New Forest Pony Origin and Characteristics

The New Forest Pony is a recognized moorland pony breed that is native to the British Isles. They are highly valued because of their general strength and hardiness. Because of their rugged homeland, they are also considered a top sure-footed breed.

 

Horses and ponies have been in the New Forest region for millennia. Some equine remains within 50 miles of where the New Forest Pony typically lives have been dated as far back as the 500th century BC. Even today, one can find these ponies grazing in the open meadows of the region, though they are owned by “commoners.”

Annual marking fees are paid to turn the ponies out to graze. This provides the owner with a right of common pasture, which also helps the breed maintain its somewhat wild characteristics and conformation. Although they are turned out to a common pasture, there are 5 designated individuals who monitor and maintain the herds throughout the season.

They may live in a feral state, but the herds are rounded up at least once each year for veterinary care. Stallions that are approved by the breed society run with the mares in the region for a short period to promote foaling, which maintains the breed’s population.

In 1945, there were an estimated 600 New Forest ponies remaining in the region. With the care structure that is in place today, there is a census of several thousand. 

The History of the New Forest Pony

The earliest written record of the New Forest Pony comes from the 11th century. William the Conqueror imported more than 2,000 horses to the region because he had claimed the area as a royal hunting ground. At the same time, rights to common pasture were first granted to residents of the area.

A second story of the breed’s origin is more of a myth than fact. Some in New Forest like to tell the story of how shipwrecks from the Spanish Armada in the 16th century caused horses to swim to the shore. Once safe, they like the region so much that they decided to stay there. There were, however, New Forest ponies that were exported to Spain and crossbred with local horses as part of the Renaissance Wars.

Although horses have been in the region for centuries, there is a notable line of Thoroughbred genetics that has helped to provide the foundation for the modern New Forest Pony. Marske, who is the son of Eclipse and part of the family tree of Darley Arabian, was bred with rural mares in the region around 1760. Those genetics helped to solidify many of the characteristics that are seen in the breed today.

In the 19th century, a decline in the population was seen because of poor breeding standards. To save the breed, it was decided to bring in Arabian stallions. Population numbers were critical, with more than 1,500 horses dying in just 25 years. As a result of the new breeding efforts, the size of the New Forest Pony grew and they could no longer be used as pit ponies. That led the breed to be introduced to more agricultural work opportunities.

Since 1930, the practice of selling off the best ponies from the region has been ended to help preserve the breed. At the same time, moorland and mountain ponies were introduced to the New Forest bloodlines to reinforce the foundations that were first set centuries ago. Only purebred New Forest stallions are turned out to the common pastures today and those must be approved by the breed society, which was first formed in 1891.

A stud book has been published for the breed since 1960. Many countries have their own stud books as well since the New Forest Pony has been exported to North America, Australia, and throughout Europe. 

Characteristics of the New Forest Pony

The characteristics expected of the New Forest Pony are set by the breeding society. There is no minimum height standard, but the maximum height for the breed is 14.2 hands. Most New Forest ponies will be at least 12 hands high. For showing purposes, the ponies are placed into two competition heights: those above 54 inches (138 centimeters) and those below.

The modern pony should be of a riding type. It should have a workmanlike personality and be strong in the physical conformations expected. The body should be deep, with a slightly stocky profile, but still small enough that the average child would be able to safely ride the pony. The legs should be strong, supported by rounded and hard hooves, with flat bones and a sloping shoulder.

Smaller ponies are coveted because they have better show qualities, especially from their physical characteristics, but that also means they cannot support heavier riders.

The three common coat colors for the New Forest Pony are gray, chestnut, and bay. Skewbald and piebald coats are excluded from registering, as is the blue-eyed cream combination. Palomino horses are accepted, but must either be a mare or a gelding. White markings are allowed on the lower legs and the head, but not allowed when they appear behind the head or above the bend of the knee.

A winter coat does come in for this breed and that can change the appearance of the horse slightly.

Horses with blue eyes, even if not with the cream-colored coat, are not accepted as a purebred individual. 

Ponies that are disqualified from registering are allowed to be included as part of the stud book appendix. For this breed, that book is called the “X-Register.” Any offspring from these appendix horses are not allowed to register as a purebred New Forest Pony.

The temperament of this breed is gentle. They are intelligent, versatile, and very strong. In general terms, the New Forest Pony is hardy, sturdy, and can handle most environments.

Testing is now required within the breed for congenital myotonia. This is a muscular conditional that affects skeletal muscles and causes muscles to delay in their relaxation. Ponies with this condition may appear stiff all the time, suffer from muscle weakness, and experience pain from cramping. It is a recent condition for the breed, discovered in 2009, and believed to be traced to one stallion, named Kantje’s Ronaldo.

Offspring from the stallion are being tested and, if found to be a carrier for the condition, will be removed from the breed’s stud book.

Life in New Forest for a Pony

The herds in New Forest are labeled as being semi-feral. They are owned through annual fees that are paid, looked after, and given proper veterinary care. About 80% of the ponies that are brought in from common pasture are owned by just 10% of those who own horses through common grazing rights.

Almost all of the ponies in the New Forest pastures are mares. Most live in small herds, usually based on family units. There will be the older mare, her daughters, and whatever foals have been born in the last year. Mares and geldings, by New Forest law, can actually be of any breed. It is not uncommon to see some Shetland ponies out in the pastures with the New Forest ponies.

Stallions must be registered and are only allowed to run free during the mating season in the spring or summer. About 4 dozen stallions are turned out each year to prevent changes to herd formation. This structure also prevents foals from being born when it is too hot or too cold in most years.

At the age of 2, stallions are evaluated for suitability. If they fail their assessment, then they must be gelded.

This structure has created a genetic bottleneck within the breed, which led to a program called the Bloodline Diversity Project. Mares that are 11 years of age or older are bred to stallions that have not been turned out to the pastures before. Then the judging and assessment of those foals remains consistent with what occurs for the ponies who live in a semi-feral state. 

Certain challenges still exist for this breed. Visitors to the New Forest region like to come and feed the horses, which creates dietary problems for certain individuals. It can also make some ponies become food-aggressive, creating negative social interactions within the family group because of their preference for human food.

Some ponies tend to wander out into the roads of the region as well. To protect them, local laws allow the ponies to have the right of way over a vehicle. Reflective collars are sometimes placed on the ponies so they can be seen at night, but because the pastures are open, traffic accidents do cause fatalities within the breed every year.

Although there are challenges to face, the New Forest Pony has a bright future ahead of it. With its unique care structure, ability to adapt, and overall willingness, there is nothing to hold this breed back.