Friday, 9 August 2013

Britain's primitive ponies

Great Britain is home to a number of primitive, Tarpan-like ponies of which the purest and most remarkable ones is the Exmoor Pony. This breed is the most unchanged representative of a feral pony type that once ranged all over Great Britain and is the ancestor of many native British horse breeds. In this post I am going to go a little bit into the history of these ponies and explain why they are precious for the restitution of the European wild horse.

Exmoor Pony from Wikimedia Commons
The earliest document mentioning this pony type living in Exmoor is found in the Domesday Book in 1086, but remarks of “wild” horses in Great Britain date back even earlier and confirm that these ponies were found even as northwards as Scotland. Being the largest game species on the island, feral horses were an important food source for ordinary people. That is why the Columban church prohibited the consummation of horse meat in order to suppress the Celtic culture in 850. This forced Scottish farmers to leave and colonize Iceland.  With the ongoing civilization of Great Britain, the space for feral ponies became smaller, and many of them were tamed and became livestock, giving rise to the native British pony breeds of today. There is good reason to believe that these “wild” ponies were not merely a bunch of mixed animals, but a homogenous population with certain defining traits and very well-adapted to their habitat. In 1796, it was reported that free roaming ponies, often referred to as the “native ponies”, that are still seen living in mountain lands in west England, resembled Welsh and Highland breeds of that time closely. Also, the naturalist Charles Hamilton Smith makes an interesting note on free-roaming horses in Great Britain in The Natural History of Horses, with Memoir of Gesner (1866):

All seem to refer to a sturdy form of mountain-forest ponies, still found in the province of Cordova, in the Pyrenees, the Vogesian range, the Camargue, the Ardennes, Great Britain, and in the Scandinavian highlands: all remarkable for an intelligent but malicious character, broad forheads, strong lower jaws, heavy manes, great forelocks, long bushy tails, robust bodies, and strong limbs; with a livery in general pale dun, yellowish brown and a streack along the spine and cross bars on the limbs, or the limbs entirely black, as well as all the long hair and mostly havng a tendency to achy and gray, often dappled on the quarter and shoulders. They prefer the cover, delight in rocky situations, are dainty in picking their food, do mischief in plantations and their cunning, artifice, and endurance is far greater of that of large horses.

In the middle of 19th century, the native, free-roaming pony type was represented by many of the British breeds, such as the Galloway Pony, Shetland, Welsh, Highland and others (even the Icelandic and Faroe pony partly descend from these horses), and still roamed freely in New Forest, Dartmoor and Exmoor. These primitive British horses all were of a small and very strong build, had large heads, a short but opulent and frizzy mane. The colour was described as “true brown with mealy nose and belly so often seen in native ponies of all breeds” in a book on the Highland pony from 1899, and photographs of these breeds from around 1900 show exactly such animals. To put it more technically, these ponies had a bay/seal brown coat with a light underbelly and mealy mouth. This is the same colour found in many of the recent wild equines, except that the dun factor is lacking (what might or might not be an adaption to living in more closed habitats). There were black animals among these primitive ponies as well, and we know that black also was present in wild horses (albeit rarer than bay). Small, dark bay horses with are perfectly camouflaged in forested environments: 

Exmoors in the forest, from Wikimedia Commons
Also the hardiness of these primitive ponies was very much appreciated, as they survive harsh winters without any human help. But during the 20th century, the trend towards breed separation and “improvement” through interbreeding with more derived breeds became so strong that many of these original lineages disappeared or were diluted. Many of the breeds mentioned above do not resemble their 19th century counterparts anymore, or look much more domestic at least. Many of the free-roaming populations diminished, and also the Dartmoor population was crossed with a lot of more-derived breeds around 1900. Only on Exmoor the original type of the once feral British pony was preserved to a large extent, although the Exmoor pony is not completely free of “foreign” influence as well, especially of the English Thoroughbred. During WWII the number of Exmoor ponies dropped to 50, with only 6 remaining stallions. One of them certainly looked as if it had a Thoroughbred in its pedigree. Although most attempts to “improve” the Exmoor were abandoned because the resulting animals were far less hardy, white markings still can occur in living Exmoor ponies (but those are not permitted and consequently selected out).
Exmoors are very well adapted to the biotic and abiotic circumstances of their home range because they have been feral there for at least one millennium. During harsh winters, they are capable of slowing down their metabolism just like Przewalskies do, they grow a very dense winter coat with a prominent beard that is also present in the Przewalski’s horse and is mentioned for the Tarpan in several sources. They are known to be shier than other horses living semi-feral (like Koniks) because they have been hunted for centuries. When a herd feels threatened, Exmoor Ponies form a defensive circle around their foals. This behaviour is seen in many herbivores and obviously shows that these horses know how to deal with predators. They had to because wolves were still present on Great Britain during the Middle ages.  

Although the Exmoor is the only un-derived representative of the British primitive horse, there are breeds which still display some features of their original type. The Dartmoor pony is a very good example, although it has been quite diluted during the last century by crossing with more-derived breeds. The New Forest Pony has a similar history, and some representatives of that breed still display many primitive characters. Even some Shetland Ponys, like that one I photographed at Haag (Austria), show some resemblance to their original type. The Fell Pony is a descendant of the extinct Galloway pony and a primitive representative of the black variety.

