Finding the ideal native: which breed is perfect for you? *H&H Plus*

  • The versatility and hardiness of a native pony means they’re an apt choice for many riders. But which breed would be the best fit in your life? Alex Robinson investigates

    VISIT any livery yard in the UK and you’re likely to find a pony with native influence residing in one of the stables. The idea that the mountain and moorland (M&M) is only suitable for a rider with low ambitions and competitive expectations is a thing of the past, as we witness them performing grand prix dressage, winning horse trials and scooping supremes at the likes of Horse of the Year Show (HOYS).

    “All 12 of the M&M breeds from the British Isles are tough and, as their heritage demands, extremely intelligent,” says the National Pony Society (NPS) council’s M&M breed council representative Madge Taylor. “Each individual breed – and indeed, each individual pony – has their own special attributes.

    “Many riders started their careers on a Shetland. They’re a good introduction to the joy of riding and learning to care for a pony, its diminutive size not being too overwhelming for a small child.

    Dartmoors, Exmoors and Welsh section As – and not forgetting New Forest ponies under 12hh – are ostensibly children’s ponies, although some could carry a small, lightweight adult with ease.

    “The slightly older newcomer to natives may consider a Welsh section B or C, and this is also an ideal step-up from a small breed.

    “For an older child or family mount there is little to choose between the larger breeds. Fells, Highlands, Dales, Connemaras and New Forests are all tough and dependable. Not for the faint-hearted is the Welsh section D, an athletic and huge-moving pony who can excel but is not for the novice rider.

    “Compatibility is the key word. Research your chosen breed, observe it in action and talk to those who know.”

    NATIVE producer Amy Smith’s most famed ride is her bay Connemara gelding Laburnum Richard (Pedro), a two-time HOYS worker champion who Amy maintains is a “quirky” ride.

    “Some would assume that a Connemara is suitable for a novice home but I think it takes a very special type of pony to do that job,” says Amy. “Ultimately, they’re performance ponies and while you may be drawn to them after watching them in the ring, they can be challenging to get to that stage. Pedro is anything but easy and he has to be ridden in a specific way to get the best out of him.”

    But Amy maintains that in the wrong hands, any breed of pony can take advantage. The heavier breeds, such as Highlands and Fells, have garnered a reputation for being docile “happy hackers”.

    “What makes a pony is its upbringing,” Amy continues. “A wild animal which has never been handled and has come straight off the moors or fells is going to take time to come right.

    “If you want something quiet you’re best buying something that’s been there and done it, not just assuming it’s going to be a certain way because of its breed.

    “Researching certain breeding lines can help gauge a pony’s temperament, too. Look into the bloodlines and research siblings by the same stallion who are already on the circuit. You can’t always base it on breeding but it can help.”

    NICOLA and Malcolm Salter have driven natives for many years.

    The duo have five national private driving championship supreme accolades between them.

    “Natives have the ability, temperament and intelligence as well as naturally good stamina to be a harness pony,” says Malcolm. “We’ve worked with all the Welsh sections and have achieved great success with them because of their attitude to work. They do learn very quickly, so it’s important to train them correctly from the beginning.

    “All of the breeds have their strengths; it’s all about temperament, conformation and paces. When we’re seeking a suitable driving pony we look for a youngster that hasn’t been touched so we can do everything ourselves, or a pony that has been successfully shown in-hand or under saddle. This doesn’t mean it has to have won lots of red rosettes, but has been in the ring and behaved.

    “In the show ring, it helps if a pony has that extra wow-factor, like an exuberant extension, but is equally mannerly and correct.

    “Natives can also do extremely well in driving trials and indoor driving, too, because of their sure-footedness, power and willingness. Pleasure driving and attelage require stamina and strength which natives have in abundance.

    “Don’t rule any breed out; the Shetland, though small, makes a superb driver because of its strength, while Exmoors and New Forests are very workmanlike, both in stature and attitude. I’ve also worked with the Highland breed and have found them to be extremely affable in their attitude to training.”

