Ponies are much more in request in England than asses or mules, as, though not so hardy, or easily and cheaply kept, they are more docile and reliable, so far as temper is concerned, and are much more manageable. Their robustness of course varies with breed, climate, and mode of management. In some parts of the world, ponies are nearly as good as mules for transport purposes. Those from the hill districts of India, for instance, small, stout, and with strong limbs and feet, are well* known for their endurance, vigour, and patience; while it is notorious that the ponies from over the North-Western frontier of India, as well as those from Pegu, will carry as heavy a load as a horse.
It is not an easy matter to define what a pony really is - at least so far as height and weight are concerned. In some parts - as in Yorkshire, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire - any horse under fifteen and a half hands would be designated a pony; and we are informed that the famous steeple-chase horse, the Lamb, which twice won the Liverpool steeple-chase, and was only fifteen hands two inches, was called "The Pony" by the professional reporters of his struggles and his triumphs. But in India that height is above the average of the Arab horses which our medium and light cavalry men ride, and which are always designated "horses," as the country rarely produces anything taller. Indeed, in this country many of the horses in light cavalry regiments are no higher than this.
In Nottinghamshire, a pony is considered to be an animal under fourteen and a half hands; but in Devonshire and Somersetshire it is recognised that any pony more than twelve hands high is the degenerate product of a cross between an Exmoor pony and some exotic steed.
Ponies were originally, and are now, bred and reared in mountainous regions, where there is generally no other food than the scanty natural herbage, and where, exposed to the weather of all seasons, they become inured to privation and neglect. They are merely large horses in miniature, probably brought to their diminutive size by the effects of climate, food, and exposure.
In this country there are localities renowned for the ponies bred in them, and which possess more or less distinctive characters, accompanied by certain attributes which render them preferable for particular purposes, or give them a reputation which stamps their value.
Shetland ponies are rather famous for their diminutiveness, symmetry, and endurance, no less than for their sure-footedness.
The pure bred ones rarely exceed twelve hands, and the smallest are pretty toys, sometimes no taller than an ordinary mastiff. Their usual colour is black, though other colours are met with, and the coat - as might be expected - is shaggy, with a long, thick forelock, mane, and tail.
A writer who, a few years ago, visited the Shetland Islands, thus refers to these little animals. "Every one uses the ponies of the country. The Norwegian colours - dun, with black mane and tail, and a black stripe down the back - are in request; bays and blacks are most common, greys and chestnuts scarce. Piebalds are to be found, but are not in favour with many native buyers, from the opinion that they partake of an Iceland cross, and are softer and slower than the true native Shetlander. They are often imported in great numbers at Granton (near Edinburgh) and Aberdeen. The best Shet-landers come from Unst. They are bred on a thin soil, studded with large red stones and kinds of rocks, amongst which one sees scores of ponies picking the green grass which the light of heaven and the breath of the Gulf Stream force up from a barren-looking bed. Unst may be regarded as the heart of Shetland - a sunny, genial-looking spot when other parts of the country are dismal enough in the late spring. If well kept the ponies reach forty-four inches (eleven hands), but the average is thirty-eight to forty-two inches. Each cottar has generally a few ponies on the hill, which they catch and offer to the dealers for sale in May and October. When the trade in ponies for coal-pits was at its height, five hundred were taken every year (not thirty mares amongst them), and about two hundred for general use, of all ages, from two to twelve years. These heavy sales, continued for some years, drained the Shet-lands of aged ponies. Of late, the dealers' purchases have fallen off. In 1867 a good horse pony was worth £7; a mare, unless a wonder, was £2 less. The chief demand of mine-owners is in January and February. In the Durham collieries Welsh ponies outnumber the Shetland. The Scotch have the lead in Northumberland, where larger ponies are required. The Scotch ponies, bred chiefly in Argyllshire, Mull, and Skye, and the western part of Ross-shire, average twelve hands two inches, the Iceland twelve hands, the Welsh eleven hands, and the Shetland ten hands."
Some of the best Shetlands are bred on the Balfour Estate, in Orkney; they are shifted from island to island, as the grass suits, and they require careful drafting to keep them down to nine hands in height (thirty-six inches).
