Five of Britain’s native breeds are on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s critical list, fighting for their survival. Octavia Pollock explains why it’s worth considering these often overlooked horses and ponies...
Anyone who doubts the ability of the Exmoor pony should see the astonishing photograph of Tippbarlake William jumping a hedge out of his field to follow the Beaufort. The wild ponies, with their dark dappled coats and mealy muzzles, are beloved by anyone who devoured Moorland Mousie as a child. Yet the breed is now classed as “endangered” by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), as is its southern counterpart, the Dartmoor.
Five other native British breeds are faring even worse: the Cleveland Bay, Eriskay pony, Suffolk, hackney horse and pony and Dales pony are “critical”, with fewer than 300 breeding mares. All five are full of ability and character, yet are often overlooked in favour of more obvious options.
The oldest of the English breeds is the Cleveland Bay, with enviable temperament and stamina. Recent genetic research shows the breed’s origins go back to the Sarmatian tribes of the Crimea, who travelled to the region of Hadrian’s Wall after a treaty of 175AD with Marcus Aurelius. The strong, swift horses were described as “brown as apple wood” in Beowulf, about 700AD, and eventually began to be used by chapmen, Yorkshire travelling salesmen, to carry goods.
When coaches arrived in the reign of Elizabeth I, Cleveland Bays, named for the Yorkshire region, were the natural choice to pull them. Their driving prowess nearly led to their downfall, with so many being used in the World Wars that breeding stock was drastically reduced, but also led to their revival when George VI and, later, his daughter, our Queen, recognised their value. Now, no Royal Ascot week would be complete without the noble bays trotting up the straight.
Stamina and willingness
Think of a hackney and you think of a carriage. Breed doyenne Barbara Stockton showed high-stepping hackneys for some 25 years before venturing into the coaching world, covering 30 miles a day on annual tours with four-in-hand teams.
“They have stamina and willingness – it’s hard to believe the situation is as it is,” she says.
She points out that they have been the most successful carriage horse in showing: “If another breed was having the success the hackney has, they would be breeding them. I don’t understand it.”
Barbara’s employee Darron Lea, who has hunted them, says: “I’ve worked with horses from breaking in Shetland ponies to logging with Shires and you’d struggle to find a better horse than a hackney.
“You can ask and ask and ask and they’ll give – you have to be the one to say they’ve done enough.”
Hackneys star in dressage, showjumping and hunting, their athleticism and strength invaluable attributes.
Cleveland Bays, too, excel beyond the shafts. Many were exported to America in the late 19th century and are very popular there. Orange County hunt field master Maryalice Matheson-Thomas, who has bred and trained them for nearly 40 years, praises their “easy temperament – and they are sturdy, sound and athletic”.
In England, Bruce Langley-McKim of Thorpeley Irish Draught and Rare Breed Stud champions them: “Cleveland Bays had an unfair reputation for being arrogant, but it’s only the way they were handled. My stallions will jump anything I point them at.”
Sadly, a failure to link the American Stud Book with the British means that international breeding must be careful not to dilute the genetics.
Key to the survival of any rare breed is that it has a use, which is problematic for horses. As Christopher Price, chief executive of the RBST, points out, you can revive cattle or sheep by selling their produce, but that is seldom an option for horses.
“Some can be used in forestry, where they can reach places machines can’t, and for conservation grazing, but otherwise it’s mainly through showing, which is why it’s so important to keep classes going,” he says.
Unfortunately, certain entrenched beliefs within the showing world hinder this. The diminutive, tough Eriskay pony of the Hebrides has been proved by DNA testing to be one of the most ancient and distinct breeds in the world. By virtue of its remoteness, it escaped the cross-breeding that diluted the strains of other island ponies.
“The Eriskay made crofting life in the Western Isles possible for generations,” says Nigel McWilliam of the Eriskay Pony Society. “They were bred for a unique set of circumstances that gives them their own niche as dependable family friends.”
Now, they can be found across the UK, winning driving and TREC titles and excelling in spheres from showjumping to equine therapy. However, the society was not formed until the 1970s and there are still those who consider them not to be a breed. As a result, they are not eligible for mountain and moorland classes at National Pony Society or British Show Pony Society events.
