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Exmoor Pony

The Exmoor pony is named for the district in England from which it is native. The Exmoor district is partly in the county of Somerset and partly in Devonshire. There is a National Park, approximately 265, comprising of a wild tract of land bordering on the Bristol Channel. All of the Royal Forest is in Somerset, and Badgeworthy Water forms part of the county boundary, but nearly half of the area which is designated as Exmoor National Park lies in Devon. The terrain is a high wind-swept plateau or moor, elevation 1500 feet, and it is covered with heather. This harsh climate has formed a pony uniquely adapted to the environment.

Although there is a certain amount of controversy about its origins, there seems to be little doubt that the Exmoor pony may be considered as an indigenous breed to Britain. All of the sub-species of Equus migrated to the British Isles, none originated in these isles. The Exmoor is believed to be the descendant of the Plateau/Celtic, otherwise called North Atlantic pony, which was subsequently used by the Celts as pack horses, and for pulling their war chariots. Others believe that this pony crossed overland into Cornwall from Europe when Great Britain was still attached to continental Europe. There exist Roman carvings in the West Country of chariots pulled by ponies which resemble today's Exmoor.

After Roman invasions, the South West area of England was left mostly uninhabited except for the ponies. Outwardly these ponies seem unchanged from the first British wild ponies. Color and markings resemble those of primitive horses as the Wild Ass and Przewalski's Wild Horse. Significant features in the bones reveal further clues as to these ponies being the surviving relic of the original native pony. Dental studies of the Exmoor shows the same arrangement of teeth and jaw structure as those ponies of many thousands of years ago. And fossils of Celtic ponies found in Alaska also have these same features. The Exmoor is the modern equine which bears these characteristics. Comparisons of leg bones from the Exmoors also remarkably match those of the prehistoric findings. Other horses and ponies throughout Europe through the centuries have been altered so radically by man's influence, both in accidental and deliberate cross-breeding and blending.

The Exmoors have received no significant introduction of outside blood throughout the centuries, and are the surviving representative of Britain's wild pony. Some people find it difficult to accept the fact that this small group of ponies have escaped the melting pot of horse breeding in Britain, remaining a natural animal. This is explained in the history of the district and its people. Exmoor is very remote and the people were strong in traditions of the moor, and without much contact with the outside world. These people were resistant to change and had an early concept of conservation, thus saving the Exmoor Pony in its true form.

The Exeter Doomsday Book (or Doomesday Book, a record of an official survey of England made in 1085-1086) contains the earliest mention of ponies on Exmoor. Seven wild horses were listed as owned by a man named Roger, living at Hernole (in the Parish of Carhampton). This survey was ordered by William the Conqueror, possibly to help in the collection of taxes for the Danegeld, an English national land tax. Though the exact purpose of the book is disputed, it became the official register of land ownership, and contain many useful incidental details.

A case was brought before the Court of Chancery in 1598 which set out to decide issues of revenue paid by the county people who had, or who might put their horses and other animals to pasture in the forest of Exmoor. By 1700 Exmoor was designated a Royal Forest, and was used principally for the purpose of hunting, with the local farmers being granted grazing rights. During the history of Exmoor as a royal forest, "pony" was not known as a word, the Exmoors thus were called "horse beasts" or "widge beasts" until about 1710. In the Foresters' Stock Accounts, the words "Exmore Naggs" were used, and in 1805 this became "Exmore Horses," though it did not imply an increase in size.

In 1767, the lease of Exmoor which was held by two Earls of Orford was passed to Sir Thomas Dyke Acland I, who was the first in his family to hold the Wardenship. The records show that by 1777, there were 329 "old colts" and 93 foals belonging to the Warden, and since the Aclands also held the office of Forester, they were the only ones allowed to run stallions on the Forest. It is an interesting idea that it is just as possible that the Exmoor as a race might have survived even if other stallions had access to the mares. When given a choice the Exmoor mares are radically prejudiced, preferring to mix with their own kind than other horses and ponies. By an act of parliament in 1814-15, the Crown divided the land of Exmoor for raising trees. Then Sir Thomas Acland III was no longer the Warden and he was given some 3000+ acres of land near his estate of Holnicote.

