How to Photograph Wild Ponies in the UK
If you have walked in our national parks, or even wandered through some nature reserves, there is a good chance you may have encountered a pony or two. The UK has a number of free-roaming ponies that can be found in most regions, from the south of England to the far northern reaches of Scotland, the mountains of Wales, and across the sea into Ireland.
Contrary to popular belief, these ponies are not really wild. We do not actually have any truly wild ponies anywhere in the UK and Ireland. There is a person or organisation behind each pony who owns, cares, and pays for them.
Ponies are usually in a wild space for one of two reasons. Firstly, many breeds have been historically developed in a certain region, such as the Exmoor ponies of Exmoor, and the Fell ponies of the Lake District. These ponies have ancient origins in these places, and their owners have some form of historic commoners’ grazing rights on the land. Secondly, in other places such as nature reserves, ponies are often introduced to perform conservation grazing and help give biodiversity a boost.
The ponies in all of these places exhibit varying degrees of tameness; some will take flight as soon as they see a person, and others will walk right up to you. The single most important thing to remember when around these animals is that you must never, ever feed them, no matter how tempting it might be. You could make them fatally ill, or get accidentally trampled, bitten, or kicked. It could even lead to them being involved in road traffic accidents, and conservation ponies may stop grazing as they wait to be handed treats instead.
Finding ponies near you
Most breeds of free-roaming ponies are conveniently named after the place they are from, and this is where they can still be found. The Dartmoor, Exmoor, and New Forest ponies are the best-known examples, and they can be located relatively easily due to their abundance in popular visitor areas.
Other breeds like the Fell pony can be harder to track down due to the way they are hefted: there is greater management of herds by breeders in order to to keep them together and in capped numbers. No unknown breeding takes place in the Lake District as stallions are not allowed to roam the public space.
Another way of finding ponies near to you (and in beautiful settings) is to look for a nature reserve that might use ponies for conservation grazing. The RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, and National Trust are examples of organisations known to do this.
Ponies are usually roaming all year round. There are some exceptions when owners may move them, especially in conservation schemes. However, most nature reserves will mention if the ponies are present or not. It is usually fairly easy to find some ‘wild’ ponies within a drive of an hour or two, so they present a wonderful subject to photograph all year round.
Recommended equipment for wild pony photography
Personally, I like to pack light when working with ponies as they will often move around, especially just after you have just got yourself set up. The last thing you want to be doing is hauling a tripod around (mainly because it may spook the ponies, but also because it is exhausting)!
I usually have one camera with a telephoto and wide-angle lens that I chop and change around depending on what scene presents itself. Flexibility is key with ponies, and you’ll often find you’ve ended up drifting a fair distance from where you started.
Read more: What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?
Now that you have located some possible ponies, it’s time to grab the camera and head out. Depending on the location you could spend a bit of time searching for them, especially as they can blend into vegetation very well. As aforementioned, ponies do vary in approachability and tameness, so your experience will vary depending on where you go. It is important to remember that a pony is a large prey animal with the fight or flight instinct ingrained into them.
Make sure the ponies have an escape option should they wish to move away, as they will usually take the path of least resistance. If the ponies repeatedly move away from you (even at walk), this means that they have usually had enough attention and want to be left alone. Take the pressure off and try some wider landscape shots or use a zoom lens.
Other things to be mindful of include not swinging your bag around as it may cause fright and, if you have a tripod, to set it up calmly when you’re in position, rather than carrying it around erected. Tripod legs can appear very threatening and will often spook ponies. Some ponies may approach you to have a sniff; this can be quite a daunting experience, and it is important not to panic.
If they approach, lift your arms and step towards them and they should back away. Stay away from foals, and try to stick to the outside of any group of ponies. Once again, the single most important thing is to not feed them, for their safety and yours.
Setting up your shots
Ponies provide such a huge variety of angles and styles: from wide-angle landscape shots to extreme close-ups – the choice is huge. I will often observe the herd for a few minutes and look for certain characters, or any detail that the landscape presents. Fortunately, ponies who are not initially scared away will often provide a fairly long opportunity for you to consider your scene, giving you time to experiment.
