The elegant New Forest pony is indisputably England's most refined native breed. As well as being popular with tourists, the ponies are valued as riding ponies for children and adults and can be used under harness. They are regular prize-winners in competitions of all levels.
It is known that there have been wild ponies in the New Forest area for thousands of years. Originally they were hunted by humans and later domesticated by them. Their presence was recorded at the time of the Norman Conquest when the New Forest became a Royal hunting ground. Over the subsequent centuries they developed a reputation as hardy and capable riding horses to the point that by the start of the 16th Century they were being exported for use in wars. By the late 18th Century there was an interest in refining the breed, leading to the introduction of Thoroughbred blood in the form of the stallion Marske, who fathered legendary racehorse Eclipse. The breed was further refined by the introduction of Arab blood in the mid-19th Century. By the latter part of the 19th-Century however, the numbers of ponies living on the moors had plummeted. There are three common explanations for this decline. The first is that the use of Arab stallions had made the ponies less hardy and therefore less suitable for life in the forest. The second is that the use of Arab stallions had raised the hight of the ponies, meaning that fewer could be sold as pit ponies and therefore there was less attraction in breeding them. The third is that at the time cattle were more profitable to keep than ponies and so there was more interest in breeding them. The truth may well be a combination of all of the above. Concern for the breed led to the founding of a breed society in 1891. This society aimed to improve the quality as well as the quantity of the breed and to restore the original New Forest qualities, including hardiness. Unfortunately breed numbers suffered greatly during the two World Wars, especially during the second when rationing made them an attractive source of meat. In 1945 there were less than 600 ponies grazing in the New Forest. Admirers of the breed, however, worked hard to bring the ponies back from the brink and today there are estimated to be around 4,000 of them living semi-wild in the forest. While efforts continue to ensure that the breed will have a secure future, it is now recognized that numbers will have to be managed to prevent excess supply given that today the vast majority of horses are used for recreational purposes rather than as working animals.
The breed standard for New Forest ponies allows them be any height up to 14.21/4. Generally speaking they are at least 12 hands high. They can be of any whole colour although stallions of colours from cream to light chestnut and palomino may not be licensed. Blue eyes are also forbidden. Their faces are typical of ponies being relatively short with large eyes and small, pert ears. Although they are strongly built and compact with powerful hindquarters, their bodies and legs are noticeably more slender than those of the other native breeds. People with shorter legs may therefore find them more comfortable to ride than ponies who are broader in the barrel. Even though the ponies have slender legs, they still have dense bones and hooves and are more than capable of picking their way through challenging terrain.
New Forest ponies are generally highly intelligent, courageous and versatile. Properly treated they are also gentle and friendly. The notable exception is if they are either over fed or spoiled with excessive treats. This may lead to them becoming hyperactive as they try to burn off the excess calories or even becoming aggressive and attempting to bully humans into giving them food. This behaviour has been noted in the New Forest as a result of tourists ignoring the instructions to refrain from feeding the ponies. While both of these issues can be cured, prevention is far better and healthier.
New Forest Health
Overall the New Forest pony is a healthy breed. There are, however, a couple of issues worth noting. One is that there have been a very few instances noted of congenital myotonia. This is a hereditary condition which affects the muscles which are used for movement (skeletal muscles). Essentially it makes them slow to respond to stimuli. It is believed that the initial carrier of the disorder was a stallion called Kantje's Ronaldo. Unfortunately the defective gene was imported into the UK by one of his descendants called Orchid's Jasper 2, who has since been removed from the breeding pool along with those of his progeny who were found to be carriers. The New Forest Breeding and Cattle society has initiated a programme of testing domestic licensed stallions and all imported ponies must be tested before being accepted into the UK studbook. If need be a vet can test for this before purchase.
Caring for a New Forest
In spite of their delicate appearance the New Forest is a hardy pony and economical to feed. In the warmer months, owners will need to keep an eye on their ponies weight and be prepared to restrict grazing if need be. Overfed New Forest ponies are susceptible to laminitis, the initial signs of which often include stiffness or lameness. If this is noticed then it's recommended to call the vet promptly. In the colder months they can live out but how practical this is in reality will depend on how much you want to work the horse. Hard-working horses will need to be clipped for comfort, health and hygiene. This will leave them more exposed to the cold and may necessitate stabling. Throughout the whole year they will need constant access to clean water, along with daily grooming and periodic foot-care and worming. Competition ponies may need hard feed but this should be monitored carefully.
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