Artist Outreach & Public Records Manager
Oregon Wild Horse Organization
Feb. 01, 2023
During a work session while we were working on the Canyonlands public comment. Somebody brought up native. Val suggested an article on native ponies from around the world. I volunteered to write the article because I was familiar with breeds of native ponies in the UK. I think this may become a series of articles on breeds of ponies from around the world.
The definition of native is subjective depending on the author, reader, lawmaker, scientist etc. I’m not quite sure when the breed of pony is native? Is it during the Stone Age or even Pleistocene? Or is it Roman or Medieval? I’m not quite sure. This is an article about UK natives and all can be verified to at least 1068.
RARE BREED SURVIVAL TRUST (RBST)
They say for a breed to be on the endangered list it has to have 300 breeding mares. In 2023 the rules denoting a rare breed were changed to include an equal number of stallions. Each pony society’s registry almost never accepts piebald or skewbald ponies. They may have a color category as it becomes so popular.
All the native ponies of the UK have nice heads and neat ears. The British Horse Society has standards and a particular vocabulary they use, and neat ears is one of those BHS words. They also describe the ponies as thrifty or very thrifty, meaning they do well on little food.
Regarding land use in the UK, nearly all villages and towns have a piece of marginal land called common lands. On all common lands, residents of that village or town have the right for a fee which varies to graze their animals on it. In many villages and towns the village green or common is lawn and if one is lucky, a duck pond is included. Often, it is no longer used to graze any animals. The right is still there and has been since well before Medieval times (10th - 15th century). In the large village I lived in Norfolk, we had a green and a duck pond and the sister village had a common area over the marshland which is still used for grazing domestic horses and ponies today.
Haplotypes are a group of markers together on DNA samples which show that the DNA of a specific animal is related to ancient horses. This ancient horse DNA would be horses that existed before modern horses, such as the Southern and Northern pony. They both date to before the Przewalski horse.
It’s the late Pleistocene and about 7,000 years ago the UK split off from France therefore ponies developed in situ, or in other words they phenotypically adapted in one place because they were on an island with no way off.. Northern and Southern ponies had traveled all the way from the North American continent across the Bering Land Bridge to Europe.
The Northern and Southern ponies were called such because after traveling across the Land Bridge between Asia and US and spread across Europe, the Northern migrated north and acclimatized to the climate and the Southern did the same migrating south. These ponies developed traits which we can see today. The Northern ponies developed coats to cope with the cooling temperatures, the Southern ponies developed mechanisms to deal with warmer temperatures and more sun.
Stone-age (anything older than the 3rd millennium or approximately 7,000 to 3,000 B.C.) Stone-age men (Homo Sapiens mixed with a little bit of Neanderthal) were using native ponies as pack animals(eating them maybe too), but still not riding them yet.
Romans occupied Britain (UK) until the 4th century A.D. They brought the habit of riding horses to the UK. They brought breeds that in the modern world are known as Arabians and Berbers. They set them loose to breed with the native ponies which increased sizes. They also brought the chariots for war, which of course were pulled by the larger horses. The Arab and Berber breeds made for fiery and fast chariot horses.They didn’t have a cavalry during battle maneuvers. They used only infantry and some chariots. They used horses for riding to messenger their officers only.
Vikings were great for using the local ponies for pack animals, not so much for riding. The Vikings went back and forth between modern Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. It is theorized but not proven that there was free mixing with Fresian stallions with the pack animals that they used. The Vikings seat of power was York therefore, the local native ponies Fells and Dales were used the most as pack horses. The flow of traffic from York to the European continent was significant across what is now the North Sea. This is because the Vikings were great shipbuilders and were known to raid other lands. As far as colors go, the predominant color is black, white on the legs or head is not wanted at all. There are bay, dun and gray. Of course as with other breeds the society does not recognize skewbalds or piebalds(pintos and paints).
