The name “Highland Pony” can conjure up a variety of impressions depending on the person’s prior knowledge and experiences. However, the consensus might be that these wonderful ponies come in a variety of colours and sizes with suitability for a wide range of tasks. In order to accommodate the modern uses of Highland ponies, have they developed into a different type from their ancestors?
The Council of the Highland Pony Society have recently spent time considering whether there have been significant changes to breed type over the last decade and are concerned that breeders in the future are aware of the importance of retaining the characteristics of a true Highland pony within their breeding programmes. In analysing the Highland Pony Society’s description of the Highland pony, it states that the pony should be strong and well balanced with all its features in proportion to its height. So what does this actually mean? How can the various aspects of breed description be applied to an actual pony?
Using the above photo as an example of a pony, the first thing to ask is whether it actually looks like a Highland? If the answer to the first question is yes, then how can it be assessed for breed type? It is useful to use the Society’s criteria to discuss this. Firstly, the Society states that the height is "not to exceed 14.2hh (148cms)". Ask yourself these questions. From the photograph it is impossible to assess height but does the example still look like a Highland whether small or large? Does he still look like a pony? Is the measurement from elbow to heel similar to or less than wither to elbow? Longer limbs may give a more athletic appearance and look more horse than pony. Few Highlands are under 13hh but some can be over 14.2hh. Are pony characteristics then lost with the ratio of limb to girth a variable? Overheight ponies fall outwith the breed description. This does not mean these ponies have no use but they are not allowed in the show ring and, if used for breeding, care should be taken to choose a partner of a smaller size.
The second aspect of breed type to consider is the head. The measurement across the forehead, eye to eye, should be equivalent to the depth of the jowl and the nose should not be too long. A broad muzzle and short pony ears are also important. Does the pony in the photograph match these criteria? I would say that he does, as he shows a large jowl and shorter nose with neat ears. A pony should also be alert with a kindly eye and an interest in its surroundings.
Going on to consider the neck, the breed standard looks for a reasonable length from the wither with a good sloping shoulder and well placed forearm. It might be felt that the above example is a little short in the neck but he does have a good sloping shoulder. He is also compact and has depth to the body giving plenty of room for heart and lungs. Some mares may be less compact which is an advantage when carrying a foal. However too long a back is a weakness and distorts the overall balance of the pony.
The next aspects of the breed standard to consider are the hindquarters and the hindleg. This is the “engine” of the pony and as such, it is important to show powerful, round quarters with a large croup area running continuously into the tailset. The angulation from point of hip, to buttock, to stifle should be acute as this then gives length of stride. This angulation equates with the roundness of the hindquarters. A pony with shortness over croup, (sloping hind end) has a larger angle at the point of buttock and finds it difficult to overstep the front hoof with its hind one. This impacts on the stride of the animal and thus its suitability as a comfortable ridden pony. It can be seen from the pony in the photograph that he has this roundness of quarters leading to a short second thigh. Where a pony has sloping quarters it also usually has a much straighter hind leg which is not a desirable trait. The action of a Highland pony must be straight and freemoving from the shoulders. There should not be high knee action, neither should the pony “daisy cut”. The pony is expected to move at a workmanlike pace and cover the ground at walk with the hind hoof at least tracking up with the front one. Ideally the pony should be capable of coping with all types of ground conditions.
The breed standard requires the pony to have hard, flat bone which means that, in cross section, the lower leg would appear to be oval from front to back. Many debate how much bone a pony should have and would like to see exact measurements as guidelines. There is concern that many of the modern ponies lack bone and this is certainly an issue. However the quality of bone is also of importance as some ponies who appear to be heavier have, in reality, rounder bone which is not so strong. A pony’s bone should match its top so a taller pony should have depth of body and more bone than a smaller example. Both, however, should have enough bone to give the appearance of a sturdy pony capable of moving over rough terrain. The photograph shows a pony with suitable amount of bone which looks in proportion to the rest of his body. The breed requirements also look for short cannon bones as this gives the animal strength and oblique pasterns with round, dark hoofs. The pony in the photograph shows good, short cannon bones but it could be judged that he is too upright in his pasterns.
Highland ponies should have natural and flowing manes and tails. It is against the breed standard to trim hair and definitely against showing rules to add “extra” hair pieces! Both of these practices are becoming more common amongst some of the showing fraternity. Tails are naturally shortened by vegetation when ponies live out continuously. However, many ponies do not live this way so occasionally, and only in the interest of safety for the pony, there may be a case made for minimal removal of some excess hair from the bottom of the tail if it touches the ground.
Finally, the breed standard describes the colours of coat which includes a range of duns from mouse, cream, yellow to grey all of which display the eel stripe and occasionally zebra markings on upper legs and shoulders. Whole colours include grey, black, brown, bay and sometimes liver chestnut with a silver mane and tail. Broken colours such as skewbald and piebald are not allowed. It can be difficult to assess the potential adult colour of a foal as many change considerably during their early years. A small star is acceptable but any other white markings on face or legs are strongly discouraged, as is white on hoofs. There is a high possibility of these markings recurring through breeding with these ponies and, although they may show other strong Highland pony characteristics, it is a trait which the Society has aimed to minimise for a considerable period of time.
In conclusion, the Society strives to maintain and improve the breeding of Highland ponies without losing the characteristics and traits which these lovely ponies have developed over the last century and more. The perfect pony does not yet exist but it is important to focus on the breed’s own strengths so that the highland pony does not merge into an all encompassing “native breed".
From an article by Mrs Gillian McMurray
Highland Pony Characteristics
The Highland Pony is one of the two native pony breeds of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. It has adapted over many centuries to the variable and often severe climatic and environmental conditions of Scotland. The winter coat consists of a layer of strong, badger like hair over a soft, dense undercoat which enables this breed of pony to live out in all weathers. This coat is shed in the spring to reveal a smooth summer coat. This essential hardiness is combined with a kindly nature and an even temperament.
Highland Pony Breed Description
The Highland Pony is a strong, well balanced, compact pony with all its features being in proportion to its height. It is one of the largest of the British Native Breeds and should show substance and strength.
HEIGHT: Not to exceed 14.2hh (148cms).
HEAD: Well carried and alert with kindly eye. Broad muzzled with a deep jowl.
NECK AND SHOULDERS: Reasonable length of neck from wither with a good sloping shoulder and well placed forearm.
BODY: Well balanced and compact with plenty of room for heart and lungs. Ribs well sprung.
QUARTERS AND HINDLEGS: Powerful quarters with well developed thigh, strong second thigh and clean flat hocks.
LEGS: Flat hard bone, broad knees, short cannon bones, oblique pasterns and well shaped broad dark hoofs. Feather soft and silky.
MANE AND TAIL: Hair should be natural, flowing and untrimmed with a full tail.
COLOURS: A range of duns, mouse, yellow, grey, cream. Also grey, brown, black, bay and occasionally liver chestnut with silver mane and tail. Many ponies have a dorsal stripe and some show zebra markings on legs and shoulder. Foal coat colour often changes and many ponies change colour gradually as they grow older, especially those with grey hairs interspersed with the original colour. Others show a slight seasonal change in colour between winter and summer coats. Broken colours are not allowed. A small star is acceptable but other white markings are discouraged.
N.B. STALLIONS with white markings other than a small star are NOT eligible for licensing.
ACTION: Straight and free moving without undue knee action.
CAPABILITIES: A ride, drive and pack animal which can adapt to many equestrian disciplines.