Exmoor Pony Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below
The Exmoor Pony is a living example of a very ancient equine, and takes its name from the high, wild moorland in Southwest England. This is the Exmoor Pony’s natural habitat and where it has been largely isolated for centuries. It is this harsh, inhospitable environment that is responsible for the peculiar character of this incredibly strong and hardy pony.
A TRUE WILD HORSE FORM
Why were - and are - zoologists reluctant to recognize the Exmoor Pony as a true wild horse form? Surely because one simply considered it unlikely that true wild horses could have survived in West Europe. By contrast, when wild horses were discovered in the deserts and semi-deserts of Mongolia, they didn’t think twice and immediately accepted them as wild horses in the true, zoological sense.
Another reason could have been a prevailing idea that wild horses had to be dun or grulla, and also had to have a short, upright mane. The brown color of the Exmoor looked too inconspicuous to them and was not associated with wild horses. Even many horse experts today do not realize that wild horses came in different colors, one of which is the brown color of the Exmoor.
That a short, erect mane is not a prerequisite for a wild horse is shown by a horse that was excavated in the Yukon region, well-preserved in the permafrost and dated to be 20,000 years old, which had a long, falling mane! That Exmoors, too, have such a mane is certainly no reason to deny them the status of true wild horses.
The researcher Ewart might be responsible for the term “Celtic pony”, which always turns up in association with British ponies, and with the Exmoor. It is an unfortunate term that other scientists picked up on - the original wild horse form of which the Exmoors are a remnant population existed in Great Britain and other parts of Europe long before the Celts arrived there!
This primeval pony has its purest representative in the Exmoor. Although it believed to have migrated from Alaska into and across Asia, and should have had habitats there as well, and prehistoric cave paintings show that it at times went as far south as North Africa, its last habitat seems to have been northern and western Europe.
The long isolation of the Exmoor Pony herds running wild, and the protection and continuation of the herds has allowed the Exmoor Pony to be a living example of a very ancient equine. While all other European pony breeds were more or less altered by selective breeding, the Exmoor pony from southeastern England seems to represent a primeval wild horse that was ancestral to the many pony breeds we know
In spite of a certain influence Man has had over these wild horses, their characteristics remained the same, and today’s Exmoors are not different in their skeletons from prehistoric bones excavated in Europe and North America. The Exmoor is therefore not so much a breed as an actual subspecies, one of several post-glacial wild horses that became the ancestors of our domestic horses.
These wild horses - up to about a thousand - used to live in a Royal Forest , the main reason they were preserved for so long, which was dissolved in 1818. After that, only small herds remained in other areas of the Exmoor, the largest was owned by the Acland family.
The pure Exmoor population was diminished more and more, until in 1921, the Exmoor Pony Society was founded, aiming to preserve the Exmoor pony. This was certainly a much-needed and important effort, on the other side a dubious blessing, because now many of these formerly wild horses were subject to studbook-orientated rules - a step towards domestication. At that time, the total population - wild and on farms - was estimated at 500 head.
However, the wild horses on Exmoor had to suffer worse times. Especially World War II meant disaster, when American soldiers had shooting practices in that region and, and finding it too boring to just shoot at dead objects, decimated the wild horses to a mere 50 or so...
The wild horses of Exmoor made a comeback, though, after the war. Today there are 1,300 or more Exmoors world-wide, about a quarter of which still enjoys living semi-wild. Only three male lines survived and several more female lines, as DNA analyses have shown.
The purity and quality of the herds still running on Exmoor are jealously safeguarded by the Exmoor Pony Society, as well as of course others bred off the Moor in other parts of the world. In a sense, the herds of Exmoor Ponies remain wild, although they are brought in annually for inspection.
Foals passed by the breed inspectors at the annual autumn gathers are branded with a star on the shoulder to indicate that they are purebred Exmoor Ponies. Beneath the star the herd number is branded and on the left hindquarter is the number of the pony within the herd.
The Exmoor Pony’s head is unique. The muzzle is mealy-colored; the nostrils wide; the ears short, thick and pointed; the forehead is broad; and the eyes are large and prominent. The eyes are hooded to provide protection against the weather. The head is a little larger than other breeds because of the length of the nasal passages, which allow the air to be warmed before inhalation.
The outline of the pony is robustly symmetrical. It is very deep and wide between and behind the forelegs with a deep, well sprung rib cage. The back is noticeably level and broad over the loins. The shoulders are powerful and well laid back. The hindquarters are powerful, with a dropping hip, and low tail set. Mane and tail are heavy and designed to lead off water, as are the whorls on the whole body.
Features of the breed are uniformly short limbs and well-spaced forelegs set square to the body. The hind legs are set nicely apart, perpendicular from hock to fetlock. The cannons are short and flat; good bone and hard, neat hooves are also general In the breed.
In nature, the Exmoor Pony’s tail has a thick and fan-like growth at the top. This ice tail gives protection against rain and snow. The coat too is double-textured and waterproof. In winter it grows thick, harsh and springy, in summer it is dense and hard and has a peculiar metallic sheen.
The color of the Exmoor Pony is distinctive too. The ponies are brown, sometimes of a lighter color that borders the dun color, but they are not duns, because they don’t have a dorsal stripe and leg stripes.
These lighter-colored individuals are never of the reddish bay color. They are mealy-colored around the muzzle, around the eyes, on the inside of the flanks and thighs, and on the underbelly. No white markings are permissible. Height is between 12.2 and 12.3 hands.
The Exmoor Pony action is straight, smooth and balanced without any exaggerated knee lift. They are noted for their ability to gallop and jump. The pony is enormously strong, well-balanced and capable of carrying weight well out of proportion to its size. It has been known to carry a man for a full day’s hunting.
Today, some herds are still kept semi-wild, have to fend for themselves, and interference by Man is kept to a minimum. Many are kept as mounts, carriage horses, pack horses, and bred as a domesticated breed, so there are two sides to the coin of the situation of the Exmoor today. The British Exmoor Society has strict rules, though, designed to maintain the integrity of the Exmoor.
The Exmoor Pony is living history and is on the world’s rare breed list.
Breeding Exmoor ponies today should entail the responsibility to not follow whatever trends may arise, or “improvement” theories, but to get to understand and know this original wild horse form, and to make every effort to preserve it.