The Old Story of the End of Ponies on Dartmoor

The Guardian has a piece on the plight of the Dartmoor Hill Pony. Apparently prices are falling, and by the close of a recent auction only 20 of 60 animals had been sold. The piece goes on to say that “in the last century” the hill pony thrived.

This isn’t strictly true. I’ve blogged about this before – pony prices frequently tumble, causing fears that there will soon be no ponies on the moor. There’s also a long-standing debate as to whether the Hill Pony should even be there in the first place – purists think the “true” Dartmoor pony has a better claim than the Heinz 57 Hill Pony. On the whole it’s one long decline, which is unsurprising as a) ponies have fewer uses these days, thanks to cars and b) we’re in the middle of a long recession.

  • Here’s a 2010 piece which echoes a 2001 article and one from 1998.
  • And here are historical sources including one from 1928, showing concern at the end of the Dartmoor Pony breed, and one from the 1950s that makes the distinction between the true Dartmoor Pony and the Hill Pony. Both are pretty fascinating reads if you want to understand more about the story. Even with no adjustment for inflation, the ponies sold in 1928 fetch more than those in 2013.
  • This is a 1920s letter from Ada Cole concerning the shipment of Dartmoor Ponies to Belgium for slaughter.
  • Plus Ça Change: British Ponies To Slaughter

    Letter to The Times, September 22nd, 1928:

    “I am taking all possible measures to find out whether the Dartmoor ponies are going to Belgium for slaughter, and, if so, how and where they are killed. We have already traced one truckload which was travelling from Friday to Sunday in England.

    Miss A. M. F. Coles, International League Against the Export of Horses for Butchery, 11, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, W.C. 2.”

    And yes, that’s Ada Cole, founder of what is now World Horse Welfare.

     

     

    If Wishes Were Horses: The Trail

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    This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.

    If Wishes Were Horses: Greenacres

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    This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.

    Shetland Ponies out of Fashion?

    A long piece in The Shetland Times reports that the economic crisis is putting the pinch on the traditional Shetland pony, and how changing fashions in colour and size of pony are affecting the stalwarts in the isles:

    Looking around the marts, my first impression is of a sea of red-and-white backs. You’d think Shetland ponies only came in skewbald. A closer look shows that every colour of Shetland pony is here: black, chestnut with a blonde mane, smoky grey or blue; red and white, black and white, bay, dun with a black back-stripe. Broken colours predominate, though, because colour is a key factor in the price a breeder can hope for, and unusual colours is what buyers want.
    Another thing that affects the price is size. A Shetland can grow up to 42” at the shoulder and still be a Shetland under the Shetland Stud Book Society’s guidelines for breeders. EU rules say a registered Shetland must be accepted in the stud book, even if it is larger, although a too-tall colt can’t become a licensed stallion. However, the current fashion is for miniatures. …

    There are a number of Shetland pony sales throughout Britain, with the Shetland Sale quickly followed by the Aberdeen sale and the seading Sale. This year’s Reading sale, held on 19th October, illustrates the different prices quite nicely. 13 colts went up for sale first. Only two went for just over £200, both small palominos. The top filly price of £1008 went for a “tiny” piebald filly – and we’re talking really tiny here. A number of catalogue entries give the current height as 22”, with parents of 30” or 31”. One filly’s mother is listed as being only 29”, and any broken-coloured blood in the foal’s ancestry is emphasised.

    Of the 40 fillies sold, only four were plain colours – two black, two chestnut, and one of the blacks was the only filly sold for under £100. Seven larger foals were sold for prices between £105 and £190, and the rest – all miniature, all broken coloured – went for between £200 and £350. The five that gained prices over £500 were all miniature, and all unusually coloured – cremello, blue and white, cream skewbald.

    The top price of the show, £1176, went to a licensed palomino stallion, 31”.

    For more on the impact of the econmic crisis on British native ponies, check here (the negelct of semi-feral horses in South Wales), here (abandoned and dying ponies on Bodmin), and here (the culling of Dartmoor ponies). Prices are down at sales from the New Forest to the northern most isles, and both Dartmoor Hill Ponies and New Forests are being treated with contraceptives in an effort to end the sheer wastage of ponies. I can’t link directly to a piece on the charity Equine Market Watch’s website about falling prices and the way that UK legislation lets ponies down (they are not classified as agricultural animals and hence lack the protection that cattle and sheep have), but click on through. It’s called November 2011 Market Value of Ponies Plummets. This kind of news has been cropping up regularly since 2008.

    The Price of Cuteness

    I’d like to say straight off that I’m not a vet, also that to read this post properly you will have to click on a lot of links and read the material sourced at other sites in order to make up your own mind about this story. Anyone who is a vet is welcome to chime in and tell me if I’ve gotten something wrong, or been unintentionally misleading.

    Several newspapers and media outlets are currently featuring the story of Minxy, a miniature horse recently born in Cornwall, whose owners are appealing for donations to raise £6,000 for operations on Minxy’s legs.

    Here is a high-quality miniature horse foal for sale for £2,000 on the British Miniature Horse Society’s website. Notice that it “does exactly what it says on the tin” – i.e. it looks like a horse shrunk with a ray gun. Its legs are relatively long for its body, straight and well-conformed.

