Our History

The Beginnings of the Section

The Exmoor Pony is an endangered Mountain and Moorland pony breed, native to the area of Exmoor in Southern England. Our herd began in 1920, when Mr F. G. Heal, one of the founders of the Exmoor Pony Society, purchased mares from the Anchor Herd. With the founding of the society, each herd was numbered: the Anchor herd is Herd 1 and ours is Herd 2. Herd 2 eventually found its way to Mrs Etherington, wife to the Withypool rector, who had two daughters: Mary and Joy Etherington.

In World War II, the herds on Exmoor were devastated: the ponies were used for target practice, and many were eaten. In the aftermath, there were perhaps only 50 ponies left with only 2 breeding stallions. What was left of Herd 2 was split, with Mary gaining Herd 2 and Joy, Herd 3. Mary Etherington was a naturalist, with a particular interest in Exmoor ponies, and in 1949 she left Exmoor with her ponies to find somewhere to begin conservation of the breed. During a visit to the London Natural History Musuem, Etherington learnt of James Speed at the Royal Scottish Museum, who was looking into the history of native breeds, and decided to move her herd there.

Mary prior to moving her herd to Edinburgh. The mare pictured was called Junie.

Exmoors in Edinburgh

At the time, James Speed (who was also a senior anatomy lecturer at Dick Vet School) was working on a comparative study of equidae and had access to a collection of fossilised horse bones from the Pleistocene age, one million years ago. Speed was looking for prototypes in contemporary pony stock. Etherington therefore brought with her some Exmoor leg bones and skulls and on comparison these were found to be almost identical to the Pleistocene horse bones. Etherington and Speed worked together extensively over the next 10 years, developing a lot of the early research into Exmoor ponies and even marrying in 1953. Further research has since shown that Exmoors have evolved in many ways to survive harsh UK winters, including:

•An extra flap of skin on their upper eyelid know as the ‘toad eye’.
•A ‘snow chute’ tail.
•Ability to eat roughage such as gorse.
•An extraordinary fluffy double layered waterproof coat – come January we have a herd of teddy bears!

The Speed’s herd in the Pentland Hills.                                                  ‘Fisherman’ grazing near the Crags

Whilst keeping the herd in Edinburgh, Etherington was keen that the ponies do useful work outside of research and the breeding program. After discarding the idea of using them for crofting and following the success of trekking at Corstorphine Hill,  it was decided that the ponies would be used for trekking near Edinburgh.

Luckily, Speed and Etherington had access to a large body of free labour keen to help with the ponies: the students at Dick Vet School. Students helped for ten years and then in 1962 the Speeds decided to retire. The herd was then sold to a junior anatomy lecturer at the Dick Vet School: the terms of this sale have since been disputed but what is clear is that the students then formed a syndicate and purchased a core group of Herd 2 mares after this initial sale. Thus began the section.

R.D.V.C. students and their trekking ponies

Trekking ran from Edinburgh in the term time every Wednesday and on the weekends, and from Snoot Youth Hostel in the summer. Trekkers were largely university students in term time, and in the summer the trekkers were visitors to the Youth Hostel, who often stayed for a full-week pony holiday. Herd 2 was split between a breeding herd, kept to the north of Edinburgh, and the trekking herd: each was about 25 ponies strong, and the trek leaders were key in deciding the direction of the breeding program each year.

Instructors riding from Edinburgh to Snoot Youth Hostel in June 1983 to save money on transport!

The Modern Era

The next major change in the section came in the early nineties. A slew of problems plagued the section in that era, including the theft of all the saddles from the tack shed and the aging of the EPS certified stallions. Eventually, the difficult decision was made to end the breeding program and all ponies unsuitable for trekking were sold off. This was the end of EUEPTS’s role in actively conserving the Exmoor breed, and we have since pursued the preservation of the breed in the form of public education. In 2010 we moved to our current location in the Pentlands, and we have been trekking from Glendevon since the early 2000s. Our herd is now much smaller than it was (only 15 ponies currently), but we are looking to grow our numbers and take up a more proactive role in the larger Exmoor community.

We have recently released a book to celebrate our 75th Anniversary as a section! For more information and to purchase a copy, follow the link below!

75th Anniversary Book