- HEIGHT: 10–11 hands
- PLACE OF ORIGIN: Southwestern Ireland
- SPECIAL QUALITIES: Uniquely adapted to move over boggy ground because of their unusually low body mass, relative to height, and their special walk.
- BEST SUITED FOR: Children’s sport pony, driving, and work with disabled riders
Since at least the seventeenth century, small, semi-wild ponies have lived on the peat bogs of southwestern Ireland. Most local people considered them a part of the native wildlife. Nobody is entirely sure when they first arrived. The ponies were remarkable in their ability to survive on the bogs where suitable food is extremely scarce, the weather is wet and windy most of the time, and the footing is either perilously boggy or dangerously rocky.
The ponies were said to “live on air,” but they actually survived on heather and sphagnum moss, which have very low nutritional qualities. They may also have eaten kelp along the shore, as did the ponies on the Shetland Islands. The little ponies somehow learned to navigate through the marshes, unfailingly picking their way around soft spots that could trap them and rarely slipping on rocks.
From the seventeenth century on, they were caught by local people and used to pack peat out of the bogs, for fuel, and kelp out of the ocean, for food and fertilizer. The little ponies were extremely easy to work with and astonishingly strong given their small size. People quickly learned to trust the ponies to find the safest routes through the bogs. They were reputed to have a sixth sense about avoiding invisible, dangerously soft areas.
This Kerry Bog foal is one of only 150 or so registered representatives of this unusual breed.
Some owners broke the ponies to harness and used them to haul carts filled with peat. The gentle ponies were turned loose to fend for themselves when they were not needed and caught again when there was work to be done. For children, they were said to be as easy to ride as a chair.
There were few, if any, organized breeders of Bog Ponies. The animals just reproduced naturally. For a long time there were enough of them to go around. In 1804, during the Peninsular Wars, the cavalry discovered the ponies and bought many of them to use as military pack animals. Few, if any, returned. About the same time, donkeys arrived from Spain and replaced the ponies both as beasts of burden and as cart animals. A bit later, gasoline replaced peat as a fuel source and the ponies were no longer needed at all. Initially, the Bog Ponies were abandoned and ignored, and then, sadly, they became objects of derision. More than a few were used for target practice.
With their low body mass and unique walk, Kerry Bog Ponies are well adapted for moving over marshy or boggy land.
A Horse Lover to the Rescue
In 1994, John Mulvihill, of Kerry, who knew and remembered the ponies from his childhood, began looking for them on the bogs. Although knowledgeable people told him they were extinct, he didn’t accept it. In time he spotted a few ponies on the hills that didn’t look quite like other ponies. After he brought them to his own pastures, he became more convinced that these animals were not just everyday crossbred ponies.
DNA analysis of Mulvihill’s stallion Flashy Fox and his sire Dempsy Bog revealed a genetic marker that set them apart not only from all other local ponies but also from all other pony breeds known in Ireland and the entire United Kingdom. Mulvihill searched out mares that were the right type and confirmed their heritage with blood samples. After extensive searches, his initial group consisted of only twenty ponies, probably the very last of their kind.
He established sound management and breeding practices for the herd at his farm. Word spread and interest increased, and in 2002, Ireland recognized the Bog Ponies as the Irish Heritage Pony, and Mulvihill and others started the Kerry Bog Pony Society. After further DNA testing, the breed received the official seal of approval from the Irish Equine Centre. (It is interesting to note that although the once famed Irish Hobby Horse has long been thought to be extinct, many knowledgeable people in Ireland believe that the Kerry Bog Ponies are, in fact, the same breed.)
An American Interest
In 2002, when Mike and Linda Ashar of Vermilion, Ohio, expressed interest in some little ponies they saw in an Irish pasture, their guide organized a meeting with Mulvihill. A Morgan enthusiast, Linda Ashar noticed that the Kerry Bog Ponies resembled little Morgans, with the same beautiful expression, slightly dished face, and huge, expressive, gentle eyes. They were proud but friendly and curious. Mares and stallions lived quietly together in the same pastures with young foals. She wanted to import some into the United States.
In 2003, the Ashars imported a small breeding herd of ponies, which is now established at their Thornapple Farms. Mrs. Ashar is the American liaison to the Kerry Bog Pony Society in Ireland.
These sure-footed ponies have slightly flashy, straight, and level action with good balance. Their weight per hand of height is proportionately far lower than that of most other breeds, a helpful adaptation for walking on wet bogs. Their gaits are similarly adapted to the soft going. Particularly at the walk, they do not “track up,” meaning that the hind feet do not step into the prints left by the front feet but come just to the outside. As each foot strikes a new location, it makes the shallowest hole possible in marshy ground. In Ohio, the Ashars have observed that the ponies don’t stress the soil as much as other breeds; they seem to float without sinking in.
According to Mrs. Ashar, Kerry Bogs are strong, smart, and very athletic. They make very suitable small sport ponies for young riders, an excellent choice for people with physical limitations, and wonderful driving ponies and companion animals for adults.
Kerry Bog ponies average 10 to 12 hands. They are elegant ponies that the Irish describe as being of draft use. The heads are of average size, slightly dished and with small ears. The eyes are very large. The neck is of medium length and strong. The shoulder is well laid back, and the body rounded and muscular, with a deep chest and a short back. The winter coat is long and dense, enabling the ponies to tolerate harsh weather. As seen in profile, the angle of the hooves is steeper than on most horses and the pasterns are relatively upright. This conformation is thought to be an adaptation to life on the soft bogs. Remarkably, even in constant wetness the hooves remain sound.
These ponies may be found in all solid colors including palomino. White markings on the face and lower legs are common. Many have flaxen manes and tails. The society does not accept Pintos for registration.
Kerry Bog Ponies do equally well living semi-wild in the harsh Irish peat bogs or as pleasure ponies and human companions.
BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES
According to the American Kerry Bog Pony Society (founded in 2005):
• There about 150 registered Kerry Bog Ponies in the world.
• There are now 11 in the United States.
• At least one new foal is expected in 2005 at Thornapple Farms; others are expected but have yet to be reported elsewhere.
• A filly and a stallion will be imported in 2006.