The Gotland-Russ Pony gets its name from the island where the breed is believed to have originated and the type of horse it happens to be. Although it is a pony, the original term for the breed was “ross,” which is an Old English term for a riding horse. In a comparison to modern English, the word “ross” is about the same as the German word “hros,” which is how we get to the word “horse.”
So, in a sense, the breed is called the Gotland Horse Pony in modern terms.
In the earliest days of this breed, it was still thought to be a wild horse. Domestication has come over the breed and the remaining herds on its island of origin are classified as semi-feral today. An enclosed area of Lojsta Moor keeps a herd on 650 acres of controlled land. They have been present in this state since the 19th century, but population numbers have declined as development on Gotland has increased.
Their size made them attractive to coal miners throughout Europe, with some Gotland-Russ ponies making their way to Belgium and England. To protect the breed, a society was formed in its homeland and a pedigree book was started in 1943. Since then, two Wales pony stallions have been accepted to help preserve the breed, but the pedigree has been closed since 1971.
About 200 Gotland-Russ ponies are currently living in North America and that number is steadily growing.
The History of the Gotland-Russ Pony
The Gotland-Russ Pony is an old Swedish breed, which are believed to be descendants of the Tarpans that originally lived on the island of Gotland. With a history that dates to at least the days right after the last Ice Age, this is the only pony breed that is native to Sweden.
Locally, this pony is often lovingly referred to as a “Forest Ram.”
Stone Age discoveries show that the ancestors of the Gotland-Russ pony were present at least 5,000 years ago. How they arrived on the island is still a mystery, though the best guess is that a land bridge once existed that allowed the pony herds to make their way there.
Another theory suggests that tamed horses were taken to the island by settlers who came from the Scandinavian homelands.
Although it is the most common breed of pony in Sweden, it is relatively rare outside of its home country. They are found throughout Scandinavia, along with Denmark and North America. This relative isolation has allowed the breed to maintain many of its ancestral characteristics, even though modern breeding efforts have been incorporated to maintain the breed.
It became popular to have these ponies as domesticated animals around the 2nd century BC, with show horses becoming a point of emphasis in origin. The oldest reference known for these horses comes from the 13th century when laws that mention the “wild horses” of the island were published.
They are primarily used for riding, especially in equestrian classes for young children. They excel in harness racing, dressage, and show jumping. It is quick to learn new skills, a willing learning, and an easy keeper. During the 19th century, the Gotland-Russ pony was popular as a working horse. It was a give-and-take relationship in the region. Farmers didn’t put up fences, but the horses returned every winter for food.
Meat rationing and food shortages in the early and middle 20th century caused poachers to hunt these horses, which put the breed at severe risk. By the end of the 1940s, an estimated 150 ponies were left. This is when the local community banded together, worked with farmers and the local agricultural society, and began to implement policies to save the breed.
Planned breeding programs have helped the breed to re-establish itself and lessen the threat of extinction. Every year, the semi-feral ponies are rounded up to have their health checked, hooves trimmed, and examined for well-being. It’s a festival of sorts for the island in the Summer, with other events coordinated around the foals weaning in the winter and judging that happens in the summer.
In 1997, a breed association was formed in North America to help support the continued development of the Gotland-Russ Pony. This association affiliated itself with the Swedish association and the strict guidelines for inspecting and breeding are followed around the world.
Characteristics of the Gotland-Russ Pony
The Gotland-Russ Pony is narrow and light in its built, featuring a tail that is set low and sloping quarters. Their hooves are remarkably solid and hard when compared to other breeds. Most of the ponies will stand between 11.1-12.3 hands high when fully grown, though there is a 3-year requirement of standing at least 11.1 hands high to qualify for registration. They are strong, hardy, and can be ridden by small adults.
Despite their strength, there is a lightness and elegance to their step.
Several solid coat colors are common to the breed, including palomino, buckskin, chestnut, black, and bay. All colors are allowed except for gray, dun, and pinto. Bay or black is usually the preferred coat color.
The Gotland-Russ is known for its gentle disposition. Even when living in a semi-feral state, these ponies are kind and approachable to humans. If you encounter them while walking along a trail, it is not an uncommon sight to have them come up to sniff you, especially if there are playful young ones around.
This breed is long-lived, with several individuals living well into their 30s. There are very energetic, highly intelligent, and friendly enough in herds or with people. They are a sociable horse, however, so any prolonged time of isolation can cause the horse to grow nervous and fearful, which can cause unwanted behaviors to form.
They make for an excellent trotter and jumper with their general athleticism.
About 9,000 Gotland-Russ ponies ensure that this breed will no longer experience the threats of extinction as they did in the past. These loving, hard-working, and approachable ponies have ancestral roots with humanity that have made it be one of the most popular pony breeds for those who have encountered it. Take the time to get to know this breed a little better and you’ll fall in love with them too.