originally published in The Paisley Pony, November/December 2008 issue
As any real pony enthusiast will tell you, a small horse does not a pony make. True ponies have very distinct physical characteristics, including shorter legs in relationship to the depth of body and length of back, a neat head with small ears, and unusually sound feet and legs. Though there are numerous breeds of ponies worldwide, many of the best developed in the mountains and moors of Britain and Ireland. The nine British Native Pony breeds, romantically known as "Mountain and Moorland" ponies, are possessed of extraordinary strength in relationship to their size. Fashioned by harsh and unforgiving environments, they are tough, sure-footed, and thrifty, with many maintaining an inherent level-headedness often lacking in horses. While all of the Mountain & Moorland breeds, including the Connemara, Dartmoor, Fell, Highland, and Welsh, are extraordinary animals, none are more commendable than the beautiful, agile, and talented Dales Pony.
Separated by the Pennine Range in Northern England, the Dales and Fell breeds share a common genetic heritage and similar, though distinct, histories. Once believed to be two types of the same breed, today the Dales and Fell are divided into separate studbooks and societies. Dales ponies were bred specifically in the 19th and early 20th centuries for the Pennine lead industry as pack ponies and won renown for their ability to quickly cover rough country under daunting loads. As railways emerged and road systems improved, the Dales found a niche on the small farms in and around Yorkshire. With their unusual strength, sensible natures, and remarkable agility, they offered great advantages to the small farmer.
In the early 1900's, a Welsh Cob stallion named "Comet" was crossed to many high quality Dales mares, passing on a more free-moving shoulder and increased athleticism. The resulting stylish ponies, with their famous eye-catching trot, were unmatched in trotting races and provided a fashionable carriage drive into town for the family. These same family farmers recognized in the hardworking Dales an innate jumping talent and many became the preferred mount for a good day's hunt, easily carrying an adult of 250 lbs or more. In short, the Dales Pony literally did it all.
Sadly, because of their compact size, relaxed temperament, bravery, and legendary strength, Dales Ponies were used extensively by the British Army in both World Wars; by 1955 very few registered ponies remained. Fortunately, through the support of dedicated breeders, their numbers have gradually increased to approximately 2000 worldwide, with about 250 currently living in North America. They are listed as "Endangered" with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, though both their numbers and overall quality continue to improve.
Ideally, the Dales stand between 14 and 14.2hh. The vast majority are black or dark brown, but both bay and grey are found, with a few roan mixed in to keep things interesting. White markings are acceptable, but only a star, snip, and white fetlocks on the hind legs are allowed for the pony to be registerable as a Section A in the main studbook. The Dales profile should be straight or slightly convex; any dishing is viewed as a fault. The neck is strong and muscular, and a good pony possesses a deep, short-coupled trunk with well-sprung ribs. The cannons should display 8 to 9 inches of bone, and pasterns must be of good length and covered with silky feather to match the ample, flowing mane and tail. The famous Dales trot is high at knee and hock, active, and full of propulsion.
Today the Dales Pony is a highly versatile breed well deserving of the moniker "The Great All-rounder". They are extremely suitable for both riding and driving and make fantastic trekking ponies. Across the nation, Dales Ponies compete successfully in dressage, three-day eventing, and all forms of carriage driving competitions, most notably Combined Driving Events (CDEs). Dales even find work hauling maple sap with harness and sleigh over silent, snow-bound landscapes. With all the Dales Pony has to offer both children and adults, as well as backyard pony owners and serious competitors alike, it won't be long before this "Great All-rounder" converts legions of devoted fans throughout its adopted homeland.