During Medieval times, around the 11th century(the Normans) the simple plow was vastly improved and horse collar in the 1100's was invented. To make the plow more stable and easier to move around, wheels were added. A metal sheath was added to the plough, it made it sharper to cut into the soil. The horse collar helped man use a plow and horse to plow fields which was faster than using oxen and a yoke. It was a revolutionary invention as was the plow. They used “palfreys” which were frequently tamed native ponies around the farm and with carts/traps locally.
In the English Renaissance, Henry the VIII passed a law in 1553, because he wanted to compete very badly with Francis I from France. He wanted bigger horses and he desperately needed bigger horses for war. The war horses had to be heavier and bigger because they had to carry a knight and armor. The armor is quite heavy but not as heavy as you may think. This law was if a horse or pony is under 15 hands the troops would kill it.
World War I & World War II. As the age of industrialism picked up pace and more mechanization happened, it rendered pack and working horses obsolete. Except during the WW I & II war years when people dusted off the trap and used it with ponies. A trap is a light carriage with large wheels with a seat or 2 and a place to add some packages like groceries, and it was driven or pulled by a pony. After World War I & II the UK transitioned into riding horses for pleasure and the various disciplines. In the modern age to own and breed horses is expensive and often relegated only to the upper echelons.
Map of counties to see where each breed is from.
The Irish Breeds
The Connemara is the biggest of all the native ponies. Connemara is a part of Gallway, which is mid to North-West in Ireland. They can get up to 15 hands. They have fantastic temperament, what Americans might call bombproof. As far as haplotypes go, they are related to the Welsh pony. They are reputed but not proven to be from the Iron age. Their Arab blood was probably added when the Irish traded with Spain and Portugal. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more Arabian and thoroughbred blood was introduced into connemara. Marion Mould, who had so much success with Stroller showjumping? Stroller was part connemara.
Some connemara are still in situ and wild. Some are tame and used in showing and competition. The photos above illustrate both.
“Is minic a rinnic bromach gioblach capall cumasach.”
“A raggy colt often made a powerful horse.”
Island of the Proverb by Liam Mac Con Iomaire. Town House, Michigan, US 1988.
The Kerry Bog Pony
Located in the Southwest of Ireland in county Kerry. The height of these ponies is about 11 hands for mares and usually 12 hands max for stallions. The thing that is wonderful about the Kerry Bog ponies is that they have adapted biologically to grazing on the bog. They changed the way their footfall is (the way they walk).
In the average breed a horse has a four time movement, they begin walking with the left hindfoot, then the right forefoot, then the right hindfoot, then the left forefoot, and repeat. They would place the hindfoot where the forefoot had been as they move forward. However in the Kerry Bog pony the horses don’t do this. Because they live in a bog, and they need to displace their weight in the marshy ground. Therefore they place each foot slightly to the left or right of the previous footfall so they do not sink as they move and graze.
They eat seaweed and sphagnum moss. So they are good grazers to have on the splinters of land in Kerry County (a “County” in Ireland is like a “state” in the USA but much smaller).
(see photo below)
The haplotypes show the Kerry Bog pony to be related to the Icelandic and Shetland ponies, not Connemara ponies or Irish Draft horses, which is why historians think this pony was introduced to Kerry by the Vikings.
They became a breed in 2002 with the EU because politically Ireland is not part of the UK, though geographically they are. They are on the RBST list as critical.
A Kerry bog pony in the wild
A Kerry Bog pony shown in-hand
The Welsh Breeds
The Welsh ponies are classed in 4 different categories called “sections”, all quite different. They are found all over Wales, but as with other native breeds, they are increasingly being pushed further west by the exploding human population.