    Now look at Minxy. And Minxy without his splints.

    The owner talked to This is Cornwall:

    “He needed feeding every half-hour and couldn’t stand to suckle from his mother,” said Ms Morris, who moved the pint-sized pony to her home to continue caring for him. “He was around six weeks premature and not fully formed. His legs were severely twisted.”

    About £1,600 has already been spent on vets’ bills splinting Minxy’s legs to help straighten them and wrapping them in bandages each day.

    “His front legs have become a lot stronger but his back legs will need pinning. He needs a scan which costs £800 per leg plus around £4,000 to operate.”

    As others have pointed out, Minxy’s legs are not twisted because Minxy was premature. Minxy’s legs are probably twisted because Minxy suffers from dwarfism, and he was probably born early because Nature tries to press “eject” on pregnancies that are going awry. If you’re in the UK you can watch footage of him trying to walk here.

    Furthermore:

    “Minxy also has problems with his throat. His teeth are growing to the back of his mouth and could block his airway, so he will need an operation to fix that,” she said.

    This is a complication of brachiocephalism, the feature of dwarfism that gives Minxy that bulge-y “My Little Pony” head and curves his muzzles down like a beak or a claw. He’s reportedly already had pneumonia twice in ten weeks of life.

    This site claims that the mortality rate for miniature horse foals in the USA is one in three; with due care and attention this can be reduced to one in ten. Needless to say, this is still ridiculously high. Here’s a memorial site for dwarf horses produced by US breeders. Notice that most of them live a few months at most.

    So, what does the future hold for Minxy if he doesn’t succumb to another bout of pneumonia and end up like the poor wee things in Horsie Heaven?

    Here’s a pony like Minxy being kept in an equine “wheelchair”.

    Here’s another dwarf mini called Koda between his leg and skull operations, doing well, it seems, although whether his deformities were as severe as Minxy’s is unclear. He appears to be leading a relatively normal life. Once again, however, this is a numbers game, because horses have a poor survival rate with general anaesthesia.

    Koda was lucky. There’s a good Horse and Hound summary of the risks here. The risks of fatality stand as follows:

    • 1 in 110 for healthy horses
    • 1 in 8 for horses undergoing colic surgery
    • 1 in 20 for horses having fracture repair surgery
    • 1 in 900 for cats
    • 1 in 1,800 for dogs
    • 1 in 10,000 for humans

    For a pony like Minxy who is already very sick, the odds of surviving repeated operations are pretty poor. Furthermore, the recovery period is crucial. Horses’ digestive and respiratory systems have evolved to function best when the horse is moving more or less constantly. In the wild, horses spend very little time either on their sides or immobile (they sleep for only 3 hours out of 24, and usually stand to do it as the weight of their internal organs is not well supported when they are prone), and horses recuperating from leg operations usually spend time in cross ties or even slings to immobilise them.

    The most famous recent example is the American racehorse Barbaro who broke down catastrophically and publicly in the 2006 Preakness Stakes. Wikipedia has a blow-by-blow breakdown of his subsequent operations and the eight months he spent being treated for the complications resulting from that initial treatment. One operation turned into many, and the horse finally had to be euthanized when three his legs became laminitic as a result of taking the weight for his injured right hind leg.

    So, what do you think Minxy’s future holds?

    Incidentally, the UK currently has a surplus of native ponies, which I’ve written about here, here and, in most detail, here. In February the Mail reported that dead ponies were found on Bodmin Moor, not far from Minxy’s home. It would cost a lot less than £6,000 to snap up some ponies at UK markets, worm them, feed them and train them up till they had some value and were less likely to be sold for zoo meat. Dartmoors, New Forests, Welshies and Exmoors may not be the smallest ponies in the world, but I think they’re pretty damn cute.

     

    UPDATE: Minxy was put down in early August, on vets’ advice.

    Alien Invasion?

    A little historical compare and contrast. Fascinating how the words “extinction” and “hardiness” keep echoing through.

    This from the BBC’s website on the 10th March, 2011:

    Dartmoor ponies ‘extinction fears’ over hardiness gene

    Conservationists are concerned the Dartmoor hill pony could be in danger of becoming extinct.

    Numbers have dropped from about 30,000 at the beginning of the century to just 1,500 in 2011.

    The Dartmoor Hill Pony Association said if numbers continued to fall, the breed would be in danger of losing its hardiness to survive on the moor.

    Many farmers said numbers were falling because younger generations did not want to take them on.

    The Association’s Charlotte Faulkner told BBC News: “If they lose that hardiness to survive, then we’ll never get it back.”

    Dartmoor National Park Authority’s Robert Steemson said: “The ponies are very important as a conservation management tool.

    “They are incredibly important for the biodiversity of the landscape.”

    He said the animals helped to shape the moor by feeding on the vegetation.

