She's perhaps best known for her famous Welsh pony breeding operation, but Joan Dunning's love for equines goes much deeper. Her stud farm called Farnley, located in White Post, Va., is the first American home to the Dartmoor pony, a rare breed that originated in Great Britain.
Dunning stumbled across the Dartmoor ponies while in England in the early 20th century, and a love affair began that's endured for nearly a century.
Dunning, now in her late 90s, founded The Dartmoor Pony Registry of America in the 1930s, and the 500th Dartmoor pony was registered in 2005 by Dunning's daughter, Mrs. C.C. (Hetty) Abeles of Shenandoah Pony Stud in White Post, Va.
Dunning was responsible for importing at least 35 ponies and breeding more than 197 of the 529 ponies registered in the United States to date. Abeles followed in her mother's footsteps and is credited with 28 of the total. And these numbers apply only to the purebred Dartmoors in the registry. There have always been a significant number of crossbred ponies as well.
Most breeders can't imagine having to name that many ponies, much less keep the bloodlines straight and make breeding decisions that will enhance the breed. Yet, according to current DPRA President Susan Deutermann (who has bred or imported at least 29 Dartmoors herself), the British breeders are pleased with American efforts to conserve the breed.
"The ponies have done well because of the pedigrees of the ponies we've imported," Deutermann said. "Mrs. Dunning was able to maintain a good solid base of mares. There was a lot of careful planning in all of this. The Europeans were all convinced we were going to ruin their ponies, but when Liz [Elizabeth Newbolt-Young, owner of Shilstone Rocks Stud] came here, she was really pleased."
The British breed standard was established in 1898 and is almost identical to today's American breed standard as maintained by the Dartmoor Pony Registry of America (www.dartmoorpony.com).
The ponies were originally used to haul tin from the mines to the market towns and for farm work, but registered ponies almost dis-appeared by the end of WWII. Mrs. Dunning's efforts to introduce the Dartmoor to America in the 1930s came at an opportune time and opened a new market for British breeders.
Spreading The Wealth
Dunning was responsible for all early importation and breeding, and from the beginning placed her ponies carefully. She began her dispersal of the breed rather modestly but very early in her importing and breeding program with the conveyance of registry #6 (the filly Farnley Pippin, foaled in 1938) to her sister, Mrs. A.S. Hewitt of Montana Hall.
Dunning sold 19 of the next 37 ponies that she imported or bred, placing them in different homes along the East Coast. In the mid-1950s, a six-time Dartmoor client of Dunning's became the first after her to import a Dartmoor to the United States. Before that time, she imported or bred all 43 Dartmoors officially registered in the United States, and she sold 28 of these in new homes across the Eastern seaboard.
The first nine ponies were all imported from the same stud in England, owned by Miss E.R. Scrimgeour of Sussex. The first batch of five imports included four fillies and one colt, Hey Nonny Nonny.
"We had the most beautiful stallion," remembered daughter Hetty Abeles. "People did breed big mares to him because that's what they had, and in the '40s he went to the Warrenton Pony Show [Va., the oldest pony show in the United States] and won against all comers."
Augmented by further importations, Hey Nonny Nonny and his four mares became the foundation of the nation's current breeding stock. Cognizant of the need for careful record-keeping, Dunning founded the American Dartmoor Pony Registry, registering the first American-bred Dartmoor, Farnley Pippin, foaled in 1938. Between 1938 and 1956, she bred the first 26 American-bred Dartmoors, importing the 1946 colt Barleycorn from Scrimgeour and additional mares from other breeders in England.
During this time, Dunning was also breeding Welsh ponies, Short-horn cattle, Suffolk sheep and Cleveland Bay horses. In fact, she was looking at Cleveland Bays when she fell for the Dartmoors.
As Abeles recalled of her mother's earliest involvement, "She and my father were looking at Cleveland Bay horses and at ponies. And they wanted to be sure they had a good riding pony, with a good stride, and useful."
Dunning was taken with the Dartmoors and "the charming people" who had the ponies in England, Abeles said.
"She saw them as the perfect child's first pony—first for a child to be independent with," added Abeles. Once Dunning began a breeding program, she "just wanted to breed a successful children's pony," Abeles said. "Nor did she try to change them in any way."
Asked to compare the Dartmoor to other pony breeds, Abeles said, "This breed appears to attract the more serious horsemen because they find the pony more serious. There isn't any flash about it. And I think the foals are braver than any of the other foals—even the ones that haven't had much handling. They're curious and will come right up to you. They're interesting to break, in that they listen so hard to you. They haven't had their brains spoiled by being bred for special colors, etc."
Deutermann added, "We call them the little ponies in the plain brown wrapper."
Dunning is still breeding Dartmoor Ponies at Farnley. Her daughter, also well known for her involvement with the Welsh pony breed, began her own Dartmoor breeding program in the early 1980s.
"Hetty's always kept a careful eye on how the breed has evolved," said Deutermann. "She's a great supporter of them—made sure there are classes for Dartmoors in her shows [Abeles has managed the Mid-Atlantic Welsh Pony Show for years]. She also serves on a lot of boards and always makes sure the Dartmoors are included. She's a very kind patron of the breed."
Such sponsorship is critical for a rare breed. "Because the breed is so small, we don't have a Dartmoor show," Deutermann noted. The Dartmoors have to depend on their ability as a performance pony—not just in the breed ring.
