We all know Britain is home to some of the most beautiful horse breeds in the world, but what do we really know about these resilient breeds from thousands of years ago?
In this article, we’re looking at different British horse breeds including their origins and the characteristics that make them so special.
So saddle up, and let’s get into it.
Introduction to British Horse Breeds
The UK is home to a massive variety of horse breeds, which comes as quite a surprise considering the small size of the island nation.
Nevertheless, with so many varieties, it’s exciting to get to know about each breed and what makes them special.
History and Influences on British Breeds
Before we get into the fun part of the different horse breeds, let’s first get a bit scholarly with a brief history lesson.
There is debate surrounding the domestication of horses. The most recent research indicates that horse domestication originated in Kazakhstan through the Botai Culture about 6,000 years ago. The earliest depictions from about 1,400 BC show horses pulling chariots and being harnessed.
Horse historians suggest that horses may have been kept for milk and food with traces of residue found on cooking utensils.
From there the domestication of horses spread through Asia and Europe where horse breeding became more popular. Some were after fast and strong horse breeds while others needed strength and endurance.
Wherever horses come from, their domestication changed the course of human history. Not only helping agriculture but filling the companion needs of humans throughout history.
There are many different British breeds, each fulfilling a purpose throughout history. Let’s take a look.
Native Breeds from Scotland
In this section we’re focusing on some horse breeds from Scotland, looking at their characteristics and where they come from.
Native to Scotland, the Clydesdale Horse is a well-known breed, mostly because of its massive size. The Clydesdale Horse is very tall, generally about 16 to 18 hands, but they tend to remain quite slender, giving them an elegant look that does very well in shows.
Since the 18th century, Clydesdale horses have been fantastic agricultural companions. Today the breed is mostly used for shows, long-distance riding, carriage rides, and drum horses. The Clydesdale’s easygoing temperament and willingness to work make them a very popular riding partner.
Fun Fact: The Clydesdale Horse nearly went extinct during World War I due to the demand. While slightly more popular today they are still considered endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
Long legs and neck
The Highland Pony is a Scottish native that has been around since 8 BC, but the origin story is a little under-researched. If you like compact breeds with proportional structure, strength, and a well-balanced body, the Highland Pony is right up your alley.
Throughout history, the Highland Pony has been used as a pack animal for transporting animals across the Scottish hillsides. Today the riding pony is extremely popular for travelling long distances and also performs fantastically well in shows. So strong, beautiful, and trainable, you don’t get much better than that.
Fun Fact: Queen Elizabeth II had a large stud of working Highland Ponies at Balmoral.
Highland pony characteristics:
13-14.2 hands (largest native pony breed)
Stocky and strong
Moving onto the smallest native ponies, the Shetland Pony originated on the Shetland Isles, making their way across Europe over the last 4,000 years. The strength and small size of the breed make them extremely popular companions for young equestrians.
Today Shetland Ponies are used as companion animals and for shows, particularly jumping. That’s a big shift from its historical uses in the mines and as pit ponies due to its compact stature. If you want to see wild ponies you might get lucky looking on the Shetland Islands where some herds remain.
Fun Fact: Pound for pound, a Shetland Pony can pull more weight than a Clydesdale!
Shetland pony characteristics:
Compact body with short legs
Luscious manes and tails
Originating from the Western Isle, The Eriskay Pony is one of the rarest horses in the world. The breed was saved by a group of passionate equine-loving people in the 1970s.
The numbers dwindled to around 20, but today has soared to just over 400 worldwide. It’s not a lot, but compared to where things started, that’s a big jump. This gorgeous grey-coated beauty is a once-in-a-lifetime find for horse lovers. Even though the horses are light they are incredibly strong and suitable for small riders.
The Eriskay Pony was once used for transporting kids to school and collecting seaweed in baskets. Today, the Eriskay Pony is used as a work horseand in shows for driving, dressage, and jumping.
Fun Fact: Eriskay foals are often born black and fade as they get older.
Eriskay pony characteristics:
Native Breeds from England
Now, let’s move over to some native breeds from England. Generally strong, witty, and well-tempered, native English horses are some of the most popular in the world.
The Cleveland Bay is a rare and ancient (17th century) horse breed known for its versatility and good temperament. Originally from northeast England, the Cleveland Bay is descended from Spanish, Barbs, and Chapman horses. The breed has been used for everything from farm work to pulling coaches.
