Horse Breed: Newfoundland Pony - Horse Riding Holidays and Safaris

Horse Breed: Newfoundland Pony

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Horse Breed: Newfoundland Pony - image by Helen Milley - Globetrotting horse riding holidays

Name of breed: Newfoundland Pony

Country of origin: Canada

Breed origin:
The following information was compiled from notes by Tammy Webber of the Newfoundland Pony Society.
When the island of Newfoundland was first colonised by Europeans, the settlers fished the open sea for codfish. They soon realised that ponies would make life on the rugged coastline a lot easier, so they had ponies brought over from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland on supply ships. Every pony breed from these countries was represented: Exmoor, Dartmoor, New Forest, Kerry Bog Pony, Eriskay, Scottish Galloway (now extinct), Dales, Highland, Fell, Connemara, and Welsh Mountain Ponies.

Soon, the pony became as important to the settlers as the dory (a type of small boat). Anyone and everyone depended on a dory for the sea and a pony for the land. A pony was the way to get wood to build a home and to heat it. A pony was the way to get kelp and fish from the shoreline and to tend the crops that sustained year-round living. A pony was the way to travel the many miles of paths between communities faster. Before they had ponies, European settlers only lived on Newfoundland seasonally, sailing back to the mainland before winter set in. But ponies changed that. They played a very big part in daily life, working very hard throughout the year to help sustain their household. They lived outside year-round with little human intervention, allowing natural selection to play its part in developing an ever-tougher breed.

The number of ponies on Newfoundland reached well into the thousands as the coastline was populated and communities developed and spread inland. Even in the 1970s, when many working horse breeds were becoming endangered, the Newfoundland Ponies’ population was around 12,000. But that’s not to say that mechanisation wasn’t threatening the breed. After Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949 and smooth roads replaced the rickety paths between island communities, the pony was gradually replaced by motorized means of travel. Forestry, gardening and farm work were also being accomplished through motorized power; pony power had lost its place.

Tragically, word reached the mainland horsemeat market that ponies lived on Newfoundland in great numbers. The people of Newfoundland were persuaded to ship their ‘unwanted’ family ponies to mainland Canada, where they would be sold as riding ponies (or so they were told). A system was set up by the meat trade to have buyers collect enough ponies from the island to fill a tractor trailer for the meat trade. Load after load of ponies was shipped off the island throughout the 70s and 80s. By the 90s, there were well under 50 ponies left.

Just in time, a group of dedicated people started spreading awareness of the ponies’ plight and little by little, one horse at a time, set about saving the breed. In 1997, the the Heritage Animals Act of Newfoundland and Labrador was passed, providing legal protection to the Newfoundland Pony by making it illegal to ship a pony off the island without export permits (which only breeders and pony lovers would make the effort to acquire). The Newfoundland Pony, a marvel of natural selection, was rebranded as an icon of its native region and the ultimate gentle, low-maintenance children’s pony.

Horse Breed: Newfoundland Pony - image by Helen Milley - Globetrotting horse riding holidays

Distinguishing features:
The following description was compiled from notes by Emily Aho of the Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center.
The Newfoundland Pony’s conformation was created by nature in order to survive on the rugged island of Newfoundland. Their narrow chest and flint-hard hooves helped them navigate the densely forested interior of the island and other challenging terrain like mountain goats. In winter, their sloped croup and low-set tail allow snow to slide off more easily and their short, thick, furry ears are protected from frostbite and bugs. Some Newfoundland ponies have a double mane (hanging on both sides of the neck) which also helps snow slide off, and their long, thick forelock doubles as a natural fly veil in summer. Their head has a moose nose profile that serves the important purpose of making them extra endearing. Newfoundland Ponies can be brown, bay, black, grey, chestnut, buckskin and roan, and some individuals change colour dramatically with the seasons (for example, a dark base colour that becomes roan almost to the point of being pure white). They stand between 11 and 14.2 hands high.

But the Newfoundland Ponies’ best trait is undoubtedly their temperament. They are described by breeders as a Partner Breed because they naturally partner up with people almost immediately. They are friendly, willing, docile, and unbelievably easy to train. Unlike almost all modern breeds, they rarely ever spook, even when young, and don’t need to be ‘desensitised’ thanks to their remarkably sane, sensible, intelligent, trusting minds. Fireworks, parades, festivals – they take it all in their stride from day one. As Emily Aho says…

“Natural horsemanship?  Hooey! This is natural horsemanship! They teach us. We just need to have an open mind and listen to them. Less is more with this breed.

How about a pony who was driving and sleighing, thought to be trained, when she had never even worn a harness before?

How about a nine-year-old unridden pony who was sent for training, saddled and ridden that very same day, and went for a short trail ride the next day with no issues at all?

One time, we were giving pony rides near a firetruck at a festival, leading the ponies with kids on their back, when someone pulled the firetruck horn! The crowd panicked about the kids on the ponies, but the ponies did absolutely nothing at all. They gave a glance at the crowd and kept those kids safe. No spook, no concern, because they had precious cargo on their backs. This kind of behaviour is common with this breed. I could go on and on.

This is what needs to be saved. Health and sanity. This is what people dream of having, for not only their kids but for themselves, as well. The moment any modern genetics enter into the ponies’ gene pool, the first thing to go will be that temperament. We feel blessed to have known the Newfoundland Pony and will continue to fight to keep the breed as it is.”

Horse Breed: Newfoundland Pony - image by Rick Damboise - Globetrotting horse riding holidays

Modern day Newfoundland Pony: Today, Newfoundland ponies are still a very rare breed, with a population of less than 500. Most of the ponies still live in Canada, with around 50 in the USA. The Newfoundland Pony Society in Canada and the Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center in the USA work tirelessly to protect and promote this very special breed.

As Tammy Webber (NPS) says, “Our Newfoundland Pony is our history, it is what helped keep our people alive, and it is now our turn to keep them alive. With help, the Newfoundland Pony will once again enrich our lives, warm our hearts and feed our souls. The pony will forever keep the past present… just by being here.”


References: Newfoundland Pony Society, Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center.

Image credits: top & centre images by Hellen Milley (courtesy of NPS), bottom & preview images by Rick Damboise (courtesy of NPCC).

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