You have to wonder how many of the world’s elite riders got their start on a British riding pony.
by Tom Best
Medina Publishing, Aug 2011
210 x 218 mm Portrait
RRP £35 ($A75; $NZ75; $US88 – post free)
As any parent of a pony-mad child will attest, a well-schooled and compliant pony is worth its weight in gold. That statement isn’t too far from the truth, once the chequebook has to come out!
Tom Best, co-founder of Britain’s Waxwing Stud, is an acknowledged expert on ponies, having bred riding ponies and Welsh stock to compete at the highest levels.
His love of the breed was passed down from his father, also named Tom, and he was finally hooked when given his first pony at the age of nine.
Best is not one to forgo a challenge, so when Joan Lee Smith, who is patron of Ponies Association UK, and the late Elspeth Ferguson, of Rosevean Stud, urged him to pen the history of the breed, he was up the task.
And an important work it is, for some breed aficionados were fearful that if its origins were not formally recorded soon, it may have been lost forever.
Best’s long career in education served him well, as well as his obvious attention to detail. He set about writing a history that extends to 299 pages.
The result is a fascinating history of a breed. Best describes how the expertise of a handful of influential breeders brought together suitable bloodlines from thoroughbred, arabian and native pony breeds to create the British riding pony.
The work is also a valuable social history as it journeys back more than 100 years into the breed’s past, which began in the late 19th century.
Initial breeding efforts were directed to creating suitable polo mounts, but the British riding pony of today is a stalwart of the show ring, providing children with suitable mounts to ride.
The breed history is not the only layer to this book.
In laying out the breed’s history, it explores more than a century of social history.
In many respects the breed’s history goes back even further.
In 1535, King Henry VIII introduced laws designed to breed bigger ponies. In the Act of 1541, reference was made to restrictions placed on stallions under 15 hands, which should not be allowed to run with mares in forests and moors.
In 1740, King George II followed suit with laws that would suppress races of “poneys” and other small and weak horses.
The new breeding policies began to take effect, starting to shape the British native breeds that are familiar today, and which contributed to the British riding pony known today.
Native pony euthusiasts will find considerable interest in the book, looking at the formative role such breeds played in the development of the British riding pony.
It will also interest thoroughbred and arabian horse enthusiasts, as the inputs of both breeds were crucial to to the modern-day riding ponies.
Best explains how bloodlines emerged over the years and how the types we now see in show rings have been developed.
The publishers describe it as a definitive account, and it is impossible to disagree.
Best has produced a very well written and well organised history.
The illustrations alone constitute a fascinating glimpse into history.
Readers may be surprised to know that today’s riding pony stemmed from the need, in the 1850s, for a small high-class horse for polo. Polo breeders sought arabians and small thoroughbreds as foundation stock, and of the 57 stallions in Britain’s first polo pony studbook, there numbered 24 arab or barb horses imported the Middle East or India including Mootrub, and 11 small thoroughbreds, including the famous Rosewater.
Two welsh cob stallions were among the 12 welsh or welsh partbreds, and the other 12 stallions included the partbred hackney Birthday, by Tip Top, and two “Wilson” ponies, bred by Christopher ‘Kit’ Wilson of Rigmaden Park in Kirby Lonsdale.
The mares, however, were a different story, with many native and cross-bred ponies represented. So the adage “Blood over Bone” was very much evident in the early days of the riding pony.
In 1893 the Polo Pony Society became the Polo and Riding Pony Society, recognising the many other uses that ponies had – other than playing polo. Other pony breed stud books were formed in the early 1900s and in 1913, with the need for polo ponies diminishing, the former Polo Pony Society became the National Pony Society.
The histories of influential ponies from now-famous breeders such as Criban Stud, Cusop, Coed Coch, Bwlch, Rosslyn, Leamington, Briery Close, Rosevean, Oakley, Sandbourne, Yealand, and Whalton among others are discussed and illustrated, and the involvement of people including the Bullen family (Catherston Stud), the Lee-Smiths, Elspeth Ferguson, Vivian and Pat Eckley, and Glenda Spooner are also noted.
And of the early British arabian studs, the most influential was Wilfrid and Lady Anne Blunt’s Crabbet Arabian Stud, in Sussex, later run by their daughter Judith, Lady Wentworth.
