The Dartmoor Pony
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For more work of David Young visit his website
No Dartmoor website would be complete without a page on the famous Dartmoor Pony. Go into any souvenir shop and you will see Dartmoor Ponies in every shape and guise, they will be on postcards, keyrings, plates, mugs, tea towels and everything else where it is possible to put a picture. When the Dartmoor National Park was set up in 1951 the pony was adopted for the symbol of the park as the ponies were thought to represent one of the main attractions of the moor and that they added to the character of the area. In view of their popularity it is no wonder that the ponies have become the subjects for numerous artists, poets, novelists and film makers. In 1843 the following was written by William Youatt which succinctly sums up both the spirit and the capabilities of the Dartmoor pony:
"There is on Dartmoor a race of ponies much in request in the vicinity, being sure-footed and hardy, and admirably calculated to scramble over the rough roads and dreary wilds of that mountainous district. The Dartmoor pony is larger than the Exmoor, and if possible uglier. He exists there almost in a state of nature. The late Captain Colgrave, governor of the prison, had a great desire to possess one of them of somewhat superior figure to its fellows; and having several man to assist him they separated it from the herd. They drove it on some rocks by the side of a tor (an abrupt pointed hill). A man followed on horseback, while the captain stood below watching the chase. The little animal being driven into a corner, leaped completely over the man and horse, and escaped".
But to appreciate the true ethos of the wild Dartmoor pony one can do no better than to read the following word penned by Mrs Bray in 1844:
"The wild horses and colts with their unshorn and flowing tails and manes, recall also to our recollection the forms of antique sculpture. To observe them in action, as they bound, race, or play together, in the very joy of their freedom, affords a spectacle of animal delight that is replete with interest. The horse thus seen in his natural state, before he is ridden by man, becomes a perfect study for a painter, and gives a much finer view of that noble creature than can be witnessed by those who have only seen him trimmed and saddle from a stable".
During the course of my work I get to attend several of the major equine events such as Badminton and the Horse of the Year Show where I meet many Dartmoor pony owners. There can be no doubt that they are devotees of the breed and are always extolling the virtues of their ponies. But for those who do not live on or near the moor it is interesting to see their expressions when asked if they have ever seen the ponies running free on the open moor. Without exception those who have not tend to suddenly wear an expression of regret that almost borders on guilt. There can never be any comparison between seeing a Dartmoor pony galloping around a paddock and watching a herd thunder across the barren wastes. The underlying peat amplifies that thump of their pounding hooves and as Mrs Bray notes the wind carries their wild, straggly manes and tails in a carefree slipstream. I defy anyone not to want to stand and stare at such a spectacle.
One such painter that clearly realise the above fact was Thomas Rowden, known by some as the 'Pony Man' who captured the true free spirit of the pony in all his works.
The first evidence of the presence of ponies on Dartmoor was found in the 1970's. This was during an archaeological excavation and was in the form of a hoof print in a 3,500 year old context. The first written record of ponies on Dartmoor was found in a document relating to the Bishop of Crediton dated 1012 where there was reference to the "wild horses of Ashburton," Later manorial records suggest that the ponies were not broken-in although many were branded and ear marked which would suggest a system similar to that used today. From the Medieval period to the late 19th century the Dartmoor Pony was the main powers source for the transport system. They were used as packhorses and would carry almost everything that went across Dartmoor. In 1853 the following was noted:
"In the beautiful and picturesque district of England here spoken of, many of the farmers are even to this day without a single cart, car or wagon; and the whole produce of the farm; all manure, everything is carried in panniers on the ponies' backs".
This included wool, cloth, tin, supplies and peat all of which would be carried on 'crooks' which were slung over the animals back. A crook was made out of two willow saplings which were bent or 'crooked' whilst they were green and then dried out. The two crooked poles were then joined by horizontal bars making a frame that could then be slung over the pack saddle thus distributing the weight of the two packs or panniers each side of the pony. In the late 1700's a man and a packhorse could expect to earn around two shillings a day which was not bad going in those days. It has been said that often 'trains' of up to six pack horses could be seen winding their way across the moor.
The ponies would also be used to pull 'truck-a-mucks' which were a type of sled used on farms for carrying stone, peat, firewood and other agricultural loads. The ponies were also used to haul trucks up the tramway at the Haytor granite quarries they would have also been used at some of the larger tin mines. As previously mentioned the ponies were also sent to work in the coal mines as pit ponies. The temperament of the Dartmoor Pony lends itself to making an ideal children's riding pony and the part-bred ones can go on to make excellent show jumpers, cross-country eventers, hunters and carriage driving ponies.
