Dartmoors are one of five native, regionally-adapted English ponies; the others include the Dales, Exmoor, Fell, and New Forest. The Dartmoor is a descendent of the native ponies present for centuries in the Dartmoor area of southwestern England. Remains of ponies from as early as 1500 BCE have been found in archaeological digs in Dartmoor. In 1012 Bishop Aelfwold of Crediton listed a “Dartmoor Pony” in his will, and early records from manors in Dartmoor mention ponies being branded and earmarked.
Between the 12th-15th centuries, ponies were used for riding, agricultural work, and pulling skips in coal and tin mines. It was customary to range ponies on the moor when they were not needed, so natural selection helped shape a breed that could thrive on rough terrain and poor forage.
The first registry was in the UK Polo Pony Society Stud Book then in the National Pony Society stud books. Dartmoor ponies nearly disappeared during the first half of the 1900s. Mechanization eliminated the need for working ponies, and purebreds were crossed for the production of polo ponies and other sport horses. The formation of the Dartmoor Pony Society in 1924 was a first step in the breed’s survival, although the breed didn’t begin to increase again until after World War II. One of the Society’s goals today is the reestablishment of purebred, free-roaming herds on Dartmoor to replace the mixed breed ponies that currently exist.
Dartmoor ponies were first imported to the United States by Joan Dunning in the 1930s. Her stud farm, Farnley, was the first American home to the breed. In 1936 she established the Dartmoor Pony Registry of America. From the beginning she carefully placed her ponies with breeders she trusted along the East Coast. In the 1950s, one of Dunning’s clients became the first after her to import Dartmoors from the UK. Her daughter, Hetty Abeles, continues to be active in the Registry and in breeding Dartmoor ponies.
Dartmoor ponies average 12 hands (48″) at the withers. Bay and brown are the most common colors, but black, chestnut, and gray also exist. White markings are uncommon. The head is small with a broad forehead and small ears. The neck is strong, and the quarters are well muscled. The legs have dense, flat bones, and the hooves are durable. Manes and tails are full. The sloping shoulder and long stride give a smooth ride. The ponies’ calm, friendly, and willing dispositions make them popular as children’s mounts. The breed’s consistency of appearance makes it easy to pick Dartmoors out of a herd and to match ponies for driving teams.
The Dartmoor breed has an estimated global population of two to three thousand. Dartmoors found in the US descend from imports made during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Demand for the breed exceeds the supply, but the increasing number of ponies will gradually make it possible for more people to become involved with this versatile and charming breed.
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