The Moorland National Heritage of the Dartmoor Pony
The Dartmoor pony is a very rare breed with only a handful left in the world. For many centuries these ponies have lived, bred and run free on Dartmoor in the United Kingdom; a wild upland area of moorland and granite tors, rising in altitude to over 2,000 feet. The Dartmoor Pony is an ancient breed originating on the moorlands of Southern Devon in southwest England and is closely related to the Exmoor Pony. Through the centuries, the rough, rocky terrain, sparse grazing, and the extreme weather conditions experienced on the moors, have produced a sure-footed, small yet strong and particularly hardy breed with excellent stamina that is capable of excelling in any number of equine disciplines.
During the tin mining era, the Dartmoor Pony was used extensively between the 12th and 15th centuries to carry tin from the mines across the moors to the stannary towns. Its original genetic purity suffered greatly from the inclusion of Shetland pony blood between 1789 and 1832 when breeders tried to produce a suitable coal mine pit pony. Following the closure of the mines, some Dartmoor ponies were kept for agricultural uses, such as driving and shepherding for which they were particularly well suited, but most of the ponies were turned loose and left to roam free on the moors.
Nowadays, it lives in a feral or "wild" state in Dartmoor National Park, Devon, UK. All the ponies that are born and bred on the commons of Dartmoor are called Dartmoor Hill Ponies. There are 3 main types that vary in shape, color and size. The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust (DPHT) does not financially support either the non-local Shetland type or the Colored type of Dartmoor Hill Pony, but they do support the Indigenous type (both wild and pedigree).
The Wild Native Dartmoor Pony roams the open moor and represents the foundations of the original Dartmoor Pony breed. The DPHT sponsors 24 herds of wild ponies across the Dartmoor moors to aid in their future survival. Money that is donated to the DPHT is invested towards preserving the irreplaceable gene pool. These ponies can be found all over Dartmoor and are usually bay with long flowing manes and little or no white on them.
The Pure-bred Dartmoor Pony or Registered Dartmoor Pony is similar to the wild Native Dartmoor Pony. However, since the registered pony has a known pedigree it also tends to be more refined than the native breed. These ponies can be seen at pony breed shows and on stud farms. There are a few pedigreed herds out grazing on the commons. Some of the Dartmoor ponies on the moors are owned and protected by farmers and these animals are usually identified by their brands.
But despite this protection of the herds, their numbers have declined from an estimated 25,800 ponies in the 1930's to around 5,000 today.
The ponies are rounded up annually in the fall; the foals are weaned and some are offered for sale. If you purchase a pony from the commons at Dartmoor you will have a pony of good temperament. The Moorland ponies are semi-feral and have rarely been handled so this makes them potentially unsuitable for inexperienced people. Ponies that are sold at markets are under one year of age and cannot be ridden until they are at least four years old.
The earliest documented mention of the Dartmoor Pony is in the will of Awifwold of Crediton, a Saxon Bishop who died in 1012. Between 1535 and 1541, King Henry VIII passed laws to eliminate the keeping of small horses under 14 hands and fines were imposed on anyone breeding to a small stallion. This was due to the weight of the armor worn by the knights which made it necessary to breed a horse capable of carrying the weight. Small "stoned horses" were considered unprofitable and smaller ponies than 15 hands were caught and destroyed. Fortunately, in remote areas like Dartmoor, this law was mostly ignored.
In 1893, the National Pony Society was formed and for several years was known as The Polo Pony Society. In 1898, a breed standard was created and a committee was set up to inspect ponies into a new stud book. Soon afterwards, in 1899, the Mountain and Moorland sections opened in The Polo Pony Stud Book and agreement was made to accept Dartmoor Pony registrations through a committee that was appointed to select suitable ponies. In 1924-25 the Dartmoor Pony Society (DPS) was formed in the United Kingdom and the maximum height of 12.2 hands was set.
The Dartmoor Pony was first introduced to North America in the 1930's but due to extensive cross-breeding, the pure bloodlines began to disappear. Through the dedicated efforts of Mrs. Joan Dunning of White Post, Virginia, the purebred Dartmoor Pony was preserved in the United States. The Dartmoor Pony Registry of America (DPRA) was founded in 1956 and keeps the official studbook. Although still considered a rare breed, the Dartmoor Pony population has been growing steadily in the United States. Recently there have been many quality imports from England. Dartmoor Ponies now are bred in Britain, Europe, and in North America, and are often used in the development of the Riding Pony.
One unusual bit of evidence that has been uncovered is that miniature horse dwarfism and congenital defects are more prevalent in the US miniature horse breeding programs than in foreign countries. In Britain, many smaller Dartmoor Ponies are within the height requirements of US Miniature Horse Registries, yet dwarfism is virtually unknown in the breed.
Dartmoor Ponies can be used for many purposes. They break well to harness and make intelligent driving ponies. With an exceptional mental attitude, the Dartmoor Pony is perfect as a child's riding and show pony and can compete in many disciplines with ease. They are brave with powerful rear quarters that make them solid and safe jumpers; ideal for small children just learning to jump. The Dartmoor Pony is reliable, sensible, kind and quiet.
The Dartmoor Pony is sturdily built with a small head, strong neck, strong back and high quarters. It ranges in height from 11 hands to no more than12.2 hands and is bay, brown, black and occasionally gray, chestnut or roan. White markings on the head and legs are to be minimal. Piebald and skewbald exist but are not recognized by the breed society as they are the result of interbreeding. The laid back shoulder and the long, low stride provide a smooth and comfortable ride for showing, hunting or trail riding. It is hardy, strong and versatile, with good stamina and long lived; up to 40 years.