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Nature Features

You are in: Somerset > Nature > Nature Features > Exmoor Ponies- a dying breed?

Hawkwell herd 12 mare and foal

Hawkwell mare and foal pictured in 2007

Exmoor Ponies- a dying breed?

Somerset is home to one of the world's oldest native horses: The Exmoor Pony. But supporters are worried this prehistoric breed could gradually become extinct. The Exmoor Pony Society wants your help to take it off the endangered species list.

Sabre-toothed tigers, Woolly mammoths and hill ponies roamed the planet during the Ice Age, but only one of them still exists.

Exmoor Ponies have a pure blood line that can be traced back to prehistoric times and are unlike any other little horses.

Their guts are stronger than most horses to cope with the rough vegetation such as Gorse, which is all that is available in the winter. They  have heavy jaws with formidable teeth to help them eat branches and their nasal passages are larger than most horses to allow cold air to heat up before passing into their lungs. 

Milton herd on Exmoor

The seldom seen Milton herd on Exmoor

Their numbers fell to just 50 at the end of the Second World War. Breeder Dawn Williams said: "They were nearly wiped out during the Second World War by soldiers who used them for target practice and thieves who killed them for meat. At the end of the war there were only 4 stallions left and 50 Exmoor ponies in the world."

But thanks to a successful breeding programme there are now around 2,700 Exmoor Ponies world wide, however more are needed to take them off the endangered species list.

The Exmoor Pony Society was set up in 1921 to promote the breed and protect the horses from extinction. Society spokesman Dawn said there was a record number of entries for the annual breed show on August 8 but the society needs to secure a modern role for the breed to ensure their long term future.

She said historically people relied on them to plough their fields, make deliveries and take children to school through the snow.

"They were nearly wiped out during the Second World War by soldiers who used them for target practice and thieves who killed them for meat."

Dawn Williams, an Exmoor Pony Society spokesman and breeder

"Exmoor's isolation helped the breed to remain pure as it was one of the last places in Britain to be connected by road. But with the advent of carriages and motor cars the ponies people became less reliant on them, " she added.   

Breeding programmes are carefully controlled by grazing quotas on Exmoor. Every autumn the herds are gathered from the moor and the young stock are inspected and weaned.

Dawn said: "The young colts can not return to the moor because they could disrupt the breeding programme and the grazing quota is strictly limited. At six months they are still too young to be gelded so good homes must be found to socialise and handle them."

"They need careful and sensitive handling because they won't be used to human contact and will need help to make the transition into domestic life."

Foal in a head collar with owner Eve Hickman

Young foal being socialised by its owner

Now there are herds in Sweden, Canada and America too, to make sure that disease can't wipe them out all at once.

The society hopes more people will help to protect the species by creating a demand for the breed, which in turn will encourage more breeding and hopefully take them off the endangered species list.

Dawn said: "They're very sure footed and do well in the Trec and working hunter pony classes. They're good through water and going up and down steep hills.

"They're tough little work horses too and can carry up to 12 stone on their back. They can carry small adults and children and their temperament makes them ideal horse riding ponies.

"They're also good at show jumping. My boy can clear 4 ft from standing and they are every bit as good as stags."

last updated: 15/04/2008 at 15:31
created: 22/08/2007

You are in: Somerset > Nature > Nature Features > Exmoor Ponies- a dying breed?

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