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A 50 000 year old pony breed: the Exmoor pony

A short history of the Exmoor pony and its uses today.

Exmoor pony with its distinctive "mealy" markings
A feral Exmoor pony photographed on Exmoor

Wild ponies crossed the land bridge from Alaska 130 thousand years ago. They spread throughout the British Isles to form the basis of all our native breeds Man came to Britain 100 thousand years ago and pony meat quickly became part of their diet. There are fossil remains of ponies in the Exmoor area dating back 50 000 years that bear a close resemblance to modern Exmoor ponies. They in turn are similar to the ancient wild horses of Mongolia the Przewalski’s horse. During the last ice, 10 000 years ago, the ponies became restricted to upland areas and the Hill pony breeds of Great Britain evolved. A distinguishing feature of the Exmoor pony is the light coloured ‘pangaré’ marking around the eyes, muzzle and belly. They are considered to be a primitive trait which is shared with the Przewalski’s horse

When the Celts came to Britain they tamed some of the ponies to ride and pull chariots. There is archaeological evidence of ponies being used for transport as far back as 400BC. They are also recorded in the Domesday book of 1086.

Exmoor ponies grazing in the Exmoor National Park
Exmoor ponies grazing in the Exmoor National Park

The Exmoor Pony Society was formed 100 years ago in 1921, but the ponies very early became extinct. “ A combination of owners away at war, gates left open, trigger-happy troops and ponies stolen to provide food for city dwellers left the population decimated, perhaps no more than fifty.” (

A Cumbrian Exmoor pony used for conservation grazing
A Cumbrian Exmoor pony photographed locally

Like other hill breeds, the Exmoor pony grows a thick, double-layered winter coat. The under-layer is dense and insulating; the upper layer is oily, shedding the rain and preventing the under-layer becoming waterlogged. Like other Hill Breeds such as the Fell Pony, the mane and toil are long and dense, helping to keep out the weather.

In common with other native hill breeds, Exmoor ponies are now extensively used for conservation grazing. Their strong jaws and teeth allow them to macerate some of the toughest plants. As with many animals, they know what is best for them. They will nibble both the toughest grasses, thistles and gorse all helping to stimulate biodiversity. “The Exmoors may also be acting as facilitators for our cattle. Studies conducted in Africa have shown that donkeys and zebra improve the grazing for cattle by eating the toughest, thatchiest grasses, which creates opportunities for the sweeter, shorter, more tender grasses favoured by cattle”( Similarly, Fell ponies are used at Gowbarrow Hall Farm close to where I live: “Horses and ponies are grazers like cattle, but unlike cattle, sheep, goats and deer which are all ruminants, horses and ponies are not. They are consequently less able to digest the tough cellulose of mature grasses, preferring new young growth or old dried grasses, where the cellulose has already started to break down. Their different digestive systems and diet make their dung a unique contribution to the soil ecosystem, increasing the diversity of foods for dung beetles, fungi, bacteria, etc.” (

The Cumbria Wildlife Trust uses Exmoor ponies to graze Drumburgh Moss. ( It is now a designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and Cumbria Wildlife Trust are working to repair the damage caused by past decades of drainage and peat cutting, causing the peat bog ( a carbon sink) to become too dry. Exmoor ponies cope well with wet ground. The herd near High Row above Ullswater graze wet, boggy land that is a mass of cottongrass in June.

I feel a particular affinity for Exmoor ponies, having been born and raised in Somerset. They are also very rewarding to needle felt because of their stunning markings. They are categorised as a ‘priority breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust so they became part of my Watchlist project.

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