The Dales pony is one of the United Kingdom's native mountain and moorland pony breeds. The breed is known for its strength, hardiness, stamina, courage, intelligence, and good disposition. The history of the modern Dales pony is strongly linked to the history of lead mining in the Dales area of England, and it was originally a working pony descended from a number of breeds. A breed registry was created in 1916, and the breed was used extensively by the British Army in both world wars. The Dales pony almost became extinct during the Second World War, but post-war conservation efforts have had some success in rebuilding the population. Today it is used for many different activities, but population numbers are still low and this has led to it being considered "critical" by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and "threatened" by The Livestock Conservancy.
The Dales pony is ideally 13 to 14 hands (52 to 56 inches, 132 to 142 cm). The head is straight, neat, and broad between the eyes, with a fine muzzle and incurving ears. The body is fairly short in the back, with a broad and deep rib cage, long, broad and well-muscled quarters, a well-muscled neck of a good length joining neatly into strong withers and strong sloping shoulders. The legs are very muscular, with hard, dense bone, clearly defined tendons, flexible pasterns, and large round hooves with open heels. The mane, tail and leg feathers are straight, silky and abundant.
The majority of Dales ponies are black, though brown, bay, grey and roan colours are also acceptable. The only white markings permitted on the head are a star and/or a snip; stripes, blazes, and white muzzles are not allowed. The hind legs may have a small amount of white, not extending above the fetlock joint, though ponies with excess white markings may be registered in the B register of the stud book. A Dales pony should move with a great deal of energy and power, lifting the hooves well clear of the ground. The over-all impression should be of an alert, courageous but calm and kind animal. Ponies which do not meet the physical standard set by the breed registry may be registered as "B-status", meaning that they are of Dales Pony bloodlines but do not have the proper appearance or gaits. Foals by Dales stallions and non-Dales maresmay be registered as part-breds. Foals out of Dales mares and non-Dales stallions may not be registered, as the stud bookwishes to promote breeding of purebred ponies to maintain the current population levels.
Horses have been present and used in the Dales area from early times. Horse remains dating to Roman times were found in the Ribchester area of the Dales, during North Pennines Archaeology's excavations at land behind the Black Bull Inn in 2009. The Romans themselves named an ancient British tribe to the east of the Pennines the Gabrantovici, or 'horse-riding warriors'. The history of the modern Dales pony is strongly linked to the history of lead mining in the Dales area of England, which stretches from the Derbyshire peaks to the Scottish borders. Lead has been mined in this area since Roman times, and Richard Scrope, then Chancellor of England, owned lead mines at Wensleydale in the 14th century. Iron ore, fuel for smelting, and finished lead were all carried on pack ponies, with each pony carrying up to 240 lb (110 kg) at a time. Pack pony trains of up to 20 ponies worked 'loose' (not led), under the supervision of one mounted train leader.
The modern Dales pony is descended from a number of breeds, with the original working ponies being bred by crossing the Scottish Galloway pony with native Pennine pony mares in the Dales area in the late 1600s. A century later Norfolk Cobbloodlines were brought into the breed, which traced back to the Darley Arabian, and most Dales ponies today have pedigrees which can trace back directly to this influential horse (one of the foundation sires of the modern Thoroughbred). Clydesdale, Norfolk Trotter, and Yorkshire Roadster blood was added to improve the trotting ability of the Dales. The bloodline of the Welsh Cob stallion Comet was also added during the 19th century to increase the size of the Dales ponies, leaving a lasting resemblance between the two breeds. With their agility, power and speed, the Dales had great success in trotting races of the 18th century and were also used in organized hunts. The Fell pony continued to intermingle with the Dales into the early 20th century. In 1912, Dalesman was chosen as a Fell premium stallion by the Board of Agriculture. In 1924, he was re-registered as a Dales pony.
The Dales pony stud book was opened in 1916, with the formation of the Dales Pony Improvement Society, after the introduction of Clydesdale blood threatened to affect the quality of the Dales ponies. Stallion premiums were awarded first by the Board of Agriculture, and later by the War Office, to ensure that stallions displaying the best of the breed characteristics were used for breeding. Members of the breed served with the British army in Europe during the First World War. In the early 1920s, 200 Dales ponies were purchased by the British army. The army took only the finest stock, with the least amount of draft blood. The specifications for the purchased ponies were very specific: all were older than five years, stood 14.0 to 14.2 hands high, weighed at least 1,000 pounds (450 kg) with a girth measurement of 68 inches (170 cm), and were able to pack at least 294 pounds (133 kg) in mountainous terrain.
The breed almost disappeared during the Second World War as ponies were taken for breeding vanners (animals which pulled commercial wagons), for work in towns and cities, and for use by the British Army as pack and artillery ponies. Many ponies used by the military in Europe were left behind after the war, and in many cases they were slaughtered for food. The population declined during the war to such an extent that only four new fillies were registered in 1955. However, the post-war future of the Dales pony was preserved by a small group of breeders, who began to search for unregistered ponies of the proper type. The 1960s saw three Fell pony stallions interbred with Dale mares, to help save the breed. In 1964 the Dales Pony Society underwent reorganisation. At the same time, a "Grading-Up Register" was developed, with the aim of identifying and breeding ponies with characteristics of the original Dales type. The grading-up program was successful, and by 1971, populations had been rebuilt to the point that the program was discontinued. By the 1990s, the population had grown enough to allow some ponies to be exported – twelve to Canada in 1991 and four to the US in 1994. By 1999, there were 60 registered ponies in North America, and an estimated 800 worldwide. In the same year, the Dales Pony Society of America was formed as the official US sub-registry of the UK breed registry.
The Dales pony has moved to "critical" status with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, meaning there is a United Kingdom population of fewer than 300 registered breeding females. The US-based Livestock Conservancy lists the breed as "threatened", meaning that population numbers worldwide are sub-5,000 and annual US registrations are less than 1,000.
Dales ponies today compete in show jumping, cross-country, dressage, driving, and eventing. Their calm, kind temperament, combined with their ability to carry heavy weights for long distances, has made them an ideal pony for endurance riding and trekking holidays, as they can carry novice or experienced riders, adults or children alike, over all kinds of terrain and for long distances. Small herds still roam free in the eastern Pennines, and in 2007 there were estimated to be around 30 mares of breeding age in feralherds.