The Exmoor Pony is a very rare animal with a total population (wild and domestic, anywhere) far lower than many recognised rare species. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust lists the Exmoor as endangered because of the number of breeding animals.
The very small number living free are of great importance as the wild environment continues to select for the ponies’ natural characteristics.
There are a few small free-living groups away from Exmoor and these provide ‘insurance’ in case problems ever arise on Exmoor and are a welcome boost to the number living under natural conditions. On Exmoor itself there are recognised strains within the total group, which have arisen by the herds living on separated commons. Ensuring that these strains persist and that no genetic material is lost from the breeding population is also very important.
HOW RARE IS RARE?
Exmoors have found a new role in managing nature reserves for English Nature, the National Trust and several country Wildlife Trusts and are aiding their own conservation in natural conditions at the same time. For example, those released on the Purbecks in Dorest are successfully helping the orchid population to thrive. Their willingness to eat various coarse plants makes them ideal for conservation grazing.
LOCATION OF FREE-LIVING HERDS ON EXMOOR
Herd 23 has belonged to the Milton family at Withypool since the family first settled there in 1807. Since the early 1970’s, Mrs C Mitchell’s Herd H8 has shared Withypool Common’s almost 800 hectares (2,000 acres) of grass and heather moorland, crossed by the River Barle. Normally three stallions, each with a harem of mares, graze the Common.
The large expanse of open moorland beyond Warren Farm, between Exford and Simonsbath, is the domain of one of the National Park herds. This is part of the former Royal Forest and perhaps the wildest location of Exmoor ponies. There is no public access through Warren Farm. A single stallion lives here with his breeding herd of mares and these form Herd H52.
Mrs R Wallaces’s “Anchor” Herd runs on Winsford Hill’s 704 (1,760 acres) of heather moorland, usually to be found in three groups each with a stallion. These are the descendants of the Acland herd, founded by Sir Thomas Acland when the Royal Forest was sold in 1818. They are unique amongst Exmoor ponies in having an anchor shaped brand rather than a herd number.
Codsend Moor / Dunkery Beacon
Codsend Moor is the home of Herd 12, founded by the Crockford family in the 1800’s and passed to the Western family of Luckwell Bridge in the 1940’s. The herd, a single stallion and his mares, runs on an inclosure of about 40 hectares (100 acres) lying on the flank of Dunkery Beacon. Dunkery Beacon itself has had a resident Herd, H17 belonging to Mrs Gill Langdon and Mrs Jackie Ablett, since the early 1990’s, again with one stallion and a number of mares.
One of the Exmoor National Park Authority’s herds, H42, inhabits 400 acres of open heath with some woodland, rising above Wimbleball Lake near Brompton Regis. Both the ENPA herds were established in 1980 and both are breeding herds, each with one stallion.
There are also breeding herds to be found at Lanacombe (Herd H67), Deer Park (Herd H9), Porlock Common (Herd 100) and Molland Moor (Herd 99). Small numbers of youngstock run on East Anstey Commons. When visiting, please approach quietly and do not disturb the pony herds.
EXMOOR PONY CHARACTERISTICS – Breed Standard and Purpose of Features
“Ears short, thick and pointed”. The ears are small and lined with soft hair. All body openings are kept to a minimum size and well protected to prevent being chilled in bad weather.
“Eyes large, wide apart and prominent (Toad Eyes).” The flesh around the eye forms a raised rim which protects it from water running down the head. The term “toad eye” comes from this bulging appearance.
“Clean cut face; wide forehead; wide nostrils”. The relatively long head allows air to pass over a good length of internal membranes which warm it up before reaching the lungs. The thick forelock and man (and winter beard) are all to shed water from the head.
The beautiful Exmoor in flight TEETH
The incisors (front biting teeth) should meet cleanly to give an efficient bite and this generally endures into old age. The molars (side, chewing teeth) are large and angled to give a strong chewing pressure to deal with tough moorland plants.
“Straight & smooth, without exaggerated action”. The Exmoor’s stride is long low and smooth, giving them easy movement over rough terrain and providing a well-balanced ride. These ponies are extremely sure-footed.
“Tail neatly set in”. The hairs at the root of the tail are short and fan out to form a snow / rain chute, channelling water away from the delicate parts beneath. The rest of the tail is thick and fully haired and again sheds water efficiently. It is low set and well set in to provide protection from the elements.
BODY & COAT
“Shoulders clean, fine at top, well laid back; Chest deep & wide between and behind forelegs; ribs long, deep well-sprung and wide apart; back broad and level across loins; coat close, hard and bright in summer. Winter – a double layered dense coat with an under insulating layer of fine, springy hair and outer waterproofing layer of hard greasy hair”.
LEGS & FEET
“Clean and short; forelegs straight, well apart and squarely set; hind legs well apart, nearly perpendicular from hock to fetlock with point of hock in line with pelvis bone; wide curve from flank to hock joint; legs in free motion with no tendency to sweep or turn. Neat, hard feet.” The anatomy of the very strong legs is adapted to living and moving in hilly country. The feet are small, dark slate coloured and exceptionally hard to cope with rough terrain. Lack of colouration or white marks on the feet are deemed weaker / alien and such ponies are not registered.
“Bay, brown or dun with black points”. All Exmoors are essentially identical and this “brown & mealy ” colouration is a very primitive appearance adapted for camouflage.
