Name of breed: Gotland or Russ; sometimes Gotland Russ.
Country of origin: Sweden.
Breed origin: The Gotland pony, also known as the Russ, is the most common breed of pony in Sweden. The breed’s origins are subject to much speculation: there is evidence of horses living on the island of Gotland, on the south-eastern coast of Sweden, as far back as 3,000 BC, although the relation of these ancient equines to the modern Gotland can’t be proven for sure. Gotland ponies may have come to the island when it was still attached to America 10,000 years ago, or they may have been brought by boat around 4,000 years ago when Scandinavians first started using horses. Many people also believe that the Gotland is a throwback to the ancient Tarpan, the last species of wild horse, which went extinct in the early 20th century. However, DNA studies indicate that the breed’s pattern of development is akin to most other domesticated breeds, making a strong Tarpan link unlikely.
The local name for the Gotland pony, ‘Russ’, comes from the Old Norse word ‘hross’, meaning ‘horse’. On their island home, the ponies still live semi-wild in the forests, leading to the Gotlanders’ nickname for the ponies, ‘skogsbaggar’: ‘forest ram’ or ‘little horse of the woods’. These names say a lot about the role of the pony in Swedish life: they are the most common and beloved pony breed, historically having been vital for survival, especially on Gotland, where they are the only horse breed to have roamed the lands for thousands of years.
In the early 1800s, there were around 12,000 ponies roaming freely across the common lands of Gotland. However, when farmers started claiming private land and erecting boundaries, the ponies’ habitat sharply decreased. On top of this, many hundreds of ponies were sold to Germany, Belgium and England for use in the mines and other laborious industries. The remaining ponies had to invade the newly established farmlands to find food and became viewed as a pest. As farming machinery made them redundant as work horses and increasing wealth meant the locals no longer needed them as a food source, the number of ponies on Gotland sank to just 150. Although a few dedicated breeders tried to revive the breed in the early 20th century, World War I only worsened the crisis as the ponies were poached for food. By 1930, only 30 broodmares remained.
Finally, a few local farmers and the Gotland Agricultural Society banded together to save the breed. They fenced in an area of around 200 acres, captured five Gotlands that were still running wild on the moor, and added three ponies from a defunct stud farm. These eight ponies formed the basis of a breeding program that has ensured the growth and purity of the Gotland breed ever since. A few new stallions were introduced over the years to bolster the breed’s genetic diversity, and it is thought that this fresh blood was responsible for certain colourings such as dun, palomino and grey. Remarkably, given their low numbers less than a century ago, today most Gotlands have more genetic diversity than the average Thoroughbred!
Sweden is now home to around 9,000 Gotland ponies, with about 150 horses still running free in the moors and forests of Gotland. A stallion is released to run with the herd each June, the horses are assessed each July, foals are weaned in November, health checks and hoof trims are undertaken a few times a year, and a caretaker keeps a watchful eye on the herd year-round. Populations are also found in Denmark, Finland, Norway and parts of North America, with the breed’s popularity increasing as the ponies’ versatility and willing nature is more widely recognised.
Distinguishing features: Small and sturdy in build, the Gotland pony generally stands between 11.1 to 13 hands high. They are extremely hardy thanks to their semi-wild history, often living into their thirties with minimal health issues. While dun, bay or black colouring is preferred, most colours are seen except piebald, roan and pure white. They have a typical pony head with large eyes and small ears, a muscular neck bearing a thick mane, pronounced withers with well-sloped shoulders and a deep chest. Gotlands have a long back, sloping croup, strong legs and hardy hooves that rarely need shoeing. They have energetic and smooth paces, especially the trot, making them very comfortable to ride. Thanks to their strength, they can carry adults weighing up to 72 kilograms for both competitive and pleasure riding. Gotland ponies are known for their calm and gentle disposition and exceptional intelligence, being very fast learners and easy to train.
Modern day Gotland Pony: Gotland ponies are common in Sweden and are often found in riding schools because they are excellent all-rounders. They are often used as harness racing ponies, but also excel in the show ring and in show jumping, dressage and eventing. The Swedes maintain that there is no better children’s pony on earth!
Image credits: Frida Johansson, Gotland.net, Pinterest and Matilda Persson, Skogsrusset.se