History of the Dales Pony

Brymor MimiThe Dales Pony is a native of the upper dales of the eastern slopes of the Pennine range, from the High Peak in Derbyshire to the Cheviot Hills near the Scottish Border, where a lead mining industry flourished from Roman times until the mid-nineteenth century. The favoured breeding grounds have always been the upper dales of the rivers Tyne, Wear, Allen, Tees and Swale.

The lead mining industry was subject to the geography and environment of the area. The rakes of lead were always situated on the high moors; the washing places had to be near a stream; the smelting boles were always on a hill to catch the wind and needed to be near a wood for fuel. The pigs of lead produced were transported over the moors to the ports on the North-East Coast and, if wood had run out, coal was taken back. The ore, fuel and lead were carried by strong, active pack ponies, working in gangs of 9 to 20, loose-headed, and in the charge of one mounted man.

During the late seventeenth century, the Scotch Galloway was considered to be the best pony for fast pack work and replacements were bred near the lead mines. Suitable native mares ran with the breeding herds and it is recorded that farmers also liked to run a few Scotch mares with the native herds on the fell. The largest, strongest and most active ponies were chosen for pack work and were well fed to ensure fitness and speed. So it was that the black Galloways of the mixed herds eventually superseded the Scotch Galloway, and became the Dales Pony.

The Scotch Galloways were famous for their "peculiarly deep and clean legs, their qualities were speed, stoutness and sure-footedness over a rugged and mountainous country". In turn the Dales ponies became renowned for their great strength, iron constitution, endurance, and the ability to get over rough country fast. A pack load was 240lbs, or two pigs of lead per pony (two hundredweight) and the ponies travelled up to a hundred miles a week over some of the most difficult terrain in England.

The Dales Pony was a comfortable riding animal, strong enough for draught or work, and able to thrive on the bleak uplands of the dales. These abilities were not lost on farmers, who found in them all that was required to work the small farms as the seasons came round. They could pull a ton in a cart or coup; were sturdy shepherds ponies, capable of covering great distances on the fells and were able to carry burdens of hay up to 12 stones, often plus a rider and when necessary, in deep snow. A pair could step out in the plough or reaper binder; and having a fast trot, could take the farmer to market in style and also give a days hunting, being willing and clever jumpers. Thus, when the railways appeared, and the pack trains declined, the Dales Pony found a niche on the farms of the dales. As the mines were enlarged, and drifts used, many ponies were also taken for work in the coal and lead mines of the North-East.

In the late eighteenth century there was a great improvement in roads, which brought a demand for faster animals to horse the Mail and Stagecoaches. At this time, the fastest and stoutest roadsters were the Norfolk Cobs, the most notable family being the Shales. The foundation sire was Shales the Original, foaled in 1755, sired by Blaze, son of the thoroughbred Flying Childers, by the Darley Arabian. This stallion was also the foundation sire of most of the worlds finest trotting breeds, and at least one line back to him can be found in the pedigrees of most registered Dales Ponies alive today. The best of the Norfolk breed were imported by Yorkshiremen to improve the Yorkshire Trotters, resulting in the splendid Yorkshire Roadsters of the mid-nineteenth century. Stylish trotters became the rage, and as dalesmen enjoyed trotting races but found it uneconomical to keep an extra pony entirely for this purpose, they used the best of the Norfolk and Yorkshire blood to add an extra sparkle to the fast Dales trot. This resulted in the energetic and active action of the good Dales Ponies, without spoiling their abilities as farm workers and riding ponies.

Early in the twentieth century there was a tremendous demand for active "vanners" for town work and "gunners" for the Army. At this time many fine Clydesdale stallions were travelling the districts, and using these on Dales mares to breed vanners gave the farmer a good return, but was a threat to the pure breed.  The Dales Pony Improvement Society was formed in 1916, and the Dales Pony Stud book opened, which ensured the preservation of the ponies.

The board of Agriculture offered stallion premiums after an inspection of the breed by Captain A. Campbell, who reported in a subsequent letter "Your breed has one superb asset, possessed of every specimen I saw, i.e. the most perfect foot in the British Isles". 

The War Office also awarded premiums and in 1923 and 1924, the Army took over 200 Dales Ponies. The Army buyer, General Bate, would not look at anything which showed the slightest sign of carthorse blood, every pony was over 14.h.h., but under 14.2.h.h.; not under 5 years, weighing half a ton, with a 68" girth, and able to carry 21 stones on a mountain. Dales Ponies served overseas in both world wars.

The Second World War nearly saw the end of the breed. Ponies were taken by the Army and mares were used for breeding vanners, and even young mares were sold for work in towns and cities. Few ever came back, and after the war the fate of the Dales breed lay in the hands of a few dedicated breeders who refused to believe the day of the heavy pony was over. In 1964, the Dales Pony Society was re-organised, and "improvement" was dropped from the title. Ponies were sought and registered, and a grading-up register was introduced for inspected ponies. This far-sighted action has been successful. When the grading-up register was closed in 1971, the number of registered ponies had risen steadily, and the quality of ponies was excellent, as it remains today.

Dales Ponies were bred for a specific job in a harsh environment.  When the job changed, they were successfully adapted for other uses, and today the ponies can demonstrate all the qualities and abilities which brought their forebears such renown.  The combination of strength, agility, thrift, hardiness and high courage, with good conformation and a calm, intelligent nature, makes the Dales Pony a first-class riding and driving pony with all the abilities of a true all-rounder.