“Mealy colour on the muzzle, around eyes and inside flanks. No white markings anywhere”
The star on the shoulder denotes official Exmoor Pony Society registration; the number below it is the pony’s herd number. The number on the flank is it’s individual registration number in that herd. Ponies in the ‘Anchor’ her have no herd number but an anchor symbol on the flank above the individual number.
THE MOORLAND YEAR
The first foals usually arrive in April but most foals are born in May and June. Early in life, the foals stay close to the dams. They play from an early age, initially with their mothers but then with other foals. Traditionally, the Stallion Parade is held at Exford in early May, where the stallions are paraded and compete for valuable premiums.
In summer, less time if spent feeding and so a greater part of each day is spent resting. The summer diet consists mainly of preferred nutritious grasses, allowing the ponies to accumulate reserves for the winter. The foals grow rapidly throughout the summer, becoming less dependent on their mothers. Tourists become a significant part of the environment and the ponies generally favour quiet areas away from disturbance. Unlike many moorland ponies elsewhere, Exmoors rarely approach people. The Breed Show is held in August at Exford. Ponies are shown in hand, under saddle and in harness.
As the amount of available grass declines, the ponies begin to vary their diet and grow their winter coats to ensure they are fully insulated and waterproofed. In late October, when the foals are old enough to be weaned, the owners ‘gather’ them off the open moorland. The ponies are taken to their home farms where the foals are inspected for registration. Most foals are then sold away from the moor; the adults and sometimes a few foals are released back to their moorland home and reform the herds of a stallion with a harem of mares.
As the food supply declines, life for the free living Exmoors becomes hard. Nature has endowed then with adaptations to aid survival in such harsh conditions. Their doubled layered winter coats keep Exmoors warm and dry and poor fibrous food is digested to create internal ‘central heating’. With less grass available, the ponies large quantities of gorse. Reserves of body fat accumulated during the summer months are also utilised.
Prior to the use of mechanisms, which came comparatively late to Exmoor, the local pony was used for a wide variety of tasks on the hill farms; a pony could be used for shepherding, ploughing, harrowing, hunting, carrying the farmer to market etc. Some were even used for the post round and some were mounts for the Home Guard during the war. Today Exmoor ponies are seldom used for work but throughout Britain participate in every sphere of equestrian activity, be it showing, riding, driving, jumping, long-distance riding, riding and driving for the disabled. Their considerable strength makes them highly suited to driving and although they make excellent lead rein ponies, they do require a competent child rider rather than a novice. As well as being able to serve many family members, the Exmoor finds favour because it is economical to keep; in fact when kept in fields one of the most important aspects is to ensure that an Exmoor does not get much food. Advice on their management is always available from the Exmoor Pony Society.
AN ANCIENT LINEAGE
The first wild ponies came to Britain about 130 thousand years ago. They were very successful and widely distributed. After about 100 thousand years Man came to Britain and hunted the wild ponies.
About 9,600 years ago, climatic change restricted open habitats to mountain and moorland areas supporting far fewer ponies; these became isolated on the uplands as the British Hill Pony. When the Celts settled in Britain, ponies from these wild herds were tamed and trained to pull their chariots. The first written records of ponies on Exmoor are in the Domesday Book.
In 1818, the Crown sold the Royal Forest of Exmoor to industrialist John Knight. The outgoing Warden, Sir Thomas Acland, took 30 ponies and founded the Acland herd (now known as the Anchor herd). Farmers from Withypool and Hawkridge also brought and founded several herds.
In 1912, owners became concerned that their true Exmoor ponies should not be lost to the fashion of the time for ‘improvement’ and founded the Exmoor Pony Society. In the 1930s Exmoors were very popular as childrens’ riding ponies, no doubt in part due to success of the Moorland Mousie stories. On Exmoor, as they had for generations, ponies carried the farmers shepherding, hunting, to market and even ploughed the land, while the unhandled breeding herds continued to graze the Commons.
The late 1940s nearly saw the demise of the Exmoor Ponies. Gates left open, trigger-happy troops and ponies stolen to provide food for the city dwellers reduced the population to about fifty. After the war Mary Etherington rallied the breeders who set about re-establishing their herds. Today the Exmoor continues as out partner in leisure and competitive activities while the free-living herds carry on its role as part of the natural fauna of Britain.
THE EXMOOR PONY SOCIETY
The Exmoor Pony Society was formed in 1921 and today has a membership spread throughout the British Isles. The EPS exists to promote and encourage the breeding of pure-breed Exmoor Ponies and , if free from disqualifying faults, are registered in the Stud Book and branded with the Society’s star, the herd number and individual pony’s number. Stallions have to pass a further inspection in order to be licensed for breeding. The EPS holds an annual stallion parade in Exford in May and a Breed Show in August.
THE EXMOOR NATIONAL PARK HERDS
In 1980 the Exmoor National Park Authority established two free-living herds, pursing its policy maintaining the ponies in their natural habitat. The management of the herds, which includes breeding policy, organising the annual round-up and inspection, liaison with the Exmoor Pony Society and the public, is the responsibility of the Park Management Section. The day to day welfare of the ponies is monitored by National Park rangers and graziers, who also assist with the gathering and inspection. The National Park Authority also encourages the keeping of free-living Exmoor Ponies by jointly funding a moorland mare premium scheme with the Exmoor Pony Society and by providing grazing licenses on suitable areas of its moorland estate.