The Exmoor is a unique breed of pony and the closest descendant of the wild horse of Europe which reached Britain about 130 thousand years ago before rising sea levels isolated our island from the continent. 100 thousand years after their arrival man came to Britain and hunted the wild ponies. About 10,000 years ago climate change restricted open habitats to mountain and moorland areas supporting far fewer ponies. The Exmoor pony evolved in response to its environment, becoming hardy and resilient to the cold and wet.
When the Celts settled in Britain, ponies from the wild herds were tamed and trained to pull their chariots. The relationship with man developed over the centuries. Prior to mechanisation the local pony was used for a wide variety of tasks such as shepherding, ploughing, harrowing, hunting and carrying the farmer about his everyday business. Many animals were sold off the moor annually to be used in the pits, or as pack ponies or to pull delivery carts.
The present day system of ownership of the wild breeding herds was developed in the early nineteenth century. Local landowners and farmers founded herds in their neighbourhoods and grazed them on the Commons. The pony is only wild in the sense the herds roam freely on the moor but all the ponies belong to someone.
The Exmoor Pony Society monitors the welfare and breeding of the herds to safeguard the future of the breed. The herds are rounded up annually in the autumn and driven down to the farms. The foals are weaned. All the ponies are inspected and branded. The Exmoor Pony Society brand, indicating the animal is a true Exmoor, is a star on the left shoulder. Other brand marks may be observed at close range and these can denote the herd and the individual identity of the pony.
The number of free roaming ponies on Exmoor has dwindled to about 170 and reflects the reduced demand for the animals as pets and riding ponies. There are about 900 ponies in private hands. They have also proved useful for the conservation of upland habitats due to their grazing habits. About 200 are free living in other National Parks and conservation areas.
The Exmoor ponies are all of characteristic appearance with slight variations in colour from dun to bay or brown. The ideal height is 12.2 hands. The underparts and the area around the eyes and muzzle are an oatmeal colour while the mane, tail and points are black. the summer coat is fine and glossy but in winter the ponies grow a thick, two layered protective coat. The true Exmoor is a sturdy pony, well proportioned and sure footed. It has a large well shaped head with 'toad' eyes,large and dark, slightly hooded and set under a jutting brow which throws off the rain.