Highland Pony Origin and Characteristics

Calling Scotland its home, the Highland Pony is one of the largest moorland pony breeds to come out of its region. Loving its home in the mountains, there is a pedigree established for this breed that dates to the late 19th century. Originally used for agricultural work, it is now thought to be an excellent driving and recreational horse.

What sets the Highland Pony apart from other mountain and moorland breeds is its overall sturdiness in health. This breed is tough, quite hardy, and rarely even need to be shoed. They are also easy keepers, don’t require rugs, and are free from many common equine diseases.

It is this hardiness which has allowed the Highland Pony to continue serving as a working horse when most other breeds have transitioned into recreational or competitive arenas. This breed is often used to extract carcasses from the Scottish Highlands in the spring months or during a hunting season. Saddles that are specially designed to carry a deer carcass are routinely sold with breeders emphasizing the traits needed for this task at the regional level.

Highlands are also popular in the sport of Pony Trekking, which is a trail ride either by oneself or in a group. Although the breed is somewhat smaller than other trail horses, it has a strong back that can accommodate small adults.

Some Highlands are still used for logging and croft work as well. 

The Origins of the Highland Pony

When it was first being domesticated, Highland Ponies came in two distinctive types: mainland and western. The mainland pony was heavier, larger, and bred more for the tough mountain conditions. The western pony was light and small, more suited to the lowlands and its stabilized climate.

Both types have integrated so there is no longer this distinction, though the Eriskay Pony is an excellent example of the western type of Highland Pony from the generations before.
The development of the domesticated breed can be dated to the late 1880s, but the history of the Highland Pony before that time is difficult to discern. There are some records that date to the 1830s.

The Scottish Highlands saw Spanish and French horses introduced into their herds in the 16th century. Breeds such as the Percheron were added to the Highland Pony genetics, while in the 19th century, Dales Pony and Fell Pony horses, along with some Hackney-type horses, were added to provide additional definition.

Although the Highland Pony is a popular breed, it is still classified as being endangered. There are about 6,000 in the total population as of 2015, with most in Scotland. Those that have been exported have primarily stayed in Europe, though Australia has an estimated 200 ponies. Only a few have made their way to the US and it is not kept as a standard breed in North America.

This created the characteristics and conformation standards that are associated with this breed today. To qualify for the stud book, a purebred pedigree is often all that is required as no assessment of conformation or height verification is required before registration. Stallions have one coat characteristic that is part of the registration process. 

Characteristics and Conformation for the Highland Pony

The Highland Pony should stand between 13-14.2 hands high. Unlike other breeds, there are not any selective stallions that are used to expand the breed. This has allowed the breed to have a broad mix of genetics within the population so that bottlenecks are not likely to occur. It is a practice that has created a breed that can vary widely in height, color, and appearance, but there are some characteristics that should be seen in each pony. 

The pony should offer a head that is carried high, with alert eyes, and a broad muzzle that supports a deeper jawline. The neck of the horse is in good proportion, with a sloping shoulder and excellent forearm placement a desired characteristic.

Broad knees and short cannon bones are desired traits in the Highland Pony as well. Despite their smaller size, adult Highlands can weigh more than 1,200 pounds, which is why they have been coveted throughout history as a working horse.

Most Highlands will have feathering behind their fetlocks. Their hooves are extremely hard and the breed is sure-footed. The pony should stand tall and proud, but still have a gentle demeanor about its presence.

The Highland Pony has developed a coat that can adapt to the variable climates of the Scottish Highlands. In the winter months, the ponies will grow out a layer of coarse hair that covers a dense undercoat. That allows this breed to be outside when most other breeds would be hunkered in the stable, wearing rugs to keep warm. Then, as the weather changes, the winter coat is shed to produce a smooth and silky coat for the warmer months.

Coat colors come in a variety of dun shades. The Highland Pony Society calls the colors mouse, yellow, gray, and biscuit when other breeds would call the colors grullo, bay dun, and cream respectively. Coat colors that tend to run red are referred to as “fox,” while some cream Highlands are referred to as “oatmeal.” 

The Highland Pony may have a darker coat as a foal and most will have a coat color that changes as the pony ages. Some ponies see coat color changes between their winter and summer coats.

What is not allowed by the Highland Pony Society are broken coat colors, such as pinto. White markings are actively discouraged as well, with the exclusion of a small forehead star. Stallions with white markings other than the forehead star are not eligible to be licensed. 

There are primitive markings on the coats of most Highlands, however, and these are accepted. Striping along the back and shoulders, reminiscent of a zebra’s striping, is often present in all coat colors. Striping may also be in the legs, feathers, tail, and mane. The primitive marks tend to fade in the gray dun color, but remain present in all others.

The Future of the Highland Pony

Because of the general hardiness of the Highland Pony, health issues are not expected to be a future concern for this breed. It excels in working environments, can be trained easily, and is independent in its care.

Its gentle disposition makes it an excellent family pony or an introductory breed for those who love horses, but have never owned one before.

Although the breed is classified as being endangered and the global population numbers are restricted, the Highland Pony has the supports needed to continue for upcoming generations. It is a breed that focuses on the whole of its genetic past, providing a foundation for a strong future.