Dartmoor Ponies: An expert guide

This week’s guest blogger is Jenny How, who co-owns and runs Visit Dartmoor and Active Dartmoor with Simon Lloyd – and is also passionate about Dartmoor ponies. She tells us about this endangered breed, how to identify them from the other ponies found on Dartmoor, their history, and the work that goes towards their preservation.

Many of the beautiful photographs in this article are used with the kind permission of Malcolm Snelgrove

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The ponies on Dartmoor have been a major passion in my life for the last 60 years – starting in early childhood when we would drive up from home in Paignton to Dartmoor ‘to see the ponies’, then reinforced during my time as a Pony Trek Guide on the moor in the 70’s, to breeding a few of my own and now living surrounded by the semi-feral herds on the moor!

And I’m not alone. Many thousands of people flock to Dartmoor every year, and one of the most iconic sights they come to enjoy is the herds of ponies living free on the moor. It’s estimated that there are between 1200 – 1500 ponies on Dartmoor today, although that number is pretty much guesswork!

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Visitors see the little black/white or brown/white ponies, they find spotty ones, teeny-tiny ones and fluffy ones, all of which are very cute and endearing, made up of all sorts of different breeds and are known collectively as Hill Ponies.

But we also are very proud of our heritage on Dartmoor, and delighted to be known as the ancient home of the extremely popular and very famous native Dartmoor Pony. As Visit Dartmoor we regularly get asked questions about the ponies by visitors, and one that crops up quite often is: “Are there any of the traditional, old-fashioned Dartmoor ponies left on the moor?” Well, yes, there are – lots of them!

But there can be much confusion about what’s a ‘Dartmoor Pony’ – and what is a Hill Pony on Dartmoor …

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The traditional Dartmoor Pony

The beautiful traditional Dartmoor Pony is no bigger than 12.2 hands high, which makes it the perfect size for children to ride. The breed is so well loved as a safe, gentle and hardy pony, suitable to even the smallest child, that they’re exported all over the world.

Solid in colour (bay, brown, black, roan, grey or chestnut) they have thick waterproof coats, no white (or very little) so as to avoid sunburn and other weather related issues, hard black feet to cope with granite and bogs, thick, long manes and tails for wind and rain protection. In other words, perfectly adapted to life on Dartmoor.

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Registered Dartmoor Ponies excel as riding, driving, show jumping, cross-country, dressage, hacking and trail riding ponies, and are hugely popular at shows from local level right up to the dizzying heights of Horse of the Year Show at NEC.

Purebred, registered Dartmoor ponies are very sadly now an officially endangered breed in the UK. There are many challenges to breeding the valuable pedigree Dartmoor pony on the moor, but they are here, and they are thriving!

History   Native Dartmoor ponies have a rich history of living and working on the moor. Archeological investigation in the 1970’s has shown that domesticated ponies were found on Dartmoor as early as 1500 BC. The first written record dates back as far as AD 1012, and refers to wild horses in Ashburton on the southern edge of Dartmoor.

In medieval times Dartmoor Ponies were used for carrying heavy loads of tin across the moor, so they had to be sturdy and strong – and they still are. Over the period between 1789 – 1832 the breed was affected by an infusion of Shetland Pony blood as breeders were trying to create smaller ponies for use in the mines. But fortunately in later years, in an effort to improve the size, quality and type of pony, the native Dartmoor Pony received an influx of Arab blood from the stallion Dwarka, foaled in 1922, and his son, called The Leat. That quality can still be seen today.

The first attempt to define and register the breed was in 1898, when the ponies were entered into a studbook started by the Polo Pony Society. In 1924, the breed society was founded, and a studbook finally opened.

Both World Wars were devastating for the breed, with only a small number of ponies registered, but with perseverance and passion the local people began to increase breeding the traditional ponies again, so that by the 1950’s numbers were becoming healthy once more.

An innovative scheme has been introduced to halt the decline in numbers, and broaden the gene pool of the traditional Dartmoor Pony. The Dartmoor Pony Moorland Scheme (DPMS) was established in 1988 and is administered by the Dartmoor Pony Society and the Duchy of Cornwall, as well as being supported by the Dartmoor National Park.

Conservation  Dartmoor pony farmers are a resilient and pro-active bunch and are taking steps to preserve their ancient herds. Some are putting a vasectomised stallion out with their mares to protect them from ‘visits’ from neighbouring stallions. Some are using a contraceptive on the mares, and some are removing the stallion and running a gelding with the mares, but some very, very sadly are feeling overwhelmed by the situation and are giving up keeping ponies altogether. This is a potential tragedy for the herds of registered Dartmoor ponies, and would mean losing extremely valuable bloodlines, so there are discussions in place for some of those mares to be adopted in to other herds.

  • More about the endangered native Dartmoor Pony on Dartmoor
  • A family of farmers on north Dartmoor are raising awareness about the threat to the registered Dartmoor ponies by using two of their mares to visit shows and events and lead guided walks for groups of walkers. Find out more

 

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Dartmoor Heritage Ponies

Dartmoor Heritage Pony is the brand name for a good quality Dartmoor pony that has all the attributes of a registered pony.

The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust at Bovey Tracey operates a purpose-built, all-weather visitor and education centre to showcase the wonderful temperament and versatility of the Dartmoor pony and raise awareness of the ponies’ vital role in maintaining the ecology of Dartmoor.  DPHT liaises with conservation bodies like the National Trust and local Wildlife Trusts to place ponies for conservation grazing. This involves handling the ponies and training the wardens in pony care. They manage an 82-hectare site at Bellever, near Postbridge in the centre of Dartmoor.

You can book a free walk to visit a herd of ponies grazing at Bellever Forest on Dartmoor, where you can also see Bronze Age hut circles and other ancient monuments. Find out more

 

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Dartmoor Hill Ponies

The majority of the ponies you will see are what are known as Hill Ponies, in a range of colours, heights and types. They usually live in small groups and are all owned by someone – they’re not wild. Some are Shetland ponies, many are Shetland crosses, there are some Welsh ponies, and nowadays quite a few spotted ponies which seem very popular.

Each year in the autumn all the ponies are all collected in (drifted) and taken back to holding areas where they are sorted out and taken back to the farms, where decisions are made about their future.

Conservation   Due to the current lack of an overall successful management system, many hundreds of unplanned and unwanted foals are born every year. There are lots of people, farmers and charities trying their best to change things, but it is an uphill struggle to get everyone to work together. A new herd management plan, which would allow each farm to breed only the ponies they have a market for would be a wonderful thing, and would hopefully see an end to the struggle for the many rescue societies, charities and rehoming centres that are always full to bursting with hill ponies needing a home. If you’re interested in more information, or in adopting or rehoming a pony, see:

 

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Ponies from Dartmoor: their potential

All ponies from Dartmoor, whether they are registered ponies, heritage ponies or hill ponies, can go on to become wonderful riding, driving or competition ponies. They are all valuable as grazing animals, preserving the ecology of the moor, and they all have enormous potential.

Some of the best registered breeding stock are shown all over the UK, from local shows right up to Horse of the Year Show, showing the qualities and beauty that make them such incredible ponies.

At least one farm has developed a new initiative, and has partnered up with a neighbouring farmer, buying their foals in the autumn when they are drifted in.

The foals are then trained to be gentle and unafraid of humans, halter broken, wormed and they get their identification passports and micro-chips done. Consequently, they are in great demand from all over the UK and have also been sold to Germany!

Foals from South Moor Hill Ponies are already earning the reputation of being ‘one in a lifetime’ ponies with their new owners, and it’s great to see them flying the flag for the hill ponies on Dartmoor.