The Exmoor Pony is an ancient British pony breed native to the moorlands of South West England. These ponies thrived in remote Exmoor for thousands of years, but modern wars drove them to the brink of extinction.

Today, Exmoor ponies are classified as an endangered breed, with only a few thousand remaining worldwide. Preservation efforts are underway, with breeding programs and conservation grazing projects aiming to ensure their survival.

Many remaining Exmoors are beloved family ponies, who thrive in when given appropriate care and nutrition. They are used in a range of equine disciplines, including driving, dressage, trail riding, and as riding ponies for children.

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

Exmoor Pony Conformation Pictures | Mad Barn USA

Exmoor Pony History

Tracing its lineage back to ancient times, the Exmoor pony is believed to be the closest existing relative to the wild horse type that roamed Britain thousands of years ago.

Morphological and genetic evidence suggest this lineage evolved separately from other domestic horse breeds. However, genetic bottlenecks in the past century have required human intervention to save the breed from extinction.

Origin

Wild ponies first migrated to the British Isles during the late Pleistocene period (circa 129,000 – 11,700 BCE). This population was subsequently isolated when floods eroded the land bridge connecting the British Isles to mainland Europe around 7000 BC. [1]

DNA studies of ancient European horse remains reveal significant genetic links to Exmoor Ponies. Modern Exmoors also display several primitive morphological traits, suggesting the breed is a direct descendent of these prehistoric wild horses. [1]

Humans began cross-breeding different types of horses following the domestication of the species approximately 5,500 years ago. However, boats could not transport live horses to the British Isles until 2,000 BC. [1]

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) studies in other British breeds reveal variations inherited from multiple wild populations. However, these studies found Exmoors had low variability in mtDNA sequences and unique haplotypes that indicate a maternal link to an ancient Northern horse. [2]

Today, Exmoors are one of few remaining breeds with deep lower jaw morphology that resembles the Pleistocene remains of Northern horses adapted to cold climates. These ponies likely remained isolated due to their remote geographic location. [2]

Historic Use

Ancient ponies were an important food source for Stone Age hunters in the British Isles. The hides and fat of the ponies also helped humans survive cold winters in the harsh climate. Once domesticated, native ponies were used to transport goods and people throughout Britain.

The first written record of ponies in Exmoor appears in the Domesday Book, published in 1086. These ponies roamed lands that eventually became the Exmoor Royal Forest, a territory reserved as hunting grounds for kings. [1]

Sir Thomas Acland, the last warden of the Royal Forest, took ownership of 30 ponies when the crown sold the Royal Forest to industrialist John Knight in 1818. Other local farmers also established Exmoor herds from stock purchased at the dispersal sale.

Moorland farmers used ponies for shepherding, hunting, and plowing. In the 1930s, Exmoor Ponies became popular riding ponies for children following the success of the Moorland Mousie children’s book series.

World War II drastically decreased the Exmoor Pony population. Troops used the remaining wild ponies for target practice, and starving civilians stole ponies for food.

At the end of WWII, no more than fifty Exmoor ponies remained, putting the breed on the brink of extinction. However, thanks to the dedication of local breeders, these unique equines were saved and preserved.

Their native lands are now part of Exmoor National Park, where privately-owned herds still roam freely on the moor. [3]

Breed Registry

In 1921, moorland farmers founded the Exmoor Pony Society to support the conservation of this breed. The society preserves the breed standard inherited from the Exmoor’s ancient ancestors and maintains a registry for purebred Exmoor Ponies.

Members work in collaboration with the Exmoor National Park Authority and the Rare Breed Survival Trust to ensure the future survival of the Exmoor breed and conserve their wild heritage.

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Breed Characteristics

Exmoor Ponies have distinct characteristics that trace back to their primitive ancestors and characterize the breed standard developed by the Exmoor Pony Society. All registered Exmoor are inspected to ensure they conform to these standards.

Conformation

Exmoor Ponies have a preferred height range of 11.2 to 12.3 hands at maturity. Their general appearance has an unmistakable pony character with hardy conformation.

