Keeping rare breeds Case studies Born to Work To many today, ponies are simply scaled-down horses ridden by little people before they graduate to the full-size version. However, our ancestors would have been astounded to see native-breed ponies hurtling round gymkhana rings or polished and preened in the show arena. Native ponies were bred to work – and indeed some still combine work with more modern fun as Judith Harris of the Eriskay Pony Society explains: The Eriskay pony is the last survivor of the native ponies of the Western Isles of Scotland - by the 1970s only a handful of pure bred ponies remained and historically they were used by the crofters to bring back peat for fuel, carrying it in two creels or panniers slung either side across their backs attached to a wooden pack saddle. Only biddable animals were used and they gained a reputation for being "back door" ponies, very fond of human company. In addition they were inquisitive and quick to learn, a characteristic they still retain. They are extremely hardy, growing long fine winter coats with their tails set low for added protection. Inevitably, with changes in rural economies and the advent of mechanisation, their roles were bound to change. Luckily for the Eriskay their versatility and willingness enabled this small population to survive. Although ranging from 124-138cms, they are strong and can easily carry a small adult across rough terrain. With their neat build and surefooted stride Eriskays make excellent driving ponies. Lesley Cox (now Gooden) was well known on the driving circuit with her two Eriskays, Linton Luath and Linton Ben Oss, in tandem. They were successful in many cross country driving classes and won the Indoor Horse Driving Trials Championships three times as well as the Royal Windsor Horse Show tandem class. Mayor Ceol is an Eriskay that is also broken to harness - but of a very different type. A 16-year old mare she has been worked by her owner on an estate in Wiltshire all her life. Apart from harrowing, she pulls large sawn tree trunks on a wooden sled and hauls lighter tree trunks back to the yard. While the trees are being trimmed with a chainsaw, Ceol stands patiently grazing nearby ready for the next task. In her spare time she takes part in British Driving Society outings. Not to be outdone, it is only recently that Bruce and Charlie retired. They were foaled on Eriskay and brought to the mainland "bedraggled, woolly, bemused and unbroken". They were soon taking part in driving trials and provided transport for weddings, pulling a handsome maroon Double Victoria carriage. They were booked for celebrations as far apart as Norfolk, Bedfordshire, Kent and Sussex. In the spring of 2015, in sun, hail, and bitter winds, the Eriskay Annual Trek took place at Newtonmore in the Highlands along forest tracks and open moorland with snow-covered peaks in the distance. About 28kms per day were covered and both days were met with great enthusiasm by the quick-thinking ponies who had to wade across a swollen river chest high in water – conditions which also tested the riders’ resolve and hardiness. The breed can get bored and will find something "interesting" to do if they consider themselves to be under-used. However, their versatility has seen them selected to represent their club both in Pony and Riding Club competitions. Some have taken to dressage, and some are great jumpers too, many clearing up to 1m with ease. The ponies’ understanding and close relationship with humans is obvious when they are used at Riding for the Disabled (RDA) centres. A few appeared on a BBC TV Countryfile programme at a centre where autistic children in particular can care for and ride the ponies across the Derbyshire Dales. The Centre has been awarded funding by the Big Lottery Fund to buy a carriage to enable wheelchair bound children to go out on the moor, the buggy being pulled, of course, by an Eriskay. Will there be a time when "What is an Eriskay?" will be heard less frequently? The breed is still critically endangered, and has a small gene pool. With the advent of genetic interpretation, enthusiastic owners who have breeding stock and considerable advice from the RBST, it looks as though there may be a brighter future for this versatile, hardy and intelligent little pony.