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The Exmoor is the most instantly recognisable of the British native breeds, simply because Exmoor Ponies are “like peas in a pod”; they all look alike. There is no range of colour or markings in the breed but all individuals conform to a natural pattern of brown coat with mealy colouring of the muzzle, around the eyes and sometimes under the belly. Most Exmoors are around twelve and a half hands; the designated “preferred height range” is 11.3hh to 12.3hh for males and 11.2hh to 12.2hh for females. They are very strong and can carry up to twelve stone.

Uniformity of a highly primitive appearance is just one of the reasons why the Exmoor is thought to be a surviving representative of the original equine colonisers of the British Isles. Exmoors have a fascinating history of people not interfering, rather than trying to redesign them. Once, this type of pony was probably widespread throughout Britain but starting as early as Roman times, people developed them into localised breeds over the centuries. Only Exmoor seems to have escaped.

On Exmoor itself, about 500 graze the moors and commons, belonging to around 20 herd owners. The ponies graze the vegetation all year round, well-adapted to getting the most out of the meagre moorland diet and to coping with the harsh winter elements. Every feature of an Exmoor, upon close examination, turns out to be efficient at either converting poor food, keeping the body warm and dry or escaping from predators (now long-departed).

Those features of strength, stamina, agility, sure-footedness and economy were exploited by the Exmoor people for a variety of roles in the hill farming communities. In days before engines, the ponies were the work-force, carrying farmers shepherding, to market or out hunting; drawing the ploughs and harrows, the carts and traps; carrying the children to school or the postman on his rounds. Like all the native pony breeds, they were the foundation of the local community, the means by which people could interact and make a living in such a difficult place.

Although such roles have waned and gone, those same qualities, once valued in work, have found new applications. The list of equestrian activities in which Exmoors are taking part reads much as for any native pony breed – pleasure riding, endurance riding, riding for the disabled, Le Trec, driving, dressage, showing and so on.

The Exmoor Pony Society was founded in 1921 to promote and encourage the breeding of registered Exmoor Ponies so that the true indigenous Exmoor was not lost through cross-breeding. The Society has coped with various crises such as the thefts of ponies in World War II, after which just 50 animals survived. It has always worked towards the goal of making this remarkable pony safe and secure in the modern world. The challenge of guarding this precious gene pool continues through the system of inspections and registrations in the Stud Book.

Today there are probably around 4,500 Exmoor Ponies worldwide; the vast majority are in the UK but they have found their way to nine continental European countries plus Canada and the USA. The total number is now ten times greater than a century ago. However, these figures mask a cause for concern: fewer than 450 mares and about 100 stallions comprise the breeding population and that is a worryingly small gene pool; for this reason the Exmoor pony is still deemed endangered.

So in its Centenary year, the Society has launched a campaign to raise £100,000 to establish ‘The Exmoor Pony Ark’ – a safety net should catastrophe devastate the population or valuable family lines be lost. This will be a Gene Bank for the long-term storage of frozen semen and embryos. Every person here today can help make this gift to the future and help safeguard the Exmoor pony – please visit the EPS website to make a donation. What a project to be part of – creating time-travelling Exmoor ponies!

To visit the Exmoor Pony Society website, click here