Up Close With Ponies On Dartmoor

Dartmoor Ponies - A Quillcards Ecard
Dartmoor Ponies - A Quillcards Ecard

Memory And Travels

Memory… is the diary that we all carry with us.
Oscar Wilde

What has often been most memorable in my travels are those moments that were unplanned and unexpected, and not necessarily those places about which I have had great hopes that something wonderful would occur.

One such space in time happened last month when my husband David and I went to Devon, a county in southern England. I was expecting gorgeous countryside because Devon is always described with such a superlative.

However, I hadn’t given much of a thought in particular to Dartmoor National Park and what I would see there – but it was in fact there where something took place that has become a lasting memory.

Ponies At Dartmoor National Park
First, however, some background about the area:

Dartmoor National Park is the largest and wildest area of moorland in the UK. It is well known for its Dartmoor ponies who roam free on its land, like the three horses pictured above. In fact, the pony is also the park’s logo since it is such an important part of life on the moor.

Ponies have roamed on the moor since prehistoric times. Many other kinds of ponies have also lived on the moor, such as those from the Shetland Islands. Shetland ponies like the one pictured below adapt well to the harsh conditions on Dartmoor.

Shetland Pony - A Quillcards Ecard
Shetland Pony - A Quillcards Ecard

Aside from the Shetland, cross breeding also means that there are a lot of ponies living in Dartmoor who are of no particular breed.

Some History About These Dartmoor Equines
During the 1970s, an archaeological excavation came upon hoof prints providing evidence that domesticated ponies where found on Dartmoor around 3,500 years ago.

In fact, horses have been on Dartmoor for so long that an indigenous breed – the Dartmoor pony – evolved.

In the mid-1800s, Dartmoor was one of the main sources of granite in Britain. A railway was built to transport the rock, and ponies were used to haul trucks to and from the railway. By the first half of the 20th century, ponies were also used for farm work and for delivery of goods and services.

Locals, visitors, and tourists also liked to see the ponies then as they do to this day.

In Modern Times
By the middle of the 20th century, there were nearly 30,000 ponies on Dartmoor.

However, today there are fewer than 1,500 including fewer than 900 breeding mares left – which is why the Dartmoor pony breed is considered rare.

The reason for the decline is that in earlier years ponies were sold for horse meat – in Britain and then when that was no longer acceptable to the British public, in Europe.

With the rising tide of public opinion against the sale of horse meat to Europe, the number of ponies that the farmers could afford to keep declined.

A 1998 article in the Independent newspaper tells the whole story under the title The Ponies Killed By Kindness.

From Foal To Pony ‘Vital Statistics’
Some say that Darmoor ponies have the majority of their foals between April and July, others between May and August. At whatever time they are born, foals remain with their mothers for some time afterwards.

When a foal reaches maturity, it is never more than 12.2 hands (that’s 50 inches or 127 centimeters).

The colors for the breed include bay (which means that the horse has a reddish brown body color with a black mane, tail, ear edges, and lower legs), brown, black, grey, chestnut, and roan (which means that the horse has an even mixture of white and pigmented hairs that does not get gray or fade as the animal ages).

Piebalds (who are black and white) and skewbalds (who are brown and white) are crossbreds, and usually part Shetland pony.

Wild They Are Not, Though Close To It They Are
Some people mistakenly think that the ponies at Dartmoor are wild: They seem to roam as they wish; they don’t have saddles; and for the most part there are no people about.

Actually, all of the ponies are owned by local farmers, who mark the ponies to indicate their ownership and who let them out on to the Dartmoor commons to graze for most of the year. These farmers have rights to graze a certain number of sheep, cattle, and ponies on the moor.

The ponies live out on the moor all year ’round. They spend the majority of their time in small herds of mares with young ponies and one adult stallion.

In late September and early October the local farmers get together to round up their ponies. These round-ups are called ‘drifts’.

During a drift, ponies are herded towards a small field or yard that’s easy to access. Not only people on horseback, but others using four-wheeled bikes and some on foot as well all get in on the act.

After they are herded, the ponies are separated into groups. They are checked out health-wise and treated if necessary. Those who are too old or ill or those to be sold are separated out, while the others return once again to the moor.

Out On The Moor
Intent on seeing the moors, we drove through the narrow roads that wind their way across Dartmoor.

Soon we came to a part of the moor where small clusters of the ponies with their foals were congregated on either side of the road. We parked our car and walked out gingerly on to the springy turf to try and get a closer look at the lovely creatures.

Here is a young foal that we saw at that time, cuddling up to its mom on the moor:

Dartmoor Ponies - A Quillcards Ecard
Dartmoor Ponies - A Quillcards Ecard

Visions On The Land
History, statistics and characteristics about the ponies aside, there are few things more peaceful and moving than being in the presence of these ponies as they walk and trot about, chomp down on the vegetation, snuggle against one another, and otherwise while away the time and play around at their home in Dartmoor.

The gentle mist wafting in the atmosphere during the afternoon when we were there also provided a soft and protective veil to the splash of colors and quiet sounds of these generally placid ponies and their foals.

Acknowledging Our Presence
The ponies and foals that we ‘met’ on Dartmoor quietly gave us the merest slip of a nod in a type of recognition of our presence.

We managed to get within a foot of some of them so we tried to pet them. However, they would have nothing of that: They skidaddled when they saw us get too near, and then they resumed their grazing and romping about further up a patch in that ancient and gloriously memorable setting.

A Beautiful Dignity
As we turned around from the horses to make our way back across the moor toward our parked car, we spotted this final scene:

The Power Of Dartmoor - A Quillcards Ecard
The Power Of Dartmoor - A Quillcards Ecard

Seeing that pony looking majestically into the haze of the horizon with another grazing peacefully and the little one looking straight ahead at us, we felt a world away from our normal urban living in that serene and tranquil setting.

So as the mist softly drizzled over all of us humans and horses, this was the peaceful memory that I was lucky to get – and to remember, whenever I wish.