I do not propose to give a detailed description of the Dartmoor Pony as there are many sites that provide an expert insight to the breed, some of which are linked below. There are also numerous books, videos and DVD's available on the Dartmoor Pony.
These days there are three types of ponies that can be seen on Dartmoor, there are the pure-breds or 'registered' Dartmoors, the 'native' ponies and the Shetlands. The registered ponies are those which are bred from recognised stallions and can be described as more 'distinguished' when compared to the native breed. The registered Dartmoors are the ones often seen at agricultural shows and equine events. They tend to be kept off the commons because firstly they are too valuable and secondly it avoids the risk of them breeding with the non-registered native ponies. The native Dartmoor ponies are those which are seen on the moor and tend to be mixed breed or 'mongrels' animals. It is these who have caused much debate of recent years and who in the eyes of the purists, should be for want of a better term, 'ethnically cleansed'. The Shetland ponies are a 20th century introduction and were put onto the moor to produce crossbreds. The progeny of which were both small, strong, and would be suited to working down the mines of Wales and Northern England.
All of the ponies on the moor are owned by someone and are definitely not wild animals. Every pony will have an identifying mark, brand or tag which denotes its legal owner. The ponies will live on the moor all year and usually can be found in small herds consisting of several mares and a stallion. The majority of the mares produce their foals between May and August which co-incidentally is also the busiest times for visitors and holiday makers. In September and October the ponies are herded off the moor in what are called 'drifts' and taken to holding pens. Here they are separated into ownership groups and given a health check, those who are not sick, old or destined for market are released back onto the moor. There have been instances where mares have been brought in with up to five offspring at hoof, this meant that the mare had evaded the previous four roundups. The ponies that are taken to market are either sold as riding ponies, meat or are rescued, it tends to be the native ponies that suffer the latter two fates. The meat market has declined rapidly in previous years and legislation has contracted the market even further so the prices of the native pony has plummeted to an all time low. It is nothing unusual for animals to be sold for less than £10 which has created another problem. Well meaning people are prepared to pay such small amounts to 'rescue' the ponies but don't fully realise what they are taking on. These ponies have spent all their life in the wild and those that graze higher up on the moors will have had little contact with people. So if the 'rescuer' has had no real experience in equine handling the ponies soon end up, in what are already stretched, rescue centres. In the 1950's it was estimated that there were around 30,000 ponies on Dartmoor, today there are thought to be less than 3,000 which is a indicator of how much their value has dropped.
One Dartmoor Pony that nearly became a legend in 2007 was named 'Shandy' and who lived in Essex, he was to have become the official oldest pony in the UK and be entered into the Guinness World Book of Records. Tragically the pony died three days before the officials were due to visit him and verify the fact - he was 48 years of age.
Occasionally the plight of a pony will reach the national press like for example the story of 'Rebel' the knock-kneed foal. This poor little foal was born with a defect which meant the inner leg bones were growing at a faster rate than the outer ones which resulted in the splaying of the front legs. Because of her deformity she had been taken away from her mother and taken to the November pony sales at Tavistock. Here local RSPCA inspectors found her after being sold illegally outside the market, it was thought she was destined for slaughter and then processed into pet food. In the end a local sanctuary bought her for £40 which ironically is probably a lot more that was originally paid. It was thought that by surgically inserting metal plates to the inner bones it will allow the outer bones to grow and catch up and then she should be normal. It was reported that on the 23rd of November 2005, 'Rebel' underwent a three hour operation at the Bristol Veterinary School and was returned to the sanctuary on the Friday 25th. After the news of 'Rebel' appeared in the press donations totalling £13,000 were given to pay for his operation and aftercare. It is hoped that eventually he will fully recover and lead a normal life.
