Life tough for the Newfoundland pony

updated May 17, 2009

Archive images from the Newfoundland Pony Society: Cape Race ponies, taken in 1983. © Cameron Mustard

Newfoundland ponies at the Green Family Forge, Trinity, T.B. in the 1930s. © Trinity Historical Society

Mr George DeGrish, the mailman for the area, waiting with his pony outside the Trinity, T.B. train station in the 1920s. © Trinity Historical Society

Living in this rugged terrain is not easy.

The weather is harsh, the North Atlantic on your doorstep.

As the Europeans settled Newfoundland in the 1500s, one thing that made life easier was the horse. As the island advanced, so did a culture in which horses were considered an asset.

The pony became so entwined in the island's society that a distinct type emerged - the Newfoundland pony, a sturdy descendant of the seven types of horse imported from Britain - British Isles Exmoor, Dartmoor, New Forest, Galloway, Welsh, Connemara and Highlands Pony - mixed on the island.

But now the Newfoundland pony is on the verge of extinction. A horse that once roamed this place by the thousands is down to fewer than 200.

Conservation efforts have been initiated, provincial laws passed, books written about the problem. Still, the Newfoundland pony may be reaching its last generation.

"They don't have a job anymore," said Susan Fishter, former president of Newfoundland Pony Care Inc., a group established to run a sanctuary for the animals and adopt them out.

It seems the animal that helped settle the island has gone from necessity to nuisance, as new roads are made and tougher vehicles imported to traverse the countryside.

The owners of many of the ponies do not want to pay for their food and shelter anymore. It seems a cruel reward.

They are often sold for a few hundred dollars to horse dealers from elsewhere in Canada, and disappear. Most people suspect they are sold for slaughter.

The provincial government recently approved a Heritage Animal Act that will allow regulators to monitor the fate of animals such as the pony, give breeders and owners some recognition and, if necessary, set export and sale restrictions to combat their disappearance.

The Newfoundland Pony Society and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador are trying to have it established as an official breed and save those remaining animals for what should be a positive future.

The labrador husky is also struggling in modern times. The dog was breed specifically for heavy, long-haul sledding in neighboring Labrador. Snowmobiles have eliminated its usefulness, too, and it is not uncommon for packs of the dogs to be destroyed by the same communities that once relied upon them. The dogs were once bred from wolves but are not as fast as the Siberian and other huskies used in sled races or for lighter work.

Among the island's pony preservationists, people such as Fishter track each birth, evaluate the breeding success and qualities of the few ungelded males, and try to find owners for the new horses who are interested in keeping them for a lifetime. Like many of the island's traditional assets, the pony may only survive if it can find a role in the new economic order.

With a little work over the next few generations of horse, the Newfoundland pony would likely qualify as its own breed, a status that would then cultivate interest among horse enthusiasts around the world. It is either that or extinction.

In 1997, there were 144 known Newfoundland ponies. Of these many are geldings or aged mares. The number of breeding age is small.

The Newfoundland Pony Society, in co-operation with individual owners, Joywind Rarebreeds Conservancy,(Ont.) and The Friends of the Newfoundland Pony have set up protected breeding units.

These efforts are slowing the population decline.

Breed characteristics:

11 to 14.2 hands high
thick dark mane, tail and lower legs
Usually brown in color though other colors are not uncommon - some experience seasonal colour changes
Small head with deep jowls
Short hairy ears
Small flint hard hoofs
Low-set tail
Has a good temperament, and is hardy
Weight: 400 - 800 lbs.