The Dartmoor Pony is a rare small pony breed native to Devon County in Southwest England. These ponies evolved on the moors of Dartmoor, where privately owned free-roaming herds still live today.

Ponies have inhabited the region’s moorlands since the Middle Ages, but the ponies found on the moor today are often mixed breeds. Purebred Dartmoors are now recognized for their true-to-type characteristics by the Rare Breed Survival Trust, underscoring the importance of conserving the breed’s genetic diversity and heritage.

These pedigree Dartmoor Ponies are popular children’s mounts and show ponies. However, differences between the modern lifestyle of domesticated Dartmoors and their feral relatives can lead to health issues in the breed.

This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Dartmoor Pony breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Dartmoor Ponies.

Dartmoor Pony History

It’s important to distinguish between Dartmoor Hill Ponies and the pedigree Dartmoor Pony breed. Dartmoor Hill Ponies encompass a range of ponies that are bred and raised on the open moors of Dartmoor today, regardless of their specific lineage or breed characteristics.

On the other hand, pedigree Dartmoor Ponies belong to a distinct breed of native ponies with a long history in the region. This breed has been shaped both by the natural environment of Dartmoor and by breeding practices to ensure the continuation of their unique traits.

Origin

During the 1970s, archaeological excavations in Dartmoor revealed preserved pony prints dating back to the Bronze Age(2500 BC to 800 BC). The earliest written documentation mentioning the Dartmoor ponies can be traced to a will from the year 1012. [1]

In the Middle Ages, farmers and merchants often kept horses turned out on the moor, known for its rugged terrain and challenging weather conditions. This environment was instrumental in shaping the Dartmoor pony’s notable qualities, including the characteristic hardiness and adaptability of the breed.

Winter conditions in Dartmoor are long, wet, and cold. Only the hardiest ponies survived these living conditions and went on to reproduce. Eventually, a distinct breed type started to emerge.

The original Dartmoor was further transformed as domestic breeding programs incorporated outside bloodlines to shape the breed’s characteristics. Genetic studies reveal evidence of an ancestral genetic bottleneck, followed by an effort to increase population size with outside stallions. [2]

Various breeds contributed to the Dartmoor breeding population until the end of the 19th century. Modern Dartmoors have genetic links to Welsh Ponies, Hackneys, Iberian horses, Arabians, and Thoroughbreds. [2]

Historic Use

During the Middle Ages, Dartmoor inhabitants used the ponies for agricultural work, riding, and transporting tin from the local mines. As the local mining industry declined, some domesticated ponies were turned loose to live freely on the moor and establish new feral herds. Other ponies continued working as pit ponies in coal mines.

The growing popularity of polo in the 19th century and the quest to breed finer polo ponies led to the refinement of the native Dartmoor breed with Arab, Thoroughbred, and Hackney blood. [1]

In 1898, the Polo Pony Society initiated the first attempt to classify and register Dartmoor ponies. Subsequently, the Dartmoor Stud Book was established in 1925, marking the first recognition of the Dartmoor Pony as a pedigree breed.

The advent of agricultural mechanization led to a reduced demand for working ponies, causing their population numbers to drop. Today, breed societies prioritize re-establishing purebred free-roaming herds on their native moors while promoting the Dartmoor breed worldwide. [3]

Unregistered ponies living on the moor that did not match the established breed type became known as Dartmoor Hill Ponies. Once considered mixed breeds irrelevant to conservation, researchers discovered these ponies also carry unique genetic traits. [1]

Recently, Dartmoor and other feral native ponies have found new purpose in support of UK conservation land management. Studies show that conservation grazing by these ponies can help manage invasive plants and increase plant biodiversity. [4]

Breed Registry

The Dartmoor Pony Society is the official registry for the Pedigree Dartmoor Pony in Dartmoor and the mother society of other breed organizations abroad. The association maintains over a century of pedigree records initially held by the Polo Pony Stud and National Pony Society.

Founded in 1956, the Dartmoor Pony Registry of America is the official breed organization for Dartmoor Ponies in North America.