    This from The Times, June 6th 1951:

    Alien Dartmoor Ponies

    TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES

    Sir,

    A silent revolution has been taking place on the Dartmoor hills, with results for which a less myopic and preoccupied generation than our own may hold us heavily to blame. Fifty years ago thousands of true-bred Dartmoor ponies roamed the moor. They were as much a part of its natural character and native fauna as the badger and the fox, and famous alike as its ornament and its pride. To-day the true breed has been all but driven from the open moor to survive only in the private paddocks of a few enlightened individuals; on the moor itself it is now overwhelmingly outnumbered by a horde of cross-breds, deliberately introduced by the irresponsible commercialism of some pony-owners – piebalds and skewbalds to supply a “fancy” market, Shetlands to breed a short-legged race that will “sell better for pit ponies,” and a larger carthorse strain, profitable as horse meat but resulting in clumsy, hairy-hoofed hybrids painful to behold. Not only does this mongrel infusion debase the character and appearance of Dartmoor’s pony population; it also weakens and undermines its stamina. The true breed can forage for itself on the moor whatever the weather in all but exceptional winters, as it has done since prehistoric times. Hybrid ponies are, of course, cruelly handicapped by the dilution of this hardy quality.

    Local cupidity is certainly one agent responsible for this disappearance of the true Dartmoor poniy from its native hills, but official apathy is even more to blame. Time and again the Dartmoor Pony Society, of which Miss Calmady-Hamlyn is the moving spirit – and without whose tireless efforts the original breed might well by now have become extinct – has pressed for legislation to prevent the deliberate introduction of alien pony stock; members of Parliament have been sympathetic and regretful, but ultimately inactive. Officials of the Duchy of Cornwall (by far the largest Dartmoor landowner) have failed to set the example they should by reviving the periodic “drifts,” through which alone a check can be kept on inferior stallions, and cross-breds gelded or weeded out; nor, apparently, will they face the trouble and unpopularity that a really firm anti-mongrel policy might bring.

    The Dartmoor sub-committee of the county council, though repeatedly asked for its cooperation, takes the line that the ponies are an “agricultural” matter and must be dealt with by the county agricultural organization – manifest nonsense, since the natural fauna of an area are not “agricultural,” but a useful evasion of action or responsibility. And as Dartmoor is not yet a national park (but one an unconscionable time a-making) it is of no avail as yet to appeal to the National Parks Commission. So far the official policy has been that it is somebody else’s business, coupled with an incredible fogginess as to the facts. A day or two ago the Dartmoor Pony Society received an official inquiry as to whether it would favour the licensing of Shetland stallions at large on Dartmoor! Such monumental asininity is hard indeed to condone. The Dartmoor Preservation Association stands shoulder to shoulder with the Dartmoor Pony Society in its gallant but losing fight against local commercialism and official indifference. Voluntary societies have only one effective weapon – public opinion: this is not easy to arouse, and may be fully aroused too late. Are our legislators so lost in dollar-earning or skin-saving preoccupations that they are uminterested in the maintenance of standards of quality, hardiness, and beauty where these still tenuously survive ? It may be a complicated and uphill task now to reinstate the true Dartmoor porny on its native moors; that is the outcome of years of official inertia. It should certainly not be made the excuse for further Parliamentary inaction at this eleventh hour.

    Yours faithfilly,

    SYLVIA SAYER.

    Chairman, Dartmoor Preservation Association, Old Middle Cator, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon.

    And The Times, September 8th, 1928

    The Dartmoor Pony. (FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT.) PLYMOUTH, SEPT. 7. The Dartmoor pony seems to be in danger of extinction. That is the lesson of Princetown Fair, which was held on Tuesday, when the total number of these attractive little animals offered for sale did not exceed 100. In former times a brisk demand for Dartmoor ponies would bring 300 or 400 of them into the ring at Princetown alone, while at other Devon fairs sales at good prices were always to be depended upon. The place which the Dartmoor pony now occupies in the scheme of a world in which petrol and electricity provide the motive force is sufficiently indicated by the low prices at which they change hands. Animals which used to fetch £30 or £40 were sold at Princetown for a tenth of these sums, and ponies of poor strain could be purchased for 10s. each. Throughout the present year dealers from London, Bristol, and elsewhere have been in Devonshire organizing round-ups of ponies, and farmers have been glad to get rid of their stocks at £1 or 30s. apiece. A number of these ponies have been shipped to Ireland, to take the place of the donkeys that are gradually dying out. In happier times the ponies would have been bought locally for use between the shafts of a jingle. One of the causes of the dying-out of the Dartmoor pony is the careless introduction some years ago, of undesirable strains. This had the effect of producing a weaker and less reliable type not so well fitted to withstand the hardships of the life they are obliged to live on the bleak moorland wastes during the winter, and a large number of ponies, which would have survived had they been of the true Dartmoor breed, perished last winter. Comparatively few pure-bred ponies now remain on Dartmoor, and the moorland herds have never been at such a low ebb. Attempts are being made at the Prince of Wales’s stud farm at Princetown to improve matters by placing true-to-type stallions on the moor. Experiments are also being made in mixing the blood of the Dartmoor pony with that of the Arab, with a view to producing a good type of polo pony combining the Arab’s speed with the Dartmoor hardihood. It is possible to produce such ponies of from 13 to 15 hands.

    UPDATE: Catch Open Country’s report on Radio 4 here.