Tough. Powerful. Clever. The genuine pony displays the traits of centuries of pony progenitors, distinguishing himself from small horse breeds. In general, the pony is the same animal as the horse, yet he has many traits that make him unique. Those differences endear fanciers of all ages, with adults as the strongest supporters of pony breeds.
The pony is of the same species as the horse, Equus caballus. The genus Equus has eight species, although scientists have disagreed on precise classifications and whether the pony forms a distinct zoological type. (Note: The miniature horse is a separate breed, not to be confused with the pony.) Ponies have the same anatomy and general physiology as the horse, yet their conformation and character sets them apart.
So, what exactly distinguishes the ponies from the horses?
Physical attributes can differentiate a pony from a horse. In general, the typical pony has a compact body. Ponies have a round shape and stocky build, which includes a wide chest and well-sprung ribs. The length of his legs place him close to the ground (for example, the Dales pony should have a cannon measurement of only eight to nine inches). Other characteristics include a short head and neck, trim ears, and large eyes.
In general, pony breeds typically have ample bone, as compared to the horse. “Ponies have dense bone, and that makes them weigh a lot more for their size,” says Ruth Wilburn, DVM. Based in Olive Branch, Miss., “Dr. Ruth” meets many ponies in her practice, and raises Welsh ponies herself.
“Ponies are very sturdy,” explains Cathy Harris, DVM, of Richmond, Mo. Harris treats ponies in her practice, and she owns more than 50 Shetlands and Hackneys. “In X rays, you can see that the cortex of the bone is denser, especially the Shetlands. They were on such sparse vegetation that they didn’t get very big. They became tough by pulling carts out of coal mines.”
Along the way, the British breeds developed strong feet. For example, the Fell pony, named for the “fell” (hills), is known for blue horn on its hard and open hooves. Barb Villani, a pony breeder from Colorado, reports that her farrier husband “agrees that ponies have much harder, more resilient, better-shaped feet than horses. They rarely, except for weight and movement purposes, need shoes.”
The Exmoor has distinct features to protect him from wet weather on the moors, including extra tail hairs and a brow that projects farther over the eyes.
The Exmoor is considered the oldest and purest British native breed. Standing from 11.2 to 12.3 hands, he weighs from 700 to 800 pounds (315-360 kg).
Ponies also grow more hair than horses. In winter, the pony develops a thick winter coat, so he looks like the furry “beasties” made famous in sketches by the British cartoonist Thelwell. The pony’s thick mane, tail, and forelock give him protection from the elements. Icelandics, although considered a small horse breed, have a double coat for extra insulation against the cold.
Descendants of British breeds remain vigorous in North American climates. Wilburn keeps her Welsh ponies outside year-round. “They don’t have near as many problems if they stay out–we don’t have much incidence of pneumonia or colic.”
Various pony breeds have been around for centuries–for good reason. For example, ponies of Celtic ancestry preceded the Romans and have managed to maintain their identity. These Celtic ponies developed in the severe climate of the moorlands, with only sparse forage available. Through natural selection, the hardiest animals survived and developed into the native British breeds, which include the Welsh, Shetland, Hackney, Connemara, Exmoor, Dales, Fell, Dartmoor, New Forest, Highland, and Eriskay ponies.
The British ponies have reputations as robust animals which can resist the effects of extreme weather. From centuries of living on harsh terrain, they became self-reliant and durable.
One of the premier U.S. pony breeders is Joan Higginson Dunning, who has raised the Farnley line of Welsh ponies for decades. In 1998, she was one of the initial winners of the Ellen Scripps Davis Memorial Breeder’s Cup, awarded by the American Horse Shows Association (AHSA). When asked if ponies today are as tough as their ancestors, Dunning says, “Ours are (tougher) because they live outside. They live on limestone country, which is what Wales is.”
Wilburn adds, “Mrs. Dunning goes by the concept of survival of the fittest, and she doesn’t baby her ponies. Her ponies stay out and run loose even in the cold weather.”
In Missouri’s winters, Harris notes that ponies don’t appear to be chilled. Some of her ponies even prefer the outdoors. “I have older mares that will stand outside in 20 degrees when they could come into the barn. They don’t mind the temperature extremes.”
Ponies are known for their agility, especially when jumping over fences. The surefooted Connemara, Ireland’s native pony, was developed in mountainous terrain, and is known for jumping ability. Some Connemaras have competed at international levels in jumping and eventing.
The Welsh pony dominates the popular pony hunter classes in horse shows. One of the prettiest and most versatile pony breeds, the Welsh ponies are divided by size into Section A (up to 12.2 hands) or the slightly larger Section B (up to 14.2 hands). More than 34,000 Welsh ponies have been registered in the United States. The Welsh Cob represents Sections C (up to 13.2 hands) and D (over 13.2) of the Welsh breed. These horses are blocky and substantial in build, and are as hardy as their pony cousins.