In 1818, the Crown lands of Exmoor were sold by George III to Mr. John Knight. This must have bitterly upset Sir Thomas Acland III, as it was the end of a way of life that went back hundreds of years. There was a survey and valuation made at that time which shows 640 horses existed on the Forest, of which 480 ponies belonged to the Crown's lessee, Sir Thomas Acland III. During this time, the famed and possibly mythical stallion, Katerfelto, was reportedly seen on the moor.

From here there are three different roads in Exmoor history. With the exception of 20 ponies, the entire herd was sold at auction at the forest dispersal sale. These 20 ponies were taken to Sir Thomas Dyke Acland's property, as he realized the importance of preserving the original type. The farm was called Old Ashway, and it was located on Winsford Hill, on the other side of Exmoor. There these 20 ponies became the nucleus of a new herd, one for which the Acland herd with the Anchor brand became famous. Descendents of these ponies are believed to be the purest Exmoors in existence today. Sir Thomas Acland IV referred to the family having 80-100 ponies since the great sale, in 1886. Then Sir Charles Acland inheriting the title and ponies upon his father's death in 1898. When Sir Charles died in 1919, the title passed to his brother, Arthur, who sold some of the ponies, then when he died in the same year, his son Francis succeeded him. The Old Ashway farm and half interest in the Exmoor pony herd was sold to Frank Green about 1927, but apparently the grazing rights were retained by the Aclands. When Sir Francis died in 1939, his son Richard thus inherited his half share of the herd, which he sold to Mr. Green.

The Aclands were the first to keep a Stud Book of Exmoor ponies, but sadly, these papers were destroyed in World War II. When ponies were registered in the early editions of the Polo Pony Stud Book, the Aclands were careful to distinguish where ponies were purebred Exmoors, a point they must have recognized as important. An interesting registration show the dam of one pony as grey. The Acland herd was recorded as retaining no ponies of mixed descent in the free- living herd by Evelyn March-Phillips in 1896. She also records that the color is also important, with the most usual being a brown-mouse color, or brown inclining to bay, more rarely black or grey. A photo published in Farm Livestock of Great Britain in 1907. entitled "Exmoor Ponies brought down from the mountain," clearly shows a grey/white individual which look to be a purebred Exmoor pony in all respects except the coat color. Though tending to dismiss it as a crossbreed, this could confirm that occasionally a grey/white genetic variant occurred as one or two Acland registrations suggest.

The second road was followed by Mr. John Knight, as it is reported that he tried for many years to improve the breed by introducing to his herd a number of Arab stallions and mares bought through the British Consul in Egypt. He used a Dongola horse, a Barb of about 16 hands from Western Sudan, but he was not completely satisfied with the results. His policy was to breed up the Exmoor to a certain standard of height and power. The offspring resulting form this cross matured at about 14.2 hands and although retaining the color of their dams, they lost the characteristic texture of the true Exmoor's coat. These offspring also lost the hardy characteristics of the true breed, and thus were unable to survive winters without provision of food and shelter by man. When Mr. Knight died in 1850, the stud passed on to his son, Sir Frederick Knight, who continued the policy, and by 1860 had achieved a level of quality as to have folks talking of the Exmoor Cobs. Sir Frederick owned about 400 ponies in 1863, and by the time he died in 1987, just 60 of these ponies remained. These remnants of the Knight pony herd were purchased by Viscount Ebrington, and by 1910 there were just 16 ponies, three by 1928, and in 1930 they were all gone.