Here are the six main things I consider as I approach a group of ponies.
I will watch the ponies interact for a few minutes, and look out for one who is perhaps more alert or active. Most of the time the majority of the ponies are grazing with their heads down and, no matter what you do, they will not look up. Hopefully there will be one or two doing something different, like grooming or playing. Sometimes they might even be interested in who you are.
These are the ponies I will aim to capture, as their character will come across in the images. Sometimes a pony might just have an extreme ‘look’, such as a long flowing mane that is too irresistible to ignore, especially if there is some wind in the air.
I always keep an eye out for the behaviour of the ponies. This is primarily for safety, as it can indicate if you’re stood in a place that is about to be occupied by a pony. Secondly, behaviours and interactions are what create the most special moments, either between ponies or when individuals are doing something on their own.
Predicting what a pony or a group is about to do is not an easy skill, but through observation you can soon learn to read their body language and be ready for the moment when they trot off, nuzzle each other, or even itch themselves. Capturing images of natural behaviour make for unique and interesting shots.
3. Coat colour
Unlike many species of wildlife, our ponies come in a huge variety of colours. Some breeds, such as the Exmoor pony, are fairly uniform in appearance, while other breeds, such as the Welsh Mountain, are hugely variable in colours, shades, and patterns. The colour of a subject can be enough to decide how you’re going to shoot something.
For instance, with a black pony it can prove difficult to bring out any detail, especially in comparison to something like a dappled grey. Therefore, with darker animals, I usually try to find any with light falling on them. The best situation is when they have a damp coat, as it really brings out the details of their hair even when they’re in shadow.
Many ponies come in a grey colour which varies from dark and steely, to almost white. These shades can really make the ponies stand out from a sea of brown and green and gives them a kind of ‘glow’. Do be aware that it can be easy to blow the highlights on these ponies, so watch out for that in the sunlight.
Like with any subject, light is hugely important for your image and composition. I will often watch the light and see how it is falling, and what opportunities it provides with a group of ponies. Ponies make very striking and distinctive silhouettes, and they are often found in locations that will provide great opportunities for these kinds of images.
Walking a big loop around the ponies may reveal some different opportunities; rim-lighting, for instance, is something that is not always easy to spot upon arrival, but when you get into the right position it is truly breathtaking. Long or fluffy manes are the best at catching light.
Read more: Backlighting in Wildlife Photography – Creative Use of Light
Ponies are often found in some of our most stunning landscapes. I like to to take full advantage of this, as the ponies have such an integral relationship with their environment. Even if you are not in a huge, sweeping landscape, the surrounding habitat will often provide additional colours and textures to images.
Gorse and heather are my favourites, and I use them to frame surround the ponies. The pony could be right beside a fence, but by clever use of the surrounding vegetation they can appear to be anywhere.
Portraits are a staple format when it comes to equine photography, and many equine portraits are set up with halters and handlers to position a horse. However, this is not to say that natural portraits of ponies (and horses) cannot be taken.
Sometimes it can be difficult when they ceaselessly graze, but if you can get lucky with just one inquisitive or sleepy pony who has their head up, you will have the chance to capture a wonderful pony portrait.
Dozing ponies will often stand at rest and provide the perfect opportunity to get some creative shots and close-ups (from a respectful distance)!
The ’wild’ ponies of the UK are truly unique subjects who provide the rewarding pleasure of being able to photograph free spirits from a position of relative safety. Photographing these ponies will definitely allow you to test your skills and push yourself and your camera to the limit.
In my experience, these ponies very rarely disappoint as a photography subject, and their presence around much of the UK and Ireland means you won’t have to embark on long road trips to find them.
Another great bonus is that they aren’t a ‘seasonal’ subject either, so you will often find you get plenty of alone time with these wonderful animals, without having to compete with other photographers.