The Dartmoors are on average about 12 hands, sturdily built, with compact conformation. They're considered quality all-around ponies, suitable for all sport-pony disciplines, including Pony Club, foxhunting and beagling.
The Dartmoor breeders generally produce ponies for the family pony market. But if a pony proves to be a superstar in one discipline, the breeders consider this a bonus. So far, Dartmoors have excelled in many disciplines, but they've made their biggest mark in combined driving.
Advanced-level driver Muffy Seaton set the precedent when she took a pair of Dartmoors, nicknamed "the Farnley Fleas," to prestigious Windsor (England).
Tracey Morgan, Beallsville, Md., has provided the Dartmoors world-wide exposure. The national champion in advanced pair pony competition (2002 and 2003) has successfully represented the United States in two World Pony Combined Driving Championships. In Karlstetten, Austria in 2003 she placed 11th overall in the pony pairs division, while she moved up to eighth at Catton Hall in Derbyshire, England at the 2005 installment of the championship.
"We've also had crosses that are doing pony dressage at the upper levels," Deuter-mann said. "Farnley Lovechild, a Dartmoor-Welsh cross, was a famous hunter pony, and Farnley Dolphin is a successful hunter pony in his 20s. SingleTree Quill is also a top pony jumper in the Southeast, with blue ribbons from South Carolina to Virginia."
They Get Snapped Up
While they're winning in the show ring and as performance ponies these days, the breeding program was paramount for the first half-century of the breed's history in the United States.
Deutermann encountered them as a young woman, and she's spent the past 20 years promoting the breed by spreading the word and making sure the ponies got plenty of exposure.
"When I started in on the Dartmoors, they were sitting out in the field. Mrs. Dunning had sold some through the years, because they were cute little brown ponies. She had one stallion—*Strode Pinocchio—and about 15 mares. I originally started working with them to break them to drive. My daughter, Sarah, was quite young and used to ride the green ones. She would [take them to] Pony Club and fox hunt, then they'd get sold.
"When we worked with them, they were just easy," added Deutermann. "They wanted a job, had a great work ethic and really fun personalities."
In the mid-1980s Deutermann and her family were stationed overseas and ultimately ended up in England. She spent a year with Pat Campbell, a British breeder, judge and prominent member of the British Pony Society, watching her judge ponies and going to various studs. Deutermann became familiar with Shilstone Rocks, Hisley and many of the established stud farms. Campbell gave Deutermann her first Dartmoor pony, a foal named *Cruashan Valentine, who later became the foundation stallion of her Single Tree Farm, now located in Reidsville, N.C.
"Through the years, I always went back to Farnley and acquired my foundation mares," said Deutermann. "And I continued to promote the Dartmoors. I'd stuff 'Darties' anywhere I could. When we started out, nobody knew. They couldn't even spell Dartmoor. As a result, there are pockets of ponies on the East Coast, a pocket in Texas, and in Louisiana and Arkansas."
Of her current role as president of the registry, Deutermann said, "A registry is not a police operation, it's just a registry. And Mrs. Dunning is one of the main reasons—she was instrumental in making sure we kept it friendly. It's a nice group of people. Basically, when you buy a Dartmoor, you get a support group."
And, if you ask almost anyone involved in Dartmoor ponies in the United States, Deutermann is the biggest supporter of all, continuing a tradition of conservation established by Dunning and continued by Abeles.
Carolyn Christman, former program manager of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, called Deutermann "a gem: generous, energetic, and knowledgeable in promoting Dartmoors, yet also committed to rare breeds overall and to better horsemanship.
"Rare breeds advocates in the U.S. and Canada are often in the position of conserving a small part of an international breed: Dartmoor ponies, Cleveland Bay horses, Highland cattle and a number of other breeds come to mind," Christman said. "Sometimes our efforts seem superfluous to the conservation programs in the native country, but in other circumstances, the North American 'herd' can become an important genetic reservoir for such breeds. Susan's leadership in maintaining close ties with the British association, educating breeders on historic type and modern use of Darties, and building a strong breed community have made North American Dartmoors 'count' for conservation in a global sense."
Deutermann sees the genetic "bank" of the Dartmoor Pony in the United States as a back-up for Britain's Dartmoors.
"It's always important to have a solid back-up for anything," she said. "The whole foot-and-mouth disaster [in England in 2001] was a prime example. Even though it didn't directly relate to equines, it did show that the possibility of losing foundation stock [exists].
"That's why I've stayed on the soapbox of carefully looking at what lines are here in the USA and what lines we need to add or build upon to ensure our ponies have a solid base," Deutermann added. "This is why I've written about the importance of breeders in Europe to take special care when selling a pony over-seas. This isn't the time to show off the secondary stock. This is the time to show us your best sales animals to keep strong back-ups of the best breeding lineage possible. Liz Newbolt-Young [of Shilstone Rocks Stud in England] has been the front runner in looking at the big picture when it comes to Dartmoor ponies."
While there are now about 300 registered purebred Dartmoor ponies living in the United States, the Dartmoor is still a rare breed. "So when you find one that's done the whole kid thing," Deutermann said, "they get snapped up. The good news is, they're great ponies. The bad news is, there aren't many of them."