The Exmoor pony: Britain’s oldest native breed

The Exmoor pony is Britain’s oldest breed of native pony. Today, the Exmoor is recognised as an endangered breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

They have adapted to survive on low quality moorland grazing and can make good all-round family ponies, capable of carrying adults, but some have been known for having quirky temperaments.

Stallions stand up to 12.3hh and mares up to 12.2hh. They can either be bay, brown and dun in colour and carry characteristic mealy markings on the muzzle and around the eye and flanks.

The Exmoor Pony Society (EPS) was founded in 1921 and classify themselves as the ‘guardians of the breed’.

The EPS states that: “Exmoor ponies are versatile, adaptable, very strong for their size and able to turn their hooves to a wide variety of activities.

“Historically, the Exmoor pony was used by the hill farmers to undertake all kinds of work from being ridden for shepherding to being used in harness for ploughing, harrowing, taking feed to stock and the farmer’s family to market and church.”

Ponies from wild herds were gathered and then trained to pull the carts and chariots of the Celtic settlers. The Doomsday Book book contains the first written evidence of ponies on Exmoor, when it was a designated Royal Forest.

The EPS continues: “Records from the 1500s onwards reveal that the equine population varied in numbers rising to about 1,000 at times. Non-Exmoor mares came to the moor to join the indigenous British Hill Pony type stock but it is thought that the wardens ran native stallions.”

In 1818, the crown sold the Royal Forest of Exmoor and the outgoing Warden, Sir Thomas Acland, took 30 of the ponies and founded the Acland herd, which is now known as the Anchor herd and still running. Farmers from Withypool and Hawkridge also bought stock at the dispersal sale and founded several herds. Numbers 1, 10, 12, 23 and 44 still exist.

Exmoor pony

Today, Exmoor ponies are found winning under saddle in the show ring both in flat classes and as working hunter ponies. In 2017, Gail Wetter and her own Barhill Marigold won the 122cm working hunter pony of the year final at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS). The only Exmoor pony to ever win the M&M ridden final at Olympia was Margaret Burnett’s Stowbrook Jenny Wren, who took the title in 2003 with Katy Marriott-Payne. Pictured above is the 2017 Olympia Best of Breed and 2018 Royal International Horse Show small breeds winner Dunkery Widgeon, owned by Mauren Richardson and ridden by Hayley Reynolds.

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The EPS and its members work hard to ensure that this rare native breed continues to run free on Exmoor and exhibits all the traits and characteristics of its ancestors.

The EPS says that: “All the Exmoor ponies on the moor are owned by moorland farmers who have specific grazing rights. The farmers and local Society members monitor the herds at key stages of the breeding cycle, making notes of which mares are in foal and when the foals are born. This greatly assists the society in ensuring that the parentage of the ponies is correctly recorded at the time of inspection.”

Exmoor conservation is considered to be very important. At the end of the second world war, there were only around 50 ponies left on the moor. This means that there is a very small pool of breeding ponies. Nevertheless, dedicated breeders are working hard to ensure old bloodlines remain in the gene pool.

Exmoors can be versatile with several taking to the dressage and show jumping arenas, despite not having massive amounts of movement. They have also proven to be excellent conservation grazers and being used for this purposes at a number of locations both in the UK and around the world.

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