While looking for interesting material for my final September blog, I found an article published just a few months ago on the CBC online news site. According to the article 20 Newfoundland ponies made their way back home to Newfoundland after their owner in British Columbia had fallen on hard times. Cle Newhook, president of the Newfoundland Pony Society knew that without help some of the animals might die or be seized. “We didn’t want that; we couldn’t afford to let that happen, so we took the gamble.”
Amazingly $40,000 was donated to aid in their transportation and while some may stay in Nova Scotia in new homes, many went back to Newfoundland where they will be welcomed with open arms and stall doors. After all, Newfoundland is where these ponies call “home.”
There are only about 400 of this gentle, hardy breed left in the world that has endeared themselves to so many. In Newfoundland, the pony is a cultural icon that can trace its history back four centuries when settlers from the British Isles brought breeds like the Dales Pony, Dartmoor, Connemara Pony, Welsh Mountain and New Forest ponies with them.The interbreeding of these breeds, all managed by Mother Nature who usually knows best, eventually created the rough, ready and amiable Newfoundland ponies we see today.
The sturdy, mild mannered Newfoundland pony worked to help build the province that is famous for a rugged coastline, unforgiving winter weather, unrelenting storms and the friendliest folk around. They have been used for countless jobs including hauling fishing nets, gathering hay, wood, supplies, and were often key members of a wedding party bringing the bride to the church in a carriage or wagon on her special day.
These ponies, as the Newfoundland Pony Society claims are an, “all purpose pony known for its strength, courage, intelligence, obedience, willingness and common sense.” Throw in the fact that these ponies are easy keepers and hard workers and you’ve got the ideal work mate and play mate! They stand between 11hh to 14.2hh and weigh in at 400 to 800 pounds (180 to 360kg) and come in black, bay or brown, roan, chestnut, gray and dun. They are stocky with thick mane and coat, they have a deep narrow chest, short back, sloping croup and low set tail. To be included in the Newfoundland Pony Society they must have a good temperament and be easy to work with.
In 1935 it is estimated that there were over 9,000 Newfoundland ponies alive, but this number had dropped to 8,000 in the 1960s. Sadly in the ’70s and ’80s the pony went further into a decline for various reasons: many people turned to tractors and trucks or plows for their work, municipal by-laws limited breeding and pastures, and owners were encouraged to have their stallions gelded. Sadly, the breed was further diminished when about 700 ponies were shipped to Quebec in 1980 and from there they went to France and Belgium where people enjoy horse meat. The fate of the pony was in jeopardy!
It was clear that the breed needed help and wheels were set in motion. A breed registry was started in 1980 to round up the remaining herds, register the animals and breed them. The Newfoundland pony has been known as a Heritage Animal since 1997 and The Newfoundland Pony Society, formed in 1997, also decreed that anybody wishing to export a pony or ponies had to acquire a permit so that the ponies were known to be going to private homes and not to slaughter houses.
The 2011, The Livestock Conservancy (TLC) added the Newfoundland pony to their Conservation Priority List in the “study” category working to verify the breed history and population numbers. In 2012, the breed was moved to the “critical” category which means that globally there are less than 2,000 ponies, and annual registrations number less than 1,000. Rare Breeds Canada also sees the breed as a critically endangered species.
A study in 2012 of mitochondrial DNA found that the Newfoundland pony is the most genetically diverse of the Canadian breeds that were studied including the Sable Island pony and the Lac La Croix Indian pony. Overlapping haplotypes (a haplotype is a group of genes, which is inherited together by an organism from a single parent) also suggest a possible crossbreeding with Clydesdales and Standardbreds although earlier studies did not come to this conclusion. If an owner wishes to register a pony with the Newfoundland Pony Society, the ponies have to undergo DNA testing to prove Newfoundland heritage.
The Newfoundland pony has earned a well-deserved place in Canadian history. Just as the Canadian human population boasts a diverse melting pot, the Newfoundland pony too has evolved into a unique breed offering all the best with a little help from Mother Nature.
All photos courtesy of the Newfoundland Pony Society.