Dartmoors may be the quintessential picture of an English county show pony, but they also have a storied past. While small enough to be considered a children’s ride, the breed’s hardiness and good limb conformation make it a willing and able mount for petite adults. Dartmoors are few, but the breed’s sound mind and body make it an exceptional partner if you’re lucky enough to find one.
Dartmoor Pony History and Origins
The Dartmoor pony is by definition native to the Dartmoor area in Devon, England. For 3,500 years, wild herds roamed free over the moors where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set his classic The Hound of the Baskervilles and where a certain boy wizard watched the Quidditch World Cup . Being hardy and used to inhospitable conditions, the Dartmoor pony was indispensable as a packhorse for loads of granite, coal, and tin ore from local mines until the development of the railroad system.
Before becoming Edward VIII, Prince Edward bred and crossed the ponies with others to produce polo ponies, but World War II greatly reduced breeding efforts. While the area of Dartmoor is now preserved as a national park, encroachment on pony territory prior to preservation efforts vastly reduced the wild herd population to only a few hundred today, and the Rare Breed Survival Trust granted the pony a rare breed status.
The Dartmoor Pony Society Moorland Scheme has paid careful attention to stallion quality, improving the wild herd and contributing to the pony's availability for purchase during annual roundups or “drifts” that promote conservation without overpopulation. The popularity of the breed’s temperament and the success of a few notable Dartmoor individuals in the show ring have increased awareness and ethical breeding of the pony worldwide.
Dartmoor Pony Size
Weight: 400-700 pounds
Height: 11.1 hands (45 inches) to no higher than 12.2 (50)
Body Type: Slightly stocky pony with fine facial features and legs
Best For: Children or small adults riding pony
Life Expectancy: 25-30 years, but can live as long as 40 years
Size is very restricted in this breed, with ponies of either gender standing no higher than 12.2 hands. Weight is similar to other light pony breeds at 400 to 700 pounds, but caretakers should watch ponies carefully for any signs of obesity.
Breeding and Uses
Dartmoor ponies have very strict breed standards. The addition of Arab, Welsh, and Fell pony bloodlines in the 1920s contributed to the specifications of the breed standard today. Ponies bred for riding are slightly finer in facial feature and limb than the classic wild Dartmoor herds.
While the breed’s temperament and hardiness make it suitable for any type of riding, their quality of conformation and "daisy cutter" movement make them highly competitive in the jumping and dressage rings and in carriage driving. Their sound minds make them excellent hunting and trail riding partners, as well as therapy horses.
Colors and Markings
True Dartmoor ponies must be solid bay, brown, black, grey, chestnut, or roan in color, with discouragement of excessive white. A flowing forelock, mane, and tail are hallmarks of the breed. Spotted ponies roaming the Dartmoor are known as Dartmoor Hill ponies; this refers to any pony born on the moors without meeting the strict breed standard of the Dartmoor pony. True Dartmoor ponies are registered with the Dartmoor Pony Society.
Unique Characteristics of the Dartmoor Pony
The breed standard emphasizes a fine head with a large eye, small ears, sloping shoulders, and flat knees for low and straight forelimb movement as well as hindquarters that support good hock action without exaggeration. The model Dartmoor pony appears as a scaled-down English-riding horse rather than those ponies hailing from stockier breeds.
Diet and Nutrition
As with any pony, Dartmoors are known as “easy keepers." Most Dartmoor ponies need no grain supplementation, and even quality roughage (hay and alfalfa) needs careful titration to prevent overfeeding. Ponies may need to wear grazing muzzles on turnout, especially with rich or new pasture growth. Careful attention to maintaining a healthy body condition score is paramount to avoid metabolic disease and founder or laminitis.
Health and Behavior
Dartmoor ponies are known for their predictability, making them excellent children’s mounts. Worldwide, Dartmoor ponies are sought after as desirable riding horses with a good sense of humor. The hardiness and conformation of the breed promote longevity; Dartmoor ponies often remain sound riding horses through their 20s with good care.
Any pony has a very efficient metabolism and should be monitored for metabolic diseases. One such disease called Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) causes insulin resistance akin to Type II diabetes in humans. A young adult to middle-aged pony should be tested for EMS if the pony remains overweight while under adequate dietary restrictions. Older ponies should be tested for EMS as well as another metabolic disease, Equine Cushing’s, if they remain overweight or do not shed their haircoat appropriately in the spring. Both metabolic diseases can put a pony at risk for founder or laminitis, in which the tissues within the hoof capsule become inflamed and can weaken the wall-bone bond. That can cause lameness and sometimes lifelong chronic foot issues.
One of the highlights of a trip to the English moorland is viewing wild ponies in their natural habitat. As with any wild animals, maintain a safe distance and do not attempt to feed them because feeding the ponies is illegal.
Dartmoor ponies have no special grooming recommendations, but their long manes and tails are points of pride for owners. This breed enjoys the attention of brushing and develops strong bonds with caretakers. Good foot conformation for traversing moorland is an evolutionary necessity; often these ponies don’t even need shoes. However, regular foot trims and farrier work is critical to longevity and soundness. Ponies exhibiting signs of founder or those who don’t shed out appropriately in spring should be evaluated for metabolic disease.
Champion and Celebrity Dartmoor Ponies
Two Dartmoor ponies, Pumphill Buckthorn in 2010 and Rushfield Bailey in 2011, consecutively won the British Show Pony Society Supreme Mountain and Moorland title.
Is the Dartmoor Pony Right for You?
The Dartmoor is an exceptionally hardy but lovely riding pony. Their temperament and sense of humor make them excellent for children and small adults. The Dartmoor is often very competitive. It is important to work with a trainer or purchase an already well-trained pony. Emphasize overall horse care and safety if you are considering a Dartmoor for your young rider.
How to Adopt or Buy a Dartmoor Pony
Dartmoor ponies are a rare breed, so it may require patience and searching to find one that's right for you. The Dartmoor Pony Society in the U.K .and the Dartmoor Pony Registry of America have resources to ethically source a Dartmoor. While young or “green” ponies may be advertised for less than $5,000, consider the cost of training in your budget and that well-trained Dartmoor ponies and Dartmoor crosses can go for well over $15,000.
More Pony Breeds
If you're interested in more pony breeds that make excellent partners, check out:
Doyle, Arthur Conan, 1859-1930. The Hound of the Baskervilles : Another Adventure of Sherlock Holmes. London ; New York :Penguin Books, 2001
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Rowling, J. K., author. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York :Scholastic, 2002.
Laminitis: Prevention & Treatment. American Association of Equine Practitioners. Accessed June 19, 2022.
Ponies. Dartmoor National Park. Accessed June 19, 2022.