iHeartHorses spoke with equine photographer Cécile Zahorka about her experiences photographing the rare Eriskay Pony of Scotland. With her first-hand experience and information from the The Eriskay Pony Society, we're spreading awareness about this endangered breed.
Native to the Western Isles of Scotland, the Eriskay Pony is a vulnerable, often underappreciated, relic of the Old Scotland. Cécile says these strong and personable ponies are highly appreciated by locals, but their existence is often overlooked and undervalued by the rest of the world. With only 300-400 purebred ponies left in existence, their survival depends on careful conservation and greater awareness. By telling their story, we hope to shine a light on these gorgeous animals and help secure their future.
Scotland's Ancient Ponies
With ancient roots in Celtic and Norse breeding, the Eriskay Pony has a long and interesting history. And while many people assume the ponies are a type of Highland Pony and not a proper breed of their own, careful research has connected today's population with some of the oldest breeds native to the British Isles. They're related to Icelandic horses and the Faroe Pony and were likely used to help develop the more popular Highland breeds.
For generations, the Eriskay Pony was an important part of life on the remote Scottish Isles. They were used to carry essential supplies from coast to coast and many were trained for light plowing. The breed adapted to working closely alongside people, and they evolved into a hard-working, people-pleasing breed.
The Changing of an Era
As technology advanced and many local islanders moved to the mainland, most of the ponies lost their purpose. Their population started a downward spiral in the mid 19th century as more people desired larger ponies for harder work. On many of the Scottish Isles, the previously pure population of Eriskay Ponies was crossbred with larger breeds including Arabs and Norwegian Fjords. The bloodline was diluted, and today, there are dangerously few purebred Eriskay Ponies left in the world.
As time went by, it was only the small population of ponies on the remote Eriskay Island (the island the breed is named after) that remained untouched. Not as accessible as the other islands, Eriskay became a haven for breed preservation. But even the remoteness of their island home couldn't sustain the population. Today, there are only 17 Eriskay Ponies living on Eriskay Island.
Cécile saw these ponies in person and generously shared her gorgeous photos.
A Rare Breed
Off Eriskay Island, there are a few other places where Eriskay Ponies can be found. There's a small population of free-roaming ponies living on Holy Isle, and the majority of the existing population are on the mainland of Scotland. A few ponies have also found their way to England and Wales.
In total, there are between 300 and 400 Eriskay Ponies left in the world. And while their numbers have increased since their all-time low, the population has remained stable. The Eriskay Pony Society lists only 7 licensed stallions. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust classifies them as "critically endangered."
The Eriskay Pony Society says, "...the population remains too low to ensure survival without constant work and vigilance."
Preservation and Protection
Like all horse breeds, the Eriskay Pony deserves to be preserved and protected. They are a solid, well-muscled pony standing between 12 and 13.2 hands high. Despite their small stature, they are impressively strong and can carry lightweight adults with ease.
Foals are born black, but they gray out with age. The most dominant color for adult ponies is a soft grayish-white, but there are a few that maintain their darker coats into adulthood. Regardless of color, Eriskay Ponies have thick, water-resistant coats that keep them comfortable in harsh weather. They've also adapted to living off meager food supplies. Cécile even witnessed ponies on Holy Isle eating seaweed.
While The Eriskay Pony Society continues its efforts to protect and promote this ancient breed, their long-term survival is far from guaranteed. We hope that with greater awareness, these beautiful ponies will continue to be a connection between modern-day Scotland and its rich heritage.
Want to see more of Cécile 's amazing equine photography? Visit her website.