Ancestory and demand


  • Highland Chief of Whitefield

    Highland Chief of Whitefield

Tracing the history of the Highland pony presents even more difficulties than the other native breeds. Although they are assumed to have common ancestors, the fact that they were liberally distributed over many of the Western Isles, as well as the Scottish mainland, ensured that they developed along several different lines. Until quite recently, the breed was divided into Western Isles ponies, standing between 13 and 14 hands, and the larger, heavier Highland pony, often erroneously called garrons - a word derived from the Gaelic for 'gelding' - bred on the mainland and standing from 14 to 14.2 hands. Nowadays no official distinction is made, although breeders still tend to talk about the two different types when discussing their ponies.

The old Celtic-type pony from which all native ponies are believed to descend has, in the case of the Highland, been subject to many other influences - Arab, percheron, Clydesdale, Norwegian, roadster, even (in one instance) American trotting horse. Environment and selective breeding also played their customary roles. Similarities between present-day Highlands and the Norwegian Fjord pony - the dun colour, the dorsal eel stripe and the zebra stripes on the legs - suggest an early Scandinavian influence. At one time or another Highland ponies lived on at least eleven of the Western Isles - Islay, Jura, Lewis, Harris, Barra, Rum, Skye, Eriskay, Mull, the Uists and Arran. Those on Eriskay and Barra were of a lighter build and smaller size (12.2 to 31.2 hands) than the other island and mainland animals, and in 1959 Kirsty Mackenzie described them as being 'like little thoroughbreds, with clean legs, good bone, hard blue feet, small, fine legs and a very sprightly appearance'. Some infusion of Arab blood was assumed, and it is known that Macneil of Barra used Arab stallions on native breeds (probably in the sixteenth century) to produce 'milk-white steeds with flowing mane and tail, surpassing in fleetness the stags of the forest'.

Demand for larger ponies

Gradually, however, the demand for larger ponies resulted in the use of bigger stallions from the mainland, and the smaller Barra and Eriskay ponies disappeared as a separate type. In the early eighteenth century the Chief of Clanranald is said to have introduced to South Uist some Spanish horses, which improved the native stock, and in 1872 a Clydesdale stallion known as 'Bain's horse' arrived and made a reputation as a sire.

The future of the breed is now in the hands of the Highland Pony Society, formed in 1923, which does much to encourage the breeding and use of good-quality ponies. It also produces the stud book.

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