“It is a huge barrier,” notes Nigel. “It is key to their success that the ponies are seen out and about. Apart from their historical and genetic value, they are lovely ponies.”
One breed that is excelling in the showing sphere is the Dales, the strong, hardy and long-lived black pony of Yorkshire farmers, who would carry a load, pull a trap and go hunting with equal aplomb. Top-quality foals are in high demand for showing, but at the lower end of the market the breed is suffering, with traditional coloured ponies proving more popular among families.
“They’re not dead between the ears,” notes Jill Graham of the Dales Pony Society. “You do have to ride them.”
Dales are worth considering, however, being surefooted and intelligent.
“They’re not natural jumpers, but they will heave over a decent fence and make excellent hunters,” she says.
Their pronounced action makes them a good option for dressage, and they have no upper height limit, 15hh being a useful size.
Some 100 Dales foals are registered a year, although last year 124 were born.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” says Jill. “We don’t want to overbreed, but if there aren’t ponies available, buyers won’t consider them.”
The demand should be there: “They will happily turn their hooves to anything,” says Lynette Morrison, who hunts Akehurst Take A Chance with the Royal Artillery twice a week. “He’s tough as old boots and surefooted, as happy at the back of the field as up front or trail laying.”
The pair also do dressage, side-saddle, eventing, TREC and horseback archery.
A use beyond the traditional
The broad chestnut flanks of the Suffolk, colloquially the Suffolk Punch, are a familiar sight on the showground and in ploughing competitions, adorned with gleaming brasses and ribbons. However, Bruce is among those proving that they have a use beyond the traditional.
“My stallion Craikhow Hall Jensen has gone clear round ‘Burghley’ – Pony Club 80cm, but still – and jumps hedges with the Cottesmore and Fernie,” he notes. “I don’t want to change their type or refine them, I want height, depth, frame.”
He admires the dedication of the showing fraternity, but three tables worth of tack put him off that route. “‘Show fit’ often means too fat,” he says. “I want to see them actually doing something!”
Suffolks have a genuine value for jobs such as hauling timber in conservation areas, but they should not be restricted to harness.
Good news in the RBST watchlist 2020–2021 is that the Cleveland Bay, Dales and Suffolk have all seen more than a 5% increase in breeding mares (Eriskays have not changed and hackneys have declined). Our five rarest breeds are not anachronisms left over from earlier times, but valuable and valued horses and ponies whose abilities go far beyond their stereotypes. The plough of Suffolk and the hill tracks of Yorkshire may no longer need the native breeds of old, but their descendants deserve to thrive in the 21st century.
Moor to meal
The Devon breed recognised by the RBST as “endangered” is the Dartmoor, the Victorian result of crossing chunky hill ponies with Arabs and hackneys to create polo ponies and admired as agile and attractive, good for riding and driving. Still on the moor, however, are some 1,200 Dartmoor Hill Ponies, of assorted colours and sizes. In an endeavour to ensure recognition of the herds after Brexit, the first genetic profiling of the hill ponies was carried out and revealed that they appear to be genetically distinct, sharing genes only with the Carneddau ponies of Wales.
As Joss Hibbs of the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association explains, one method of ensuring they retain a value is by selling their meat through Dartmoor Conservation Meat. “It is lean red meat and contains omega-3, usually found in fish. The ponies are unique,” she says.
The scientific side
When only a small breeding pool exists, scientific methods come to the fore. Yvonne Evans, chair of the Eriskay Pony Society, is a leading proponent of artificial insemination (AI) for preserving rare breeds, collecting semen of quality stallions.
“We are mindful that we have older mares, too, whose eggs need preserving,” she says. “If the gene pool gets too narrow, it can tip over into extinction.”
Yvonne credits Dr Andrew Dell’s work for Cleveland Bays and Suffolks in avoiding the mixing of rare bloodlines and a reduction of “mean kinship” (retaining animals that are genetically important): “We are fortunate that we have his Sparks programme, a traffic-light system for determining whether a match is good or bad.”
There will always be a place for traditional breeding, but ever-improving AI will help.
Ref Horse & Hound; 14 May 2020
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