By Deborah Donohue
Imagine walking onto the British Isles before they were actually islands! Legend has it that the ancestors of the Exmoor Pony did just that! The Exmoor are considered by many to be direct descendants of wild ponies that migrated from Alaska to Britain approximately 130,000 years ago, when a northern land bridge connected the continents.
The rare and historical Exmoor are named for the bleak, expansive moorland bisected by the River Exe near Devon and Somerset in southwestern England, an area they have roamed for time immemorial. They are Britain’s oldest and purest breed—the original Celtic pony from which all native British pony breeds evolved. According to the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, “Exmoors are believed to be the most primitive of the northern European horse breeds…and the breed’s antiquity and genetic distance from other breeds has been demonstrated.”
Oklahoma State’s Department of Animal Science confirms “archaeological evidence dating back over 60,000 years bears an uncanny similarity to the Exmoor Pony of today.” To illustrate some perspective on this time frame, the small but sturdy Exmoor’s ancestors cohabited with ancient wildlife such as the Woolly Mammoth, and were hunted by Stone Age man and the Sabretooth Tiger! (Not only were the ponies a source of food for early man, the equine skins and fat were essential to his survival in winter.) It is thought that dramatic climate changes about 10,000 years ago restricted the ponies grazing habitats to the moorland and mountain terrains of Britain. When the Celts arrived in Britain (in what is now considered the Iron Age from 600 BC-50 AD), they rounded up ponies from the wild upland herds, tamed them, and trained them to pull their chariots. Julius Caesar subsequently invaded Britain in 55-54 BC, battling the Celts there as part of his Gallic Wars. Roman carvings showing ponies phenotypically similar to the Exmoor Pony point to their use by the Roman legions, as well as by the Celts.
The first written record of the Exmoor Pony can be found in the Domesday Book in 1086. (The Domesday is a manuscript written in Medieval Latin containing the record of a survey ordered by King William the Conqueror, to assess land holdings and livestock in order to determine taxes. Assessments were without appeal, thus the name Domesday, Middle English for doomsday.) Exmoor had been designated a Royal Forest and in 1818, John Knight bought the Royal Forest of Exmoor from the Crown. Sir Thomas Acland, the warden of the Exmoor Forest at the time, bought 30 of the ponies, and moved them to Winsford Hill, founding the Acland herd. Local farmers who had worked for Acland also bought ponies at the dispersal sale, founding herds of their own, some of which still exist. John Knight’s efforts at crossbreeding using the remaining ponies had little success, and his herd eventually died out. In 1921, moorland farmers, descendants of those who had been involved with the Aclands and other foundation herds became concerned with the Exmoor’s heritage and conservation as a pure breed. They established the Exmoor Pony Society, to form a studbook, register purebred animals, and encourage breeding and preservation. The Exmoors enjoyed great popularity in the 1930s, boosted by the publication of the Moorland Mousie books, written by Muriel Wace (pen name Golden Gorse), and illustrated by Lionel Edwards. The narrative voice was that of Mousie, an Exmoor Pony.
The 1940s and World War ll proved a very precarious time for the Exmoors. Owners went off to war, moorland gates were often left open, trigger-happy soldiers used the ponies for target practice, and butchers stole them for meat during times of rationing. A harsh winter in 1947 contributed to their demise, and their numbers dropped to just fifty or so. The horses survival can be greatly attributed to Mary Etherington, a dedicated supporter of the breed. Through her vigilance and efforts, moorland gates were replaced with cattle grids, and boundaries to the commons were secured. (Commons are land legally registered to be in public ownership. They predate both the monarchy and parliament, hearkening back to times when land was predominantly wild and ownerless.)
The Exmoors use in Britain’s history has ranged from work in the quarries and mines, to farming and industrial work, to more leisure and competitive activities in modern days. Revered as part of Britain’s natural fauna, the remaining free-ranging herds contribute significantly to the conservation of heathland, chalk grassland and other natural pasture habitats. During the 1950s the first Exmoor Ponies were exported to North America (Canada), though the breed has only become more well known in the last ten to fifteen years. In 2010, there were estimated to be still only about 800 worldwide. Today, numbering less than 5000 globally, the breed is on the Livestock Conservancy’s “threatened” list.
The Exmoor is a perfect example of natural selection and nature’s intelligent design: a pony perfectly suited to survive, if need be, without man’s intervention. The ponies possess two unique features. The first is hooded or “toad eyes,” which protect from wind and rain. The second is a “snow chute,” also called a “frost cap” or “ice tail,” a group of coarse hairs at the top of the tail that deflect rain and snow away from the groin and underbelly, channeling it to fall from the long hair on the hind legs. The snow chute is shed each summer, growing back each autumn. In the winters, the Exmoor are cloaked in a double-layer coat. The undercoat is a soft and springy, insulating woolly layer, above that is an oily top layer that is nearly waterproof. The insulation is so efficient that “snow thatching” may occur—snow collecting on the ponies’ backs because not enough heat is being lost to melt it. Small ears also help prevent heat loss, while a large nasal cavity warms cold winter air as it enters the body. Summer coats, as in most horses, are short and shiny. The ponies are usually brown with “pangaré” or mealy markings around the muzzle, as if they dipped in oatmeal. The pangaré may also present around their eyes, flanks and underbelly. Exmoors have a stocky and powerful build, with a deep girth and chest, short, clean legs and hard, flinty hooves. The conformation is eerily reminiscent of early cave paintings featuring horse-like animals. They are sure-footed, with three smooth and comfortable gaits, and are surprisingly agile jumpers. Relatively large teeth and a large digestive capacity allow them to utilize a great amount of rough forage in their diet. The preferred height is 11.3-12.3 hands for stallions and geldings, and 11.2-12.2 for mares. The average weight is 700-800 pounds.
Quiet temperaments, hardiness, tractability and intelligence are some of their appealing traits. Exmoors that do not live in the semi-feral conditions of the moorland have been used for a variety of activities that include driving, agility, showing, competitive trail and long distance riding. Because of their jumping ability there has also been some crossbreeding, particularly for steeplechasers, in the United Kingdom. When well handled, they are friendly, sweet and loyal, and can be perfect family ponies.