The History of the British Riding Pony – review


The History of the British Riding Pony

You have to wonder how many of the world’s elite riders got their start on a British riding pony.

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.

by Tom Best
Medina Publishing, Aug 2011
210 x 218 mm Portrait
RRP £35 ($A75; $NZ75; $US88 – post free)
Buy now
ISBN: 978-0-9564170-9-1

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 influential arabian stallion Naseel.
The influential arabian stallion Naseel.
Four of Naseel's Irish-bred progeny: (from left) Eureka, Glide On, My Pretty Maid, and Pretty Polly. Four of Naseel’s Irish-bred progeny: (from left) Eureka, Glide On, My Pretty Maid, and Pretty Polly.

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 enthusiasts 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 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.

Julie Templeton with a newcomer to the lead rein classes, Parkdale Vanilla, Supreme Led Rein at the British Show Pony Society Championships in 2010.
Julie Templeton with a newcomer to the lead rein classes, Parkdale Vanilla, Supreme Led Rein at the British Show Pony Society Championships in 2010.

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.

Bwlch Valentino at the age of 18, ready for his appearance at the Personality Parade at the Horse of the Year Show in 1968.
Bwlch Valentino at the age of 18, ready for his appearance at the Personality Parade at the Horse of the Year Show in 1968.

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.

Six-year-old Rotherwood Rake-a-Peep and Alix Coster in the spotlight as champion riding pony at the Horse of the Year Show in 2003.
Six-year-old Rotherwood Rake-a-Peep and Alix Coster in the spotlight as champion riding pony at the Horse of the Year Show in 2003.

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 exported 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.

Peter Emerson received the Timberwolf Trophy from Edward Young for the Supreme Pony title at the Horse of the Year Show in 2010 with Charn Secret Legend by Lechdale Quince.

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.



Latest research and information from the horse world.

12 thoughts on “The History of the British Riding Pony – review

  • May 8, 2012 at 10:53 am

    I have just finished reading it and have loved every minute as it brought back so many memories. I am in complete admiration as to how you managed to put in so much information on the breeding of the ponies, in chapter after chapter, without getting repetitious, but keep it so readable all the way through.

  • May 8, 2012 at 10:53 am

    I am sure that I am one of hundreds of readers who have written to you to congratulate you on your awesome book, The History of the British Riding Pony. I have never before sat up all night to read a book – as I did last night.

    The research involved and the detail and history of so many ponies is quite incredible, and it gives the reader an immense understanding of the evolution of our treasured breed.

    ….. I am now in my 90th year but still living on those wonderful memories – all revived by your enthralling book. Thank you!

    • August 19, 2012 at 12:10 am

      Just a note to say, I am nine years old, and I ride Culross Chintz,bred by yourself 25 years ago! She is a fantastic pony, who canters and jumps beautifully, and I am just about to start Pony Club on her! I love her dearly, she is also a wonderful companion! Kind regards, Ellana

    • May 28, 2015 at 11:30 pm

      Hi Lady Gilbie, I believe you owned or bred Culross Royal Romance? Was wondering if you had any pictures or information about this pony. I have a pony from these bloodlines and so would love to hear information many thanks sophie

  • May 8, 2012 at 10:54 am

    What an achievement to have written such a book, with so much detail, with both the breeding of the ponies and wonderful photographs.

    I think that the ‘Pony World’ should be eternally grateful for such a work of art, and altogether, an amazing record, which otherwise could have been lost.
    For me – it was quite nostalgic to see photographs of others, now gone, such as Mrs Pennell, Mr Llewelyn Richards and Elwyn Hartley Edwards.

  • May 8, 2012 at 10:54 am

    I was most impressed with the readability of the book. You have somehow managed to provide lots of factual details of owners, pony breeding, sires and dams etc while avoiding obvious repetition of phrases etc. Also the photos and the history they provide are fantastic. Gathering all this information together and presenting it so well is a massive achievement.

  • May 8, 2012 at 10:54 am

    This is just a wonderful piece of work. Apart from offering a treasure trove of information about the ponies, the biographical snippets about various breeders and owners are fascinating. It flows beautifully-like a good conversation. I have recommended this lovely book at every opportunity!

  • May 8, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Just wanted to pass on my thanks for writing such a wonderful book on the history of the British Riding Pony. I was able to purchase your book through New Zealand and have just about read it cover to cover now. Fantastic to see the photos of so many ancestors of my ponies and other pedigrees that I’ve researched for friends.
    Even better to see the Thorwood Pali Colt photo being shown by Robert Cockram at our very own 2009 Geelong Royal Show.

  • April 17, 2015 at 11:11 pm

    Hi, I am dying to know the breeding of Shelia Wilcoxs High n Mighty, Arab cross , British riding pony. No more information seems to be available. Many thanks Elizabeth

  • February 9, 2019 at 3:04 pm

    I am having some old cine films digitised and came across some footage of ‘Ardencaple’ at the stallion show – what a mover! This inspired me to Google his name and up came this web page. I hope I can find a copy of your book here in Australia because it sounds wonderful, and it will surely bring back memories of my family’s showing days, mostly in the 1960s. Jo Forbes

  • August 5, 2022 at 6:10 am

    Thank you imlooking for abook the history of the British Riding Pony written by Tom Best alas after 6 months no joy any ideas thanks


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