Dartmoor Pony Origin and Characteristics

Dartmoor can be found in the southwest corner of England. This is the home of the Dartmoor Pony. It has lived in a semi-feral state amongst the moors for several centuries. 

There are 9 breeds of horse that are native to England. This breed is arguably the most influenced by other horse breeds over the past generations. Local owners would free their stallions or unwanted horses and they would mix with the Dartmoor Pony herds. Over time, this would create a breed that is at home in the wild.

That makes the Dartmoor Pony an excellent show mount. This breed excels at flat work and is virtually unmatched in jumping.

It is also a relatively rare breed, with a purebred population that is likely below 7,000 horses. In the United States, there is an estimated 150 purebred Dartmoor Ponies. 

The Origin of the Dartmoor Pony

The first mention of a horse in the Dartmoor region is documented from the 11th century. A Saxon bishop mentions the horse in his will. Although this area is protected as a National Park in Devon, the rugged moors and uplands have a rustic beauty to them that has drawn people to the area since the time of the Roman occupation.

More rain falls in the lowlands of Dartmoor than any other region in England. This has created a series of bogs that prevents the area from seldom being dry. This is the home environment of the Dartmoor Pony and why it is such a sturdy, sure-footed horse. During the average year, Dartmoor receives 20 days of snow, but 40 days of hail. 

As mining became the industry of choice in that area of England, a need to have pit horses became very great. The local ponies were bred with other horses indiscriminately so that as many horses and ponies as possible could be produced for work in the mines. The hope was to have horses that were sure-footed in the mines so that production levels could stay relatively consistent. 

In 1898, an effort began to restore the Dartmoor Pony as an independent breed. The Polo Pony Society, which would eventually become the National Pony Society, created committees at the local level to produce descriptions of the native English horse breeds. For the Dartmoor Pony, except for a height limit of 14 hands high for stallions and 13.2 hands high for mares, this original description has remained the same from the time it was set.

To begin the work of restoring the breed, 5 stallions and 72 mares were selected, based on their conformity to the descriptions offered by the Polo Pony Society. It was a good start, but then the wars would strike the European continent.

A breed society was created for the Dartmoor Pony in 1924, though it struggled to continue its practices just 5 years after formation. Without the work of Miss Calmady-Hamlyn, the Dartmoor Pony may not have survived the mechanization transition that occurred after World War II.

The breed would continue to thrive through the 1950s and 1960s. The conformation standards of the Dartmoor Pony took shape at this time and limited exports were allowed. Then, in 1987, the Duchy of Cornwall, working with the National Park Authority of England, joined with the Dartmoor Pony Society to attempt a breed improvement program.

A supplementary registry was created and mares were selected, based on their physical and temperament characteristics, to become foundation stock. These mares all belonged to farmers in Dartmoor and would be turned out with an approved stallion to run in the moors over an entire summer.

A group of 15 mares were approved for this project the first year it was run. In 1989, the second year of this improvement process, there were 17 mares approved to be turned out with a registered Dartmoor Pony stallion.

Each autumn, the mares would be gathered and returned to their owners. Foals would be weaned, herds winterized, and then the process would repeat itself once again. 

It is an effort that has paid dividends for the breed. Foals are noticeably improved since the beginning of this project, referred to as the “Scheme,” and the hope is that as these foals mature and continue with this alternative breeding program, any genetic bottleneck for the Dartmoor Pony will disappear.

Expected Characteristics of the Dartmoor Pony

The Dartmoor Pony is typically 11 hands high, though some stallions can be as tall as 12.2 hands high. Most of the ponies fit within this standard. On the occasion that a horse grows larger than these standards, they are excluded from the registry. Heights exceeding 12.2 hands high are not allowed.

A Dartmoor Pony is allowed any solid coat color. The most common colors tend to be brown, chestnut, bay, or gray. Roan coloring is also allowed, though excessive white markings on the coat are discouraged. Dartmoors that are skewbalds, piebalds, or pintos are not allowed in the registry.

The head of a Dartmoor Pony is well-set and proportionally small to their body, but their eyes are bright, prominent, and intelligent. The ears are alert on this breed, complemented by a well-defined throat and jaw. The neck is strong, not heavy, and about an average length proportionally to other horse breeds.

It is the shoulders of the Dartmoor Pony that are the most important physical trait. The shoulders must be quite laid-back with a defined slope, but should not be too fine at the withers. When combined with the girth depth, the pony should have a good chest cavity and this allows for the sporting attributes of the horse to begin developing.

Dartmoors should not be tied at the elbows, have a flat front along the legs, and a shorter cannon with strong skeletal support. This creates a movement that is visually low to the ground, but still flows freely, and there should be little exaggeration.

Why Choose a Dartmoor Pony?

Dartmoor Ponies are a friendly breed. They are loyal, calm, and consistent, which makes them an excellent family horse. This breed has a relatively quiet disposition, which makes them an excellent ride for beginners or children who may have had limited time around a horse.

Although Dartmoors are relatively quiet, they are highly spirited and energetic when it comes to structured activities. This combination is perfect for children who are wanting to learn how to jump while riding a horse. 

This breed does well as a driving pony because of its strong work ethic. There is a certain hardiness to the breed, developed over centuries of living in the moors of southwest England, that allows this pony to succeed in situations that are often difficult for other breed.