There is little doubt about the Exmoor Ponies’ credentials as an equine aboriginal. Fossil remains of horses have been found in the area of Exmoor dating back to around 50,000BC. Roman-era carvings in Somerset depict ponies phenotypically similar to Exmoors, and the Domesday Book records ponies on Exmoor in 1086.
With its powerful build, stocky legs and small ears, its dark bay colouring with mealy ‘pangaré’ markings around the eyes, muzzle, flanks and underbelly, the Exmoor is the living image of horses in the Palaeolithic cave paintings of Lascaux in the Dordogne, dating back 17,300 years. It is armoured for the harshest conditions, with deep chest, large heart and lungs, broad back, strong legs and hard hooves; big heads with small nostrils for breathing freezing air; strong jaws and long, deep-rooted teeth to macerate the toughest fibres; thick manes and long forelocks, and fanned, water-deflecting ‘ice-tails’. In winter, they grow an insulating woolly under-layer beneath an outer coating of long, water-resistant oily hair. Their eyelids are insulated with fatty pads to deflect rain and snow and, perhaps, to protect from the claws of predators that would have once roamed the moors.
Enduring and perfectly adapted to its rugged environment, the Exmoor pony, however, very nearly didn’t make it into the present day. During World War II, when Exmoor became a military training ground, soldiers used the ponies for target practice. Others were rustled by locals for food. By the end of the war there were fewer than fifty left. When our first six Exmoor mares and single stallion were introduced into the project in November 2003, the breed was rarer than the giant panda.
Initial concerns that the Sussex clay would be too soft for them and our grass too rich after the rough heaths of Exmoor have proved unfounded. The Exmoors thrive here and, like most animals, given a choice, they seem to know to eat what is best for them. Their preferences and techniques are different to those of the cows. Their soft lips identify individual plants with great sensitivity, and they can nip and nibble the tops of thistles and sever the toughest grasses. This adds another layer of complexity to our vegetation and helps stimulate biodiversity.
The Exmoors may also be acting as facilitators for our cattle. Studies conducted in Africa have shown that donkeys and zebra improve the grazing for cattle by eating the toughest, thatchiest grasses, which creates opportunities for the sweeter, shorter, more tender grasses favoured by cattle. As a result, cattle grazed in the presence of donkeys and zebra in Kenya put on more weight and are in better condition than cattle grazing on their own. The same seems to be true for cattle grazing in the wake of ponies on Dartmoor. This equine-bovine interaction is something we are only just beginning to understand and is likely to have been a key relationship in our ecological past.
We currently have two Exmoor pony herds at Knepp Wildland, totalling around 30 ponies across the Southern and Middle Blocks. Our aim is to allow the herds to enjoy as natural a life as possible by running mixed herds of entire males, females and their young, breeding a small amount of purebred, registered Exmoor pony foals each year.