Less-derived Dartmoor Pony that I came across in Dartmoor
Very ancient New Forest Pony from Wikimedia Commons
Less-derived Shetland that I saw in Haag, Austria
Fell Pony, resembling black wild horses; from Wkikimedia Commons
Selective breeding with these more-derived British ponies for a small, sturdy body and robust head with wild colour characteristics and great winter tolerance without crossing in any Exmoors might result in lineages that are as original as the Exmoor. These could be merged together in one gene pool (although the Exmoor society likely would be against that) in order to add more genetic diversity into the pool and overcome the problems that have resulted from the genetic bottleneck of the Exmoor after WWII, and also brings the black colour into this primitive horse population again.

So with the Exmoor Pony and its relatives we seemingly have a very precious breed. They have a small, strong wild horse-like body with a large and robust head that resembles the descriptions of the Tarpan, and they share colour features with the wild horse. Apart from the phenotype, they are seemingly well-adapted to its habitat where its ancestors lived feral for more than 1000 years. That means that they descend from the oldest feral horse strain in the world. And during this time, they either retained or redeveloped natural instincts, such as herding and defence. In my opinion, the Exmoor pony is just as useful and just as authentic for a wild horse restoration as the Konik and should be equally “worshipped”.

As we discussed in this and this post, the Konik is not a direct descendant of Europe’s last wild horses (at least, not anymore than other European horses), but is the Exmoor and its cousins?
Wild horses have been present on Great Britain since the middle Pleistocene, and obviously they were important hunting game for stone age hunters. Probably a bit “too important”, because the wild horse seemingly disappeared at the end of the Mesolithic period. It is hard to distinguish between wild and domestic horses in the bone record, but there is a Neolithic equine gap where there are no horse remains found (yet? I am basing myself on a quite old reference here, I’d be glad to be proven wrong). Later horses were reintroduced as domestic animals, probably by the Celts. However, this does not rule out that these celtic landraces were very primitive and maybe also influenced by local wild horses. Y-chromosome diversity suggests that the Exmoor is not strikingly different from other domestic horses, therefore most of its ancestors must have been domestic horses stemming from the same domestication event as other breeds. Apparently a part of the stock introduced to Great Britain during the antiquity or earlier escaped or was left free-roaming, resulting in the ancestral population of the modern Exmoor and other native British pony breeds.


  • Baker, Sue, 2008: Exmoor Ponies: Survival of the Fittest – A natural history.
  • Lindgren et al.: Limited number of patrilines in horse domestication. 2004
  • Jansen et al.: Mitochondrial DNA and the origins of the domestic horse. 2002
  • Cieslak et al. 2010: Origin and History of Mitochondrial DNA lineages in domestic horses
  • Smith, Charles Hamilton: The Natural history of Horses, with Memoir of Gesner. (1814/1866)


  1. Hello,
    I am following your writings with pleasure and I would like to congratulate you for this Blog.
    One question including several different breeds... where would you put in the ancestral lineage horse breeds like the Camargue and the Retuerta? for me they are kind of enigmatic.
    Second, what are the best representatives of the forest/diluvial horse and what is theirs story?

    Thanks in advance

    Best regards

    J. Ferro

    1. Hi,
      many thanks for your comment! I'm glad you like my blog.
      I'm not familiar with the literature on the two horse breeds in particular, but I think it is likely that the Camargue horse is related to Barb horse, Andalusian, Lusitano and so on, because of their distribution and phenotype. Regarding the Retuerta, I know of a genetic study of the Smithsonian that described this breed as being genetically distinct from surrounding horse breeds, but that doesn't really implicate that they are more closely related to wild horses.

      Best regards

  2. I have to comment on your assessments of the equines there a bit. The Shetland you have pictured is actually rather a refined (or "derived", if you will) individual for a European one - it has fine, dry legs (all the way to actually having rather poor bone) and its head is rather horsey (as opposed to having a pronouncedly ponyish type - there are differences in bone proportions and angulations and even in soft tissue volumes in the heads of horses and ponies). Perhaps the animal's massive obesity threw you off too; it distorts the topline, bottomline and body proportions of the animal somewhat. The pony is morbidly obese.

    The seeming ruggedness of the modern European Shetland pony in general isn't as much a case of preservation as one might think, either. It's just that nearly all of the finer, taller specimens - which made up no small part of the island pony population, apparently - were exported to the USA for carriage ponies when fashion demanded such animals there. These were also the makings of the "American Shetland" and, to an extent, the American Miniature Horse breeds, both very different beasts morphologically from the Shetland we now think of as the "original", British type.

    Also, that "very ancient" New Forest... I don't know. The individual appears young, hence the lanky build, plus it has its jaws open and neck extended to drink, making the head appear much deeper than it is with the jaws closed. Stood up straight and given a few years, the pony is likely to look like a pretty modern exemplar of the breed. I'm not attempting to be snide by remarking on such minor issues; it's just that I've noticed that when assessing equines, you appear to place a great deal of significance on impressions gleaned from properties fairly irrelevant to matters of genetic heredity, such as an animal's posture in a photo, its winter fur or lack thereof (even Arabian horses will grow beards and winter fuzzies if brought up in cold climes), or its body condition (fat with the finely-built Shetland above; unmuscled and open-mawed with the young Exmoor, etc.).

    Much in a horse's appearance comes greatly affected by nurture, from the way its bones align to the type of coat it grows. I'd suggest these visible attributes of individuals are generally less significant of underlying ancestry than you make it seem in your (very enjoyable!) writings here.

    I can't comment on your assessments of cattle, since I only have an eye for and experience of equine morphology and you presumably do know your cattle better than horses, but at least where horses are concerned, I'm afraid your focus on superficial differences between individuals and even breeds detracts somewhat from the credibility of these assessments. I enjoy your blog a great deal, but the horseman in me baulks somewhat at your superficial approach to equine morphology, badly enough for me to finally voice it.