The Newfoundland Pony
The Newfoundland pony stands out as remarkable amongst other rare breeds, and is a growing favourite of world renowned geneticists and rare breed experts. It remains an “unimproved” landrace breed in a world where very few remain.
“What is a Newfoundland Pony?” Jan. 08/2018 www.newfoundlandponies.org/blog
The Newfoundland Pony – 60 cm X 70 cm painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel
The Island of Newfoundland is rocky, windy, and isolated. The soils are thin and the climate is harsh. Anyone, or thing, that lives there needs a certain hardiness to survive. The very first inhabitants of Newfoundland were indigenous peoples. The Vikings had a settlement there around the year 1000 CE, but gave it up. Not for another five hundred years would any European colony be established on that rocky island in the cold North Atlantic.
Fish is what eventually drew Europeans to the shores of Newfoundland. In 1497 Henry VII of England sent John Cabot on a voyage of discovery westward to explore the Atlantic, with the goal of finding a trade route to China. Cabot did not find China, but he found cod. By the early 16th century, the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese all fished for cod off the Grand Banks and had small, impermanent settlements along the coast. The British formally took possession of the island in 1583, although the French continued to claim fishing rights near Placentia. The fortunes of Newfoundland passed back and forth between the French and English until the Treaty of Utrecht ceded the Island to the English in 1713.
Plaque in St. John’s commemorating the acquisition of Newfoundland
by Sir Humphrey Gilbert on behalf of Elizabeth I of England. (Wikimedia Commons)
Colonisation happened slowly because the primary interest of the British was acquiring fish and not establishing a colony, so at first only temporary fishing settlements were allowed. Initially women were not even permitted to live in Newfoundland so as not to tempt fishermen to settle there permanently. Eventually, though, the settlements did become permanent. As the number of colonists increased so did the need for lumber for building and the need to grow at least some crops. It wasn’t long before horses became a necessity.
But the horses which would come to Newfoundland could not be just any horses. They had to be sturdy, thrifty animals that could make do with limited forage and survive the tough conditions of life on the island. The Moorland ponies of the British Isles were already known to thrive in similar conditions, and so these hardy ponies were the first ‘horses’ sent to the nascent Newfoundland colony.
As early as the 1680s, the colonists were in need of draft animals. The island’s British administrator placed an order for horses specifying that they be selected from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales because they needed to be hardy enough to live in the woods in the winter. These horses and subsequent shipments from southwest England tended to be moorland ponies, such as the Dartmoor, Exmoor, and New Forest, and the now extinct Galloway horse. In smaller numbers, Welsh, Connemara, Sable Island, and Acadian horses were introduced to the island.
(Janet Vorwald Dohner, The Encyclopaedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds p.389)
Map of Newfoundland made by Captain James Cook, 1775. Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland.
By the nineteenth century there were some proper horses in Newfoundland; they were mainly used in towns where there were roads. But the isolated outport communities on the rest of the island relied on pony-power. A coastal community might be inhabited from spring through to autumn, during which time fishing would be the primary occupation. In winter people often moved inland to escape the winter storms and would spend the season cutting firewood and hunting game. The tough little ponies were the draft animal of choice and were absolutely essential to the life of the Newfoundlanders. The ponies ploughed gardens and fields, hauled seaweed for fertilizer, pulled hay wagons, and dragged timber. Some also worked in the mines. The ponies were a means of land transportation in both summer and winter, for both every day and special occasions such as weddings.
Newfoundland Pony hauling wood. Newfoundland Pony Society historical photo.
Newfoundlanders traditionally practiced a low maintenance version of husbandry where the ponies were concerned. Hay was expensive and good pasture hard to find. The ponies which were worked were mainly geldings, and while there was work for the ponies to do, they were kept close at hand. Mares, stallions, and foals were generally left to run free. As the work the ponies were expected to do was usually seasonal, even the geldings spent part of the year at liberty.
“Some knew enough to come home,” says Cliff. “Herb March would turn out his pony each spring when he went fishing up to the Labrador. He’d come back in the fall and a few days later his pony would show up. It might have been 10 miles away but somehow it knew to return.”
From the Newfoundland Pony by Suzanne Robichaud, Saltscapes Magazine
The isolated pony population adapted so well to the local conditions that the ponies became a recognizable type with little-to-no human intervention, but through evolutionary pressure alone. In this fashion, the Newfoundland Pony became a landrace. The strongest ones, the ones who could adjust to the harsh conditions, survived to breed and pass on their genes.
As the Newfoundland Pony is a landrace and not a breed, there is no true breed standard for the pony and quite a lot of variety in appearance is permitted. According to the Newfoundland Pony society, a Newfoundland pony :
- Has a good temperament, is docile and easy to work with;
- Is a good winter animal, being all around hardy;
- Is sure-footed;
- Has a structure that can vary from fine-boned types to larger stocky types;
- Has a height that can vary from 11.0 to 14.2 hands;
- Has a coat colour of bay, black, brown, chestnut, dun, grey, roan and white. Piebalds and skewbalds (pintos) are not acceptable;
- Has a heavy coat which sometimes changes colour and character seasonally;
- Has a thick mane and tail;
- Has a low set of tail;
- Has feathered fetlocks with hair extending below fetlock points;
- Has flint-hard hooves;
- Typically has dark limb points. White or light colour on limbs is acceptable;
George, the first Newfoundland Pony born in Quebec. Previously owned by Nathalie Durocher of Thetford Mines, currently residing at Villi Pony Refuge in New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of Nathalie Durocher
Newfoundland Ponies remained fairly common until the 1970’s when tractors, snowmobiles and the like finally eclipsed them for farm work and transportation. Municipal by-laws made it difficult to own ponies as pasture was no longer readily available, and the owners were encouraged to geld their stallions. Now-useless ponies were shipped by the hundreds to Quebec where they were slaughtered for meat destined for Europe. There were approximately twelve thousand Newfoundland ponies in the mid-1970’s. Ten years later there were fewer than a hundred left.
In the fall of 1979, a group of concerned citizens got together and formed the Newfoundland Pony Society with the objective to preserve and protect the now endangered pony. In 1997, the government of Newfoundland passed the Heritage Animals Act of Newfoundland and Labrador which attempted to stem the losses by providing the animals with legal protection and making it illegal to transport ponies out of the province without a permit.
The Newfoundland pony remains endangered. The Newfoundland Pony Society estimates approximately 250 animals of breeding age remain.
Environment, Climate, and the 19th-Century Economy of Newfoundland (www.heritage.nf.ca)
The Canadian Encyclopedia, Online Edition (www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca)
The Newfoundland Pony Society, www.newfoundlandpony.com
Genetic diversity and admixture among Canadian, Mountain and Moorland and Nordic pony populations. Prystupa JM, Juras R, Cothran EG, Buchanan FC, Plante Y.(www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed)
The Newfoundland Pony, Suzanne Robicheau, Saltscapes Magazine (http://www.saltscapes.com)
Villi Pony Farm (http://www.newfoundlandponies.org/)
Janet Vorwald Dohner, Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds, Yale University press, 2001