The third road lies in the hands of the hill farmers. It was fortunate that some of the ponies from the moor which were sold at the forest dispersal sale of 1818 were bought by the ancestor's of today's moorland breeders. These pony breeders included Mr. Samuel Milton, whose ponies continue as Herd 23 on Withypool Common, the second of the foundation herds, and Mr. Crockford's Herd 12, the third foundation herd running on Codsend and now belonging to the Western family. Herd 10 and Herd 44, to this day, remained in the same families. Mr. and Mrs. Dean formed Herd 14 in 1957, based on Anchor and Herd 1 stock. Ponies in Herd 1 run on the Cumbrian Fells and over the years, outstanding stock has been bred and has competed successfully in both riding and driving events. The main foundation of the breed, descendants of Sir Thomas' ponies, now number about 45 and belong to Mrs. R. Wallace. Old Ashway was purchased in 1950 by Simon Lycett-Green from his great uncle, Frank Green and the ponies were returned to Winsford Hill. There, he and his daughter Rose, reorganized this herd and culled a number of the ponies at that time. Miss Rose Lycett-Green later became Mrs. Rose Wallace. These ponies still live on Winsford Hill and are still branded with an Anchor brand like the original Acland herd.

As with all free-living species, man's encroachment on natural habitat and ways of life has led to the reduction in numbers of Exmoor ponies. World War I and World War II also to their toll on this breed, and many ponies were rounded up, sold and butchered for their meat. The Exmoors nearly died out, but fortunately 50 purebred mares and 4 stallions managed to survive.

A herd of Exmoor ponies is maintained on the Pentland Hills, near Edinburgh, for research into horse-breeding by the Royal (Dick) Veterinary College where mature ponies are broken to provide trekking ponies. Through the research into the origins of British horse breeds by Prof. and Mrs. Speed at the University, the existence of a pony they called the "Universal Pony" was revealed. This Universal Pony was found in many areas of the world about 1 million years ago. It earned its name through its ability to adapt and survive under various conditions. While it is likely to be the prototype from which several pony breeds have developed, none of them have remained as close to original type as the Exmoor.

Today Exmoors are rounded up in the autumn months of each year by the farmers just prior to the pony fairs. This Exmoor gathering is a very exhilarating sight as these primitive ponies pound over the heather with manes and tails waving and coats and breath steaming. This sight kindles thoughts of past gatherings which have taken place over the centuries, and causes one to realize the timelessness of Exmoor and the natural continuity there. Purebred foals, called "suckers," are examined individually by the Society's Inspectors. If accepted into the breed as typical specimens, each is given an individual number and then branded with the number on the near flank, along with the Society's four-point star and the herd number on the near shoulder. By this marking, it is easy to distinguish a true Exmoor, his herd and breeding, and his original owner. It also provides identifications for the ponies as they have no white markings and do not vary much in color and height.

When at the fair, the ponies are gathered by districts into appropriately marked pens, passed on to the ring to be sold, and moved on to the corresponding pen on the other side. There is irony in this, since these ponies have a lineage traceable back a centuries in Britain, is that the ponies command little more than meat prices. This lack of interest if difficult to understand. There have been established, however, two herds on Exmoor by the Exmoor National Park Authority in the interests of conservation and ensuring that the Exmoor pony remains in its natural environment for visitors to enjoy. There are also free-living herds managed by the National Trust and English Heritage to help assist in the conservation of flora and reduction of scrub.

While not all ponies in groups or herds seen on Exmoor today are purebred, one can find purebred Exmoors living "in the wild" all year long at Withypool, Winsford Hill, Warren Farm, Molland, Brendon Common and Haddon Hill. Two recognizable types of the Exmoor have developed - the Acland type and the Withypool type, which is slightly larger, darker, and with a straighter profile. There are 800 ponies recorded, but the number of free-living ponies is low - only 145 ponies on Exmoor and 60 ponies at other locations. While the earliest pedigree records can be traced to 1820, a breed society was not established until 1921. The Stud Book is now closed, and is run by the Exmoor Pony Society. About 100 foals are registered annually, and although there was a record number of registrations in 1993 (85 colts and 81 fillies), the truth is that only four or five colts will go on to become stallions and less than half of the fillies will become broodmares.

The Exmoor can also be found in several European countries, the Falklands, Canada and the United States. there are several countries which run herds in zoos or parks. Exmoors are also bred for postal delivery, taking children to school and carrying peat in panniers, on Scoraig, a wild part of North West Scotland.

