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History of Dartmoor Ponies

The Dartmoor National Park is home to herds of free running ponies, which seem to express the wildness of the landscape. Their presence is a part of the attraction of Dartmoor for tourists, and today there are about one thousand ponies on the moor, although in the 1950s there were about 30,000. It is not surprising that when Dartmoor was designated a National Park in 1951 a Dartmoor pony was chosen as the logo.

Dartmoor Hill Ponies are distinct from the "pedigree" Dartmoor Pony. The definition of a Dartmoor Hill Pony is a pony born on Dartmoor, to a mare belonging to one of the registered Commoners. The "pedigree" strain has been selectively bred for showing and this breed standard is for solid colours only (coloured, i.e. piebalds and skewbalds are not allowed).

Today, Dartmoor ponies are under threat as it is not profitable to breed them because there is no market for working or leisure ponies. Dartmoor ponies used to be a first choice for children's riding ponies, but costs of upkeep have meant they have become less popular. However, Dartmoor ponies, which can live for 30 years, are often retrained as driving ponies, when they are outgrown by children.

Dartmoor's common land includes the central forest of Dartmoor, once the Royal hunting forest, surrounded by manorial commons. The farmers (commoners) have ancient rights to graze cows, sheep and ponies on their allotted common land. The ponies are not truly wild, they are owned by farmers, but live on the moor throughout the year. Herds of ponies learn their territory on the commons and don't just wander anywhere, a practice called 'learing'.

Small herds usually contain one adult stallion, some mares and young ponies, which are born between May and August. A strong stallion will acquire many mares and keep them on the best feeding grounds on particular commons. Mares are only in season when days are longer in late winter and spring, to ensure the foals are born in summer, to have the best chance of survival. The pony herds on Dartmoor are now genetically distinct from other native pony herds and are adapted to the weather and altitude of the moor. The herds can vary greatly in the size and shape of the ponies, depending on their lineage.

Their association with the moorland goes back a long way, and there is evidence that they have been farmed on the moor since 1350BC, from hoof prints found in archaeological excavations. The first written record of ponies on Dartmoor is from 1012, when wild horses, owned by Aelfwold, the Bishop of Crediton, were recorded at Ashburton.

For centuries, packhorses were the principal means of transport of goods in Devon. Scattered illustrations and descriptions suggest that these horses looked similar to the Dartmoor breed. They were better able to cope with the rough ground than non-native breeds.

The Dartmoor pony was used between the C12th to C15th for carrying tin from the mines across the moor to the stannary towns. From the C18th, when ponies worked in coal mines, Shetlands were added to the Dartmoor stock to produce a smaller and sturdier animal. They worked in the pits for seven years before they were retired. The last pony to leave the mines and retire to Dartmoor came back to Corndon Farm near Ponsworthy in 1965.

In the mid-1800s Dartmoor was a main source of granite in Britain and ponies were used to haul carts of granite along tramways. An example of the granite tracks, built to convey granite from Haytor to the Stover canal, can be seen near Haytor. The tracks were shaped for the horse drawn wagons. In the first world war (1914-18) horses, including Dartmoor ponies, were used to transport ammunition and supplies to the front, and many were killed.

Drifts, the annual round ups of ponies on Dartmoor, occur in September and October, when the ponies are rounded up or gathered into a pound. These are walled enclosed areas, some of which have existed since medieval times. The ponies are then sorted into each commoner's herds from their brand marks, and taken back to their farm. Their health is checked, some are sold at market and the rest returned to the moor. In the C20th there were annual pony fairs held in the autumn at Tavistock, Chagford and Princetown. There are no government or European subsidies for keeping ponies on the moorland and prices at market are low. Ponies used to be valued for riding or work, but increasingly are being sold as meat for European markets.

Ponies are also under threat as they graze land which some people think could be utilised by more profitable stock. However, they do graze rough vegetation like gorse, which is unpalatable to cattle and sheep. They roll back their lips to nibble off the thorny gorse tips with their teeth. The ponies are the only moorland animals able to digest gorse, which they may trample with their feet to remove thorns before eating. Their grazing habits are also important in maintaining the ecological balance of some habitats for rare species of plants and insects. Fritillary butterflies and bog hoverfly depend on this symbiotic relationship with ponies grazing to maintain their habitat. Without the grazing ponies, cattle and sheep the moorland would soon become very overgrown. .Plans for the future conservation of the Dartmoor pony include limiting the numbers by controlling fertility and putting some to local meat (called taffety) production.


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