Among many government press releases this September was an announcement from The Department of Fisheries and Land Resources, stating that it has provided about 10 hectares of crown land to protect, pasture, and breed the beloved Newfoundland pony. In fact, the land will be used to house a Newfoundland Pony Heritage Park.
This begs the question: what was the historical use of this unique, and now seldom used breed of horse? There was a time there was well over 10,000 of the little guys on the island. Now there’s only about 400, they’re considered endangered, and there’s a need to protect them. What happened that rendered them a relic of the past?
With just a little digging around, it can be said with certainty that we owe them this new park, and then some. They helped establish the province as much as anything else has. Newfoundland ponies were created to plough the fields that grew our vegetables, and haul the wood that built and heated our homes. They acted as a means of transportation before we all had cars, and even dragged nets of fish or kelp from the sea. Take that, Newfoundland Dog! A pony-and-carriage was often the centrepiece of many weddings.
The Newfoundland pony is the lovechild of 7 different pony species that early European settlers of our island brought here from the British Isles. One of which was the Galloway pony, now extinct. So, their genes are still alive, to some degree, in our NL ponies. These seven species – Exmoor, Dartmoor, New Forest, and to a lesser extent, Welsh Mountain, Galloway, Highland, and Connemara – were already well-adapted to the harsh climate of Atlantic coastal communities. They fit right in here.
Through a series of crossbreeding over a century or two, in isolation from other populations of ponies (since we’re an island), the distinct Newfoundland Pony was born. They grew distinct as a breed of horse, much like we Newfoundlanders grew distinct as race of people. Like us, they’re said to be “hard workers and easy keepers.”
But the 1970s and 80s saw tractors replacing Newfoundland ponies. You don’t have to feed and breed a tractor, and a tractor doesn’t get old, feeble, and unable to work. Tractors offered more power.
It was around this time that we turned our backs on the breed that always had ours. Brutally. We gathered up all the ponies we could find (many went rogue and lived in the wild at this point) and we sold them to slaughter plants. Their meat was sent to restaurants in France and Belgium. In 1980 alone, 700 ponies were slaughtered for this purpose. They helped us build this province, then we sold them off as food.
As of the 1990s, our province recognizes the Newfoundland Pony as a Heritage Animal, and we’ve granted it protected status. No more cured pony charcuterie for you.