It is not unusual for a visitor from the mainland to see small, finely silhouetted Newfoundland ponies on the rocky cliffs looking out over Tor Bay, Newfoundland. This is their sanctuary and the place where they are slowly growing in numbers and popularity. As they gaze far into the distance across the seemingly endless blue ocean you can only wonder if they remember their origins on the other side.
The Newfoundland pony originates from a selection seven breeds of British Isle ponies brought to the island province by settlers in the early 1500's. These were the ponies that newcomers would use to help tame the New World and they consisted of Dartmoors, Exmoors, Connemaras, New Forests, Galloways, Fells and the Welsh mountain breeds. Over the centuries, the Newfoundland pony has retained many of the desirable traits of its ancestors. At one time on the island there were no laws against letting horses roam loose. The reason for this peculiar habit has a strong logic behind it. Local folk did not put up fences to keep animals in but rather to keep marauding horses off of their property. During the summer, herds of these ponies, and perhaps other horses, were allowed to run free. The various pony breeds interbred and as time passed a new type of pony arose from, what were, distinctly British herds. Without a formal breeding program it was inevitable that a colloquialism would develop to describe these unique horses. The source is unimportant and time alone has allowed the descriptive phrase, "Newfoundland Pony", to become a formal name for these hardy creatures.
To many casual readers, and perhaps even the dyed-in-the-wool equine enthusiast, the Newfoundland pony is not recognizable nor considered as a distinct breed. Indeed many think it is just another horse. This is due in part because the isolationist nature of an island shields life and how it develops from outsiders. Add to this fact that the little horse has barely been rescued from possible extinction and owners are just now gaining official recognition of the pony as a unique animal in North America. So unique that in 1997 the Canadian government declared the Newfoundland pony a Heritage Animal and part of the history of the Nation. All those that have had the pleasure of getting to know this pony bear testimony of its endearing traits.
The Newfoundland pony was originally used to haul wagon loads of kelp, lumber, fish and other goods. Their versatility also allowed children and light weight adults to ride them. The pony worked mostly during the frigid cold Newfoundland winter hauling whatever was necessary to allow trade in the outports to flourish. In the summer they were released once again to run wild along the crags and sandy beaches of their island home. At one time there were over ten thousand of these sturdy little horses roaming the green hills of Newfoundland. To the native Newfoundlander the pony was strictly a working horse and people saw no need for keeping pedigrees or following anything but ad hoc breeding programs. By the 1940's, technologies of our modern age began to replace horses and the Newfoundland pony's original purpose was fulfilled. During the 1970's and 1980's horse meat held high demand in Europe. The large roaming herds of Newfoundland ponies fell prey to horse traders and many ponies met their fate at the slaughter house gate. It then became illegal to let horses run loose and gelding of stallions was encouraged. These factors drove the Newfoundland pony to near extinction. Today, out of a population of over 10,000 there are only mere hundreds of this precious horse.
Supporters of the Newfoundland pony organized an effort in the late 1970's to save the dying breed. The Newfoundland Pony Society was founded in 1979 and incorporated in 1981. In 1997 the Canadian House of Commons passed an Act to recognize the Newfoundland pony as a Heritage Animal. Because of this official designation the pony is now a protected animal. They are carefully bred to help preserve their diverse traits and increase their numbers. The Society keeps a registry of all ponies and now has a decision before them that will greatly affect the future of the breed. If they are to obtain breed status for the Newfoundland pony it will require animals to be consistent in appearance. This will necessitate selective breeding which will remove certain traits and will spoil the unique genetic make up of the breed. Official breed status will improve the availability of the Newfoundland pony, their market value would increase and appreciation of the breed by the public would be more widespread. However, selective breeding may create a "cookie cutter horse" and its characteristic diversity will be ruined. The fine even temperament and health of Newfoundland ponies may be sacrificed for the sake of a uniform breed standard.
