History and Origins
Eriskay ponies are among the last surviving remnants of the original native ponies of the Western Isles of Scotland however they are under threat and are classified as critically endangered by the Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST).
Until the middle of the 19th Century ponies of the “Western Isles type” were found throughout the islands, where they were used as crofters ponies, undertaking everyday tasks such as bringing home peat and seaweed in basket work creels slung over their backs, pulling carts, harrowing and even taking the children to school.
On many islands increasing mobility and farming pressures led to larger ponies becoming fashionable. Owners took advantage of the Minisitry of Agriculture Improvement schemes whereby Norwegian Fjord, Arab, Clydesdale, and other stallions were introduced to “improve” the native stocks and produce larger, stronger animals.
However, on the remote island of Eriskay due to difficulties with access and the extra cost implications for sustaining larger animals, other breeds were not introduced, leaving a stock of pure bred ponies which, with increasing mechanisation, had declined to around 20 animals by the early 1970s.
It was at this time that a dedicated group of people got together and decided to save the ponies whose numbers were dangerously low. Through their hard work and the establishment of breeding groups throughout the British Isles, numbers have risen steadily and now there are around 420 Eriskays in the world. The Eriskay Pony is classed as a Priority Breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, with whom the Eriskay Pony Society works closely to ensure the long term survival of the breed.
The Eriskay Pony stands 124-138cm (12.0-13.2 hands) high. In winter a dense waterproof coat enables them to live outside in the harshest conditions. The predominant colour is grey with the occasional black or bay and no other colours normally occur. Their legs are fine, with neat feet and only a small tuft of hair at the fetlock. Foals are often born black or bay and usually turn grey as they mature, although a few individuals remain black or bay into adulthood. Eriskay Ponies are immensely strong for their size and are able to carry a light adult with ease.
What can Eriskays do?
Eriskay Ponies can be seen competing in all spheres of equestrianism. Members of the Eriskay Pony Society regularly take part in activities such as dressage, show jumping, cross country, pony club eventing, Trec, western riding and driving. Although they stand between 12.0 and 13.2hh they are strong for their size, have terrific stamina, and can carry a light adult with ease.
They also make first class driving ponies, with Eriskays represented at the top level in FEI classes over the years.
As family ponies their friendly characters come to the fore. Some Eriskays work as therapy ponies for children and adults with additional needs and PTSD, and as RDA ponies. Many are also popular as Pony Club ponies, taking part in activities from jumping and games to tetrathlon and dressage.
Some years ago the Eriskay Pony Society contributed to research done by Texas A&M University and the University of Saskatchewan under the auspices of the Canadian Govt into Genetic Diversity among Canadian Mountain and Moorland and Nordic Pony Populations. You can read the full study HERE.
More recently the Society contributed to research carried out by Lucy Allen in association with the Veterinary Medicine University of Vienna into Northern European horse breeds: a close look at their ancestry from the male perspective. As part of the conclusion, the report stated ”We identified that the Eriskay Eric line, the Exmoor and a Fell line cluster into unique Y chromosome groups which have avoided oriental influence therefore representing the UK’s most ancient male lineages along with the Shetland pony. These lines have been identified as lines which are potentially of interest for conservation’.
These two research projects, done years apart, for different purposes, and by different individuals, came to similar conclusions, providing new, scientific evidence to support some previously held beliefs about the Eriskay breed and to rebut others.
In short they showed that the Eriskay Pony is not only one of the most genetically distinct and most ancient breeds of Mountain and Moorland ponies. LIke Shetland ponies and Icelandic horses, their relative isolation from other breeds has contributed to this.
One of the key facts demonstrated is the Eriskays relationship with the Highland Pony, or rather the lack of any relationship. There have been a variety of opinions on this matter. There are claims that the Highland is descended from the Eriskay and vice versa. It turns out both are incorrect. Despite their geographical proximity, it turns out the Eriskay and the Highland are surprisingly genetically distinct.