Name of breed: Eriskay (known in Scottish Gaelic as Each Beag nan Eilean or Each Èirisgeach)
Country of origin: Scotland
Breed origin: The Eriskay pony is one of the oldest and most genetically distinct breeds in the British Isles. Its ancestors roamed the forests and hills of Scotland long before people lived there. Since domestication, it has been connected to Celtic, Norse and Pictish cultures. Ancient Pictish stone carvings found in north and west Scotland depict horses with a similar appearance to the modern Eriskay pony.
Scotland’s Outer Hebrides are a group of remote, rugged isles that until very recently were quite difficult to access from the mainland. The ponies that lived there were thus isolated from other breeds on the mainland and remained pure until the mid-19th century. They were shaped by both nature and mankind: the harsh, bitterly cold climate and sparse fodder of the region kept them small and tough, while the necessity for women and children to handle the ponies meant that only the most docile and friendly individuals were allowed to breed. They were used for many purposes by the island folk including carrying woven baskets full of peat and seaweed, pulling carts, harrowing fields and taking children to school.
As transport to and from the isles got easier and farming became a bigger industry, ‘improvement’ schemes saw Norwegian Fjord, Arabian and Clydesdale stallions (among other breeds) introduced to produce bigger, stronger horses. The island of Eriskay, however, was still too difficult to access, so it was here that the Eriskay pony endured the changing times with its ancient lineage intact.
However, with increasing mechanisation, the ponies were less and less necessary to the islanders’ way of life. By the early 1970s, only about 20 Eriskay ponies remained. In order to save the critically endangered breed, a charity now known as Comann Each nan Eilean – The Eriskay Pony Society – was formed on the island in 1972. A year earlier, the last known purebred stallion on Eriskay had died, and it was another year before a purebred stallion (possibly the last in existence at the time) was located on a nearby island. From the verge of extinction, the Eriskay pony bounced back remarkably quickly and in the years since, has regained its popularity as a children’s pony on Eriskay and beyond.
Distinguishing features: Standing 12 to 13.2 hands high, Eriskay ponies are predominantly grey, with the occasional black or bay. They have fine legs with short, sloping pasterns, neat hooves and a small tuft of feathering at the fetlocks. Their long ribcage and short loins give them a very strong back, and despite their small stature, they can carry light adults with ease. Their strong shoulders meet a deep chest and a high-set, long, muscular neck. Eriskay ponies have a relatively large, yet still pony-like head, with a wide forehead, bold eyes, a deep jaw and a tapering muzzle. A thick, low-set tail keeps their rump warm in the wind and rain, and in winter they grow a dense, waterproof coat that enables them to live outside no matter the weather. The breed is known for its placid, people-oriented character.
Modern day Eriskay: As of 2009, there were around 420 Eriskay ponies in existence, most still within Scotland. They make great family ponies, participating in many equestrian pursuits including pony club, dressage, show jumping, cross country, eventing, driving, trail riding and western riding. Driving in particular has proven to be a great forte of the breed, with Eriskays seen at top level FEI competitions on more than one occasion. Additionally, Eriskays made fantastic therapy ponies thanks to their gentle nature.
Image credits: The Eriskay Pony Society – Comann Each nan Eilean; The Eriskay Pony Society; Horse Breeds Pictures.