Roaming free: The endangered feral horses of Britain

July 28, 2014, 1 p.m.

A horse with a long and storied history

The Exmoor pony has an incredible history, and shaky future, on the British Isles. Evidence of horses in the Exmoor area dates back to more than 50,000 years ago and the current breed is descended from these ancient horses. Though the breed has endured for centuries, Exmoor ponies experienced a serious decline during the second World War as they were used as target practice and poached for meat. Even with the work of breed enthusiasts over the last several decades, there are only around 800 Exmoor ponies worldwide.

Somewhat like the wild ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague on the east coast of the United States, there are some semi-feral Exmoor ponies that still roam the moor. They are considered beneficial for the conservation of natural pasture habitats due to their grazing activity. Once a year the owners of the semi-feral herds round them up and foals are available for sale, sometimes to those looking for a new riding horse but often, sadly, to the meat market. Thankfully, the breed has several clubs committed to preserving the unique ponies, and also dedicated fans such as photographer Tricia Gibson whose images help increase the visibility of these special horses.

Gibson fell in love with Exmoor ponies through her long walks in the moor. She says, "The Exmoor has incredible hardiness and ability to cope with harsh winters up on the moor, and its eye shape (called the toad eye not because of its colour but that fleshy lump above the eye) is just one of the many feature of their anatomy that helps shed water... they are very strong too, being capable of carrying a 12-stone rider. When you do ride one, you do not feel you are on a little pony, apart from the gait of some of them!"

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