Mention Dartmoor and the first thing that pops into your head are the beautiful ponies that roam freely over the moors. Indeed, the humble pony is the logo for Dartmoor National Park. These small, hardy animals are a huge part of our cultural heritage and a big attraction for visitors.
Here’s a little insight to the iconic ponies of Dartmoor.
The History of Dartmoor Ponies
Ponies were first recorded here during medieval times, in a reference to the ‘wild horses’ of Ashburton in AD 1012. However, excavations uncovered prehistoric hoof prints from 3,500 years ago, suggesting they’ve been around a lot longer.
Dartmoor ponies are hardy animals with a calm temperament and an impressive ability to survive in harsh conditions. Their strength and surefootedness means they’ve been used for a variety of tough tasks, including transporting tin, granite and coal from mines; farm work; carrying goods; driving and riding.
Types of Dartmoor Ponies
In 1950, there were about 30,000 ponies on the moors. Numbers have since dropped to approx. 1,500, composed of four main types:
- Pedigree Dartmoor ponies are on the endangered breeds list with fewer than 900 breeding mares left. They must be under 12.2 hands and solid colours only.
- Dartmoor Heritage ponies breed on the open moor so their heritage is unknown. They conform to the same colour and size as pedigrees.
- Many ponies on Dartmoor are of unknown or mixed breeding and are called Hill Ponies. They can be any colour and are often mixed with Shetlands.
- In the early 20th century, Shetland ponies were bred with moorland ponies to produce tough animals to work in the mines. Pure Shetlands are still around and are often piebald (black and white) or skewbald (brown and white).
How Dartmoor Ponies Survive on the Moors
Dartmoor ponies thrive on the moors, despite the harsh weather and poor vegetation. They eat almost anything, including grass, heather and even gorse, which they bash first to remove prickles.
They’ve become an integral part of the landscape, and their presence plays a vital role in maintaining habitats and supporting wildlife. Their hooves have evolved to break gorse down as they roam so they help keep paths clear and accessible, and they love chewing bracken, which has boosted the population of rare butterflies.
Where to See Dartmoor Ponies
It’s not too hard to spot ponies on the moors, though it may be a little trickier to spot the pure Dartmoors. However, there are strict guidelines.
Dartmoor ponies all belong to somebody, despite roaming freely, but most of them have never been handled. Therefore you should never approach a wild pony, as it might be unpredictable and could bite or kick. It’s also illegal to feed the ponies, as it encourages bad habits and can be dangerous for them.
If you and your little ones want to visit some friendlier ponies, here are a few options:
- Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust: Enjoy guided walks, take part in conservation work, and learn more about the beautiful Dartmoor pony. You can even buy a pony, if you wish!
- Miniature Pony Centre: There’s little cuter than these cuddly miniature ponies and their fluffy foals. There’s a whole host of other horses and ponies to meet too, and the opportunity to go for a ride.
- Pennywell Farm: Enjoy a day of hands-on family action down at the farm. As well as ponies, you can hang out with goats, guinea pigs, rabbits, lambs and the cutest miniature pigs ever!
- Becky Falls: As well as being voted Devon’s Top Beauty Spot, Becky Falls was also chosen as one of the World Wildlife Fund’s Amazing Family Days Out! One of the many great family activities here include feeding the miniature Shetland ponies.
- Crealy: With over 60 rides and attractions including an animal zone, this is the perfect option if you want to combine your animal adventures with some thrilling rides.
- The Donkey Sanctuary: OK, they’re not ponies, but who can resist adorable donkeys? These friendly animals are full of character and they love meeting humans too!