Recent years has seen a huge increase in both the popularity and opportunities for native ponies. Alex Robinson reports.
In an age where the show ring is dominated by Mountain and Moorland ponies (M&Ms) it is hard to imagine a time where the native was once branded as the poor man’s steed. Coveted breeding accolades, 50-strong qualifiers and Burghley style jumping courses are all indicators that the natives of Britain are a force to be reckoned with.
Known for their stockier build and hardy exterior, it is not difficult to see that the native pony’s main job was outside the showing arena. Previously confined to the higher peaks of Britain’s counties, they showed initial worth pulling carts and moving timber. Unlike the distinguishable 12 we are acquainted with today, the M&M of the past resembled a more general type.
Jackie Webb, National Pony Society (NPS) chairman says: “Having judged M&M ponies for many years I would say that today 99.9 per cent of our 12 native breeds are instantly recognisable for their different types.”
As equine sport developed as a leisure activity, the native found its feet as the chosen mount for children and those seeking non-competitive rides due to their calm and amicable temperaments. Less than a decade ago, the M&M was regarded as having few qualities suited to performance jobs, until showing institutes recognised the wealth of ponies around and attempted to cater for the increased demand for competitions.
The Mountain and Moorland ridden final at The Olympia International Horse Show can arguably be labelled as one of the benchmarks in native progression.
The native breed societies have worked hard to give M&M breeders and owners a wealth of opportunities to showcase their animals. Olympia was the beginning of a succession of shifting attitudes with the showing industry realising the lucrative potential the breeds could offer.
Now natives regularly take supreme accolades at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS), and large or small they are proving that charisma and pony charm can often outshine the finest of breeding stock.
In recent years the Olympia final has increased its profile by taking on a new format. The British Show Pony Society (BSPS), once associated only with the non-native scene, has recently made a huge contribution to the M&M industry, taking on the role of Olympia sponsors.
Paul Cook, vice chairman and chairman of judges at the BSPS is a regular judge on the M&M circuit. As the BSPS have recently taken on some native show duties, including hosting a growing Heritage series, Mr Cook suggests the society's shift is a reaction to the ever growing demand for more and more M&M classes. He says: “As the Mountain and Moorland breeds have no age limit, they are proving far more popular than their plaited counterparts. Some years ago the native was of little value but the increased interest has meant showing societies are doing far more to provide for the native owner”.
One of the motivations for breeders in the present day is the desire to maintain breed standards. Ensuring specific traits of type and conformation are adhered to is one of the most challenging aspects of contemporary breeding. Breeders work tirelessly to ensure that their stock combine an essential balance of quality, movement and breed standard.
Mr Cook says: “Breed type is of great importance. A pony must be true to type and perform in a way which enhances the breed standard. However, in native judging there is more room for opinion as there are always variations within the breed type”.
While the best quality colts and stallions can command a premium and are in demand by breeders, in the past lesser quality males which were gelded were often surplus to requirements and had little value. However, in the present climate geldings are given a multitude of chances to be utilized and are often seen at the top of the lines in M&M classes.
The Welsh Pony and the Welsh Cob, affiliated to the Welsh Pony and Cob Society (WPCS), is probably the most prolific breed, and the annual October WPCS auction often sees some high prices going through.
The overwhelming amount of competition should not be mistaken for a general booming young stock trade for all breeds. Whilst demand for the ‘finished product’ is high breeders often struggle to sell youngsters at a price to cover cost of production.
Breeds such as the Exmoor pony continue to be recognised as ‘endangered’ and remain comparatively cheap in price when bought from even the most recognised of breeders. The Exmoor, known for its quirky temperament and prehistoric appearance, relies heavily on organizations fighting their corner to promote breeding programmes.
Although the native pony is seen to be cheap to keep and easy to manage, as the industry expands and the level of competition increases the demand for having native ponies produced by professionals has increased giving them an additional income stream.
Mr Cook says: “It is certainly a misconception that natives are easier to produce, but the versatility of them means they can turn a hoof at any job, opening up opportunities for all”.
Taffechan Miss Money Penny owned by Georgia Rhodes, Yorkshire, is a 10-year-old welsh section D mare at the pinnacle of her career.
Bred by Gillian Price of Merthyr Tydfil, Georgia purchased the bay foal in 2006, and she resides at producer Lauren Beaumount’s yard throughout the season.
‘Tinkerbell’ made her ridden debut in 2014, qualifying for Olympia on her first attempt, being awarded the best of breed at the final. 2015 saw the pair picking up qualifications for both Royal International Horse Show (RIHS) and HOYS, winning two qualifiers and taking the overall M&M champion at the Great Yorkshire Show. In 2016, she again qualified for RIHS, won a Welsh Pony and Cob performance medal and was a class winner at Royal Windsor.
Georgia says: “As an owner, competing at top level means investing a great deal of time, money and emotions. I definitely think that the industry has helped contribute to the popularity of our native ponies, from both the flat and working hunter classes. You only have to look at the pre entries from a show like the Great Yorkshire or Royal Cheshire to realise the M&M classes are on another level”.
As established fell pony breeders, Ian, Alasdair and Kirsteen Smith of the Bracklinn stud understand the importance of using the show ring as a publicity tool for their hard work.
Whilst it is common place for breeders to celebrate the successes of their produce long after they have been sold to new owners, for the Scotland based family showing the homebreds is all part of the game.
Ian says: “I think today breeders are more aware of what ponies are wanted for, when compared to the jobs they used to be put to. The market is primarily for ridden ponies and breeders are therefore trying to produce ponies for this demand. With this in mind, we place a huge emphasis on movement.
“Showing and being successful in the ring acts as a ‘shop window’ for our ponies, and we get a lot of enquiries on the back of what other ponies have achieved, noting the recent success of the multi-supreme champion Bracklinn Jackpot who will be making his HOYS debut this season”.
“In effect, producing ponies is no different to breeding any other livestock. It is also important to note that not all ponies come ready prepared to ‘go to the top’, to be successful you need to have knowledge and ability”.