Exmoor Horse Origin and Characteristics

Native to the British Isles, the Exmoor Horse is a pony breed that can still be found in a semi-feral state. The moorlands of Somerset and Devon are this breed’s traditional home and herds have stayed here throughout all documented history.

A few Exmoor Horses are still living in the wild today. A herd of 14 horses were moved from the national park that had been their home to a former military base in the Czech Republic in 2015. The goal of this transfer was to improve the breed’s biodiversity through a process of conservation grazing. 

Horses that do remain in the wild moors are rounded up annually and inspected to determine their health and progress.

Some breeders prefer to keep their Exmoor Horses in a semi-feral state, turning them out into protected areas and left alone for long periods. The idea behind this care technique is that there is a belief with some breeders that if the Exmoor is pampered, it will begin to lose its ancient characteristics. 

When not kept in this state, these ponies do excel in a wide variety of activities. Long-distance racing, driving, agility drills, and showing are all points of emphasis for the breed.

The History of the Exmoor Horse

Fossilized remains of horses have been found in the moorlands of Somerset and Devon, dated to be at least 50,000 years old. It is suspected that horses have always occupied the British Isles in some way since the very beginnings of history.

There are claims that the Exmoor has been exclusively purebred since the Ice Age. This would make the breed be over 10,000 years old and potentially the oldest current breed on the planet. No DNA research has been conducted to confirm these claims, though an analysis of the fossilized equine remains found in England have not been connected to any current horse species. 

Archeological evidence shows that horses were used for transportation by at least the 4th century BC. There are Roman carvings that show horses of the same physical conformation to the Exmoor Horse as well.

The oldest documentation of the Exmoor Horse can be found in the Domesday Book. This manuscript was a large survey of the England and Wales that was completed in the late 11th century. Ordered by William the Conqueror, the goal of this book was to determine taxation responsibilities.

This makes the Exmoor Horse the oldest of the 9 known native British horse breeds. It is also the one breed that is believed to not be influenced by outside breeding techniques. 

In 1818, many ponies were removed from the moorlands to begin developing domesticated stock that could be used for agricultural work. Most of the breed was removed from the wild at this point. Over the next century, farmers in the area would continue developing the breed until a breed society formed in 1921.

In the 1930s and 1940s, there was a severe decline in population numbers for the Exmoor Horse. Not only would soldiers use them for target practice, but with the food shortages experienced during the war, they were also killed for their meat. 

After the warfare years, a group of breeders came together to save the Exmoor Horse. Purebred ponies were sent to North America to provide some diversity to the breed. A stud book was published in 1963, then again in 1981, and the publicity from doing so helped to bring more interest to the breed.

It is still an extremely rare breed, despite several decades of conservation efforts. In the early 21st century, there were an estimated 800 purebred Exmoor Horses around the world. 

Characteristics Found in the Exmoor Horse

There is a specific primitive look that is associated with the Exmoor. These ponies tend to have hooded eyes and have a double coat, developed to deal with the changing weather conditions found on the moors. The tail has hairs that are thicker and wider than other horse breeds as well, referred to as an “ice tail” by those who work with the breed.

Exmoor horses also have a seventh molar, which is a trait that is believed to be associated with breeds that have an ancient lineage. Their unique jaw formation is additional evidence that suggests there is a certain “ancient” quality to this breed.

This pony breed typically stands between 11.3-12.3 hands high. Taller horses are possible, but are typically excluded from the registry. The minimum height is necessary to prevent the breed from being classified as a miniature horse.

The coat colors for the Exmoor are typically brown, dun, or bay. Mealy markings tend to be found along the stomach, chest, and muzzle of the horse. Many will have darker patches of coat color along the neck and dark stockings.

Exmoor Horses are surprisingly strong for their size. Although they are usually marketed as a family horse and good with children, they are strong enough to carry smaller adults. Many ponies can be used in the harness. They have instinctual hunting abilities that can be brought out through a strict training regimen.

What is unique about the Exmoor is that domesticated breeding programs struggle to find success with this breed. When these ponies are taken out of their natural state, there has been little success in producing foals. That is why there is such an emphasis on turning the ponies out and letting them run as freely as possible. 

Two types of Exmoor Horses have developed over the generations. The first, the Acland type, are believed to be descendants of the ponies that were left in the wild after several were removed from the moorlands in the 19th century. Acland-type ponies closely resemble the other Exmoors that have been found in a semi-feral state.

The second type, called the Withypool type, are ponies that are slightly taller and heavier, with a coat that tends to be a little darker. Withypool-type Exmoors tend to have a straighter profile and slightly more athleticism as well. 

The Future of the Exmoor Horse

There are currently three herds of Exmoor Horses that are still roaming their ancestral homelands. This history has developed unique traits within the breed that help Exmoors withstand a climate that can be quite harsh. It has also created challenges in the preservation efforts that have taken place over the past two generations to maintain population levels.

Only time will tell if the current conservation efforts will be successful. The character and look of the Exmoor Horse is beautifully unique. With numbers at highly endangered levels around the world, a continued emphasis on preserving this potentially ancient horse gives it the best possible chance for survival.