Exmoors have broad foreheads, short ears, and alert expressions. Their eyes are prominent with a fleshy hood and thick eyebrow, also called “toad eye”. They have stocky, powerful builds with deep chests, well-sprung ribs, laid-back shoulders, and round hindquarters. Legs are clean and short.

The extra flesh around their hooded eyes offers extra insulation from the cold and helps deflect water. These ponies also grow thick winter coats with an insulating underlayer and oily topcoat that keeps moisture away from their skin in the wet climate. [4]

Manes and tails are thick, with short, coarse hairs forming a snow chute along the dock of the tail to prevent rainwater from dripping to the groin and underbelly area.

Colours

Exmoors are best recognized by their virtually identical colouring. All Exmoor Ponies have dark coats and primitive markings, but coat colour can vary between brown, bay, and dun.

Black points are acceptable, but purebred Exmoor Ponies should not have white markings.

Mealy colouring around the muzzle, eyes, and underbelly is a prominent breed characteristic.

Temperament

The demanding conditions of the moorlands resulted in natural selection for ponies that were hardy, athletic, and intelligent. These ponies often have alert, friendly, and outgoing personalities. Like other intelligent pony breeds, they can be strong-willed.

Their even temperaments make them suitable riding ponies for children. However, individual personalities can vary, and every horse needs proper training and handling to support good behaviour.

Disciplines

Exmoors are versatile and adaptable ponies that can learn to thrive in many different jobs. While some Exmoors still live in free-roaming herds with minimal human management, these ponies also excel as pleasure mounts and companions.

Exmoors are popular children’s ponies. They are often seen in lead rein, hunter, and showing competitions. But the Exmoor’s brave disposition is also suitable for trail riding and fox hunting. While best suited for small riders due to their stature, they can easily pull adults in carriages.

In recent years, Exmoor Ponies have supported land conservation efforts through grazing projects using free-roaming equines to eat invasive plant species and restore natural habitats.

The Moorland Mousie Trust coordinates projects involving almost 300 ponies at over 60 sites in the UK. Recent research shows that not only does this program help Exmoor Ponies find new homes, but also conservation grazing significantly benefits biodiversity. [5]

Exmoor Pony Health

Exmoors are hardy ponies that evolved to survive challenging conditions in the wild. Most health problems affecting this breed arise from improper management in domestic environments.

However, the breed’s genetic traits can also predispose them to certain health conditions.

Genetic Diseases

Genetic research has revealed that Exmoor Ponies possess limited genetic diversity. Inbreeding and recent population bottlenecks further narrowed the Exmoor gene pool, concentrating traits that could contribute to health problems in the breed. [1]

One study analyzed the inbred population structure to identify genetic risk factors associated with insect bite hypersensitivity, a condition commonly seen in Exmoors. The findings highlighted several genes that could contribute to a genetic predisposition to hypersensitivity. [6]

A study using pedigree analysis to explore the inheritance patterns of ocular anomalies in Exmoors discovered signs of a sex-linked genetic flaw that accounts for a high incidence of equine cataracts. This condition is a common cause of blindness in horses. [7]

Health Problems

Exmoor Ponies are also susceptible to other health problems that commonly occur in domesticated ponies. Given that many Exmoors live in conditions mirroring their feral heritage, while others are raised in domestic settings, these ponies present a unique opportunity for researchers to study the health impacts of both human management and natural lifestyles within the same breed.

A recent study examined the faecal microbiota of Exmoor Ponies under three management conditions and found significant changes in the gut microbiome with increasing levels of human intervention. [8]

Researchers hypothesize the changes arise due to dietary differences between groups. Exmoor Ponies in the high management group had higher levels of Proteobacteria, a microbe associated with high starch intake and intestinal inflammation in horses. [8]

These results provide more insight into the impact of human-led management changes on the equine digestive system and gut dysbiosis.

Domesticated Exmoors also have an increased risk of equine metabolic syndrome (EMS). Studies show this condition is highly prevalent in native British ponies. However, changing management practices to mimic their natural lifestyles can help minimize this risk. [9]

Care and Management

While Exmoor Ponies are naturally self-sufficient when living on the wild moorlands of Britain, these ponies require attentive basic horse care to thrive in a domestic environment.

