Up close with Newfoundland’s endangered ponies

Sherry, a volunteer with CCNL, pets a Newfoundland pony. September, 2020.
Sherry, a volunteer with CCNL, pets a Newfoundland pony. September, 2020.

Conservation Corps NL and the Rotaract Club of St. John’s spent a day repairing fences at the Newfoundland Pony Heritage Pasture in Cupids. On Saturday, September 26, we teamed up with the Newfoundland Pony Society and the Pony Pals Project to expand the pasture for a herd of seven Newfoundland ponies, a critically endangered breed of ponies that has an important role in Newfoundland settler heritage.

We crested a hill of loose gravel and shale, then waded through a boggy field before reaching our destination. The muddy path was hemmed in by evergreens before opening out onto hilltop pasture with a view of historic Cupids and the sea. Seven Newfoundland pony mares turned their heads from grazing to watch our approach. Not so long ago, this would have been a common sight all over the island.

In the early 1900s, the sight of Newfoundland ponies grazing, hauling wood, or pulling carts was a common one in communities across the province. Settlers relied on ponies for transport, as well as agricultural and fishery work, such as ploughing gardens and hauling fishing nets. These hardy ponies are descendants of a variety of pony breeds from the British Isles. After hundreds of years living in isolation in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Newfoundland pony developed into a unique breed.

Byron Hierlihy leads a group of volunteers into the pasture. September, 2020.

In the 1970s and 1980s, ponies were replaced by farm machinery and vehicle transport, such as ATVs, tractors and trucks. Many owners found they could no longer afford to keep unproductive ponies while also replacing their labor with mechanized equipment. This transition resulted in the sale of hundreds of Newfoundland ponies, many destined for slaughterhouses. In 1980, approximately 700 ponies were shipped to slaughterhouses in Quebec.

Today, there are less than 400 Newfoundland ponies worldwide, many residing in other provinces of Canada. Newfoundland ponies are recognized as a Heritage Animal for their vital role in Newfoundland and Labrador history, as well as a critically endangered species. The Newfoundland Pony Society was formed in 1981 to protect the Newfoundland pony as part of the province’s living heritage.

On a warm and sunny Saturday morning, volunteers gathered at the Newfoundland Pony Heritage Pasture in Cupids to repair a fence and expand the pasture land for the herd. In addition to their low numbers, loss of environment is a critical risk to the ponies. Newfoundland ponies require land to graze, both to keep the cost of their upkeep down for owners, who supplement their ponies’ diet with hay and feed, and to allow the ponies room to socialize as a herd.

The seven mares watched curiously as volunteers drove stakes into the ground and stapled the wire fence to the posts. Pony owners Byron, Tammy and Nancy greeted their ponies at the field and invited the visitors to feed them apples. Byron explained that the ponies will be heading to their separate homes in November, where they spend the winter with their owners.

(Left to right) Sherry, Ethan and Nima secure fencing to a new post on the pasture.

Many residents of the province may not have come face-to-face with these gentle, hard working creatures. But The Newfoundland Pony Pals Project is trying to change that. Typically, a few of these mares spend the summer ferrying children on rides at camps and events across the island. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ponies were unable to visit children as they normally would, and instead spent the summer at the pasture in Cupids.

Come spring, the ponies will once again make the trek to the pasture to spend the summer roaming and grazing, as they have for hundreds of years.

Learn more about donating to or volunteering with the Newfoundland Pony Society on their website or Facebook page. Learn about the Newfoundland Pony Pals Project online here.

2 replies added

  1. Byron Hierlihy October 3, 2020 Reply

    On behalf of our Newfoundland Pony Pals Project group and our ponies , a sincere Thank You to all the volunteers for helping us create a greater environment for these wonderful ponies. Much appreciated and we look forward to a return visit in 2021 !!!!

  2. Barry J B Verbiski November 3, 2021 Reply

    Good Afternoon Conservation Corp of Newfoundland and Labrador,
    Earlier this year I purchased The Indian River Bed and Breakfast located just south of Indian River , Springdale, NL and as it is located on 3 acres of land I remain interested in acquiring and breeding Newfoundland Ponies to increase the population of this endangered species and as such would appreciate you contacting me and providing further guidance on this matter.
    Thank You
    Barry J B Verbiski

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