it was a wonderful and happy time. Regrettably ‘though, the only riding I was able to do was with the Honourable Artillery Company at The Royal Mews and at Larkhill. It was, however, my equine fix!
I then worked at Vogue under the new editorship of Anna Wintour in the 1980’s. I was brought in to work with Features Editor, Emma Soames. Again, it was mainly horse free but by this time my parents had retired to the New Forest and had a couple of horses which I was able to ride at weekends. As anyone will tell you, hacking in the New Forest is second to none. It is breathtaking and exquisite.
So you next horse was a New Forest pony?
Ha! No! We bought ‘Pete the Feet’ for my husband Simon to ride. His experience with horses was the polar opposite to mine. He was stuck on a horse in the Argentine and told to be useful. Evidently he was because he was meant to be there for three months but stayed for three years!
Pete was a good old Irish type, leg-at-each-corner. He had soup plates for feet. He came to us as a four year old and had a wonderful long life with us as a family horse, hunting and hacking across the Forest. He died two years ago aged 26, we were all heartbroken.
So then a New Forest Pony?
We have been lucky enough to have had several New Forest ponies. Our first, very special New Forest pony was Posy, aka Willoway Piper’s Delight. The Willoway Stud has become very well known worldwide and their elite stallion, Peveril Peter Piper, has sired some of the best competition ponies around. Posy was one of those ponies that everyone wanted. She made Flora, our daughter’s childhood, amazing. She was naturally trainable, kind and talented. Flora did so much with her over the years, including both Pony Club and Riding Club teams, had national success in Working Hunter, show jumping and eventing. She also won the New Forest Point to Point children’s race aged 10. That was an amusing day as she got very lost and had to gallop though the car park and under the spectators’ ropes which some kind person held up for her and a couple of others, losing a stirrup in the process but still managing to come in to win! Posy is 25 now and still going strong. We were very lucky to have her.
New Forest ponies can look very different. Height, colour, confirmation? Tell us more.
There are two ways of breeding New Forest ponies. There are those that run free on the National Park, which are owned by Commoners. They are known as ‘Forest bred’. Or, you get stud bred ponies and this is where the owners choose a particular stallion for their mare. They are usually kept at home. Over the years, there have been efforts to raise the quality of New Forest ponies turned out on the Forest (National Park) with the introduction of other breeds, most notably, Arab, Welsh and Thoroughbred. This has made them hardy, robust and athletic. Nowadays for a stallion to run out on the Forest they have to go through a rigorous selection process. Top quality New Forest ponies whether they are Forest or Stud bred can also be put through a performance grading scheme in dressage and jumping. The results are that ponies are of quality and this has benefited the breed which has over the years has suffered a massive decline in numbers.
For a New Forest pony to be fully registered with the Breed Society, it must be 12hh-14.2hh (hands in an Old English measurement of the width of a man’s hand- 4 inches across. ) They are usually a solid colour, with no white markings on the body and certainly no white above the knees and hocks. The New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society website is very good. It’s the best place for more information.
There is a three-day County Show at New Park, Brockenhurst at the end of July every year. It draws competitors nationally, as well as locally, and competition within the in hand and ridden classes is immense. The native breed working hunter classes see the very best performance ponies with the winner going through to HOYS (Horse of the Year Show) at the NEC, Birmingham.
Tell us about the lovely grey pony here in the stable …
He is a genuine ‘forest bred’ New Forest pony and ran out up at Hilltop (just outside of Beaulieu). He is out of our Agister, Robert Maton’s mare and is branded accordingly. We bought him as a youngster after he had been sold through Beaulieu Road Sales. He was pretty much unrideable, ‘raw’ and ‘green‘. We trained him over the years and put much time and energy in to him. Flora and I worked on him together. Robin was brilliant at cross country, he was like an Exocet missile. Flora and Robin were regular competitors for the New Forest Enthusiasts Riding Club and represented them both individually and in a team. His talent took him to championships at Royal Windsor Horse Show and Festival of The Horse in Aston Le Walls.
He has won the New Forest Point to Point twice, once with Flora and then with me.
Tell us more about this Point to Point? I hear that it’s the last original P2P in Britain.
The New Forest Point to Point is, I believe, the only true remaining race of its kind in the country which runs runs over wild, unprepared ground, crossing the National Park from point A to point B. The race is run in a new area on Boxing Day every year. It’s a ‘win or nothing’ race and is fiercely competitive. No one knows where it will be until the day before the race. There is much secrecy surrounding the course and even though competitors are given information regarding the area in which the race will take place, no one knows where the exact start and finish will be. On Christmas Day, competitors phone in for a recorded message detailing the approximately start location and where to ‘unbox’ your pony (competitors arrive with the mounts in either horse lorries or trailers). There is huge sense of excitement and anticipation. I am in no doubt it is far more worrying being a family spectator than a competitor! My husband Simon was unbelievably nervous and useless! I think he was more worried about Robin than me!
Once you have been unboxed your pony and declared (registered your arrival) the competitors are escorted by mounted stewards down to the start. They start with no one around them except the open Forest and the official starter. The race is run across the National Park and is unprepared. It is not for the faint hearted! You cross unchartered terrain and have to anticipate bad ground, crossing bogs, streams, ditches and ducking through low trees at high speed. Adults run along a course of approximately three miles from start to finish; children and veterans do the shorter stretch of approximately one-and-a-half miles. Often the weather and ground conditions can be hazardous and both you and the pony come back covered from head to hoof in mud! It was mind-blowing. After months of preparation to get Robin racing fit, it was a relief we both came back safe and sound. I still pinch myself to this day that we actually won! It was a Bucket List achievement.
Do you see wild ponies from the roads here?
Yes all the time and not just ponies, there are also donkeys, cattle and, in the Autumn, pigs that run out on the Forest. There are also several species of wild deer. It is heartbreaking to see ‘hit and run‘ accidents when they are so avoidable. Animals are unpredictable and there is a 40 mile an hour speed limit in the National Park. And for good reason. I would ask anyone visiting the Forest to please respect it. Without the ponies and the good will of the Commoning Community for allowing their stock to run out, the New Forest would not be the beautiful and unique place that it is.