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The New Forest pony is one of the most recognised mountain and moorland or native pony breeds of the British Isles. This particular pony generally has a height from around 12 to 14.2 hands; these Hampshire ponies are renowned for being strong and are good for riding. They are valued for hardiness, strength, and sure footedness owing to their habitat.
The breed is indigenous to the New Forest in Hampshire in southern England, where horses have lived since before the last Ice Age; remains dating back to 500,000 BC have been found within 50 miles of the heart of the modern New Forest. DNA studies have shown ancient shared ancestry with the Celtic type Asturcon and Pottok ponies. Many breeds have contributed to the foundation bloodstock of the New Forest pony, but today only ponies whose parents are both registered as purebred in the approved section of the stud book may be registered as purebred. The New Forest pony can be ridden by children and adults, can be driven in harness, and competes successfully against larger horses in horse show competition.
All ponies grazing on the New Forest are owned by New Forest commoners. These are people who have rights of common of pasture over the Forest lands. An annual marking fee is paid for each animal turned out to graze. The population of ponies on the Forest has fluctuated in response to varying demand for young stock. Numbers fell to fewer than six hundred in 1945, but have since risen steadily, and thousands now run loose in semi wild conditions. The welfare of ponies grazing on the Forest is monitored by five Agisters. An agister is a local official whose role is to assist the Verderers with their duty to manage the free roaming animals of the New Forest in Hampshire. Each Agister takes responsibility for a different area of the Forest. The ponies are gathered annually in a series of drifts, to be checked for health, wormed, and they are tail marked; each pony has their tail trimmed to the pattern of the Agister responsible for that pony. Purebred New Forest stallions approved by the Breed Society and by the New Forest Verderers run out on the Forest with the mares for a short period each year. Many of the foals bred on the Forest are sold through the Beaulieu Road pony sales, which are held several times each year.
Ponies have grazed in the area of the Hampshire New Forest for many thousands of years, predating the last Ice Age. Spear damage on a horse shoulder bone discovered at Eartham Pit, Boxgrove, about 50 miles from the middle of the New Forest, dated 500,000 BC, demonstrates that early humans were hunting horses in the area at that time, and the remains of a large Ice Age hunting camp have been found close to Ringwood. Evidence from the skeletal remains of ponies from the Bronze Age suggests that they resembled the modern Exmoor pony. Horse bones excavated from Iron Age ritual burial sites at Danebury, indicate that the animals were approximately 12 hands, a height similar to that of some of the smaller New Forest ponies of today.
William the Conqueror, claimed the New Forest as a royal hunting ground and shipped more than two thousand horses across the English Channel when he invaded England in 1066. The earliest written record of horses in the New Forest dates back to that time, when rights of common of pasture were granted to the local inhabitants. A popular tradition linking the ancestry of the New Forest pony to Spanish horses said to have swum ashore from wrecked ships at the time of the Spanish Armada has long been accepted as a myth, however, the offspring of Forest mares, probably bred at the Royal Stud in Lyndhurst, were exported in 1507 for use in the Renaissance wars. A genetic study in 1998 suggested that the New Forest pony has ancient shared ancestry with two endangered Spanish Celtic type pony breeds, the Asturcon and Pottok.
The most notable stallion in the early history of the breed was a Thoroughbred named Marske, the sire of Eclipse, and a great grandson of the Darley Arabian. Marske was sold to a Ringwood farmer for twenty guineas on the death of Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, and was used to breed with country mares in the 1760s.
In the 1850s and 1860s, the quality of the ponies was noted to be declining, a result of poor choice of breeding stallions, and the introduction of Arab to improve the breed was recommended. The census of stock of 1875 reported just under three thousand ponies grazing the Hampshire Forest, and by 1884 the number had dropped to 2,250. Profits from the sale of young ponies affected the number of mares that commoners bred in subsequent years. The drop in numbers on the Forest may have been a consequence of introducing Arab blood to the breed in the 1870s, resulting in fewer animals suitable for use as pit ponies, or to the increase in the profits from running dairy cattle instead of ponies. The Arab blood may have reduced the ponies natural hardiness to thrive on the open Forest over winter. Numbers of ponies on the Forest also declined as a result of demand for more refined looking ponies for riding and driving work prior to the introduction of motor vehicles. Later, the Second World War drove up the demand for, and thus, the market value of, young animals for horse meat.
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