Breed Organization Information
The Exmoor Pony Society
Mrs. Sue McGeever
Woodmans, Brithem Bottom, Cullompton, Devon
About the Breed
The first wild ponies came to Britain between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, walking across a swampy plain that was later to become the English Channel. They became widespread throughout Britain and were very successful, living alongside Mammoths and preyed upon by saber-toothed tigers, wolves and bears. Their presence in Britain ebbed and flowed with the advances and retreats of many ice ages.
These equine colonizers provided an important resource for Stone Age hunters when they came to Britain; hunting reduced numbers significantly. Climate changes in the Mesolithic period brought a drastic change with trees covering lowland areas. The open grazing habitat of the ponies became available only on the mountains and hills of Britain, and the pony populations consequently became restricted to these.
When the English Channel formed (5,000 – 8,000 years ago) this equine population became isolated on the British Isles with no possible further contact with continental populations in the future other than through man?s interference. The British Hill Pony continued to be an attractive prey for hunters, and some scientists theorize that they were hunted to extinction and re-introduced by Celts. Other scientists believe they remained in reduced numbers on the isolated uplands.
When man became a farmer and settled the lowland areas, dividing the land into fields and agricultural holdings, these populations of British Hill ponies became isolated from each other and their destinies followed different paths. This resulted in the nine recognized native breeds of pony in Britain today. In each area, human interference led to the mixing of different genetic ingredients to produce distinctive breeds. As an example, Roman mercenaries introduced Friesian horses to the north of England which blended with British Hill ponies to produce the Fell pony.
On Exmoor a very different story unfolded. While in every other part of Britain other equine blood was introduced to a degree which drastically altered the appearance of the British Hill pony, on Exmoor this did not happen. Most of the changes to ponies elsewhere in Britain took place in the last few hundred years and can be linked to the influences of major trade routes and ports introducing new ideas and new animals or to the influences of landowners doing the same. Exmoor, until very recently, was a forgotten place with no such routes across it or large ports nearby; few landowners feature in its history. It was in effect a social island within the British Isles and because of this the original type of pony survived.
A few people on Exmoor followed the trend for crossing and “improving” the local pony but it is significant that their herds died out and they leave no legacy. The Exmoor ponies of today are descended from stock which was managed on the principle that nature had the best design and introducing other blood led to dilution of hardiness.
Until 1818, most of the open expanse of Exmoor was designated a “Royal Forest”. This was not tree covered but “Forest” in this sense meant a hunting ground. A Warden worked for the Crown and managed Exmoor as an upland grazing expanse where farmers from its fringes could graze their stock (ponies, sheep and cattle) upon payment of fees. The Warden alone ran the stallions which it is recorded were of the original native type.
In 1818 the Royal Forest was sold to John Knight, an industrialist who believed he could tame Exmoor and make it a more productive agricultural system. He considered that whatever nature had created he could improve upon, including the ponies.
The outgoing Warden, Sir Thomas Acland, took thirty of the true Exmoor ponies which had run on the forest to his own estate; other local farmers who had worked with him bought up small numbers of ponies at the 1818 dispersal sale and began their own breeding herds. Knight and a few others experimented and produced ponies which could not thrive living out in Exmoor?s harsh winters. Acland and his colleagues became perhaps some of the first “conservationists”, breeding the Exmoor ponies true to type.
The last of the crossed herds, which had lived separately from the true Exmoors, died out early this century. The Acland ponies continued and their descendants now form the famous “Anchor” herd which runs on Winsford Hill. In most cases, those farming families which had saved ponies back in 1818 are still involved today in breeding Exmoors.
Having survived the dispersal in 1818 and the fashion for “improvement” which could well have changed them beyond recognition, the Exmoor ponies were nearly exterminated during the Second World War. Exmoor was used for training troops, some of whom practiced on live targets including ponies. Gates were left open and grazing areas were no longer safe for stock. Many ponies were stolen and transported away to cities to feed the hungry people. By the end of the War it is estimated that no more than 50 Exmoor ponies survived.
Mary Etherington, who lived on Exmoor, rallied farmers and landowners to restart pony breeding and build up numbers. She even exhibited two Exmoors at London Zoo to draw attention to their plight. Cattle grids were installed and stock returned to the commons and moors. Steadily the population recovered and started to grow.
