It had been a horrid January. One of those relentlessly wet ones that, particularly on the vast expanse of Exmoor, seemed to hold no hope of anything good happening.
On their moorland farm, Dawn Westcott and her husband Nick were busy keeping their brood of Exmoor ponies warm, when a walker contacted them to say she’d seen something unusual while out on the moor. What she’d spotted was a lone little foal – an unusual sight for these herd animals – hiding out in a wooded area looking lost and seriously unwell.
As an avid horse-lover with a passion for helping Exmoors – Britain’s oldest pony breed – Dawn and Nick headed out first thing the next morning with the walker in the rain, determined to find this stranded foal.
When she found him, Monsieur Chapeau – as he would later be called – was exhausted, wheezing with pneumonia and his stomach was swollen from weeks of malnourishment. It seemed he’d somehow been split up from his family herd when they’d probably moved on from the area and, unsure what to do, he’d thought it best to stay there and hide.
When Dawn and Nick brought him home, the vet said the foal was only a matter of hours away from death, and that they still shouldn’t be surprised if he quietly slipped away at some point. Dawn was adamant she would do all she could to save this pony.
Sleepless nights and long days of drying him out with a hair dryer and feeding him antibiotics and probiotics followed. And slowly but surely, Monsieur Chapeau began to recover. Soon he even made a special friend, after one of Dawn’s other ponies, Lady Stumpkin Pumpkin, began standing by his pen, inquisitive to meet this strange visitor to their farm. “I think she’d clocked the fact Monsieur Chapeau got a lot of meals,” says Dawn, “and she was desperate to come in.”
After the pair had a feisty first meeting – “Monsieur Chapeau made it clear he wasn’t going to share his food with anybody,” says Dawn – they gradually became firm buddies. “One day when the rest of the herd went out to play on the moors as normal, Monsieur Chapeau didn’t lay down and go to sleep as he usually did. Instead, he went around his pen like a Kentucky derby horse, bucking and doing leaps. He wanted to go with the rest of the gang.
“We knew he wasn’t really fit enough yet but had to let him go. For 15 minutes he had the biggest gallop around but then his weakness caught up with him and he could hardly move. As we slowly guided him back, Lady Stumpkin Pumpkin, entirely of her own will, left the herd and followed him back. They then just lay down together and spent the rest of the day resting.”
But even more amazing was Monsieur Chapeau’s relationship with Dawn. Having lived wild and free for generations, Exmoors – of which there are only about 3,000 in the world – are self-sufficient and fiercely independent, which often gives them a reputation for being difficult with humans.
But Dawn says that’s because their first experience of people is normally when they are abruptly taken away from their mother (weaned), restrained and branded. “Whereas for Monsieur Chapeau, his first experience of humans was when we came to save him.
“From the start, he had this incredible warmth and he showed us complete trust. So much so that when I was brushing him every day to get the dreadlocks out of his hair that had formed on the moor, he used to fall asleep on my lap. And the other foals would watch as if to say ‘why are you doing that with her? She’s a human’,” says Dawn.
Today, Monsieur Chapeau has become something of a mentor to other ponies, as well as Dawn herself. “Monsieur Chapeau has taught us to go softer and more subtle with horses than we ever thought you could. I’ve always liked the gentler approach but he made us realise that everyone should move away from the standard style of marching up to a horse, shoving a head collar on and pulling it around. Ponies, he showed us, are capable of understanding such nuances that you can be much more polite and mindful in how you interact with them.
“Now, when new foals come in, Monsieur Chapeau takes them under his wing and shows them how to trust us. When I’m working with another pony, he’ll often come up and stand by me, almost acting like a mediator between me and the ponies. He’s really found his purpose.”
It’s truly an incredible tale, which is why Dawn recently decided to share the story of Monsieur Chapeau in a book, Wild Pony Whispering, which has now sold thousands of copies.
Dawn and her ponies were even invited on ITV’s This Morning, where Monsieur Chapeau and his lady friend went up in a lift and wandered around a busy TV studio with complete calm, thanks to Dawn’s caring approach.
“The book has seemingly appealed to all animal lovers, who say they could extend my approach to dogs and cats, for example. Some people have also said the book has helped them understand themselves better and how they appear, both to animals and other people.”
So how is Monsieur Chapeau coping with his new-found fame? “He’s absolutely loving it,” says Dawn. “It’s as if he knows. Now, whenever we get a visitor to the farm he comes out of the herd and confidently struts up to us as if to say ‘hello, you’ve obviously come to see me’”. What a character!