Like anyone who has been around for 2,000 years, the Welsh Mountain Pony has a long history of highs and lows but his story has a happy ending. He survived and flourished as a breed and what stands before you is a testament to his pony character, strength, and especially his well known intelligence.
He is thought to have evolved from the prehistoric Celtic pony over a period of two thousand years. The Celtic ponies of western Europe gradually moved west and many ended up on the northern hills of Wales, isolated for centuries and it is from those descendants that we have the Welsh Mountain Pony.
The Romans occupied Britain for over 400 (43-410 AD) years during which time they bred the Welsh ponies to their horses to get a sure footed pack animal who could travel at good speeds in rough terrain. Julius Caesar also took several back with him to Rome to pull chariots as he liked their speed, willingness and courage. The Romans introduced the Arabian horse to the pony population – two breeds with a history of over 2,000 years. Thus the two oldest breeds of the world were united and it is believed that the older the breed the more ineradicable the characteristics which explains the pre-potency of the Welsh Mountain Pony.
In the wild, the Welsh Mountain Ponies survived the harsh winters and sparse vegetation on the remote hills of Wales. The limestone ground and rocky hills made for development of good bones. Ponies who were fast, alert and sure-footed had a better chance of escaping predators, including humans. The smartest, fastest ponies survived.
In the 1500s, King Henry VIII, thinking to improve the breeds of horses, particularly war horses, ordered the destruction of all stallions under 15 hands and all mares under 13 hands. The ponies were chased up into the tough mountain terrain where the bigger horses could not follow and most ponies survived. Fortunately, when Queen Elizabeth began her reign she annulled this law and many pony breeders showed their appreciation by naming their mares, Bess, Queen Bess, Lady Bess, etc. - and not a Henry to be found. In the mid 1700s, pony hunting became sport for some of the farmers. Ponies were said to turn and fight when cornered and broke the legs of some of their antagonists and injured their horses.
Sir Richard Green Price who made a life long study of the Welsh Mountain Pony wrote in 1904 (from the Welsh Stud Book), “Wonder indeed we may at the survival of these little animals in such a perfect state as we find them today on their native pastures. Persecuted as they have been, not only by laws, but also by the usages of civilization by their would-be friends, the farmers; by starvation, dog-driving, contaminated by gross carelessness in their mating. In-bred, ill-fed, ill-used and ill-mated for centuries, yet there they are today the living personification of the survival of the fittest, the same little native animals that can live their life where sheep and cattle can only die, with every instinct sharpened by self-preservation, and every limb tested by exertion, they fight their battles unaided, though often in restricted pastures and wired-in mountain enclosures.”
Several different breeds of ponies and horses were being turned out on the hills in the mid 1800s to the turn of the century. Wales was in danger of losing the pony who had such a history on the hills and whose type and dispositions had been consistent for generations. A great improvement began with the determined enthusiasm and patience of the breeders in the 1800s. Many attempts were made to beautify the ponies by adding Arabian and English Thoroughbred stallions to run with the mares but there was no organization. Some stallions would breed a neighbor’s mares and the stallion owners were not liable. Colts of obvious conformation flaws were allowed to run freely with mares.
In 1901 the Welsh Pony and Cob Society was formed with over 200 members. The 1908 Commons Act led to the formation of a number of Pony Improvement Societies. The Commons Act enabled breeders to clear the Common Land of all stallions declared undesirable by a committee of horsemen. Only approved stallions, whose owners were paid a premium, could be turned out with the mares. They also changed rules to allow for easier exportation of the ponies-which created a market. A number of dedicated breeders worked with tenacity to preserve the Welsh Mountain Pony in all his glory and we see the fruits of their labor today in the show rings and pastures.
One of many large annual round ups from the hills brought over 1,000 ponies down to the valley once a year to be culled, some sold as driving ponies, some as children’s ponies and some as coal pit ponies. Pit ponies were not allowed to work until they were 4 years old. The ponies worked an eight hour shift and some worked with the same man all of their lives. Many were kept in underground stables. It was a hard life for men and ponies. Most ponies were taken care of as well as possible underground while some were not treated as well. The wise mine owner realized that a healthy, trained pony was a valuable asset. When the markets were poor, many a good Welsh Mountain Pony took up a life as a pit pony where he was valued for his work ethic and disposition. Ponies are not being used in the coal mines today.
The market for exported ponies picked up in the 1900s. The first export to the USA was in the late 1800s. In 1957, 472 Welsh Mountain Ponies were exported to the USA followed by years of just a few to a dozen ponies imported each year.
The WPCSA (America) was formed in 1906 when about 100 ponies were imported from the UK. The organization is in charge of maintaining the registry. For more information on the WPCSA go to wpcsamembers.com Breed organizations exist in over a dozen other countries including Australia, Holland, Germany, France and Canada.
Today, the Welsh Mountain Pony in the USA is enjoyed as a children’s pony, a family pony, a driving pony, a hunter pony, a trail pony and just about any discipline you can think of. Every pony today carries with him the history of the Celtic years of development, the persecution by those who would do him harm, the years of living in harsh conditions on the hills and the cunning of his ancestors. The modern Welsh Mountain Pony is a smart, easily trained pony, who is valued for his beauty and his brains.