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The tough, agile breed was once essential to the survival of outports. Now, conservationists are working to help this endangered species survive and thrive

Tammy Webber with Newfoundland ponies at a pasture in Newfoundland.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

Picture a meadow on top of a hill where the sea breeze blows in steadily from the bay and the flies are swept away before they can bite. A place where you can find an endless buffet of sweet grasses, partridge berries, spruce tips and even chanterelle mushrooms, just by following your nose.

If you’re a pony, this pasture an hour’s drive west from St. John’s is about as close to heaven as you can get. There are no predators here, and few distractions, except for the odd moose that occasionally comes crashing out of the woods and flattens the fence.

Scenes like this used to be common in Newfoundland, where thousands of ponies once roamed freely, serving as the island’s original tractors and all-terrain vehicles. They were an early source of hauling power in outport communities seldom connected by roads: dragging loads of fish from the shore, plowing fields, towing iron ore from underground mines and pulling sleighs in the winter.

On an island where the only fences used to be those protecting the vegetable gardens, generations of these animals wandered and bred until they created a bloodline as rugged and unique as the province itself – the Newfoundland pony.

Today, it’s believed there may be a little over a hundred full-blood Newfoundland ponies left in the province. Which is why conservationists say public pastures such as these are so vital to the survival of the breed itself.

To Libby Carew of the Newfoundland Pony Society, that scene on top of the hill isn’t just a pretty image –it’s a time machine to an earlier era in her province’s history.

“It takes me back to another time,” she said, watching 10 ponies frolic and graze in the pasture. “It’s just magical being here.”

By the 1970s, thousands of these animals were slaughtered for horse meat every year after machines replaced them and municipal bylaws ended their wide-roaming ways. Today, only a small handful of Newfoundland ponies are born annually, and in the community of pony lovers, it’s a cause for celebration.

“This is a living, breathing piece of our heritage,” Ms. Carew said. “This animal has done so much for us, we could not have survived without them in the outports. We feel it’s time for us to help them survive.”

To save the Newfoundland pony, Ms. Carew’s group has developed ambitious plans. They’re building a heritage park near Hopeall, N.L., on eastern Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, where they hope the public can come to learn about the animals up close. They’re lobbying the provincial government to open up desperately needed communal, public pasture lands where the ponies can graze and breed in the warmer months – saving owners stabling costs and encouraging more people to own them.

Today, it’s believed there may be a little over a hundred full-blood Newfoundland ponies left in the province.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

And they want to share the story of the Newfoundland pony – woven closely into their island’s history yet so little-known – hoping a new generation of owners can help expand the population. Without that, they’re worried the animals, protected under Newfoundland and Labrador’s Heritage Animals Act and listed as critically endangered by Rare Breeds Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving unique breeds of livestock, could continue to dwindle.

With its muscular rump, rock-hard hooves, water-wicking tail and thick coat, the Newfoundland pony evolved to be perfectly adapted to the island’s difficult weather conditions. Its genetic ancestors were the toughest of pony breeds brought over centuries ago by settlers from the British Isles, including Dartmoor, Exmoor, Connemara and Welsh Mountain varieties.

“These ponies were the engine of the day for our ancestors. If you wanted to make a living off the sea, you needed one of them on land,” said Tammy Webber of Newfoundland Pony Pals, which offers pony rides to children’s groups to spread awareness of the breed.

Newfoundland ponies are well-suited to spend six months or more of the year living outdoors in pastures such as this one on top of the hill in South River, where they have everything they need, said Ms. Webber. That independence, free from stables and man-made pens, is precisely what makes the breed so durable, she said.

“Being out here, it keeps them healthy,” said Ms. Webber, who used to catch unpenned ponies as a child with a rope when they wandered into her family yard. “It means they have a future, a space to call their own.”

Public access to Newfoundland ponies is limited, and that needs to change, said Peter Halley, artistic director with the Spirit of Newfoundland theatre group and an enthusiastic pony owner. Two ponies are housed at the Government House paddock, a sprawling green space in the middle of St. John’s, but apart from that there are few public places where school kids can see these ponies up close, he said.

A generation ago, it was common to see Newfoudland ponies roaming across the road in rural communities, he said. While those scenes may be long gone now, there’s still an opportunity to use the naturally docile ponies more actively in equine therapy and learn-to-ride programs for children.

“We need to put the Newfoundland pony back to work,” Mr. Halley said. “For this breed to just disappear would be criminal. We don’t want to just read about the Newfoundland pony in a history book.”

Newfoundland ponies are well suited to spend six months or more of the year living outdoors in pastures.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

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