    MINI pony specialist Sharn Linney also has a wealth of experience with all types.

    “Everyone knows I love a Welsh section A,” says Sharn. “Children grow at such different rates. Section As come in all shapes and sizes and if you source a substantial type with a good temperament it can carry the child and there is less worry about them outgrowing it so soon, but is still rideable for the dinky jockeys.

    “While there are some fantastic Dartmoors out there, I have found some to be more strong-willed and harder for the kids to bridle. They tend to be stronger or stuffier and just take a little more riding.”

    One of the hardest step-ups for many young riders is from the first pony.

    “At this stage, the junior jockey will hopefully be more confident,” continues Sharn. “While safety is still important, we can look for something with more movement and place emphasis on type and conformation. The older the rider, the more diverse the search can be.

    “I do like a nice Welsh section B for this stage of riding. They have substance and are showy but can also be great fun and can usually jump.”

    Madge adds: “To help you make an informed choice, attend a larger show where there are performance and breeding classes for all the breeds in a large variety of disciplines.”

    “The breed societies would be the first port of call for further information and access to ponies for sale. The NPS also holds study days where those new to natives can learn the pros and cons of each breed.”

    Size matters

    DUE to their stature and bone, M&Ms can generally carry more weight per hand than sports and riding pony types. The lack of rider age limits in showing classes also means they can make the ideal competition pony to keep in the family for many years.

    Petite adult riders may be suitable for a small breed, while taller, broader riders might be perfectly fine on a stockier large breed.

    “There is no proven ideal weight ratio,” says Gemma Stanford, director of welfare at the British Horse Society. “A pilot study was done but further research is needed to work towards the goal of producing guidelines. However, there are a host of other factors that should be considered. These include conformation, fitness and strength of the pony, the fit and suitability of the saddle, ability of the rider, rider balance and symmetry, duration and intensity of work they’re being asked to do, as well as the footing and terrain.

    “Ask some questions; does the combination look right? If not, it is likely that the rider is too big. Look at the position of the rider in the saddle; is the rider sitting nicely in the middle of the saddle or on the cantle? Are the rider’s shoulder, hip and heel in alignment?

    “When choosing a horse appropriate for your size take into account the horse’s ideal bodyweight, rather than the bodyweight of an already obese horse; the horse should not be allowed to gain weight in order to reduce the rider/horse bodyweight ratio.”

    “Natives are cheaper to feed, hay and bed”

    FORMER British vaulting team member Sonyarisa Duckhouse made a switch from 18hh horses to natives back in 2014, and she hasn’t looked back.

    Sonyarisa started vaulting aged seven. As well as landing the Welsh championship four years on the trot, some of her other achievements include taking seventh in the FEI CDI2* at the Budapest International and landing silver in Belgium.

    “My final competition was a CDI2* in Saumur, France in April 2014; I slipped off in the third round and it brought back memories from a serious accident I had a couple of years before,” explains Sonyarisa. “I said to my coach that I was ready for a quieter life.”

    Sonyarisa’s first native was the Fell gelding Chestermann Dandy. Now aged 14, Dandy was a finalist in the 2019 SEIB Search For A Star championship.

    “Since my accident I enjoy being closer to the floor,” continues Sonyarisa. “The difference in keep cost is massive, too; natives are cheaper to feed, hay and bed. I’ve also found that a lot of livery yards don’t have stables big enough to accommodate the big horses either.”

    Sonyarisa also owns four-year-old Dales stallion Hett Tudor King, whom she bought as a foal from his breeder.

    “The Dales seem less amicable than the Fells, though I’m completely sold on natives as a whole. I was overhorsed on the bigger rides; I would struggle to make them move from behind, but Dandy is like a Rolls-Royce. Some people are put off by a native as they think they need flash, but I would rather have something which can use itself properly and that I can ride well.”

    ● Have you found a native that’s the perfect fit for you? Write in to H&H at hhletters@futurenet.com

    This feature can also be read in this week’s Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 6 May

    You may also be interested in…