Herd 23 is the oldest family-owned herd of Exmoor ponies. In 1818, when the Royal Forest of Exmoor was sold, Nicholas Milton bought some of the stock and began keeping ponies on Withypool Common. Fred Milton, his great-great grandson wrote in 1968:“He was interested in Exmoor ponies and kept a number on the Common. His sons also learned to look after them, especially young Nicholas II, who spent much of his time riding his pony, shepherding and looking after the stock of ponies.”
Fred’s father, Charles John Milton, “took a very keen interest in Exmoor ponies, and in 1890 played the responsible part of collecting, marking and selling for his father, uncles and brothers.” Fred Milton went into partnership with his father at Weatherslade Farm and after his father’s death in 1946 Fred continued the family tradition of keeping ponies until his death in 1998 aged 92. As Fred had no children, the pony herd passed to Robin and Rex Milton of Yeo Mill. The herd continues to roam Withypool Common.
Although the herd started in 1818, it was much later, in the 1930’s/40’s, before the Miltons began registering their ponies as Herd 23 in the Exmoor Pony Society Stud Book. Their foundation mares were from their own stock on Withypool Common, They initially bred these mares with stallions from Herd 48 belonging to the Williams family.
Unnamed stallion 48/8 and Bradymoor 48/18 were used most but it was the stallion Ashill 48/20 who was to have most influence upon Herd 23 as he sired the stallion Forest 23/33 born in 1950. Forest ran with the herd on Withypool Common for 15 years and his son, Golden Gorse 23/69 succeeded him. Golden Gorse was senior and dominant stallion on the Common until 1990 when he died aged 27. The pedigree of Golden Gorse shows that his dam was from Herd 1 owned by the Westcott family; thus Gorse 1/64 (by Heatherman 78/2 out of Hawkridge Belle 1/30) introduced new blood to the Withypool population. A grandson of Forest, Royal Duke 23/06, also ran on the Common during Golden Gorse’s time and sired foals from 1976 to 1981.
When Golden Gorse died, his son Prince Harry II 23/202 was just 2 years old and for a time the normal herd structure was in disarray with the mares focussing on an older gelding for a while. However, he soon became active and has sired most of the foals since 1990. Cricky Lad 23/216, one of Golden Gorse’s last sons, was born in 1990 and was retained in the herd. Once he was old enough, the mares divided between these two stallions although Prince Harry usually has more than Cricky Lad.
Spectators at the annual gathering on Withypool Common over the last few years have been left in no doubt as to the rivalry between these two stallions who have fought each other when the two herds have come together at the end of the gathering. This was captured on film (see “Discovering Exmoor Ponies”) and it is Prince Harry II who is on the cover of the film.
Naturally, the dams of all these stallions have been very influential on the herd. Forest’s dam 23/6 was by 48/8 (unnamed) out of a Herd 23 foundation mare. Golden Gorse was not the only stallion whose breeding introduced blood from outside the herd. Royal Duke was out of Flash 32/4 (perhaps the pony that Fred was most fond of) whose breeding went back to Flicker 32/2, Herd 32’s foundation mare and Heather Minstrel 78/10 who brought with him Acland herd genes.
The mare lines within Herd 23 trace back to the Milton foundation stock through five mares Old Cricky 23/1, Kings Crick 23/4, Tiny 23/8, Un-named 23/10 and Kings Pixie 54/7.
Reading through the names of the Herd 23 ponies, certain themes become evident. One is the use of “Crick or Cricky”. The herd’s first registered mare 23/1 was Old Cricky and this derives from the fact that J&R Crick owned Great Ash Farm near Winsford, later owned by the Williams family who had Herd 48. Another theme is the use of the words “Golden”, “Bay” and “Red”. One of the characteristics of Herd 23 is that a small proportion of these ponies are a rich, reddish brown or lighter bay colour. Many of the “Withypool Red” ponies go back to the mare Bright Bay 23/80, who traces back to foundation mare 23/10. “Maggie” also features regularly in names of mares and pays homage to foundation mare Maggie 23/9.
Herd 23 ponies are a recognisable type within the breed because they are generally a stockier pony of more robust build than many of the other herds. This has made them ideally suited to being ridden by adults and driven.
Although registered into Herd H8, Knightoncombe Royal Mantle (known affectionately as Fred) was pure 23 herd breeding as Creenagh Mitchell had bought the mare 23/99 Sheila and ran her out on Withypool Common; Sheila departed from the Mitchell herd and took herself back to mate with Royal Duke 23/06 and ‘Fred’ was the result. This pony, as a gelding, proved to be the epitome of versatility and strength. He was ridden for a time by Tom Summersgill and was later to have something of a media career, acting as a Tibetan pony in a short film shot on the Common and later carrying TV presenter Shauna Lowry for a feature in the BBC series “Country Tracks”.
A number of other herds have been founded upon Herd 23 stock. Herd 54 mares also ran on Withypool Common until the late 1970’s with the Herd 23 stallions siring their foals. Herd 99 that runs on Molland Moor was started in the 1960’s with three “Milton mares”. The Snelsmore herd in Berkshire sourced its mares from the Withypool herd and a nucleus of 23 herd ponies were taken to Germany in the 1990’s.
Herd 23 ponies may usually be seen in two groups, each with a stallion. The herds can wander freely over Withypool Common but the area called Bradymoor, north of the River Barle is a particular favourite location. Currently, the stallions running there are The Aristocrat and the youngster Combe Royal. A separate herd runs on Anstey Common with Knightoncombe Royal.
Herd 23 is not able to accept visiting mares to the stallions but youngstock are available for sale each autumn following the Gathering and Exmoor Pony Society inspections in late October. Contact: Mr. Rex Milton on 01398 341217.