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The Exmoor Pony

History of the Exmoor pony

The Exmoor pony is believed to be Britain’s oldest breed of native pony and was resident in our country before man arrived. The Exmoor pony is likely to be the breed most similar to the original wild ponies which arrived in Britain about 130,000 years ago. Around 9,000 years ago the climate changed becoming warmer leading to an increase in woodland especially in the lowlands. The wild ponies were dependent upon grazing so their numbers fell and those left were forced to retreat to the mountains and moorlands.

When man first arrived in Britain he lived a hunter gatherer lifestyle and would have hunted the Exmoor pony for meat. By the time of the bronze age, about 4,000 years ago, man was becoming more settled and beginning to build permanent homes and starting to farm. Man had realised the full potential of the wild ponies and had domesticated them using them for ploughing and cultivating the land and for riding and pulling wooden sledges and carts. In more recent times, up until the introduction of mechanical engines, the Exmoor ponies were still used extensively on Exmoor farms for pulling small carts and traps while the heavy horses would do the ploughing and jobs where more power was required. The Exmoor ponies would have been ridden for inspecting and rounding up sheep and for general travel. Some children from farming families used to ride an Exmoor pony several miles a day to school and back. The Exmoor ponies were also used in the mines and quarries.

Prior to the mid 1800s the Exmoor pony was referred to as a horse beast.

In 1818 the Royal Forest of Exmoor was sold by the crown and bought by the industrialist John Knight. At the same time the Exmoor pony herds were also sold. The former warden of the forest Sir Thomas Ackland purchased 30 Exmoor ponies and founded the Ackland herd which runs on Winsford hill. Several other local families bought Exmoor ponies and started their own herds some of which survive to this day. These are known as the founder herds.

In 1921 the Exmoor Pony Society was formed in an attempt to preserve the true Exmoor pony which had come under threat from people who were trying to ’improve’ the breed by crossing it with other breeds of pony.

In the years of the second world war the Exmoor ponies were neglected and as a result persecuted with people poaching them for meat and soldiers shooting them for target practice during training on the moor. Exmoor pony numbers fell to around 50 and the breed was close to extinction. After the war great efforts were made by local people to save the Exmoor pony. Exmoor pony numbers gradually recovered up to the current figure of around 3,500 with 400 Exmoor ponies running on the moor. Unfortunately out of these 3,500 Exmoor ponies there are only about 500 Exmoor ponies capable of breeding. Out of these there are 400 Exmoor pony mares and 100 Exmoor pony stallions. Around 220 Exmoor pony foals are born every year. The Exmoor pony is on the RBST watch list under category 2 – endangered because of the low breeding numbers.

Conformation of the Exmoor pony

The Exmoor pony varies in colour from bay to dun and brown. The muzzle is a mealy colour as is the area around the eyes. The colouring is thought to have evolved as a camouflage and be linked to the colouring of the local environment. The darker ponies originated from one side of the moor while the lighter ones from another. Exmoor ponies have been known to change colour when moved from one side of the moor to the other. The Exmoor ponies have hard feet compared to other breeds so many do not need to be shod unless they do an excessive amount of road work. The Exmoor pony must have short straight front legs set well apart and square. The hind legs should also be well apart, nearly perpendicular from hock to fetlock with point of hock in line with the pelvis bone. There should be a wide curve from flank to hock joint on the Exmoor pony. The preferred height of the Exmoor pony is 11.3hh – 12.3hh for stallions and geldings and 11.2hh – 12.2hh for mares. The neck of the Exmoor pony is wide, eyes large and wide apart with fleshy hood and pale mealy colour around with wide nostrils. The chest of the Exmoor pony is deep and wide with long deep well sprung ribs. The back of the Exmoor pony should be broad and level. The summer coat of the Exmoor pony is short while the winter coat comprises an outer longer hair which is coarse and greasy making it waterproof with a shorter finer hair beneath densely packed for insulation.

Frequently asked questions about the Exmoor pony.

Are the Exmoor ponies wild?

Well not truly wild as they are all owned by someone. All Exmoor ponies have a degree of human contact and management, some more than others. Each Exmoor pony has a brand mark showing the owners identity along with an individual identification number. On the safari we will explain how and why the ponies are rounded up every year and what happens to them.

Do the Exmoor ponies live on the moor  all year round?

Yes the majority of ponies on the moor will live out all year round. The Exmoor pony has evolved over thousands of years to survive the harsh cold wet winters on Exmoor and we will explain to you how they do this on the safari.

When are the Exmoor pony foals born?

The Exmoor pony mares will give birth during the spring and summer months usually between April and August after about an 11 month gestation period. We will try to find the Exmoor pony foals for you to see on safari and we will explain the lifecycle of the Exmoor pony.

Can the Exmoor ponies roam where  ever they want to?

The Exmoor ponies on the moor will have hundreds of acres of moorland to wander but ultimately they will be restricted to part of the whole moor by fencing and cattle grids. Those Exmoor ponies on the moor tend to be more wild compared to those kept in fields which are usually handled by their owners and may be ridden and shown or used to pull a trap.