Exmoor Pony

  • HEIGHT: 11.2–12.3 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: The remote moors of southwestern England
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: A water-repellent winter coat with coarse, greasy outer hair covering a soft, springy undercoat
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Children’s mounts, driving, endurance, and work with disabled

Exmoor lies in southwest England, spanning Devon and Somerset. The high cliffs of the Bristol Channel form its northern boundary. This area of high moorland, divided by steep, wooded valleys and farmland, is subject to extremely wet, cold winters, with relentless, driving winds. Fossils and other remains show that a pony very much like the Exmoor in grazing habits, coat color, and dentition (the number and arrangement of teeth) was widespread on the earth a million years ago. The Exmoor Pony itself is believed to be the oldest pure descendant of ponies that lived in Britain 100,000 years ago. The very first wild ponies arrived in Britain by walking over a swampy plain that became the English Channel 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. These wild Exmoor ancestors wandered the British Isles in pre-Celtic times. Later, wild pony stallions often bred with Celtic pony mares, but in Exmoor, the crossbred offspring did not survive. Written records from 1086 mention the Exmoor Ponies, but further references are scarce until 1818.

All Exmoor Ponies are some shade of brown, with a lighter “mealy” color around the eyes and muzzle.

Because of an extraordinarily harsh climate, Exmoor until very recently was largely a forgotten place, with a tiny, highly independent population. From time to time, people in Exmoor tried crossing the wild Exmoor Ponies on various other breeds, but all of these herds seem to have died out. They could not thrive or even exist in Exmoor’s extreme climate.

Today’s Exmoor ponies all descend from animals raised wild on the moors. Until 1818, most of the open expanse of Exmoor was designated a Royal Forest, a legal term signifying a royal hunting ground but not necessarily a wooded area. An appointed game warden managed it both as a hunting ground and as an upland grazing ground, where farmers could pay for the right to graze their animals. The warden also oversaw the wild pony herds.

The Royal Exmoor Forest was sold by the Crown in 1818 to a private owner with plans to “improve” the wild ponies by out-crossing them. But the outgoing warden, Sir Thomas Acland, bought thirty of the ponies and took them to his own estate. Some other local farmers also purchased a few. The Acland ponies continue to this day as the Anchor herd (Anchor is the name of the Acland estate). These animals were, and still are, branded with an anchor, and then left to run free on their native terrain. Descendants of several of the farmers who saved ponies in 1818 are still involved in Exmoor breeding today.

During World War II, Exmoor was used for troop training, and some soldiers practiced shooting on live targets, including ponies. Many ponies were also stolen and transported to cities to feed hungry people. By the end of the war, it was estimated that only fifty ponies remained. Enthusiasts rallied behind the breed to promote and protect the ponies. Two Exmoors were even exhibited at the London Zoo.

People outside of Exmoor bought some of the ponies as a commitment to conservation, moving them to private farms where they were well cared for and their lives were far easier than on the moors. These efforts saved the Exmoor Pony from near-certain extinction. But always some ponies were left to live on the moors, protected from human interference but subject to the harshness of nature just as they had been for thousands of years. This population has remained at two hundred or fewer. With the protection and preservation measures instituted after World War II, total numbers increased gradually, and by the 1970s, about thirty foals a year were being registered. In the 1990s, the National Trust, English Nature, and several other organizations established small, free-ranging herds of Exmoors on various nature reserves to manage vegetation. This arrangement has worked out extremely well. The vegetation stays in check, visitors can see ponies living free, and pony numbers are increasing.

Small herds of Exmoors have been established on various nature preserves in England, recapturing their ancient wild past.

Breed Characteristics

All Exmoor Ponies are nearly identical, conforming to a design developed in the harshest conditions in the wild. Variations in color, markings, and size are virtually nonexistent. Exmoors are extremely strong for their size and can carry up to 170 pounds. They are now used for riding (frequently as first mounts for children), driving, and endurance riding, as well as in riding and driving programs for the disabled.

Every Exmoor in England today is branded with a four-point star, as well as a herd number on the left shoulder and an individual number on the left hindquarter. Ponies from the Acland herd have an anchor brand instead of a herd number. All ponies born after 2003 also have a microchip implanted in the neck muscle.

Conformation

Exmoors range in size from 11.2 to 12.3 hands, with the majority standing around 12.2 hands and weighing 700 to 800 pounds. They are very stocky and strong, with a deep chest and a large girth. The ears are short, thick, and pointed. The forehead is wide. The eyes are large, wide-set, and prominent, with a unique fleshy hood and pale coloration outlining the eyes. In England, this is known as “toad eyes.”

The clean, short legs are designed for movement over hilly terrain, being set both well apart and square. The feet are extremely hard and blue-black in color.

Color

All Exmoors are some shade of brown, with darker legs and light oatmeal, or “mealy,” color on the muzzle, around the eyes, and sometimes under the belly. The mane and tail are usually darker brown than the body, but sometimes the long hair of the mane and tail is a lighter, mousy color. Foals are born with the light, mealy color markings on the nose and around their eyes and a light-colored birth coat that changes as they shed the foal coat. By six months of age, the foals match the adults.

Exmoors have a summer coat and a winter one. The winter coat grows in two layers, which gives the combined effect of “thermal underwear” below an outer “raincoat.” The insulating hair next to the skin is fine and springy. The coarse and greasy outer hairs are water-repellent. The hair forms an ideal drainage pattern with whorls that maximize water dispersal away from the body. The tail, mane, forelock, and winter beard also drain water away from the body. In the winter the ponies have what is known as an “ice tail,” a thick, fanlike growth of hair at the top of the tail. The summer coat, which is visible only from late spring until about mid-August, retains the drainage abilities but consists of only one layer.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the Canadian Livestock Records Corporation (founded in 1905):

  • Around 75 Exmoors are registered in North America, with slightly more than half living in the United States.
  • Generally only one or two foals are born each year in the United States and 3 or 4 in Canada.
  • The greatest populations of North American Exmoors are in New York, Virginia, California, Ontario, and British Columbia.

According to the Exmoor Pony Society in the United Kingdom (founded in 1921):

  • There are about 1,200 ponies worldwide, of which some are geldings and some mares not used for breeding.
  • In the mid-1990s, the world breeding population was about 500, of which fewer than half live free in natural habitats. As of 2005, about 140 still live free on the moors.