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Breed Characteristics

While Dartmoor Hill Ponies vary significantly in size and type, all registered Dartmoor Ponies must meet an established breed standard, reflecting characteristics unique to this ancient breed.

Conformation

Dartmoor Ponies cannot exceed 12.2 hands in height from the ground to the highest point of the withers. While small, these ponies have sturdy conformations and an elegant appearance.

Their small heads are bloodlike, with refined features reminiscent of “hot-blooded” breeds. They have a relatively short length from the muzzle to the eye without significant tapering at the nose.

Small, alert ears and large eyes give these ponies an inquisitive expression. Necks are medium-length with delicate throat latches. Sloping shoulders connect to muscular bodies with well-sprung ribs and deep heart girths.

Their hindquarters are muscular with moderate slope and well-set tails. Legs are straight with relatively long forearms, short cannons, ample bone, and hard feet. These ponies have a low, straight natural movement with good hock action that is appealing under saddle.

Colours

Most Dartmoor ponies have dark, solid-coloured coats. Acceptable coat colours include:

  • Bay
  • Black
  • Brown
  • Chestnut
  • Grey
  • Roan

Pintos and spotted patterns are not allowed. Minimal white markings are permissible, but excessive white is discouraged.

Temperament

Dartmoor Ponies are known for their positive attitudes. Most Dartmoors have a calm, reliable, and quiet disposition suitable for timid young riders. However, they are an intelligent breed that may occasionally display cheeky pony behaviour without proper handling.

Despite their calm demeanour, Dartmoors are an energetic breed that enjoy working and learning. They are generally friendly and willing horses that bond with their riders, but personalities and preferences can vary between individual ponies.

Disciplines

Although Dartmoors are excellent riding ponies, they typically aren’t suited to bear the size and weight of adult riders. However, a well-trained Dartmoor makes an ideal versatile first pony for younger, smaller riders.

These ponies compete with children in hunter/jumper, showing, leadline, and equitation classes. Adult Dartmoor owners frequently use them as driving ponies for competition and pleasure driving.

Dartmoor Pony Health

Dartmoors are hardy ponies with a low susceptibility to genetic diseases. However, they are still prone to common equine health concerns, including the many conditions associated with domestic management practices.

Infectious diseases are a significant concern for feral populations on the moor, while metabolic disorders are the primary health problem found in domestic Dartmoors.

Genetic Diseases

Dartmoors are fortunate in that the breed is not commonly associated with specific genetic diseases. However, the small population of purebred Dartmoors raises concerns about low genetic diversity contributing to inbreeding and inherited disorders. [2]

Genetic studies found that the Dartmoor breed have low mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) diversity, suggesting that modern Dartmoor ponies descended from only a few mare lines. Researchers recommend breeding management to preserve rare matrilines in the breed and mitigate the risks of low haplotypic diversity. [2]

A study comparing Dartmoor populations in different parts of the world found that Dartmoors in North America possess less genetic diversity than those in the UK. This highlights how restricted founder lines can reduce genetic diversity in distinct subgroups. [3]

The Dartmoor Pony Society in the UK has an upgrading scheme that permits the progeny of approved unregistered horses to become fully registered Dartmoor Ponies. This scheme may help increase genetic diversity in the breed while maintaining the breed standard.

Health Problems

Domesticated Dartmoor ponies have a high incidence of equine metabolic syndrome (EMS). This metabolic disorder is associated with insulin resistance and laminitis, a debilitating condition involving inflammation of the hoof laminae. [5]

The high prevalence of EMS in native UK pony breeds suggests a genetic predisposition to the disorder. Studies also show that environment and management factors significantly influence the development of EMS in Dartmoors. [6]

One study of insulin-resistant Dartmoor ponies found that calorie restriction, exercise, restricted pasture access, and the elimination of grains from the diet can decrease laminitis risks in the breed. [7] Researchers also note that laminitis is not observed in feral Dartmoors, who graze sparse vegetation and walk vast distances on the moors every day.

However, feral populations have experienced several outbreaks of the infectious disease strangles in recent years.

