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Exmoor Pony basic information

Exmoor is situated in the southwest of Britain, spanning the borders of Devon and Somerset, its northern boundary being the high cliffs of the Bristol Channel. It is an area of high moorland divided by steep wooded valleys and fragmented by farmland. The moorland provides a varied diet of grasses, rushes, heather and gorse. The area is subject to very wet winters with cold temperatures and driving winds. The moors are home to wild red deer as well as the Exmoor ponies and farm stock.

All Exmoor ponies are essentially identical, conforming to a natural blueprint. Variation in color and markings which is typical of breeds which man has created is noticeably absent. This suggests that the Exmoor remains more a wild race than a selected breed.

Exmoors are all some shade of brown with darker legs and striking mealy (oatmeal) colored markings on the muzzle, around the eyes and sometimes under the belly. The mane and tail are usually a darker brown than the body, sometimes almost black but occasionally such long hair is lighter, more mousie in color. The shade of brown of the coat ranges from a light rich brown termed "bay" through every shade of brown to almost black in just a few individuals.

This pattern of coloring/marking which is uniform throughout the population is a very primitive design and found elsewhere in the horse family (e.g. Przewalski’s Horse) and is displayed by many herbivorous prey animals in other animal families such as cattle, sheep and antelopes. The purpose of this type of appearance seems related to camouflage and the avoidance of predators.

Exmoor ponies blend in very well against the background of mixed heather, grass and bracken in their moorland habitat. The mealy muzzle and mealy eye ring perhaps serve to break up the outline of the head making its movements less obvious to a predator.

Exmoor foals are born with the mealy markings set against a much lighter coat color. This changes as they grow their first winter coat and by six months or so they match the adults in color.

There is relatively little variation in size between adult Exmoors. They naturally range from 11.2hh to 13.1hh (117-135cms, 46-53 inches), with the majority around 12.2hh (127cms, 50 inches).

The ponies are very stocky and strong with deep chests and large girths; the large capacity of the digestive system is important in winter as they consume large quantities of coarse plant material which provides them with internal warmth. The Exmoor pony presents an example within the horse family of high efficiency in the business of finding, gathering, chewing and digesting food.

Coat Structure
One of the major forces of natural selection is climate and the Exmoor pony’s external anatomy is designed to withstand extremes of cold and, most importantly, rain; these are the descendants of a mountain pony prototype which evolved to live in wet upland environments.

The coat grows in two phases giving a summer and winter coat. The winter coat grows in two layers which, in effect, provide "thermal underwear" and a "raincoat". The hairs next to the skin forming the undercoat are fine and springy in texture and form an insulating layer. The outer hairs are coarse, greasy and therefore water-repellent. The efficiency of this double layered coat is evident from the phenomenon of "snow-thatching": snow collects on the ponies’ backs as insufficient body heat escapes to melt it. Thus the body is not chilled by melting snow and the snow is just shaken off periodically.

The body hair grows in a surface drainage pattern: it lies in an arrangement of whirls and vortices which maximise water dispersal away from the vulnerable parts of the body and the body openings.

The tail, mane, forelock and, in winter, the beard all show water-shedding specialization. The fan of short hairs near the root of the tail is called a "snow-chute" but its function is more to channel rain water out over the buttocks so that it does not run under the tail. The long fully haired mane and tail, which contrast to the upright mane and partially haired tail of a Przewalski, are adaptations to this prime need of dispersing water from the body.

The Exmoor pony molts out this winter coat by early summer and for a short time, until about mid August, sports its summer coat. This retains the drainage properties but consists of just a single layer, insulation being unnecessary. It is a hard, shiny coat that in some individuals has a slight dappling in appearance.

Exmoors are described as having "toad eyes" and this is often erroneously thought to relate to the mealy colored ring. It refers, however, to the raised fleshy rim above and below the eye which the coloring accentuates. This rim serves to protect the eye from rain water and to divert it down the length of the head to run off the lower jaw.

The teeth of Exmoors are well adapted to a coarse diet. The incisors (biting teeth) are curved so that they meet vertically like a pair of pliers and therefore cut cleanly and efficiently. The efficiency of the bite does not appear to decline so rapidly with age as is seen in many other horses. The molars (chewing teeth) are very large and set into the jaw so that they maximum chewing pressure is exerted on the tough plants.

Contrary to many publications, Exmoor ponies do not have an extra, seventh, molar tooth. This misconception arose from mistranslation of some German research which in fact referred to an extra branch off the blood supply to the lower jaw which might have been the beginnings of the evolution of an extra tooth. This feature does not seem to be confined to Exmoors and is perhaps simply present in animals with large lower jaws.

Legs and Feet
The limbs of Exmoor ponies are designed for movement over hilly terrain. They are immensely strong ponies for their size and can carry up to 170 pounds, making them an ideal family pony not just limited to carrying children. They have outstandingly hard feet, a slate blue/black color

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