Hardy and handy the Dartmoor pony is a sturdy, resourceful and reliable animal, which has made a life for itself in a bleak and harsh environment and has served humans well both as a working animal and as a leisure or competition pony.
Archaeologists believe that the Dartmoor pony roamed wild on the moor long before the Roman invasion of Britain. They were certainly domesticated by medieval times when they were much valued for carrying tin from the local mines and for agricultural work. By the late 18th Century mining had moved underground and the Dartmoor was extensively cross-bred with the tiny Shetland in an attempt to produce the strongest possible pony in the smallest possible size for work in the pits. This continued until the early 19th Century when the pits began to close. Many of the pit ponies were simply turned out on the moors although the pony did still retain a place with humans for agricultural work and as a riding pony. At the start of the 20th Century the staff at Dartmoor prison began to breed them within the prison and used them to carry full-grown adult warders across the moors to escort prisoners. This continued until they were replaced by mechanized transport in the 1960s. This was possibly what saved the breed from being totally decimated over the course of two world wars where their numbers plummeted.
The Dartmoor's numbers also suffered from attempts to improve the breed to make it more suitable for various purposes. In addition to cross-breeding with Shetlands, blood from Arabs, Welsh ponies and Fell ponies was all added in an attempt to increase the breed's refinement and its strength. Concern over the future of the breed was already evident in 1924 when a breed society was founded and a studbook created. By the end of World War Two it was clear that drastic action would be required if the breed was to have a secure future so in the 1950s local people went on to the moors to identify and register ponies who met the criteria for the traditional Dartmoor pony. This practice continues today with unregistered mares who meet the breed standard being bred to registered stallions. There is a supplementary breed register for these mares and their female children. If the female children are also bred to registered stallions then their offspring are considered to be pure bred.
Although the Dartmoor breed still has a long way to go to increase its numbers to safer levels, its future is definitely looking brighter. It is now recognized as a pony which combines hardiness with ability, performing well in many competitive disciplines from dressage to cross-country to driving. They are popular as children's ponies and are capable of carrying adults and certainly of pulling them in harness.
The pony may stand up to 12.2 hands high and all whole colours are permitted. They are sturdy little ponies, but have small heads. Their wide-set eyes and pert ears give them an alert appearance. Their necks are strong although not particularly broad but they are broad in the body, with deep rib-cages and powerful hind-quarters. Their shoulders are well-angled allowing them to move freely and they have sturdy legs, which are relatively short from the knee to the ground with dense leg bones and hooves. Their manes and tails are thick and give good protection from the harshest of weathers. In winter they grow long, dense coats, but in summer they shed these and are very pretty little ponies.
Part of the reason for the Dartmoor’s popularity as a child’s pony in particular is that it has a trustworthy and reliable temperament. It also has both common sense and intelligence, which enable it to work with younger riders to deal with any challenges they face, whether this is a cross-country event designed to test horse and rider or simply dealing with modern traffic, be it a fast-flowing road, tractors or quite simply being in crowds of humans. At the same time, the Dartmoor is an active little pony and while it can’t rival larger horses for speed, it can certainly hold its own with animals of its own size and over rough terrain its sure-footedness can give it an advantage over more refined ponies. Dartmoors can become fizzy and difficult if overfed. They simply need a way to let out the excess energy. If fed appropriately however, they are even-tempered ponies.
The Dartmoor is a robust and healthy breed and is unlikely to cause much in the way of vet’s fees. In terms of health the key point to remember is that Dartmoors do very well on very little food. In fact they can over-eat even if not given any hard feed simply because their bodies have adapted to very poor grazing rather than rich pasture land. With this in mind it is extremely helpful to have access to a starvation paddock (one with very poor grazing) or a stable to keep the pony’s weight down in summer. Owners also need to be alert to any signs of stiffness or lameness and be prepared to call a vet promptly, even if symptoms are minimal as they may be pointers to the onset of laminitis, which can have serious repercussions.
Caring for a Dartmoor
Apart from watching their weight, Dartmoors have minimal care requirements. Technically they can live out all year, but if the intention is to work them over the winter then they may well need to be clipped, as their thick coats will make them sweat profusely and leave them liable to chills as they cool down. In this case, it may be necessary to stable them at night and they may need extra food, although this should be introduced with caution. Avoid haylage as this can be difficult for small ponies to digest, even though they often enjoy it. In addition to this, standard horse-care applies, such as constant access to fresh water, regular grooming, foot-care and worming.
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