The Dartmoor Pony is one of those rare breeds whose beginnings we know little about. What we do know is that there have been wild ponies living on the moorland in Southern England in the present day county of Devon, for as long as there have been people living around the area. We're going to take a brief look at the history of the wild Dartmoor Pony, the conditions it had to contend with and the wild Dartmoor Pony that still roams in today's Dartmoor National Park.
While we can't say for certain exactly how long ponies have been living on the moorlands of Southern England, there is significant evidence that it's been a pretty long time. An archaeological excavation performed in the 1970's revealed some hoof prints on the Dartmoor that date from 3500 years ago. Where these the hoof prints of the earliest Dartmoor Ponies? If these findings are difficult to believe, at least we have a written record of the ponies' existence that dates from the 11th century. These ponies are mentioned in the will of a Saxon Bishop, which was written in 1082. In the next century, King Henry I took a stallion from the moors, which was then a Royal Forest, to be bred with royal mares.
The wild ponies nearly became extinct in the rein of Henry VIII who decreed that first those who kept horses under 14 hands would be fined, and finished with a law that called for the destruction of horses under 15 hands. His reasoning was that, with the weight of armor and weapons in his day, the larger the horse the better, but thankfully his successor Elizabeth I repealed both of these laws. The ponies became popular during the reign of Edward VII, who liked them for use in polo, and they continued in popularity until the World Wars of the 20th century, when they were again nearly wiped out.
As if surviving the whims of men and monarchs wasn't enough, the terrain where the ponies lived has never been the most hospitable place on earth. Dartmoor is comprised of 365 square miles of almost exclusively granite highlands. While there are wooded valleys and green slopes around the edges, most of the soil is poor, with minimal vegetation in the area. Just the mere fact that these ponies could survive over the centuries in such a bleak environment is impressive, and this has lead the Dartmoor Pony to be among the most sure footed of the native ponies of Great Britain.
In 1951 the Dartmoor National Park was established and the natural symbol of the park became the Dartmoor Pony. Today, there are still ponies that roam over the moorland, but they are owned by local farmers, although they do live in a semi-wild state throughout much of the year. In the 1950's there were as many as 30,000 ponies on the moor but today there are less than 3000. Dartmoor National Park estimates that this is because the farmers are given subsidies for raising cattle and sheep on the moor, but nothing is available to the farmers for the upkeep of the ponies. However, a large conservation project to help protect the ponies has been well under way, and great strides have been made to ensure that the Dartmoor Ponies will be living on the moors for years to come.