Breed Characteristics. In 1893, the average height was quoted as 12.0 hands, and a sampling of 88 Exmoor ponies registered in the Polo Pony Stud Book between 1898 and 1952 (specified as purebred) showed 12.0 hands to still be the average. Heights ranging from 11.0 hands to 13.2 hands were recorded, and today the maximum height in England is 12.2 for mares and 12.3 for stallions. In the United States the height limit is 13 hands for mares and 13:1 hands for geldings and stallions. Even though they are a small size, Exmoors are extremely strong and they are quite capable of carrying adults.

Color and markings conform to primitive appearance as those seen in the Wild Ass (for example) - bay, brown, and dun with a characteristic mealy colored muzzle and dark legs, mane and tail. There is some light colored hair around the eyes, and on the belly, flanks, inside thighs and inside of ears. Exmoors are without white markings. A short "wool-type" insulating undercoat is topped by a greasy outer coat with strategically placed whorls to direct rain form sensitive parts of the body in winter. Also the neatly set tail has a fan of shorter hairs at the top to form a 'snow shoot.' The efficiency of this winter coat is apparent by 'snow thatching,' which is when the snow collect on the backs of the ponies due to insufficient body heat to melt it. This insulation of the winter coat prevents the ponies from being chilled as the melting snow is periodically shaken off. Summer coast shine like highly polished metal and are often described as "brassy."

Exmoors have very prominent eyes, often called "toad eyes;' short, thick, pointed ears; and a long forelock to help disperse water. The ponies have a wide forehead, and a long nasal cavity to warm the air before it passes to the lungs. They have large deep-rooted teeth which are well adapted to grazing coarse plants, and they do not tear, but bite off cleanly. This dental feature seems to be retained by the ponies well into old age, and this efficient bite is crucial to survive unaided, possibly explaining the ponies long life-span. It is not unusual for an Exmoor pony to reach mid-30s, and a record is held by a pony which died in 1990 at age 42.

The Exmoor's chest should be deep and wide between and behind the forelegs with substantial depth of body to allow plenty of heart and lung room. The well-proportioned neck may appear slightly muscular on its underside, which is due to the use of the Exmoor as a chariot pony in the Bronze Age, with harnesses using straps across the pony's neck. Withers are prominent; the back is straight or slightly hollow and long; the loins are broad; and the croup is slightly sloping. The chest is deep and wide with ribs well sprung; the shoulder is sloped and muscular; and the legs are short, with good bone and strong. The most important feature should be the definite "pony" character.

Aptitudes. These ponies tend to have a native cunning to help them take care of themselves and their riders, and they posses a quite extraordinary determination. Exmoors are thrifty and intelligent, and are exceptionally tough, strong and hardy with great powers of endurance. They have been known to carry grown men for a full day hunting, and they make an economic children's pony, though this use has decreased over the years due to the reputation of being too strong and willful for a child's mount. Many of these ponies are driven from the moors, and sold without having been handled by man. Experienced handling turns these ponies into excellent riding ponies, even though they can be inherently nervous after fending for themselves for generations.

The action is straight and smooth, and Exmoors are known for jumping and galloping abilities. These ponies make high class harness ponies, and they have long been used as pack animals in the hills and for herding sheep. The Exmoor has been a good foundation stock in the past (in the old Devon Pack Horse, for example), and they still are today, producing excellent cobs and hunters.

First imported into North America (Canada) around 1950, the breed enjoyed a brief period of popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, but they are virtually unheard of today. There were two importations around 1980 which founded the first US herd of Exmoors. They flourished quickly, and interest in the Exmoors grew steadily as the pony population grew. The 1990s have been very encouraging as the first stud book has been published, and the first Exmoor Pony breed society has been established in the US. Today there are 29 Exmoor ponies in North America - 17 in the United States and 12 in Canada. There is a newsletter published by the Canadian Mountain and Moorland Society which was started by one individual pony owner, and it has grown into a source of information about the breed in North America.

For more information, write to any of these breed registries: Suggested reading (available from the Exmoor Pony Society of England):


More sources:

© Copyright 1998 and with kind permission of NorthWest Breyer Horse Club.


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