The exceptional Exmoor
PUBLISHED: 15:36 01 June 2015 | UPDATED: 15:36 01 June 2015
What makes Exmoor special? For the majority of those who know the moor, high on their list of favourite things about it will be the Exmoor pony
Britain’s oldest native breed of pony, tough little Exmoors are distinctive. Standing at around 12.3 hands (51 inches), they’re shades of brown with black lower legs, mane and tail and have ‘mealy’ colouration around their muzzles, eyes and underbellies.
Foals have no white markings (although old ponies may develop grey hairs). Fleshy eyelids, or ‘toad’ eyes, help protect against rain and in winter they grow thick, double-layer coats to withstand harsh moorland conditions.
To protect the ponies and their genetic integrity the Exmoor Pony Society was founded in 1921. It acts as an umbrella organisation, working with dedicated breeders and herd owners to help maintain standards of welfare and well-being, as well as ensuring the breed is true to type.
Sue McGeever has been secretary to the society since 2005. “It’s important that the herds are managed and not too many foals are bred,” she says. “There’s a limit to the Exmoor pony market and we like all foals to find homes. That’s the ethos behind responsible breeding.”
Although appearing to run wild all the moorland ponies are owned and belong to 21 distinct herds which graze particular commons on the moor.
The Anchor Herd is one of the oldest and grazes on Winsford Hill. At Withypool three different herds roam, including one of geldings which, as non-breeding ponies, perform a vital role in moorland management and conservation.
About 500 ponies graze Exmoor at any one time. Apart from the ‘bachelor’ groups of geldings, herds may comprise a dominant stallion, mares with foals afoot, foals from previous years and older matriarchal mares who help keep the herd together. These older mares might be 30 plus years old, the oldest was known to be 40; the average lifespan is 25 years.
Every autumn herd owners round up the ponies and new foals are registered in the society’s stud book. Some ponies will be sold or move to conservation grazing sites. Their condition is checked and those that are staying on Exmoor are turned out again, as long as they are fit enough to cope with winter.
During these gatherings the ponies are checked against their herd list in an effort to establish exactly who is there. Historically the ponies were branded but now they’re microchipped, although some herd owners still brand. A DNA record is kept for every foal and parentage established. Nowadays all the ponies that leave the moor must have passports and many owners choose to passport their moorland stock.
For those whose health has declined, who will not survive another winter, the decision sometimes has to be made to put them to sleep rather than risk their suffering or subjecting an almost-wild, older pony to the unfamiliar confines of domesticated living. Very occasionally a small number of excess foals might be culled, but only as a last resort. Regulated breeding usually avoids this scenario.
About 20 stallions roam the moor, some herd owners running more than one. As a stallion ages he becomes less fertile and if two are running with one herd the mares tend to attach themselves to one or the other. Not all mares become pregnant, this is one way of managing the breeding.
Some breeders keep their stallions ‘in-ground’ (pastured off the moor) – another form of birth control. Approximately 80-120 foals are born in spring.
“The moorland herd owners have heeded the call of welfare organisations to breed responsibly,” says Sue, who is mindful of the fact that many less fortunate equines in Britain are uncared for and often abandoned – a fate the Society wishes to avoid for Exmoors.
Ponies who leave the moor and are sold have a variety of future careers; their versatility suits them for riding, driving and showing. Some go to the Moorland Mousie Trust at The Exmoor Pony Centre near Dulverton whose main aim is to provide a future for excess foals that come off the moor. Their colt foals will be gelded then may go on loan as conservation grazers elsewhere in the country, from North Berwick to the Sussex Downs and around our coastline. Ponies old enough to be ridden are broken in by the trust, then go on loan to families where they will hopefully become much-loved riding ponies.
Many herds are established away from Exmoor. There are free-living, registered ponies across the globe. This is important for the preservation of the breed; fresh bloodlines can be brought in to strengthen the gene pool on the moor, and should anything catastrophic happen to the ponies on Exmoor, there are pure-breds elsewhere in the world.
From time to time non-Exmoors will be grazed on the moor and this can cause problems for those trying to maintain the purity of Exmoor ponies. The society works closely with the Exmoor National Park Authority to monitor this. “Please breed Exmoors on Exmoor!” Sue pleads. “If someone wishes to run other breeds, then keep it to mares only, to avoid registered Exmoor mares producing cross-breds.”
Understandably, some people wish to cross-breed; the offspring inherit the advantages of the Exmoor’s hardiness and stamina. Exmoor/thoroughbred crosses, for example, make superb riding ponies. The society is keen that when this happens the cross-bred ponies aren’t turned out on the moor if there is a risk of their breeding.
There are several Exmoor pony events annually in addition to the autumn gatherings. The Stallion Parade takes place with the society’s AGM at Ralegh’s Cross in May. On the second Wednesday of August it’s the Breed Show, which runs alongside Exford Show. This is in the middle of the Exmoor Pony Festival, a week when the moorland herds are celebrated and fêted. At the end of November is a Christmas Foal Show. None of these occasions are sales; ponies are sold by their breeders from their farms.
Over the years there have been many pressures on the breed. At the end of World War Two only 50 registered ponies survived; some may have been used as target practice, others, during a time of rationing, possibly ended up on dinner tables. Every year some are killed by traffic, others succumb to bogs or ditches on the moor.
There are about 4,000 Exmoor ponies worldwide, of which at least a third are geldings and the breed is on the Rare Breed Survival Trust Watchlist in Category 2, classified as endangered. To move out of that category would require more breeding mares, but that would result in a potential surfeit of foals without good homes and possibly a deleterious effect on the overall welfare. So the breed remains, technically, endangered.
In reality the Exmoor pony has some excellent guardians.
Long may that remain the case.
If you find a pony in distress on Exmoor please contact the Exmoor Pony Society on 01884 839930 or the Exmoor National Park Authority on 01398 323665