The Queen even helped boost its popularity by buying a purebred colt named Mulgrave Supreme in the 1960s. Today, Cleveland Bay horses are still a top choice for driving, dressage, and showjumping. They also serve in the Royal Mews in London.
With its long history and impressive qualities, the Cleveland Bay is a true gem in the UK’s horse breeding world, particularly for breeding with Thoroughbred horses to make the ultimate hunting companion.
Fun Fact: The coat of the Cleveland Bay is very distinctive and often makes its way into descendants like the Oldenburg horse.
Cleveland bay characteristics:
Strong and muscular
Bay coat often with black points and a white star
Founded in England in the 17th century, the English Thoroughbred comes from breeding English horses with three imported breeding stallions (Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian, and Godolphin Arabian), so you know we’re talking about strength and beauty with this combination.
English Thoroughbred horses are highly sought after throughout the racing world because of their intelligence, high energy levels, and athleticism. They also excel in jumping, dressage, polo, and hunting. They are one of the fastest horses over medium distances
The breed’s amazing characteristics often lend themselves to improving other breeds today (Irish Draughts, American Quarter Horse, and Morgans), but it’s no surprise with one of the strongest bloodlines of British horse breeds.
Fun Fact: The strong hindquarters of the English Thoroughbred can see the breed reach up to 40 mph.
English Thoroughbred characteristics:
Strong and muscular hindquarters
Native to the North West of England, the Fell Pony is mostly seen in Cumbria where registered herds remain on the moors. Historically used as pack horses and for carrying goods, food, and wool, the Fell pony is no stranger to a hard day’s work. Not to mention its history of being used for hunting wolves… safe to say this breed has seen it all!
Today the Fell pony is considered more a riding pony than a wolf hunter but makes an excellent show horse too. This beautiful breed doesn’t exceed 14 hands and comes in a variety of colours including grey, black, and brown.
Fun Fact: Locals call Fell Ponies “galloways” but the origin of the name Fell comes from the translation of hills (Fell) in northern England.
Fell Pony Characteristics:
Eager to please
Calm and gentle
The Dales pony is native to the slopes of the Pennine range from Cheviot Hills (Scotland) to High Peak (Derbyshire). Originally used for carrying heavy loads over mountain ranges and in mines, the Dales Pony has made an incredible come-up, often referred to as “The Great All-Rounder” in the equestrian world.
This breed is extremely intelligent while remaining strong and steadfast, so if you want a show companion, you’re in for a treat with the Dales Pony. Not to mention the breed’s kind nature which lends itself to the unbreakable bond between rider and pony.
Fun Fact: The Dales Pony is the largest of the five native English pony breeds.
Dales pony breed characteristics:
Variety of colours but mostly black
Originally from Norfolk, England, the Hackney Horse was developed in the mid-1700s by breeders combining Thoroughbreds and the Norfolk Trotter. The breed slowly developed into one of the most popular breeds in Britain in the 1800s for its speed and strength, making them the perfect carriage horses.
Today, Hackney Horses are relatively rare with less than 3,000 in the world, putting them on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watchlist. Most are located in Britain but around 200 are in the US. Just don’t confuse this horse with the Hackney Pony which is way more abundant.
Hackney horses are a rare find that horse lovers want around for their endurance and beauty. They are excellent riding partners and also make for some show-stopping jumping and dressage events.
Fun Fact: The Hackney Horse carries its legs quite high, giving it a unique trot.
Refined head and neck
Solid coat colours
The Suffolk Punch, aka the Suffolk Horse, dates back to the 16th century, originating in eastern England (Norfolk and Suffolk). Originally bred for Norfolk farmers for all the heavy lifting, the Suffolk Punch is the only draught breed used exclusively for farming.
Interestingly, the horse was used in World War II due to its stature and strength, however, it unfortunately led to the breed’s population nearly dying out with only nine Suffolk Punch horses being registered in 1966. Luckily, the breed has made a comeback in recent years, but Suffolk horses are still very rare.
Today, the Suffolk Punch is a sought-after breed for riders that want a steadfast long-distance companion and also in commercial forestry.
Fun Fact: The Suffolk Punch was once bred with donkeys in Pakistan to create the perfect heavy-lifting mule.
Suffolk Punch Characteristics:
Sloped muscular shoulders
Wide but short back
Proportionally short but strong legs
The Shire Horse is named after the British shires, where they originated. This breed is well known for its strength and holds records as having some of the tallest horses in the world. The Shire is HUGE with feathering on the legs and massive hooves. Surprisingly, the breed has a docile and friendly personality, making them top choices for riding companions.