Caused by the Streptococcus equi bacteria, strangles is a highly contagious disease transmitted through bodily fluids. Clinical signs of strangles include enlarged lymph nodes and trouble swallowing. Severe cases can cause death in immune-compromised horses. [8]

The free-ranging lifestyle of feral Dartmoors allow the disease to spread quickly between herds. However, vaccination and comprehensive biosecurity protocols can protect domestic horses from strangles. [8]

Care and Management

Dartmoor ponies are generally considered low-maintenance and thrive with basic care. However, like all equines, they benefit from regular veterinary care and attentive management.

Work with your veterinarian to establish a preventative veterinary care program for your pony including an annual wellness exam with regularly scheduled vaccinations, deworming assessments, and dental exams.

Many Dartmoors have good-quality hooves, and some owners may choose to keep their pony barefoot, forgoing the added protection that shoes offer. However, all equine need routine farrier care to trim hooves and keep feet balanced.

Daily grooming supports skin and coat health in Dartmoors, while providing mental stimulation and giving you bonding time with your horse. During the winter, these ponies grow thick coats that require extra brushing to keep them clean. Shedding tools and frequent curry sessions can help these ponies shed and stay comfortable in the spring.

Thick coats that don’t shed normally during the summer could be a sign of PPID, also known as Cushing’s disease, in older Dartmoor ponies. Contact your veterinarian if you notice changes to your Dartmoor’s skin or coat. [9]

These horses generally do best living in social groups outside in an environment that mimics their natural lifestyle. They are well-suited to cold climates, but should always have access to safe shelter. If your Dartmoor lives in a stall, provide frequent opportunities for free exercise during daily turnout.

Unrestricted access to fresh pasture is a risk factor for laminitis and obesity in the breed. Dry lots with hay are a safe option for turnout when starch levels in grass are high. Grazing muzzles can also help restrict grass intake in ponies turned out on pasture. [7]

Dartmoor Pony Nutrition

Diet plays a key role in managing the risk of metabolic disorders in Dartmoor Ponies. The best feeding program for your Dartmoor Pony is one that provides balanced nutrition while avoiding weight gain, which can contribute to insulin resistance and laminitis.

Weight Maintenance

Dartmoor Ponies are typically characterized as easy keepers. Hailing from an environment known for its sparse vegetation, the breed evolved an efficient metabolism to extract maximum nutrition from minimal food intake.

This adaptation was crucial for their survival in the moors, where nutrient-dense forages were rare. However, this metabolic efficiency makes these ponies prone to weight gain in domestic management settings, especially if they consume energy-dense feeds.

Feeding a balanced diet and ensuring your Dartmoor is maintained at an optimal weight is critical for their metabolic health. You should regularly record your pony’s body condition score to check if they are gaining weight.

Depending on their condition, you may need to adjust your pony’s diet to help them safely lose weight.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 200 kg (450 lb) Dartmoor Pony with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) 4 kg / 9 lb
Salt 15 g (1 tbsp)
Omneity Pellets 100 g (1 scoop)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 102%
Protein (% of Req) 114%
HC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 8.8%

 

Mad Barn’s Omneity is added to the diet to provide essential vitamins and minerals that are commonly lacking in forages. Deficiencies in these nutrients can negatively impact hoof health, metabolic function, the immune system and more. [11]

Omneity is an ideal vitamin and mineral supplement for easy keepers, such as Dartmoor ponies, because it is formulated without any added grains or sugars.

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Forage

Like all native British pony breeds, Dartmoors thrive on a forage-based diet and should avoid high-calorie grain-based feeds.

Ponies should consume approximately 2% of their bodyweight in forage daily. It is easy for owners to inadvertently overfeed Dartmoor ponies due to their small size.

With a typical bodyweight of 200 kg (450 lb), the average Dartmoor Pony only needs about 4 kg (9 lb) of hay per day. Medium-quality, low-starch and low-sugar grass hay is safe for most ponies. Starch and sugar are the hydrolyzable carbohydrate (HC) components of NSC that are digestible in the small intestine and stimulate insulin release. These should be minimized in the diet to support metabolic health.