The Newfoundland pony is a hard working breed. Day in and day out they toiled amongst seaweed or hauled loads of logs. Their reward was the freedom of the island which has played a role in their near demise but has also shaped their unique physiology. The Newfoundland pony has many special features that can be attributed to their rough lifestyle, origins and the work they did. This small, hardy pony is rugged without being coarse. They stand 11 to 14.2 hands high and are well proportioned at approximately 400 to 800 pounds and are extremely muscular. Among the pony's distinctive qualities is small, flint hard hooves that can withstand the rocky terrain of their native home. Many Newfoundland ponies are left unshod and yet do not develop quarter cracks or chips. The pony has a pleasingly shaped head with very pronounced jowls. Their jaw is thick and muscular due to the tough grass they have foraged on for hundreds of years. Their teeth are deeply rooted and thus less prone to dental problems. Small furry ears have often been likened to those of the fox as they are keen and alert. The large eyes are set further apart than most horse's eyes and allow for excellent vision even in the poor visibility conditions common to Newfoundland. The narrow chest and close set legs make them agile and steady on their feet and they are unlikely to slip on uneven ground. One of the most unusual physical traits unequaled by any other horse is seasonal colour changes. Many Newfoundland ponies transform up to four times a year with their hair changing from browns, to black and even white and gray. The usual colours for the Newfoundland pony are various shades of brown, chestnut, dun and roan with dark points. Their manes and tails are very thick and are always dark coloured. The harsh winters of Atlantic Canada is no match for their their thick shaggy winter coat. They can live outdoors all year long. In addition to the hardiness of the pony and its obvious physical attractiveness there are many other valuable attributes to the breed. Newfoundland ponies are known for their good tempers and they are easily trained for any task. Roaming loose for many generations has given the pony a spirited side but an even willing temperament is a basic Newfoundland pony characteristic.
The Newfoundland pony is considered an easy keeper. They have the ability to digest and thrive on low quality roughage. The pony is known for their longevity and lives quite happily on a hay and grass diet. A strong immune system is another wonderful trait of the pony and they have no known hereditary defects. Even in very cold climates Newfoundland ponies are content to live outdoors but a shelter from the wind and rain should be provided. The cost to purchase a pony is approximately $400 to $2000. Some believe that the average price for a Newfoundland pony is too low and hope that through official breed recognition a higher price may be obtained. However efforts are being made to keep the price low to allow more people access to this delightful animal.
As a rule the Newfoundland pony is easy to train for riding or harness work. They are willing, gentle and playful. The pony is considered so gentle that many people allow their ponies to roam free on their property. Newfoundland ponies are too small to carry a heavy adult rider but they make a perfect child's or young adult's pony. They have a great capacity for pulling loads rather than carrying them. A well cared for Newfoundland pony can pull twice her own weight.
The Newfoundland Pony Society is making an effort to publicize this breed as much as possible to bring awareness and appreciation. As a result Newfoundland ponies have even been featured in short stories and have received some publicity through television and newspaper media. A ride across the new Trans Canada Trail by Newfoundland pony began in June of 2000 as a way to raise funds and promote both the island and the pony. They are also being used in 4-H programs and as therapy horses for disabled children. Newfoundland ponies are very versatile, have great stamina, spirit and agility. With their slow but increasing popularity, the Newfoundland pony is expected to excel in many equine related activities.
The beauty of the Newfoundland pony, their physical and mental ruggedness and their gentle willing nature set them apart in the horse family. However, the future of the pony is questionable. There is only an estimated 500 ponies in the current breeding program and more are needed to keep this breed from obliteration. A debate has begun to decide the future of the Newfoundland pony as a distinct breed. The animal has developed through hundreds of years of roaming so their ancient pedigrees are unknown. It would be impossible to recreate the mixture of pony breeds that set the Newfoundland pony on the road to its final destination so long ago. Improving the uniformity of the pony may mean destroying many of the desirable traits developed through the unknown combinations of free range herds.
Official breed status, subsequent increased market value and appreciation is appealing to many owners. The Newfoundland pony is not worth loosing to the horse industry for a little extra recognition. It is up to horse enthusiasts to support the improvement of the breed without destroying the unique qualities that nature alone contributed to make a true Newfoundland pony. All the people that cherish this rugged little pony know that its many endearing qualities and its individuality set it in a class all its own. The future of the Newfoundland pony is now brighter despite their small numbers but the dilemma of whether or not breed status should be achieved may forever change their destiny.
For more information on the Newfoundland pony or to locate breeders contact: The Newfoundland Pony Society Box 5022, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. A1C 5V3. The web address is www.gov.nf.ca/agric/her&rab/ponysoc.htm#1
©Erica Stoton. You may contact her by email at email@example.com
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