These ponies are under 12.2 hands high (hh). They are the prettiest ponies. They are tough, swift and deft. These ponies can also be very naughty. When Henry VIII passed his law his troops were unable to catch all these ponies because the troops' horses could not navigate the steep, rocky hillsides. Like Irish and Scottish hills they are not treed rather they are rock outcroppings and difficult going. So he caused a decline in these ponies but not extinction. In the Roman occupation they added hot blooded horse blood to them(Berbers and Arabians). In Snowdonia National Park in North Wales there is an insular herd of about three hundred ponies- the Carneddau Herd. This well known herd of Welsh Mountain ponies, their DNA reaches far back, but as a herd they have been separated from other ponies for several hundred years so have adapted and have minor differences from other Welsh Mountain ponies. The University of Aberystwyth has compiled a good DNA analysis of the differences.
A section A pony in the wild compared alongside a shown in-hand.
These ponies are similar to Section A with an even lighter conformation. A good first all-rounder. Lovely, pretty fine head with big eyes and big nostrils(From the Arabian).
A Welsh section B driven.
Welsh section B show-jumping.
These ponies are substantially different from Section A & B. They still have a lovely head with big eyes like Section A & B but their body is much heavier. They are a much more solid pony closer to a Welsh Cob. I’m not sure whether section C occurs naturally in the wild anymore?
A photo of pony section C shown in-hand
The Welsh Cob. Up to 14.2hh. They are valuable ponies for farmers and drovers. The drovers would raise cattle in West Wales and then drive them up to slaughter outside of London. These ponies were used along with corgi breed dogs, to herd and drive the cattle to market, just like an American old west cattle drive.
During the World Wars the Welsh Cob, on account of them being so thrifty and sound, were in great demand. They were used for both riding and pulling carts and traps. The military placed a premium on the Welsh Cobs.
A section D shown under saddle. Great position!
The Scottish Breeds
They are up to but not over 14.2 hh. An old breed. They are very, very strong and hardy ponies. They are, in demeanor, also a very placid pony. They are known to get the job done. The ghillie (a Scottish gamekeeper) would use a highland pony to hunt. If they shot a stag they would put it on the pony’s back and the pony would haul it home. Having a placid temperament they would not react to the smell of blood and get nervous or flighty. They were also used as a pack horse for crofters (a name for what were considered Scottish peasants).
A photo of a Highland in the wild.
A photo of a young highland shown in-hand.
They are about 12.2 hh. Mostly gray but also some bays and darker browns. No piebald or skewbald allowed. On the West coast of Scotland in the Outer Hebrides, there is an island, Isle of Eriskay and the breed phenotypically adapted there. They were recognized as a breed in 2002. Again, these ponies were used by crofters. They were used as pack animals to haul seaweed for fire. They were also preferred as driving ponies for traps. Recently, they are being used in competitions by children just starting out. RBST lists the breed as critical. The haplotypes show this breed is old and related to Icelandic ponies.
Wild Eriskay Ponies.
An Eriskay shown in-hand
They are up to 42 inches at the shoulder. There are two different types: those with bigger, heavier heads and those with a smaller well set-on head. They are the smallest breed. Only the Argentinian Falabella is smaller. The reason the shetland is small is not necessarily because of breeding but from famine. When the Shetland Isles broke off from Scotland they were confined to a few islands. Out of famine because of not having good grazing they got smaller and smaller. This was common with other mammals over time in many Islands around the world as less food was available the animal would evolve and become smaller. They also can, in a pinch, eat seaweed, however it is not their normal diet.
They were not used as a ridden pony until the 19th century. They were used as pack ponies. In the 19th and 20th century they were used as mining ponies. They did work down the mines well and willingly. When the mines closed down aristocracy used them for childrens riding ponies. One of the first historic figures to do this was Queen Victoria with one of her younger children at Balmoral.. However, the temperament of a Shetland is not really well suited for children as they are very headstrong. I always believed they are like horses in a little pony’s body
Interestingly enough the haplotypes of the Shetland link it to the Southern pony not Northern and also to Oriental ponies. Their coat, mane and tail have grown over the millenia.
A wild Shetland
A shetland shown under saddle
They are up to 14 hh.They are located in the NW corner of England, close to collieries (coal mines and surrounding buildings) and ports. Around the Lake District too.They are commonly lumped in with the Fells pony even though they are distinctly different. The colors in the Dales pony are bays, browns and grays, no colors like paint or pintos (skewbalds or piebalds).