Owners should work with their veterinarian to develop an annual wellness program that includes preventative check-ups, vaccinations and appropriate deworming.

Exmoors may have a decreased risk of dental problems due to deep jaw morphology, but they still need routine dental exams.

While Exmoor Ponies generally have strong hooves, they can still fall prey to typical hoof issues, particularly when their diet or environment isn’t optimal. Routine farrier care helps maintain hoof balance and supports soundness.

These horses also need daily grooming to manage their thick manes and help remove loose hairs when they shed their thick winter coats.

This hardy breed evolved to survive harsh winters and are generally happiest living outdoors full-time in a herd with free access to shelter. If your Exmoor lives in a stall, providing plenty of daily turnout with other horses can help support his mental and physical health.

Due to their predisposition for insect bite hypersensitivity (sweet itch), these horses may need extra fly protection during turnout in the summer months.

Exmoor Pony Nutrition

A balanced feeding program is essential for supporting the longevity and well-being of your Exmoor Pony, as well as preventing common health concerns.

Providing a diet that closely resembles the natural diet of wild Exmoors is the best way to avoid health risks associated with a domestic lifestyle.

Weight Maintenance

Exmoor Ponies are easy keepers. These ponies evolved an efficient metabolism to survive on the sparse vegetation of their native moorlands in cold winters, making them well-adapted to a nutrient-restricted diet.

Because of this adaptation, Exmoors can quickly become obese when given energy-dense feeds, increasing the risk of health issues. [9]

To determine if your pony is maintaining a healthy weight, regularly assess their body condition and use a weigh tape to keep track of weight changes. A body condition score of 5 on the 9-point Henneke Body Condition Scale is considered ideal.

Exmoor Ponies should easily maintain their condition on a balanced diet. Unexpected weight loss could indicate an underlying digestive issue that may require veterinary attention.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 363 kg (800 lb) Exmoor Pony with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) Free-choice
Salt 15 g (1 tbsp)
Omneity Pellets 150 g (1.5 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 105%
Protein (% of Req) 117%
NSC (% Diet) 8.8%

 

In this sample feeding program, Mad Barn’s Omneity vitamin and mineral supplement is added to balance the diet with nutrients that are commonly lacking in forage.

Omneity is a comprehensive vitamin and mineral formula with added nutrients to support hoof health, coat quality, gut health immune function and more. Omneity is formulated with no added grains, starches or sugars, making it an ideal choice for easy keepers such as Exmoor Ponies.

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Forage

Wild Exmoor Ponies spend most of their day grazing on rough moorland forages. Mimicking this diet is the best way to support your pony’s nutritional and behavioural needs.

Forage should provide the foundation of your Exmoor’s diet, with the average pony consuming 2% of their body weight in forage every day.

Exmoor ponies are very stocky for their height, typically weighing 363 kg (800 lb) as mature adults. Based on this, the average Exmoor should consume 7.3 kilograms (16 pounds) of hay daily. Choose mature, grass hay with ESC (sugar) plus starch below 10% to help maintain your easy keeper at an appropriate weight.

Providing your pony with free-choice forage is the best way to support their natural grazing habits, digestive health, and behavioural needs. Hay nets and slow feeders can help prevent Exmoors from overeating while still giving them unrationed hay.

While Exmoor Ponies thrive when housed outdoors, full-time turnout on lush pastures should be avoided. High-starch and/or sugar grasses can contribute to pasture laminitis and other metabolic health issues.

Considering using dry lots, grazing muzzle or pasture management strategies to prevent excess grass intake and keep your pony safe when turned out. [10]

Feeding Recommendations

Exmoor ponies generally do not need extra energy provided by commercial grains or concentrates. These calorie-rich feeds can lead to excessive weight gain and associated health issues.

Grain-based feeds also increase the risk of digestive upset and throw off the delicate balance in your pony’s gut microbiome. Furthermore, limiting starch intake is critical for managing equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis risks.

Instead of a ration balancer or complete feed, provide your pony with a concentrated vitamin and mineral supplement to balance the diet without adding extra calories. [11] If your pony requires a carrier for supplements, replace grain with soaked hay pellets. Soaked beet pulp is also an excellent carrier. It soaks up 4 times its weight for a satisfying low calorie meal.

