The ancestors of all our native pony breeds came overland from Alaska approximately 130,000 years ago and became widely distributed throughout what is now the British Isles. Dramatic changes in our climate some ten thousand years ago restricted the amount of open grazing available to mainly the mountain and moorland areas of Britain. The herds became isolated in these upland areas and the British hill pony developed as a result.
First domesticated by the Celts, these herds of ponies can trace their history largely through their first contact with man. Although there is little early written evidence of the Exmoor pony, records from the sixteenth century onwards show that there have been as many as a thousand as few as fifty living on the moor at different times. In the early part of the last century, for example, due almost entirely to the popularity of the Moorland Mousie children’s stories of Muriel Wallace, the breed enjoyed something of a revival. Their numbers then declined for several reasons, not least because of changes in farming practice and the choice of other, more fashionable breeds, for pleasure riding. More recently, thanks to the dedication of a number of hill farmers, their number has again grown steadily and the worldwide population is now more than a thousand. Put into context, this still makes the Exmoor pony rarer than the Giant Panda and the breed is classified as critically endangered by the WWF-UK.
Exmoor ponies are stocky and strong, with deep chests and large girths. They are bay, brown or dun in colour, with black points and no white markings; this allows them to blend in well with their native background of heather, grass and bracken. The large capacity of the digestive system is important in winter as they consume large quantities of rough material which provides them with internal warmth. And because their teeth are well adapted to a coarse diet, the ponies do not damage plants as readily as other breeds. Instead they graze neatly around them, allowing the plants to flourish and increase in number. Because of this, small groups of Exmoor ponies are being pressed into ecological service all around the country, grazing open spaces and helping maintain the natural balance of the indigenous flora.
There are a number of sites in Northumberland where Exmoor ponies are helping in this conservation work. The ponies shown here, living on the moor below Padon Hill, a little more than three miles west of my Redesdale home, are mostly yearlings and are expected to spend the next three years grazing this site. They will be gelded in the autumn and will return to spend the winter on the moor. These attractive ponies would previously have had a very uncertain future; now with the help of the Moorland Mousie Trust they will go on to make lovely family ponies in time.