Some of today’s competition ponies have become specialized by type. For example, in the United States, the Shetland is either Classic or Modern. The Classic is more muscular, with the breed’s trademark small head. The Modern has been crossed with the Hackney pony (descended from the Hackney horse) for a more elegant, spirited pony.
When showing your equine under AHSA rules, height determines whether you can go in a pony class, no matter the breed–except in the case of miniature horses, which are never considered ponies. In its rules, the AHSA defines its height limits for ponies as the universal size of 14.2 hands. (The Connemara and Welsh Cob might be over 14.2, and therefore would be over the height limit.) To clarify pony status for show purposes, AHSA requires certain officials, including licensed veterinarians, to measure entrants. Ponies receive their own measurement cards as records.
AHSA divides pony hunters into small, medium, or large categories, with each size dictating the fence heights and distances between fences. Because ponies qualify for certain AHSA divisions, disputes about measurement have caused AHSA to specify explicit procedures in its “Measurement of Entries” in the Rule Book.
Ponies have also been crossed with horse breeds to produce winning pony hunters. The typical infusion of Thoroughbred or Arabian blood can result in a more elegant show pony bred for jumping talent. The larger crossbreds show a flatter movement and longer stride.
Ponies often compete in show driving classes, and in cross-country they can keep up with horses. In harness, ponies are known for their trotting ability, using their knees and hocks to drive forward. Recently a pair of Dartmoor ponies won third place in the World Pair Championships. Some breeds, like the Hackney pony, display animated action with more “lift” of the forearm and hind leg.
“Hackneys are born thinking they’re late for somewhere else,” says Harris. “They have a reputation for being nervous and flighty, but they’re not. They have high energy and are very intelligent.”
Pony-sized horses have been foundation breeding stock in registries such as the Pony of the Americas, American Quarter Pony, and American Walking Pony. Other breeds, although small in size, are considered horses rather than ponies, although they can show in pony classes under AHSA rules if they do not exceed the height limit. For example, individuals of the Norwegian Fjord, Icelandic, and Haflinger breeds can stand smaller than the 14.2 hands that separate horse size from pony, but are still considered horses.
Ponies offer a substantial return on investment. These easy keepers generally live a long time, with show ponies starting new careers as schoolmasters or pets in their 20s. They eat much less feed than horses, and typically only half the hay. At work, they willingly transport a greater percentage of their weight.
Around the world, ponies have carried large loads for their masters. Shetlands were used as pit ponies, hauling coal underground. The diminutive Shetland might be the strongest equine athlete, pound for pound. Although he typically stands 9.3 to 10.2 hands, his short, muscular legs give him the strength to pull.
“Pound for pound, a pony carries a lot more weight, and he pulls more,” says Wilburn. “In combined driving, those small ponies proportionately pull more. If you have a driver, navigator, and cart, you weigh in more than the pony does.”
Dunning says despite a small size, short legs help ponies pull more.
Harris quoted a trainer who compared a low-to-the-ground pony to a sports car: “You have a little body, and a big motor.”
Ponies also are mighty in their weight-bearing ability. Although their size best matches a child rider, ponies have the endurance to carry the weight of an adult. Harris described how her 46-inch (11.2-hand) ponies carry young men on an afternoon of mushroom hunting. “You’re closer to the ground, so you can see the mushrooms. It’s like you’re riding an ATV, and the ponies just keep going. They went through a deep gully, with trails up and down the side. I think those ponies would climb trees if you gave them enough rein!”
Besides stamina, modern ponies maintain their soundness. The pony carries less weight on his smaller feet and has shorter legs compared to a horse, which weighs two or three times as much. Villani takes Welsh ponies and cobs fox hunting. “Over the last 10 years, I have never had a lame mount due to leg or hoof problems. Riding to hounds is a fast and pounding sport, galloping cross country and through difficult terrain.”
“I have never seen a navicular foot on a pony,” says Harris. “Look at the surface area of the foot, compared to the bone-to-mass ratio of the body.”
Although ponies traditionally go barefoot, circumstances might dictate shoeing. California Welsh breeder Stephanie Abronson says, “The weather conditions here being as dry as they are, mine are shod year-round. I have to pay close attention to the dryness of their feet.”
Fanciers also praise pony character. Ponies can be easy to train, willing to work, and level-headed. Dunning, who has had Dartmoor ponies since the 1930s, mentions that the Dartmoors understand the routines of riding games. “Ponies catch on quite quickly. You had better pay attention, because the pony can turn around and go the other way!”
Harris believes ponies are more self-protective and prudent than horses. “I sew up more wounds and lacerations on big horses,” she said. “If a pony starts to jump a fence, he will make it all the way across without changing his mind.”
Abronson tells of a weanling half-Welsh filly that had trapped her front feet in the spokes of a bicycle lying on the ground. “She didn’t fight. She was just standing there quietly, waiting.”