Although numbers increased gradually, even by the mid 1970s just around 30 Exmoor foals a year were being registered. However, the early 1980s saw attention once again being focused upon their zoological importance and their rarity. Enthusiasm for breeding Exmoors returned as demand for foals increased. Many new owners at the time bought Exmoors as a commitment to their conservation. However, whilst numbers rose away from Exmoor, the population of ponies living free, roaming the moor subject to the laws of nature remained and remains under 200.
A boost to this free-living population has come in the last decade with the recognition that Exmoor Ponies can be a useful conservation tool themselves. The National Trust, English Nature and several county wildlife trusts have set up small free-living herds on sensitive nature reserves to manage the vegetation. This is proving most successful and benefits the conservation of the Exmoor pony alongside the conservation of whole habitats.
Exmoor is situated in the southwest of Britain, spanning the borders of Devon and Somerset, its northern boundary being the high cliffs of the Bristol Channel. It is an area of high moorland divided by steep wooded valleys and fragmented by farmland. The moorland provides a varied diet of grasses, rushes, heather and gorse. The area is subject to very wet winters with cold temperatures and driving winds. The moors are home to wild red deer as well as the Exmoor ponies and farm stock.
All Exmoor ponies are essentially identical, conforming to a natural blueprint. Variation in color and markings which is typical of breeds which man has created is noticeably absent. This suggests that the Exmoor remains more a wild race than a selected breed.
The characteristics of Exmoor ponies are all adaptations to survival: this may be surviving hostile elements or avoiding being eaten by predators.
Exmoors are all some shade of brown with darker legs and striking mealy (oatmeal) colored markings on the muzzle, around the eyes and sometimes under the belly. The mane and tail are usually a darker brown than the body, sometimes almost black but occasionally such long hair is lighter, more mousie in color. The shade of brown of the coat ranges from a light rich brown termed “bay” through every shade of brown to almost black in just a few individuals.
This pattern of coloring/marking which is uniform throughout the population is a very primitive design and found elsewhere in the horse family (e.g. Przewalski?s Horse) and is displayed by many herbivorous prey animals in other animal families such as cattle, sheep and antelopes. The purpose of this type of appearance seems related to camouflage and the avoidance of predators.
Exmoor ponies blend in very well against the background of mixed heather, grass and bracken in their moorland habitat. The mealy muzzle and mealy eye ring perhaps serve to break up the outline of the head making its movements less obvious to a predator.
Exmoor foals are born with the mealy markings set against a much lighter coat color. This changes as they grow their first winter coat and by six months or so they match the adults in color.
There is relatively little variation in size between adult Exmoors. They naturally range from 11.2hh to 13.1hh (117-135cms, 46-53 inches), with the majority around 12.2hh (127cms, 50 inches).
The ponies are very stocky and strong with deep chests and large girths; the large capacity of the digestive system is important in winter as they consume large quantities of coarse plant material which provides them with internal warmth. The Exmoor pony presents an example within the horse family of high efficiency in the business of finding, gathering, chewing and digesting food.
One of the major forces of natural selection is climate and the Exmoor pony?s external anatomy is designed to withstand extremes of cold and, most importantly, rain; these are the descendants of a mountain pony prototype which evolved to live in wet upland environments.
The coat grows in two phases giving a summer and winter coat. The winter coat grows in two layers which, in effect, provide “thermal underwear” and a “raincoat”. The hairs next to the skin forming the undercoat are fine and springy in texture and form an insulating layer. The outer hairs are coarse, greasy and therefore water-repellent. The efficiency of this double layered coat is evident from the phenomenon of “snow-thatching”: snow collects on the ponies? backs as insufficient body heat escapes to melt it. Thus the body is not chilled by melting snow and the snow is just shaken off periodically.
The body hair grows in a surface drainage pattern: it lies in an arrangement of whirls and vortices which maximise water dispersal away from the vulnerable parts of the body and the body openings.
The tail, mane, forelock and, in winter, the beard all show water-shedding specialization. The fan of short hairs near the root of the tail is called a “snow-chute” but its function is more to channel rain water out over the buttocks so that it does not run under the tail. The long fully haired mane and tail, which contrast to the upright mane and partially haired tail of a Przewalski, are adaptations to this prime need of dispersing water from the body.
The Exmoor pony molts out this winter coat by early summer and for a short time, until about mid August, sports its summer coat. This retains the drainage properties but consists of just a single layer, insulation being unnecessary. It is a hard, shiny coat that in some individuals has a slight dappling in appearance.
