by Annabel Crowley
Members of the Dartmoor Society spent a fascinating afternoon with the Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony (FDHP), on Wednesday 10 May 2023.
Corndonford Farm, near Poundsgate, is the home of Charlotte Faulkner, who formed the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association in 1998 as a membership organisation for pony-keepers with ancient rights to graze their animals on the Dartmoor commons. Subsequently she started the Friends, a charity since 2011, to support and promote the ponies by finding homes for unsold foals.
The DS March 2023 Newsletter featured an article by Charlotte on the revelatory investigation into hill pony genes undertaken since 2017 by Aberystwyth University and an international consortium of equine genetics researchers. The DS awarded a grant that supported some of this genetic analysis and our visit in May allowed us to hear more about the project, almost literally from the horses’ mouths.
Joss Hibbs, secretary of the DHPA, gave us an impressive compressed history of the hill pony, beginning with the prehistoric cave paintings of
Lascaux in southern France. A worldwide equine genetics study has recently shown – with the help of equine bones from Kent’s Cavern in
south Devon – that ponies of the sort depicted in the 17,000-year-old cave paintings were spending their summers on Dartmoor, retreating
south in winter when the polar ice cap extended over much of Britain. The question of what happened to those pony herds at the end of the Ice Age is not entirely settled. Did some remain in Britain when rising sea levels cut the land off from continental Europe? Were they then interbred by people bringing ponies from continental Europe? Findings along a reave on the south moor include a Bronze Age pony hoofprint that is exactly the same size as that of a modern hill pony.
Native Dartmoor hill ponies make appearances throughout British history. However, by the end of the 19th century, growing interest in the
game of polo led to a programme of cross-breeding with thoroughbreds, Arabs and hackneys to achieve a perfect sports pony.
Meanwhile the ancient, ‘unimproved’ native Dartmoor hill pony remained popular for its versatility through much of the 20th century. However, the banning of live animal exports in 1999 and the restriction of stock numbers on the commons made its future uncertain, hence the
formation of the DHPA.
The worldwide genetic study referred to above has shown that the Dartmoor hill pony is archetypically British, having remained free of Arab equine genes. Rare aleles (gene variants) have also been identified in 98% of Dartmoor hill ponies, suggesting they are uniquely adapted to
their environment and therefore, as Joss said, an integral part of the biodiversity of the moor.
While the Dartmoor hill pony is not a ‘breed’ in the recognised way, because there has been no human control of breeding, definitions are
broadening and it is now included in the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s watch list.
The FDHP’s work to support and rehome hill ponies involves bringing youngsters, from Chagford market or donors, to a large barn where they can be microchipped, handled and tamed. Their progress is charted in a ledger, where it’s clear that some adapt more easily to human engagement than others! But they are all sold by the FDHP to new homes via the website www.wildtowonderful.org and none is returned to the moor.
Having learnt something of the ponies’ history and seen them in the barn, we heard a first-hand account of keeping them from Terry French,
whose maternal grandfather arrived at Corndonford Farm in 1909. Terry remembered how ponies in his grandfather’s time were driven from their farms to market at Chagford, Ashburton, Tavistock or Princetown, and how his grandfather sold eight bay colts in the early 1920s as a single lot for £1. He described the annual process of sorting the ponies that started with the autumn drift, a few days before the sale, when as many as 800 ponies would be brought in from the commons. Owners would pick out their animals which would then be identified with unique ear cuts or brands (neither method being in use today). The next day, owners would decide which animals to take to market, which to sell to breeders and which to turn back on to the moor. Young foals were earmarked and left with their mothers.
In the days when ponies were still needed in the pits, Terry said the strongest colts were often sent to the Kingsbridge area over the winter to
‘grow more bone’ before being sold. They were inspected before sale by Johnny Rowe from Frenchbeer, near Chagford. Terry also remembers a Canadian named Jimmy Stewart taking a particular interest in the 1960s in coloured ponies for export as children’s mounts, and said that farmers responded by acquiring coloured stallions. His uncle was one of the first to do so, buying ‘Tommy Mouse’ from the Mortimore family in Chagford.
Ponies have an instinctive understanding of where to find breeze, water, shelter and food, and Terry recalled that in the 1960s and 1970s they
were the only animals to remain on the moor all year round. In winter, sheep would go to lowland pasture while cattle would go up to the moor
by day but be fed in their shippens in the evening. Only on 10 May would cattle be let out on to the commons. Most farmers kept a riding pony and rode out on the moor at weekends to check their stock.
The FDHP rounded off our visit with a delicious tea in one of the barns and there was great appreciation of the effort they put in to making the
day thoroughly interesting for us all.