Britain is famous for its nine native breeds of pony - no other country in the world has such a unique pool of pony talent and heritage. A popular question in equine quizzes is to name the nine breeds and the simplest way to remember them all is to take a quick geography lesson of the British Isles working north to south:-
The most northern pony is of course the Shetland named after the islands which it still occupies. The Shetland is entwined in the heritage of the islands, able to survive in the harshest of winters; the island fishermen would use hair from the tail of the pony to make their fishing line. The Highland pony is still used today as a working pony in southern Scotland to carry deer down from the hills; it is a favourite with the Queen who has Highland ponies working on her estate at Balmoral. There is also a Scottish pony called the Eriskay which originated from the Western Isles and was often known by its other name of the Western Isles pony as it was only found in the Hebrides. For some reason, this pony has never been included as one of the list of nine native breeds and with a dwindling population of breeding mares, its numbers are now critical
The north of England lays claim to the Dales and the Fell pony, hard to differentiate unless you see them together side by side, they are usually dark brown or bay with little white
Hop across the Irish Sea and find the Connemara, a larger pony of the nine, most often grey but can also be dun in colour, it’s pretty appearance is not unlike the Iberian breeds, the Lusitano and the Andalusian and is said to be due to Spanish horses washed up on Irish shores in the fifteenth century from the marauding galleons and breeding with the local pony population
Wales is home to one of the most popular of the native breeds, the Welsh and this breed is divided up into four sections:-
Ranging from 12hh up to 15.2hh, the four sections really do offer something for everyone and the breed is noted for its vivacious temperament and quality conformation, due in part to the influence of Arab and Thoroughbred bloodlines. The Welsh have a range of colours – dun, chestnut, roan, bay, grey – often with plenty of white markings so white socks on the legs and white facial markings, typically a blaze, due to the presence of the sabino gene
The New Forest pony still occupies in its wild form the area of forest in the south of England from which it takes its name, it is one of the largest of the nine native breeds
The last two of the native breeds derive from this part of England and are the Exmoor and the Dartmoor, called after the two Moors from which they originated. Either commonly dark bay or brown, they are easy to tell apart as their conformation is totally different and the Exmoor has the unique feature of a mealy muzzle – a pale coloured nose – and pale rings around the eyes
Some breeds are more popular than others and certainly the Welsh in all its guises remains one of the most beloved of the British native ponies. Each breed has its own breed society and stud book. However some of the breeds which find less favour are struggling in terms of numbers and are being monitored by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, an organisation set up by Joe Henson, the father of farming doyen and BBC TV presenter on the programme ‘Countryfile’, Adam Henson. The RBST monitors all farm livestock and includes horses as part of its remit. Typically it assesses population status based on the numbers of registered adult breeding females and it has concerns about the New Forest pony (registered numbers between 900-1500) which is classified as ‘at risk’, the Fell pony and the Highland pony which are ‘vulnerable’ with breeding numbers between 500 and 900, both the Exmoor and the Dartmoor pony with numbers between 300 and 500 and which are classified as ‘endangered’ and the Dales pony which is ‘critical’ with numbers of registered breeding females at less than 300. The RSBT does much to promote the use of the ponies in conservation schemes such as grazing sensitive areas and sites of Special Scientific Interest and as an insurance policy against dwindling numbers, they save genetics in their Gene Bank.
Mountain and Moorland ponies have a huge following as they make perfect riding or driving ponies for both children and adults; they are also versatile and hardy so easy to keep, with good and equable temperaments. Showing natives both ridden and in hand has never been more popular. Different societies offer different classes around the county circuit and the one every rider wants to qualify for is the Mountain and Moorland final at the London International Horse Show held at Olympia every Christmas. This is the jewel in the native pony crown. There are also several series of working hunter pony classes where the ponies are shown on the flat as well as jumping a course of natural fences. Native ponies crossed with Thoroughbreds are popular as a larger sports horse, offering all of the pony qualities of hardiness, soundness and that quick character which can be combined with the athleticism of the Thoroughbred to produce a larger animal combining the best of both worlds. The larger ponies such as the New Forest and the Connemara are popular choices to cross with the Thoroughbred. And the ponies are ever popular to drive, a not infrequent second career for an outgrown and treasured family pony.
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