Exmoors are described as having “toad eyes” and this is often erroneously thought to relate to the mealy colored ring. It refers, however, to the raised fleshy rim above and below the eye which the coloring accentuates. This rim serves to protect the eye from rain water and to divert it down the length of the head to run off the lower jaw.
The teeth of Exmoors are well adapted to a coarse diet. The incisors (biting teeth) are curved so that they meet vertically like a pair of pliers and therefore cut cleanly and efficiently. The efficiency of the bite does not appear to decline so rapidly with age as is seen in many other horses. The molars (chewing teeth) are very large and set into the jaw so that they maximum chewing pressure is exerted on the tough plants.
Contrary to many publications, Exmoor ponies do not have an extra, seventh, molar tooth. This misconception arose from mistranslation of some German research which in fact referred to an extra branch off the blood supply to the lower jaw which might have been the beginnings of the evolution of an extra tooth. This feature does not seem to be confined to Exmoors and is perhaps simply present in animals with large lower jaws.
Legs and Feet
The limbs of Exmoor ponies are designed for movement over hilly terrain. They are immensely strong ponies for their size and can carry up to 170 pounds, making them an ideal family pony not just limited to carrying children. They have outstandingly hard feet, a slate blue/black color.
The Exmoor pony is a very rare animal. At the last census in the mid 80?s there were just under 800 ponies in total; it is thought that the population has risen to around 1200 since then. This still makes them a tiny part of the British fauna; there are twice as many wildcats in Scotland as Exmoor ponies anywhere, over 5 times as many otters in Britain as Exmoors.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust has the Exmoor Pony as one of its listed animals; originally categorized as “critical”, the population increase since 1985 has led to its reclassification as “endangered”. This is based upon the size of the breeding population.
Of coarse not all the 1200 ponies are bred from – many are geldings and many of the mares are never bred. It is estimated that in the mid 90?s the breeding population is still under 500. Of these, probably less than a half are living free in natural habitats. There are about 40 Exmoors in North America, but the numbers are increasing due to recent imports and the work of the Canadian Moorland and Mountain Society, which serves as a breed association for the Exmoor. The Exmoor can be found in Ontario and Nova Scotia, Canada as well as California, Washington, Virginia and New York in the U.S.
Prior to the use of mechanization, which came comparatively late to Exmoor, the local pony was used for a wide variety of tasks on the hill farms; a pony could be used for shepherding, ploughing, harrowing, hunting, carrying the farmer to market etc. Some were even used for the post round and some were mounts for the Home Guard during the war.
Today Exmoor ponies are seldom used for work, but throughout Britain participate in every sphere of equestrian activity, be it showing, riding, driving, jumping, long-distance riding, riding and driving for the disabled. Their considerable strength makes them highly suited to driving but also means that they require a competent child rider rather than a novice.
As well as being able to serve many family members, the Exmoor finds favor because it is economical to keep. In fact, when kept in fields, one of the most important aspects is to ensure that an Exmoor does not get too much food.
Today, there are no wild Exmoor ponies. Back in 1921, the owners of herds who were concerned that they should ensure the purebred Exmoor continued and was not lost through crossing gathered together and formed the Exmoor Pony Society to “promote and encourage the breeding of pure-bred Exmoor ponies.”
The Society set in place a system whereby the foals from registered Exmoor parents have to be inspected and passed as free from disqualifying faults before they themselves can be registered in the Stud Book. A foal with any concentrations of white hairs on the body or in the mane or tail, or white patches on its feet, is failed. This is because white is traditionally viewed as alien to a true Exmoor and thought to be the remnant of a very small amount of outside blood which might have come into the breed accidentally.
Each autumn the herds are “gathered” off the moor to their home farms for inspection and branding. Today, about the same number are bred from in domesticated situations as well and so Society inspectors have to travel throughout Britain assessing these foals as well as the moorland ones.
If a foal is passed, it is then hot branded with the Society?s four-pointed star above its left shoulder. Beneath this, except for the Anchor herd, goes the mare owner?s herd number and then on the left flank is branded the foal?s individual number. The Anchor herd has no herd number but brands an anchor symbol over the individual number. Each registered Exmoor therefore carries its individual identity for life and by checking this in the Stud Book, its breeding is also known.
The Exmoor Pony Society has a membership of about 700 (as in 1997) and holds both an annual stallion parade at Exford in May and a Breed Show near Exford in August.
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