Exmoor Ponies prone to insect bite hypersensitivity may benefit from incorporating omega-3 fatty acids into their diet. One study found that flaxseed supplementation reduced lesion area and inflammation in horses affected by the condition. [12]

Exmoor Ponies should also have constant access to fresh water and plain loose salt. Many horses are unable to meet their sodium needs solely through a salt lick, so you should add salt directly to your pony’s daily ration.

For individual advice, consult a qualified equine nutritionist or your veterinarian before changing your horse’s diet.

Nutritional Supplements

Ensuring a well-balanced diet with adequate energy, protein, vitamins and minerals is fundamental to supporting your pony’s overall health and well-being. Once their diet is balanced, you can consider other supplements to support performance or address individual needs.

To help maintain skin health in Exmoor Ponies affected by sweet itch, feed omega-3 fatty acid supplement, such as w-3 oil.

Mad Barn’s w-3 Oil is enriched with microalgae DHA and natural vitamin E to support a healthy skin and hair coat, antioxidant status and the normal homeostatic regulation of inflammation.

w-3 Oil

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  • Promotes joint comfort
  • Helps to fight inflammation
  • Skin & coat condition
  • Palatable source of Omega-3's


 
Spirulina, a blue-green algae supplement, can also support skin health in ponies. Spirulina has been shown to inhibit histamine release from mast cells and decrease the production of pro-inflammatory antibodies. This may reduce allergic over-responses and help to decrease itchiness. [13]

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  • Supports immune function
  • Used in horses with allergies
  • Supports metabolic health
  • Rich in vitamins & protein

 
Exmoor Ponies with a history of gastrointestinal problems may benefit from dietary changes, as well as additional gut support.

Mad Barn’s Optimum Digestive Health is a probiotic and prebiotic supplement that supports hindgut health, immune function and a balanced microbiome.

Optimum Digestive Health

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  • Prebiotics, probiotics & enzymes
  • Support hindgut development
  • Combats harmful toxins in feed
  • Complete GI tract coverage

Your Exmoor Pony may benefit from additional supplements, depending on their individual management and health concerns. Submit your pony’s diet online for a free evaluation by our qualified equine nutritionists to get personalized suggestions that support their well-being.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

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References

  1. Hovens, H. et al. On the origins of the Exmoor pony: did the wild horse survive in Britain? Lutra. 2013.
  2. Kavar, T. et al. Domestication of the horse: Genetic relationships between domestic and wild horses. Livest Sci. 2008.
  3. Green, P. The free-living ponies within the Exmoor National Park: their status, welfare and future. Report to Exmoor Moorland Landscape Partnership. 2013.
  4. Speed, J. The Importance of the Coat in Exmoor and Other Mountain and Moorland Ponies Living Out of Doors. Brit Vet J. 1960.
  5. Fraser, M. et al. Recognising the potential role of native ponies in conservation management. Biol Conserv. 2019.
  6. Velie, B. et al. Using an Inbred Horse Breed in a High Density Genome-Wide Scan for Genetic Risk Factors of Insect Bite Hypersensitivity (IBH). PLoS One. 2016. View Summary
  7. Pinard, C. et al. Ocular anomalies in a herd of Exmoor ponies in Canada. Vet Ophthalmol. 2011. View Summary
  8. Bull, K. et al. The faecal microbiome of Exmoor ponies shows step-wise compositional changes with increasing levels of management by humans. Equine Vet J. 2023.View Summary
  9. Geor, R. Pasture-Associated Laminitis. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2009.View Summary
  10. 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
  11. Cipriano-Salazer, M. et al. The Dietary Components and Feeding Management as Options to Offset Digestive Disturbances in Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2019.
  12. O’Neill, W. et al. Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum) supplementation associated with reduced skin test lesional area in horses with Culicoides hypersensitivity. Can J Vet Res. 2002. View Summary
  13. Nemoto-Kawamura et al. Phycocyanin enhances secretary IgA antibody response and suppresses allergic IgE antibody response in mice immunized with antigen-entrapped biodegradable microparticles. J Nutri Sci Vitaminol. 2004.