The Dartmoor Pony is a rare small pony breed native to Devon County in Southwest England. These ponies evolved on the moors of Dartmoor, where privately owned free-roaming herds still live today.

Ponies have inhabited the region’s moorlands since the Middle Ages, but the ponies found on the moor today are often mixed breeds. Purebred Dartmoors are now recognized for their true-to-type characteristics by the Rare Breed Survival Trust, underscoring the importance of conserving the breed’s genetic diversity and heritage.

These pedigree Dartmoor Ponies are popular children’s mounts and show ponies. However, differences between the modern lifestyle of domesticated Dartmoors and their feral relatives can lead to health issues in the breed.

This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Dartmoor Pony breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Dartmoor Ponies.

Dartmoor Pony History

It’s important to distinguish between Dartmoor Hill Ponies and the pedigree Dartmoor Pony breed. Dartmoor Hill Ponies encompass a range of ponies that are bred and raised on the open moors of Dartmoor today, regardless of their specific lineage or breed characteristics.

On the other hand, pedigree Dartmoor Ponies belong to a distinct breed of native ponies with a long history in the region. This breed has been shaped both by the natural environment of Dartmoor and by breeding practices to ensure the continuation of their unique traits.

Origin

During the 1970s, archaeological excavations in Dartmoor revealed preserved pony prints dating back to the Bronze Age(2500 BC to 800 BC). The earliest written documentation mentioning the Dartmoor ponies can be traced to a will from the year 1012. [1]

In the Middle Ages, farmers and merchants often kept horses turned out on the moor, known for its rugged terrain and challenging weather conditions. This environment was instrumental in shaping the Dartmoor pony’s notable qualities, including the characteristic hardiness and adaptability of the breed.

Winter conditions in Dartmoor are long, wet, and cold. Only the hardiest ponies survived these living conditions and went on to reproduce. Eventually, a distinct breed type started to emerge.

The original Dartmoor was further transformed as domestic breeding programs incorporated outside bloodlines to shape the breed’s characteristics. Genetic studies reveal evidence of an ancestral genetic bottleneck, followed by an effort to increase population size with outside stallions. [2]

Various breeds contributed to the Dartmoor breeding population until the end of the 19th century. Modern Dartmoors have genetic links to Welsh Ponies, Hackneys, Iberian horses, Arabians, and Thoroughbreds. [2]

Historic Use

During the Middle Ages, Dartmoor inhabitants used the ponies for agricultural work, riding, and transporting tin from the local mines. As the local mining industry declined, some domesticated ponies were turned loose to live freely on the moor and establish new feral herds. Other ponies continued working as pit ponies in coal mines.

The growing popularity of polo in the 19th century and the quest to breed finer polo ponies led to the refinement of the native Dartmoor breed with Arab, Thoroughbred, and Hackney blood. [1]

In 1898, the Polo Pony Society initiated the first attempt to classify and register Dartmoor ponies. Subsequently, the Dartmoor Stud Book was established in 1925, marking the first recognition of the Dartmoor Pony as a pedigree breed.

The advent of agricultural mechanization led to a reduced demand for working ponies, causing their population numbers to drop. Today, breed societies prioritize re-establishing purebred free-roaming herds on their native moors while promoting the Dartmoor breed worldwide. [3]

Unregistered ponies living on the moor that did not match the established breed type became known as Dartmoor Hill Ponies. Once considered mixed breeds irrelevant to conservation, researchers discovered these ponies also carry unique genetic traits. [1]

Recently, Dartmoor and other feral native ponies have found new purpose in support of UK conservation land management. Studies show that conservation grazing by these ponies can help manage invasive plants and increase plant biodiversity. [4]

Breed Registry

The Dartmoor Pony Society is the official registry for the Pedigree Dartmoor Pony in Dartmoor and the mother society of other breed organizations abroad. The association maintains over a century of pedigree records initially held by the Polo Pony Stud and National Pony Society.

Founded in 1956, the Dartmoor Pony Registry of America is the official breed organization for Dartmoor Ponies in North America.

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Breed Characteristics

While Dartmoor Hill Ponies vary significantly in size and type, all registered Dartmoor Ponies must meet an established breed standard, reflecting characteristics unique to this ancient breed.

Conformation

Dartmoor Ponies cannot exceed 12.2 hands in height from the ground to the highest point of the withers. While small, these ponies have sturdy conformations and an elegant appearance.

Their small heads are bloodlike, with refined features reminiscent of “hot-blooded” breeds. They have a relatively short length from the muzzle to the eye without significant tapering at the nose.

Small, alert ears and large eyes give these ponies an inquisitive expression. Necks are medium-length with delicate throat latches. Sloping shoulders connect to muscular bodies with well-sprung ribs and deep heart girths.

Their hindquarters are muscular with moderate slope and well-set tails. Legs are straight with relatively long forearms, short cannons, ample bone, and hard feet. These ponies have a low, straight natural movement with good hock action that is appealing under saddle.

Colours

Most Dartmoor ponies have dark, solid-coloured coats. Acceptable coat colours include:

  • Bay
  • Black
  • Brown
  • Chestnut
  • Grey
  • Roan

Pintos and spotted patterns are not allowed. Minimal white markings are permissible, but excessive white is discouraged.

Temperament

Dartmoor Ponies are known for their positive attitudes. Most Dartmoors have a calm, reliable, and quiet disposition suitable for timid young riders. However, they are an intelligent breed that may occasionally display cheeky pony behaviour without proper handling.

Despite their calm demeanour, Dartmoors are an energetic breed that enjoy working and learning. They are generally friendly and willing horses that bond with their riders, but personalities and preferences can vary between individual ponies.

Disciplines

Although Dartmoors are excellent riding ponies, they typically aren’t suited to bear the size and weight of adult riders. However, a well-trained Dartmoor makes an ideal versatile first pony for younger, smaller riders.

These ponies compete with children in hunter/jumper, showing, leadline, and equitation classes. Adult Dartmoor owners frequently use them as driving ponies for competition and pleasure driving.

Dartmoor Pony Health

Dartmoors are hardy ponies with a low susceptibility to genetic diseases. However, they are still prone to common equine health concerns, including the many conditions associated with domestic management practices.

Infectious diseases are a significant concern for feral populations on the moor, while metabolic disorders are the primary health problem found in domestic Dartmoors.

Genetic Diseases

Dartmoors are fortunate in that the breed is not commonly associated with specific genetic diseases. However, the small population of purebred Dartmoors raises concerns about low genetic diversity contributing to inbreeding and inherited disorders. [2]

Genetic studies found that the Dartmoor breed have low mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) diversity, suggesting that modern Dartmoor ponies descended from only a few mare lines. Researchers recommend breeding management to preserve rare matrilines in the breed and mitigate the risks of low haplotypic diversity. [2]

A study comparing Dartmoor populations in different parts of the world found that Dartmoors in North America possess less genetic diversity than those in the UK. This highlights how restricted founder lines can reduce genetic diversity in distinct subgroups. [3]

The Dartmoor Pony Society in the UK has an upgrading scheme that permits the progeny of approved unregistered horses to become fully registered Dartmoor Ponies. This scheme may help increase genetic diversity in the breed while maintaining the breed standard.

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