The Exmoor is native to the hill country of Exmoor, a wide expanse of moorland bisected by the River Exe located in southwestern England. Exmoors are considered the most primitive of the northern European horse breeds, and the breed’s antiquity and genetic distance from other breeds has been demonstrated.
Natural selection has shaped the characteristics of the Exmoor. Its winter coat has two layers: an insulating undercoat and an outer coat of greasy, coarse hair that is almost waterproof. This insulation is so effective that snow will collect on the ponies’ coats because not enough heat is being lost to melt it. An ability referred to as “snow thatching.” The body hair grows in patterns that facilitate the shedding of water, and the plentiful mane, tail, and forelock protect delicate parts of the body. The Exmoor has a very large nasal cavity, giving space to warm cold winter air, and a raised rim around the eye protects it against water and debris. The ponies’ uniform brown coat is adaptive as camouflage, and no white markings disrupt this concealing color. A lighter brown called “mealy” is found on the muzzle, around the eyes, and on the flanks.
Exmoor ponies average 11.2 hands (46”) at the withers and are very stocky for their height. The deep girth and chest make for a large digestive capacity, important for utilizing a large amount of rough forage in the diet. The ponies are athletic, intelligent, and strong-willed.
Today, fewer than 800 Exmoor ponies exist globally, most of which are in England. About 150 of them roam free on Exmoor, thriving on their own with no food or shelter provided. Though these ponies live wild, they are all owned, and every fall the herds are rounded up for foals to be collected and sold. These foals are of great genetic value to the domestic population since they retain traits selected for survival in the wild. The Exmoor breed is perfectly adapted to its native environment, so much so that it has been exempted from the general policy of removing all livestock from the moor. In fact, Exmoor ponies are being used as native grazers in several environmentally sensitive areas of England to maintain or increase plant diversity.
The Exmoor is promoted in Great Britain by the Exmoor Pony Society, founded in 1921. The Society maintains information on the status of bloodlines within the breed as well as on its overall numbers. In North America, Exmoors are registered and promoted by several associations. However, for effective global conservation to occur North American registries must seek to align their processes with the Exmoor Pony Society so that animals and their genetic material may readily be exchanged.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.