Small ponies can quickly consume their entire daily hay ration in a single feeding. However, prolonged periods without forage can increase the risk of digestive problems and metabolic dysfunction in your pony. Feed hay in a slow feeder to extend feeding time. [10]

While hay alone should provide enough energy and protein for most Dartmoor ponies, a forage-only diet will be deficient in several essential nutrients that are lacking in hay. Feeding a vitamin and mineral supplement will prevent deficiencies and help balance the diet.

Feeding Recommendations

Most Dartmoors ponies do not need the extra energy provided by commercial concentrates and ration balancers. Research shows that eliminating high-starch grains from the diet can reduce metabolic health risks in these horses.

If you need a supplement carrier to feed with your pony’s vitamin and mineral premix, use low-starch soaked hay pellets as a forage-based alternative. [7] Soaked beet pulp is also an excellent carrier. It is a low calorie feed that soaks up 4 times its weight for a satisfying volume.

Check the recommended serving size for any supplements you feed your Dartmoor. Because these ponies are much smaller than average horses, dosages need to be adjusted to their bodyweight. Work with a equine nutritionist to determine the ideal feeding rate based on your pony’s specific requirements.

Dartmoor ponies also need free-choice access to fresh water and plain loose salt in their environment at all times. Even if you provide your pony with a salt block, they may not consume enough salt to meet their sodium requirement.

For this reason, you should add 1 – 2 tablespoon of plain loose salt to your Dartmoor’s daily ration as well.

Nutritional Supplements

When formulating a feeding plan for your Dartmoor pony, the first step is to make sure that you are feeding a balanced diet with adequate vitamin and mineral nutrition. Once the diet is appropriately balanced, then you can look at additional supplements to support health and performance.

For Dartmoor Ponies with metabolic health concerns, Mad Barn’s AminoTrace+ provides enhanced levels of antioxidants and key nutrients to support insulin sensitivity and hoof health.

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  • Complete mineral balance
  • Supports metabolic health
  • Formulated for IR/Cushing's
  • Hoof growth

Mad Barn’s Optimum Digestive Health is a gut supplement that supports hindgut health and immune function. If your Dartmoor pony is on a forage-restricted diet, consider feeding this supplement to maintain a healthy hindgut microbiome.

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Fat supplements high in omega-3 fatty acids can provide anti-inflammatory benefits that support joint health and a shiny coat in Dartmoors. [11]

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References

  1. Hegarty, M. et al. An evaluation of the genetic relationships between the Hill Dartmoor and registered Dartmoor Pony Breed. Aberystwyth University. 2017.
  2. Winton, C. et al. Genetic diversity within and between British and Irish breeds: The maternal and paternal history of native ponies. Ecol Evol. 2020.View Summary
  3. Winton, C. et al. Comparative genetic diversity in a sample of pony breeds from the U.K. and North America: a case study in the conservation of global genetic resources. Ecol Evol. 2015.View Summary
  4. Fraser, M. et al. Recognising the potential role of native ponies in conservation management. Biol Conserv. 2019.
  5. McCue, M. et al. Equine Metabolic Syndrome: A Complex Disease Influenced by Genetics and the Environment. J Equine Vet Sci. 2015.
  6. Carslake, H. et al. Equine metabolic syndrome in UK native ponies and cobs is highly prevalent with modifiable risk factors. Equine Vet J. 2020. View Summary
  7. Geor, R. et al. Metabolic Predispositions to Laminitis in Horses and Ponies: Obesity, Insulin Resistance and Metabolic Syndromes. J Equine Vet Sci. 2008.
  8. Waller, A. et al. New perspectives for the diagnosis, control, treatment, and prevention of strangles in horses. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2014. View Summary
  9. Ireland, J. et al. Epidemiology of pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction: A systematic literature review of clinical presentation, disease prevalence and risk factors. Vet J. 2018.
  10. Jansson, A. et al. Digestive and metabolic effects of altering feeding frequency in athletic horses. Equine Comparat Exerc Physiol. 2007.
  11. Elzinga, S. et al. Effects of Docosahexaenoic Acid-Rich Microalgae Supplementation on Metabolic and Inflammatory Parameters in Horses With Equine Metabolic Syndrome. J Equine Vet Sci. 2019. View Summary