Villani’s three-year-old Welsh pony quickly advanced through training–he learned longeing and trotting under saddle in three lessons. “I rode him cross-country by himself for two hours without any spooks or difficulties on his sixth backing. By the eighth time I had ridden him, he could collect, turn on the forehand, bend both directions, pick up leads, jump 18-inch cross rails, and begin to understand shoulder-in and turn on the haunches. I have never trained horses that learn, nor are as willing and wanting to please, as my Welsh ponies.”
Children treasure ponies as pets because these equines are just their size. However, like a horse, the pony can get spoiled if not handled consistently.
Wilburn defends the behavior of ponies, saying, “People feed them treats, so the ponies can become very aggressive. Ponies are smart, and they don’t forget much. That gets them in trouble.” She adds that ponies need to be taught proper behavior, even though they’re small. She realizes that some veterinarians and farriers avoid treating ponies because they’ve had to deal with ill-mannered pets.
Ponies can be independent in their personalities, appearing to “think” through situations. Harris explains, “Ponies yank our chains without our realizing it. People tell me about mean little ponies they used to have, but it was a smart pony that got his way. They’re not mean–just smart. The Shetlands are original thinkers. You’d better have a cup of coffee before you go out to the barn in the morning!”
Wilburn believes that ponies are more cunning than horses. She tells how her pony stallion would manage to position himself in the front of a four-horse trailer–maneuvering around a driving cart. “He would inch forward to the escape door and turn around so he could hang his head out the door. I don’t know of any horse that would have done that. He wanted to see what was going on.”
Ponies also are curious and notorious for escaping from enclosures. Some can learn to open latches, push open gates, or ground out electric fences.
Due to their natural instincts, ponies are naturals for pasture breeding, with a stallion running with mares and foals. Dunning notes that in her herd, one mare might steal another’s foal, which could possibly relate to their survival tactics used years ago on the Welsh hills. She recalled that in the ponies’ native Wales, foals may “buddy up” with their sires. “A stallion may take over a foal on the Welsh hills. It runs with him,” she says.
Although they’re tough, ponies aren’t invincible. Some are more resistant to diseases compared to horses, but ponies as a type do develop certain conditions. Probably their main downfall is overeating and gaining excess weight. Feed should be adjusted to the pony’s weight, taking into account the more efficient metabolism.
In general, a pony is fed substantially less than a horse, and rich feed should be limited. Some pony breeders feed no grain at all to keep a greedy pony trim.
“They’re made to eat all the time,” notes Wilburn. “As long as they have plenty of good-quality hay, that’s important. We give them grain according to their needs. We constantly change how much we feed by how they look and how much work they do.”
Medications also need to be tailored to a pony’s size. Wil-burn has noticed that equine practitioners not familiar with ponies might not inject a sufficient amount of tranquilizers. “Some veterinarians severely underestimate the weight of ponies,” she says. “They think every pony is a 500-pound Shetland. A solid, chunky pony of 12.2 hands can weight 650 pounds.”
Another problem is that ponies are more prone to laminitis caused by overeating. “Ponies are much tougher,” Dunning says. “For instance, ponies get laminitis more easily, but they recover much better. I think they have the advantage of not being so specialized, so that they have not lost their defenses the way horses have.”
As for leg problems, Wilburn mentioned that ponies are prone to upward fixation of the patella (“stifle lock,” or a leg locked in the straightened position). “A lot are straight in the stifle, and they have a ‘hitch in the get-a-long.’ I occasionally see an OCD lesion, but that is unusual in the pony.”
Wilburn discussed the problems ponies have with Cushing’s disease. “Cushing’s disease is fairly common in the older pony,” she says. “Ponies live a lot longer, and it is more common in the older equine.”
The disorder causes the pony to grow a long, woolly coat that doesn’t shed, among other things. Wilburn says that ponies can develop laminitis in conjunction with Cushing’s. She has treated many foundered ponies, noting success by treating them with regular hoof trimming and the thyroid hormone Levothyroxine sodium USP (Thyro-L), which contains the thyroid hormone T4.
She mentioned the controversy of using Thyro-L without testing the pony, but observed that a pony could have a problem with its thyroid gland even if tests show the pony as normal.
Wilburn observed, “I really think it (laminitis) is a problem with the thyroid gland. There is a controversy about using Thyro-L without testing the pony (for the thyroid hormone T4), but they test normal. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the testing.”
A fat pony also can develop hyperlipemia, where the bloodstream contains increased levels of fat. Wilburn described this condition as more likely in small ponies like the Shetland. “The blood is like sludge. You take the serum, and it is full of fat related to the metabolism. The (hyperlipemic) condition is rare in the Welsh pony.”
In the milder weather conditions of North America, ponies thrive on reasonable care. Animals of European breeding tend to grow larger than their ancestors from importation, causing breed associations to debate adjusting maximum height allowances.
Whatever their physical size, ponies capture attention with their distinctive conformation, attitudes, and durability.
Briggs, Karen. Understanding The Pony. Lexington: Eclipse Press, 2000. www.eclipsepress.com