The Exmoor is another breed of renowned ponies, much larger, but which seldom exceed thirteen hands, the best of which are said to be descended from crosses made with Dongola and thorough-bred stallions on the small native race. The Ex-moor has a well-shaped head and small ears; the body, round, compact, and well ribbed; good quarters and powerful hocks, with straight, strong, and clean legs. The colour is usually bay, brown, or grey. He is noted for his sure-footedness and hardy constitution; and those bred by Sir Thomas Acland and Mr. Knight, which are to be found in October at Bampton Fair, are in particular request for family use.
Welsh ponies are also well known for their good qualities, though there are many different breeds of them, some of which have more breeding and are larger-sized than others, though these are not so hardy.
Ponies are also bred on Dartmoor, in the New Forest, and some other parts of England; and in Ireland - as in Kerry - there are breeds of robust, privation-enduring little beasts, which, when receiving anything like proper food and attention, prove excellent for household service.
Iceland ponies are a good deal used in this country, particularly in Scotland. They generally stand about twelve hands high, are said to be exceedingly hardy, and have strong legs and feet, while they are also strong in the back. Their heads are somewhat large and heavy, and though very fast, these ponies are deficient in style and action, but they are remarkable for their endurance and sure-footedness.
Unbroken ponies can usually be purchased at horse fairs - those in England being generally from Wales and Ireland. It is well known that the best are those reared on mountain sides, where short, sweet herbage is to be found, and their robustness is accounted for by the weakly, crippled ones dying off during the severe winters, the strong-constitutioned ones only surviving; and the exertion these have to make over the rugged precipitous ground to obtain a living makes them active, well-balanced on their limbs, and safe on their feet. "A mountain-bred pony never falls unless over-weighted or over-tired, and it is very difficult to tire one. Ponies bred on wild rough land are certainly not so subject to the numerous diseases of an inflammatory character that are the curse of studs, where horses of the finest pedigree are reared with as much care and more expense than is bestowed on the most aristocratic babies. Like Red Indians, only those of stout constitution survive the hardships of infancy or foalhood; ponies that have reached maturity and been broken to harness or saddle, are more likely to be sound than full-sized horses, because only the best are worth sending for sale out of their native localities."
Ponies are used for carrying nursery panniers, for riding, and for harness.
A pannier pony should be very quiet and steady, rather small, but strong, with a round body and wide back; it should also be good in its walking pace - smooth and easy, and yet free from stumbling or blundering. Children should not be carried by it until it is well trained to carry a load, and to be led demurely. The bridle should be a snaffle, the bit being secured by reins to the flaps of the saddle, and a long rein being passed through the rings to lead with. Sometimes a light bamboo rod with a swivel spring-hook at the end, to fix in the ring of the bit, or in the ring of a nose, is used to lead with.
A riding pony for children should be quiet, tractable, and a safe stepper. In addition to being well shaped, like a hack, for young boys, he should not be very round in the body; as if he is, he tires the rider's legs and does not afford a grip. If for girls, his width is not of so much importance, perhaps, as length to carry the side-saddle (which should have a crupper); but as in the other, he ought to have a good fore-hand, and the head and neck should be well carried.
Though all ponies may be ridden, yet only those which might be termed "hacks in miniature" are good for the saddle. But for harness, these, as well as those with heavy, upright shoulders and low withers, may be employed; indeed, ponies which may be considered very badly adapted for riding will be found sometimes excellent in harness; and for some purposes ponies are preferable to horses for driving, as they cost less to buy, are cheaper to keep, and generally last longer, while they are handy, and will often travel as far as, if not farther than, large-sized horses.
The management of ponies differs but little from that of horses. In the stable, the same sanitary rules are to be observed, and cleanliness in the way of grooming should be enforced. Feeding and watering ought to be attended to in the same way; though the quantity of food allowed will, of course, be less than for the horse, and must vary according to the amount of work performed, the size of the pony, and the season of the year.
A pony about thirteen hands high, performing a fair amount of work, should thrive well on fifty or sixty pounds of oats, and about the same quantity of hay, per week. An authority states that a pair of ponies, not over thirteen and a half hands high, in full condition for park display, can be kept well on one hundred pounds of oats and two trusses of hay per week - the oats to be increased and the hay diminished if they are driven long distances day after day. It is generally estimated that a thirteen-hands-high pony will eat about half as much as a large horse.
When the work is very hard, a pound or two of beans may be substituted for a like quantity of oats, and a bran mash may be allowed at intervals.
Smaller ponies can do with less forage, of course; indeed, those doing little work will thrive on a very small allowance of oats, with plenty of hay - or even on hay alone.