In the chapter outlining the arabian influence, Best mentions the influence of the famous Skowronek, and his grandson Raktha, whom Lady Wentworth purchased from Lady Yule’s Hanstead Stud, in arabian breeding of the day.
And in 1937 at the Spring Show at Islington Lady Yule’s bay yearling colt Riffal (later exported to Fenwick Stud in Australia) won the purebred section, but “little attention was paid that day to the third placed arab colt, the immature grey Naseel, also bred and shown by Lady Yule.” Naseel had crosses to Skowronek on both sides of his pedigree.
“Naseel’s day would come, albeit not within his own breed, but within the development of a new type of British Riding Pony that would revolutionise breeding programmes throughout Britain and beyond,” Best writes.
Of the major sires in the riding pony’s history, we read of the renowned Bwlch Valentino, a half thoroughbred stallion with arab, welsh, and polo pony breeding. He narrowly escaped being gelded before going on to become an outstanding sire of ponies.
But after this, enter the arabian sire Naseel, who became the most successful sire of both hacks and ponies in Ireland.
When bred to Gipsy Gold, Naseel sired Volant, 1950 and 1952 Pony of the Year Pretty Polly, 1953 and 1955 Pony of the Year My Pretty Maid, and Eureka. This cross “highlighted the role of Arab blood in the breeding of the developing British Riding Pony, at a time when there was some prejudice against its use,” Best writes.
Post war stallions such as Gay Presto, Morning Magic, Ardencaple, General Grant, Count Dorsaz, and Triton would play their parts in pony breeding in later years.
In the 1950s breeders entered the “Valentino years”, where Bwlch Valentino dominated. Crossing him with Naseel a daughter would have been the ‘golden cross’ of the day, and from this pairing came Pollyanna, the Royal Show winner and 1963 Pony of the Year, out of Pretty Polly. But Pollyanna was exportated to the US, ending and chance of a further legacy in Britain.
Enter the likes of Rosslyn, Solway, Rotherwood, and Twylands studs through the 70s, 80s and 90s, building on generations of winning riding ponies. It was the time for stallions such as Bwlch Zephyr, Perdita, and Mambrino – sire of Small Land Mascot who was sold to Australia’s Kirrieway stud at the age of 16 – to make their mark.
But not all breeders had gone “the Bwlch way”, and these studs were to later provide a solid outcross for ponies saturated with earlier influential lines.
In the 1980s the 12.2hh stallion Sandbourne Royal Ensign dominated. He was the only colt left entire when the Sandbourne Stud dispersed in 1984. Remarkably, for a small stallion he sired ponies of all heights, including the 14.2hh Royal Emblem, who was Pony of the Year in 1990.
These stunning ponies are illustrated throughout the book, and many big title winners are shown in all their glory.
Best offers some thought-provoking observations in his concluding chapter, when he talks of the rise of native ponies for children’s mounts by those who consider them more laid back for the average young rider.
Best warns that the show life led by some British riding ponies and the conditions under which they are forced to live can make them sour. “They live like over-sophisticated children who are kept up to dinner too late at night. They become tired and cross.”
“With luck,” he writes, “the British riding pony will hold its own and continue to grow in the future. We hope there will always be a market for a pony for the show ring.”
Best himself is in no doubt as to what the British riding pony represents – “a remarkable breed of pony whose beauty and elegance has no equal in the equine world”.
While breeding the generations of British riding ponies has been the studied pursuit of adults, one thing is clear from the many pictures in the book. It is the immense enjoyment many generations of children have had from riding these ponies that jump out of the photographs.
The smiles are everywhere.
Tom Best is an acknowledged expert on ponies. Co-founder of Waxwing Stud, he has bred and produced riding ponies as well as Welsh ponies at the highest level, qualifying them for the Horse of the Year Show and taking championships at all the major shows. He is also a national and international judge.
He was persuaded by Joan Lee-Smith (Patron of Ponies Association UK) and the late Elspeth Ferguson (Rosevean Stud) to record for posterity the history of the British Riding Pony before the evidence of its origins was lost in the mists of time. The resulting tour de force provides a unique overview of the development of the breed from the late 19th century, when ponies were required for polo, to the present day when ponies are used extensively in the show ring for children to ride.
First published on Horsetalk July 27, 2011