History of Darmoor Hill Ponies
It is believed that over two thousand years ago, Phoenician traders introduced hill ponies to the West Country. These original ponies evolved into two distinct breeds, the Exmoor and the Dartmoor.
The hill pony now native to Dartmoor has evolved to suit whichever part of the Moor it lives on. The colours are mainly bay, grey, chestnut and black, with some coloured ponies.
Just over one hundred years ago, the pony breed showed a split into two categories. One group began to concentrate on breeding for the show ring (where appearance is most important) and the other group work on breeding for purpose (where adaptability and suitability for work is most important).
Breeding for beauty in the show ring
This was the beginning of the Registered Dartmoor hill pony breed.
The foundation stock, according to records, included Hackney, Thoroughbred, Welsh, Arab, Exmoor and even a Fell, all in the search for that elusive “quality”. Judicious crossing soon demonstrated what could be achieved.
In 1918, a mare called Blackdown (sire; a carriage horse, dam; a native Dartmoor Hill pony) had a foal by an imported Arab stallion called Dwarka, 14.1 hands high. This foal was bought by Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn and was called “The Leat”. He had a quarter Dartmoor Hill pony blood. He was registered in the Dartmoor stud book despite a resolution forbidding judges to pass any pony with more than a quarter arab thoroughbred or hackney blood!
The Leat was aptly named as his blood flows in the veins of virtually every single successful Registered Dartmoor pony in the years that followed, right up to the present day. In “The Dartmoor Pony, a history of the breed” by Joseph Palmer, he says “He was of course the supreme example of the uncertainty of breeding.” (Page 38).
By 1925, the Dartmoor Pony Society had formed, and the type was established. Sylvia Calmady-Hamlyn used a Welsh stallion, Dinarth Spark, on a mare called Juliet IV. The resultant stallion, Jude, became a prolific sire and model for the Registered Dartmoor Pony of today.
No longer another Native running wild on the Moor, it was a recognised and properly recorded breed, with qualities governed by man.
The selective line breeding under expert and dedicated direction has created our beautiful and versatile Registered Dartmoor Pony of today.
Breeding for purpose
Why the Native Hill Pony varies in size and shape.
Herds each try to keep to their own ancestral ‘lear or heft’ out on the open commons of Dartmoor. Sometimes they have a winter ‘lear’, out of the biting winds, where furze (gorse) is more plentiful – the mares teach their youngsters to; bruise it with their front hooves before biting off the highly nutritious tips with their opposing incisors. Cattle and sheep cannot do that very well as they only have those front biting teeth on their lower jaws. The summer ‘lear’ may be on the higher, more exposed parts of their common where the winds blow the flies away and where the observant walker will notice countless little tufts of dead grass strewn atop the turf. This is called, in the vernacular, ‘pig’s hair’ grass, which is useless to ruminants, but, which the hill ponies enjoy by nipping out the edible center of the tuft and dropping the coarse outer bristles back on the ground.
These hill ponies have evolved over thousands of years on Dartmoor, growing thick, long, water-resistant winter coats, with bulky manes and tails to protect them from the weather, plenty of ‘bone’ and jaws strong enough and big enough to deal with the moorland vegetation. And how valuable they are to us for maintaining the heathland – a rather scarce habitat world-wide, but essential to so many wild flowers, scarce insects and upland wild birds.
Sadly, there are now less than 10% of the moorland ponies that there were here 50 years ago and already brambles, thorn, over-grown furze and rampantly spreading bracken (which the ponies check by trampling through it) are making life difficult for wildlife and walkers.
These are not the pedigree Dartmoor Show ponies, with neat little heads, elegant necks, fine bone and shining coats that win championships in the ring and bring large prices for their mostly ‘in-country’ owners – it would be cruelty indeed to expect them to fend for themselves on the open commons of Dartmoor in the winter snows. But, our hardy natives can, and this is how their performance is measured. The mining industry found the native Dartmoors incredibly useful, and crossed them with Shetland ponies nationwide working underground, and there was a good market for Dartmoor Hill ponies.The farming industry required a sturdy weight-carrying pony, so ponies who were strong and had good depth of bone were chosen as breeding stock.
The introduction of polo as a sport saw a new role for the Hill pony, and they were crossed with arabs and thoroughbreds to produce the athletic pony needed for the sport.
In current times, its job is as a tool of ecology keeping Dartmoor as we know and love it. Stock is chosen specifically with hardiness and ability to thrive on Dartmoor, although as there is a strong requirement under current market forces to produce coloured and spotty ponies, our foundation stock now includes coloured and spotty stallions and even cobs and arabs. This evolution merely carries on with the ancient traditions of breeding for purpose and adapting to market changes.