Ironically the very people that come to see the Dartmoor Ponies are the ones that can lead to the deaths of some of them. All around the moor there are signs requesting that visitors "do not feed the ponies," and these are not put there for nothing. Despite the fact that it is illegal, the ponies do not really relish ham sandwiches but by feeding them they get to know there is usually some tit-bit to be found at the roadsides. This then encourages the ponies to frequent the roads which in turn leads to them running out infront of a speeding cars. The Dartmoor National Park Authority has introduced a 40mph speed limit on roads adjacent to open moorland but despite this between 1999 and May 2005 there were a total of 168 livestock injuries or deaths caused by motor vehicles. So if you are ever 'pony peeking' on the moor make sure you don't stop the car on a blind bend to watch the ponies. If it is a cold, miserable day don't feel sorry for the wet, forlorn and hungry looking pony that will stick its head into the car. Yes it may well be pissed off but it certainly does not want a bite of your pasty or a mouthful of 'Wotsits' so PLEASE don't give it one. Oh, and whilst it is nibbling at your wing mirror take a look at those big strong teeth and imagine the damage they could do to your child's fingers as they try to shove a Mars Bar down its throat - another reason not to feed the ponies.
Take a hot, windless July day (2006) and a trip across the moor to Dunnabridge and you would not believe the grief. The climax of the journey must have been approaching the bridge at Dunnabridge to find a car stopped on the bend feeding the ponies. As always feed one pony and before you know it dozens more appear for a 'nosh' and this was no exception. So this idiot is sat in his car 'pony peeking' whilst other cars had to manoeuvre around both him and the ponies until a traffic jam formed, and still he sat there. Eventually a man driving a white van who obviously had the mis-fortune to be working as opposed to being on holiday went up and moved the ponies off the road.
Bearing in mind that the idiot driving WG55 YUY had two young children in the back of the car, did he not realise the danger his car was causing? Probably packed his flip flops and sun cream and forgot his brain. When will people ever realise that the, "Don't feed the ponies" signs are there for a reason AND THAT IS -
In wintertime another hazard for the ponies is unbelievably the salt spread on icy roads. On two occasions whilst driving across the moor early in the morning I have nearly hit a pony that has been stood in the middle of an icy road licking up the salt, and I certainly am not alone in experiencing this hazard.
The other danger that the ponies face which is the result of the above is speeding traffic and that sadly is mostly down to local motorists. In December 2007 5 ponies were killed in one week by speeding cars on the stretch of road between Yelverton and Princetown, one of the cars was reported as doing 127 mph. In many cases these motorists are going to and from work and it doesn't take much imagination to work out who is the biggest employer in Princetown. On many occasion I have been overtaken at speed by a car driven by a person wearing a prison officers uniform.
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Today I visited the Dartmoor Pony Rescue Centre and met some of the foals. I spend a lot of my work time visiting various stables and livery yards and I can honestly say I have never seen such happy, well cared for and loved ponies. This small organisation is constantly looking for help and I strongly urge that anybody who reads this page to visit their website and see what fantastic work they do.
Natalie and three of her charges.
The ponies have now found a more permanent home and are clearly enjoying the summer grazing in an idyllic spot with breath-taking views. As with any 'house move' there are always horrendous costs and the ponies are no exception. A winter shelter and field fencing are desperately needed so donations are much needed!!! Also they are now 'film stars' as a documentary crew has been filming their progress. For anybody who letterboxes on Dartmoor there will be a charity walk available shortly of which all proceeds will go the The Dartmoor Pony Rescue Centre so please be sure to buy a set of clues.
Natalie and the film stars.
October 2006 has been a good year for the Dartmoor Pony in many ways. At the Horse of the Year Show two Dartmoors' walked off with major prizes, 'Moortown Honeyman' was crowned the Mountain and Moorland Working Hunter champion and 'Rollswood Nureyev' was reserve champion in the S.E.I.B. Search For a Star section. Equally good news was that following the drift the Tavistock pony sale saw a rise in prices with some ponies fetching between £200 and £300. The average selling price was around £25 - £35 which considering five years ago some ponies were going for 50p is a great improvement. It is thought that the growing popularity of coloured ponies and breeding improvements have led to the price increases. Hopefully the success at the Horse of the Year show will be reflected in future prices and continued the welcomed trend.
The Dartmoor Pony Training Centre are holding an open day in September 2008 and would be grateful for as much support as possible so if you would like to see and learn more about their ponies why not drop in -
Sunday 28th September 2008 Dartmoor Pony Training Centre Open Day at Higher Northway Farm, Widdecombe, Devon - on the day you can learn about the Dartmoor Hill Pony and see them in action, Sarah Weston of Intelligent Horsemanship will be there working with unhandled foals and showing other training techniques with more handled ponies. As with last year there will be Dartmoor ponies for sale on the day as well as this years foals. As always we have ponies we are looking to re-home and we have now have an online sales list up and running of Dartmoor Hill Ponies if you are looking to purchase one privately. Please keep an eye on our website for further information - website - HERE.