For a long time they were used by farmers to ride to check his/her sheep on the hills. With the rise of the industrial revolution, and more use of the ports and the collieries they were preferred because they are surefooted and very dependable with hard clean legs. They had to carry 2, 72 pound ‘pigs’. A pig is a lump of base iron that has been smelted and ready for use by humans all over the world.
They were bred with the Norfolk Cob because they were also popular in trotting races with carts/carriages. They’ve also been bred with Arabians and thoroughbreds but not as much as the Welsh and Connemara. They might possibly also have been bred with Cleveland Bay horses (another Dales area breed). Both Dales and Fells are on the RBST list. The Dales are excellent trap ponies having high knee action, more so than other native breeds. They are also a popular breed for Mountain and Moorland classes in showing.
Wild Dales Ponies
Dales shown under saddle
They should be no bigger than 14.2 hh. They are bigger in stature and taller compared to other ponies. They are located in the NE corner of England. The haplotypes are more ancient, relating them to the horse species before the Southern and Northern pony. They were generally first used as a pack pony and for hill farmers, especially sheep farmers. In the 1200’s they are records of caravans of Fell ponies. They would commonly each carry 2 bales of wool to Flanders for market. However, since Viking times Fells ponies have carried wool over the continent to countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. The Fell ponies are good “nanny” animals for children. They are good natured towards them and adults to ride as well. Queen Elizabeth II was also a patron of the Fells Society. She rode Emma, a Fell pony, around Windsor Great Park.
New Forest Pony.
Up to 14.2 hh in height, but average around 13.2 hh. A super riding pony. Commoners who reside within the Forest have the right to graze ponies, cattle, donkeys and “right of mast” for pigs. The New Forest used to be an ancient hunting park for royalty. It is now a national forest. It is 37,000 acres and split equally into four sections, each section is run by Agister.They answer to a head Agister who in turn answers to a Verderers court(five people). The Forest Forest Commision has a memo of understanding with the Verderers Court. This allows a resident in the 37,000 acres to graze a horse or cattle in the forest for a reasonable fee. And it is reasonable! The New Forest Authority has a website all about visiting and enjoying the Forest. Of course, during the 18th and 19th centuries Arab, thoroughbred, and Hackney(which is now also on the RBST list)was introduced. In the late seventies, early eighties there was much protest over the drifts(round-ups). The ponies were being sent to slaughter and sold for meat on the continent! I think they still happen. The ponies were described by two of King William the Conqueror's Tax Commissioners in 1068 in the Doomsday book.
The Dartmoor Pony.
They are up to 12.2 hh. They are from the moors in Devon. This pony is a perfect child’s first pony. Pretty and dainty, the Dartmoor comes in dark bay(classic) dun and grays. No skewbald or piebald. After the Exmoor and Fells this is one of the oldest known native ponies according to haplotypes from its DNA. Classic pony and trap pony. Synonymous with tin mining. These tough but intelligent ponies show bright eyes and a glorious mane and tail. Dartmoor ponies have been used in several rewilding projects on the continent. There is a contention lately about Dartmoors being used for meat. It is an ongoing discussion. Also within the breed there may be a separation between Dartmoor and Dartmoor Hill Ponies. The University of Aberystwyth did studies and confirmed through DNA the differences between the two. We shall see if it becomes a separate breed.
A Dartmoor under saddle
Exmoor up to 14.2hh but the average is around 13 hands. Haplotypes show links between Exmoor to the oldest known equine in the UK. Chiefly for this reason and for Exmoors hardiness, this breed is in demand for rewilding projects all over Europe. Their body is compact but muscular, their coat made up of two layers, a warm, soft downy layer and a top layer. That layer has hair that is longer with a higher fat content that helps to slough off rain and protect the pony from harsh weather. The reason that this special breed is on the RBST critical list is that there is a finite amount of pure Exmoor blood in the gene pool. The breed is in danger of in-breeding because there are not many left of the breed. In the nineteenth century the ancient moor which was a royal hunting ground was sold to a wealthy businessman. That man tried to breed more Exmoors, at which he failed miserably, dying a pauper. The Exmoor Pony Society was formed in 1921 to address the increasing decrease in their numbers. It stubbornly hangs on.
