The hardy little Exmoor pony is a survivor in every sense of the phrase. The wild ponies survive in what, even today, is a fairly remote wilderness with little grazing and powerful winters. Their domesticated counterparts survived the harsh conditions of the pits and the effects of two world wars. Today they are finally beginning to attract the attention they deserve and to be recognized for their undoubted capabilities.
There has long been a popular theory that the Exmoor is a close relative of an extinct breed of wild horse. Unfortunately the lack of DNA from pre-domesticated horses makes this theory very difficult to prove or disprove, but studies have shown that the Exmoor has a close resemblance to an extinct breed called the Tarpan. During Roman Britain, there was significant mining activity in Exmoor and carvings dating from that period show ponies similar to modern Exmoors being used to carry metals from the mines and to draw chariots. Their use as pit ponies continued for several centuries more. The two world wars severely impacted the numbers of the breed, the second even more so than the first. This was partly because numbers were already reduced and partly because the moor was used for training soldiers and some of the ponies were killed during exercises either by accident or to provide the local population with a source of meat, which was hugely scarce during this period.
At the end of the war there were only an estimated 50 ponies still on the moor. Fortunately the danger to the breed was realized and over the subsequent years their numbers have slowly increased along with interest in the breed. The stud book was opened in 1963 and today there are estimated to be some 500 pure-bred ponies living wild on the moors, with approximately 800 worldwide. While this is still a critical level it is a vast improvement over the situation at the end of World War Two. The Exmoor’s case is helped by the fact that it is economical to keep as well as being reliable and capable. In short, it is an excellent children’s pony as well as a harness horse for adults. Exmoors have also demonstrated that they can compete at top level, which also bodes well for the future of the breed.
The Exmoor can stand up to 12.2 hands high (mares) or 12.3 hands high (stallions/geldings). They are typically bay with mealy markings around the muzzle and on the belly. This is technically known as Pangeré and has been seen in other animals. It is considered a sign that the animal type is a close relative of more primitive animals, which is held to support the theory of the Exmoor being a particularly ancient breed. Like most of the native breeds they are sturdy ponies and have unusually large heads. Their eyes are relatively prominent (sometimes referred to as Toad Eye) as their eyelids are particularly fleshy. This helps to divert rain away from the eyes. Their bodies are strong with deep chests, broad backs and sturdy hind-quarters. These are supported by stout legs with dense bones and hooves. To protect them from the cold, the ponies have thick manes and tails all year round and for winter they grow what is essentially a double-layered coat, which provides excellent insulation from the cold.
The Exmoor is docile, friendly reliable and hard-working – and never boring. Given a chance the Exmoor will enjoy an opportunity to show off its athletic capabilities. This means that they are outstanding mounts for children who are learning to ride. To begin with the Exmoor will take them out on gentle hacks and bring them home safely, or work with them in the school. As the child gains confidence, however, the Exmoor will take them on to more advanced challenges. Their natural intelligence, resourcefulness and courage stand them well in competitions. In particular they excel at agility having made a strong mark at the International Horse Agility Championships (taking both divisions in 2011). They are also noted for their capability in harness.
As you would expect from ponies which live wild in such a harsh environment, the Exmoor is a doughty little pony, which is generally untroubled by genetic conditions. As a bonus, their natural sure-footedness helps prevent injuries related to slips and trips. The only real cause for concern with these ponies is the need to manage their weight. Obesity is as bad for ponies as it is for humans and as Exmoors developed to live off very poor grazing, which means they can put on weight very easily even without hard feed. Overfed ponies are particularly susceptible to laminitis, which can have very serious consequences. In its early stages, laminitis can often be mistaken for general stiffness or lameness (particularly in older ponies where it is easily mistaken for arthritis). This is why it is best to seek a vet’s advice if the pony shows any signs of being off-colour or not quite right, even if the symptoms are minor. Overfeeding can also cause behavioural issues with the pony needing to find a way of letting off steam.
Caring for a Exmoor
Exmoors are a low-maintenance breed. They need access to a paddock and generally prefer being outdoors to being in a stable. If need be they can happily live out all year round. There are, however, benefits to having access to a stable. First of all, limiting turn-out time is often the most practical way of managing a pony’s weight in summer. Secondly the thick coat which protects them from the cold also means that they will sweat if given anything more than light exercise and in addition to making them uncomfortable, they will be at risk of getting a chill as they cool. This means that ponies which are to work hard over the winter will generally need to be clipped, which may result in them needing to be stabled. Other than that the Exmoor’s requirements are essentially the same as those of other ponies. They need access to fresh water at all times and groomed at least once a day. They will also need periodic attention from a farrier and regular worming.
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