Fans fought hard as beloved Newfoundland pony was nearly extinct

There are so few of them left that some people feel the Newfoundland pony could soon be extinct – but the few people who do care about them care a lot.

Percy and Donna Jesso are among those trying to ensure the survival of the Newfoundland pony.

Like many that lived on The Rock, the Newfoundland pony was brought from “away.” In the pony’s case, early settlers brought ponies from the British Isles. They came from Exmoor, Dartmoor, New Forest, Galloway, Welsh, Connemara and there was even the odd Highlands pony. Those ponies, for nearly four centuries, kept interbreeding until one common pony emerged as the Newfoundland Pony.

Like many species that were forced to adapt to a new land, the pony that grew from all that interbreeding was perfectly suited for the rough Newfoundland environment. It is approximately 11 to 14.2 hands high, and it has a thick dark mane, tail, and lower legs. It is commonly brownish in color although other colors are not uncommon.

Some of those ponies will experience mild to radical color changes from one season to the next, and the Jessos have a couple of ponies like that, which will change colours over the course of a year.

The ponies can weigh from 400 to 800 pounds, and they often have a small head with deep jowls. They have short, hairy ears, small hooves that are very hard, and a low set tail.

Among its greatest attributes are its terrific temperament and its ability to survive on small amounts of available grass. It can also survive harsh winters due to its thick winter coat. Those traits perfectly reflect the ponies’ home in Newfoundland for centuries.

Percy Jesso runs a hydraulics company in Guelph, but he grew up in Newfoundland. He met Donna in Bramalea, but both of them liked the countryside. They moved to the Orangeville area, then Innisfil Township, and finally, they settled on the Guelph-Eramosa side of the Garafraxa-Eramosa Townline three years ago, on a spread that featured only a house. Its owner had used the place as a cottage retreat.

Today, anyone approaching their well fenced paddocks and modern barns would be impressed with the amount of work they have done on Tamarack Hills Farm. It is there that they house a number of Newfoundland ponies as well as Friesians. They ride both breeds. There are hills and an abundance of trails, and the Speed River flows through the property, providing an abundance of beauty spots for riders to enjoy.

Percy said people growing up in Newfoundland were very familiar with the Newfoundland pony. The sturdy and sure footed beasts were used for pulling wood for the fire, timber wood, kelp, as well as transporting their owners by cart over the rough terrain. They ran free, and they were an integral part of Newfoundland life.

And then something changed in the 1940s and 1950s. Mechanization started on the island, which joined  Canada in 1949.

Because they roamed free, people fenced their gardens against the ponies, and then they no longer had the need to use them for travel or even hauling wood. They became an expense after serving for years as an asset.

The Jessos figuratively shake their heads at the ponies’ fate. By the 1970s, they were in dire straits.

 In 1935, there had been 6,025 ponies in Newfoundland and a healthy population existed up to the mid 1970s and early ’80s. Then the pony became part of the critical species list.

Communities enacted no-roaming laws, limiting breeding and a food supply. As well, owners were encouraged to have stallions gelded.

But the biggest problem was the ponies were no longer desirable in the modern age. At least for the uses they once had. Thousands of the Newfoundland ponies were sold to processing plants in Quebec, whence the horse meat was sent to Belgium and France for human consumption.

By 1997, there were 144 known Newfoundland ponies left, many of which were geldings and aging mares likely incapable of bearing offspring. On Sept. 12, 1997, the government of Newfoundland declared the Newfoundland  Pony a Heritage Animal for the province.  The Newfoundland Pony Society was named the official public group responsible for registering, promoting and protecting this animal.

By 1998, the number of registered ponies was 214 and climbing, and its fans are still hoping to register the Newfoundland Pony as an official breed under Canada’s Animal Pedigree Act. But even among fans of the breed, there has been controversy, and politicking within the society.

The Jessos love their ponies, and Donna said they are terrific “for adults and children.”

Percy added, “They’re strong for their size.”

And people who just meet them for the first time also seem to take to them. Donna has been showing them for four years.

Percy noted that when  they took a Newfoundland pony to a rare breed show in Kentucky, it took top honours.

Donna added, “We captured a lot of awards and won a lot of recognition.”

She said the Newfoundland government finally took steps to protect the pony, and in 1979, it passed laws forbidding shipping the ponies off the island for meat.

But, that work might have been too late – except that the pony has some fans scattered all over the place.

There are now more Newfoundland ponies in Ontario than there are in Newfoundland. In fact, Percy Jesso said Ontario has about 51 per cent of the entire Newfoundland pony population, and Nova Scotia has the next biggest numbers. There are also Newfoundland ponies on the prairies.

“They’re all over the place,” Percy said, and sounded pleased about that.

The Jessos have two children, and they can ride the ponies, as do their young grandchildren, thus demonstrating that the ponies do have a great temperament.

A few years ago, the Canadian government recognized the breed with its own postage stamp.

As for how the Jessos and others could find the rare ponies in the first place, Donna noted, “There’s always somebody who knows somebody.”

They noted that there is now a Newsletter about the breed, and the society has used calendars with pictures of the Newfoundland pony as a fundraiser for several years.

Donna Jesso calls their work to save some of the breed a hobby, but it seems more a labour of love for everyone involved.