When I was nine-years-old and the dearest wish of my heart was to own a pony, this was the creature I imagined. I met an animal yesterday high on the moors who looked almost exactly like my childhood dream, a wild, handsome animal sheparding a small harem of mares and foals. Sue and I had stopped for lunch beside a lake, once a tin quarry, and were resting in the shade of a stone bridge. Suddenly, they were there: dappled gray, white, pinto and the gorgeous bay stallion with thick, wavy mane and long tail. They moved like dancers, picking their way through the grass and gorse, grazing and occasionally whinnying to stay in contact.
We froze, almost afraid to breathe for fear of dispelling the magic. Carefully, Sue pulled out her camera. Slowly, she advanced the film for the first shot. At the mechanical click, the stallion whirled and lead the entire troop off to safety.
That evening, twelve miles further on in Holne, we heard more about the Dartmoor ponies in the pub below our rooms at the Church Inn. While they seemed so feral and completely free, it turns out that all of them belong to local people. Dartmoor is not only a national park, but a local commons. The ponies are turned loose to graze over the spring and summer where they grow shy and skittish, behaving more like mustangs than farm animals. In September, Devonshire holds the Pony Drift where all the animals are rounded up and run through the narrow lanes. One inhabitant described it as sea of heaving backs between hedges. They are sorted out and returned to their owners.
While it was a little sad to have the illustion dispelled, I could so clearly see the Drift, smell the animals' sweat and the dust rising from over two hundred ponies' hooves. It was ritual, pagentry, husbandry and tradition wrapped into one day. It made us want to come back in September to watch a custom that goes back centuries.