Exmoors in the wild
Photo of ridden Exmoor
Technically there are dictionary, or scientific definitions of the word native. But again the issue of native is biased upon the views of the author, reader, scientist, lawmaker etc. However, in the case of the UK and their wild ponies, there is a great sense of pride in these “native” wild ponies and helping them survive. Native ponies are less expensive to keep, eating less grain which is more manageable in cost and hard legs which help ponies to withstand a few medical conditions which save on the veterinary bills considerably. As long as these ponies are well looked after according to their requirements, they are capable of providing a family years of joy and service. A wide variety of shapes and sizes present future buyers a plethora of choices.
For Further Rare Breed Information
The Rare Breed Survival Trust, a registered charity, Stoneleigh Park,Kenilworth, Warwickshire, CV8 2LG
This trust not only looks at horses, but all farm and domestic breeds of animals. Good Source.
A big thank you to Jo Linforth there who answered my rather pedantic questions.
These societies have sister societies or clubs in the US and all over the world. Once there you will be able to become a member or register your pony. The requirements seem to be exacting but vague at the same time! They are very helpful if enquiring. A warning: its BHS language which you will see time and again on UK sites. Most of them have Facebook and sometimes Twitter pages. Most also have a website too.
The Dartmoor Pony Society, Birks Farm Cottage, Heddon on the Hill, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE15 OHF
New Forest Pony and Breeding Society, Deep Slade House, Ringwood Road, Bransgore, Hampshire, BA23 8AA.
The Fell Pony Society, Bank House, Boroughgate, Appleby, Cumbria CA16 6XF
Dales Pony Society, Secretary, Holme House, Dale, Ainstable, Carlisle, CA4 9RH.
The Exmoor Pony Society, Secretary, Little Ash Farm Cottage, Ash Lane, Withypool TA24 7RR.
The Connemara Pony Breeders Society, (CPBS), The Showground, Clifden, County Galway#, H71YA09.
Shetland Pony Stud Book Society, Shetland House, 22 York Place, Perth, PH28 EH, Scotland.
Highland Pony Society, Secretary, Garbh Allt House, Maiden Plain Place, Aberuthven, Perthshire, PH3 IEL, Scotland
Eriskay Pony Society, Farries Kirk McVean, Dumfries Enterprise Park, Hearth Hall, Dumfries EJ1 3SJ
Kerry Bog Pony Society, The Kerry Bog Pony Cooperative Society on Facebook. This official Site.
Amanda Parry-Jones. Rare breed Briefing.: Why you should be using native ponies for conservation breeding. RBST, Kenilworth, UK. 2022
Aberystwyth University. Native Welsh Ponies Unique. Press release April 2013. .
Winton, L. Clare et al. Genetic diversity and phylogenetic Analysis in Native Mountain Ponies in Britain and Ireland reveal a novel rare population. Wiley online Library. March, 2013. Also published in US by Pubmed and NIH under Environmental Ecology
Winton L. Clare et al. Genetic diversity within and between Britain and Ireland: the Maternal and Paternal History of Native Ponies. Wiley online Library. January 2020
MACKINNON J Horses for Nature:Equids and Extensive Grazing in England. ECOS magazine 41(2). February 2020
She does not note the difference between horses and ponies, but there is excellent rewilding in UK information. Also a quite good European rewilding reference section.
Special Thanks to:
Greaves, Linda. List of Rewilding Projects in Europe. Save Our Wild Horses. October 2022
Shea Sharon. All things to do with the New Forest. January 2023.
Stay tuned for the next installment in Alison’s “Going Native” Series.