Originally, the breed was used as pulling animals for workhouses and industrial work. But as the industrial age progressed, the need for strong horses like the Shire became obsolete and breeders turned their attention to making a faster and lighter breed with the same size proportions.
Fun Facts: Shire Horses were used to pull ale from breweries to people’s front doors. Some, like Hook Norton Brewery and Samuel Smith Brewery, still use horses to do this for promotion rather than function.
Shire horse characteristics:
Extremely tall (16-18 hands)
Feathering on the legs
Slight Roman nose
Dating as far back as the Middle Ages, the Dartmoor Pony is a gorgeous black breed and one of the hardiest pony breeds in our guide. Unfortunately, there are only about 800 Dartmoor ponies in existence, but luckily the strict registration guidelines and stallion grading process ensure that this breed’s standard remains pure for horse lovers around the world.
The Dartmoor Pony is considered semi-feral, meaning they are often left to graze in the moors. But it’s a factor that adds to the rare uniqueness of this breed. As the native horse of Devon, Dartmoor ponies can withstand harsh weather conditions and still prosper.
This breed has an incredible temperament that has long made them one of the best starter horses for children. They are calm and gentle while still packing a serious punch in the strength department, making them perfect for long-distance running companions.
Fun Fact: Okay… maybe just a fact, Dartmoor Ponies were once used as prisoner escorts for Dartmoor Prison.
Dartomoor pony characteristics:
Proportionally small head
One of the older native horse breeds in the UK, the Exmoor Pony is thought to have originated in the southwest of England in Exmoor (north Devon). The Exmoor Pony was used by hill farmers for labour, so this breed is no stranger to working hard.
Since the breed spent so much time in the moors, it comes as no surprise that they can withstand some seriously cold weather. Luckily they grow a gorgeous thick double coat that comes in shades of dun or bay.
Fun Fact: True Exmoor Ponies are incredibly rare, so if you get the chance to meet one, take advantage of meeting the small breed with a big heart.
Exmoor pony characteristics:
Small and stocky
Heavy upper eyelids
Black points throughout the coat
New Forest Pony
Recognised as a British Isles breed, the earliest record of the New Forest Pony dates back to 1016. Today there are about 5,000 of these ponies within the New Forest area, just 100 miles outside of London.
The area is made up of woods, moors, pastures, and glades which have all lent themself to the breed’s sturdy build that can withstand rugged terrain and cold temperatures. This ultimately makes New Forest ponies some of the most versatile in our guide and is why so many choose this stunning breed as show companions.
Fun Fact: All New Forest Ponies that roam in the New Forest area are owned under the “Rights of Common Pasture.” This means they’re free to graze anywhere in the area without owners having to pay for it.
New forest pony characteristics:
Under 14.2 hands
Variety of colours
Thick mane and tail
Native Breeds from Wales
Here we’re focusing on two tough and resilient breeds, the Welsh Pony and Welsh Cob.
Welsh Pony and Welsh Cob
When it comes to tough little horses that can take on the world and win, The Welsh Pony and Welsh Cob are the ultimate champions.
These pint-sized ponies come from the rugged mountains of Wales, where they survived on nothing more than frozen grass and icy winds. Welsh Cobs were bred from Welsh ponies.
Bred to withstand the toughest conditions, The Welsh Pony and Welsh Cob are believed to be a mix of Hackney and Arabian thoroughbred bloodlines, which means they’re not only strong but also stunning to look at.
Their builds are suited for farm work and transportation, they also have a gentle nature that makes them great companions for humans and animals alike.
Fun Fact: Welsh Ponies and Cobs are incredibly hardy animals, known to survive purely off of moss and whatever scraps of forage they could find in the Welsh mountains.
Between 12-15 hands. There are four size groups (sections A, B, C and D)
Native Breeds from Northern Ireland
Now moving on to a native breed from Northern Ireland known for its strength, versatility, and adaptability to the rugged terrain and harsh weather conditions. The Connemara region covers parts of both Northern Ireland and Ireland
The Connemara Pony is one of the most beautiful in the horse world. This breed is incredibly versatile and adaptable. After all, those harsh Ireland winters prepared Connemara Ponies for just about any weather condition.
Irish folklore shows these grey ponies may date as far back as the Celts where they were used for trade, battle, and transport.
Today the Connemara Pony is a valuable export for Ireland, and more than 15 countries have bred this stunning pony. They come in a variety of colours but the most popular are the white and dappled grey coat varieties.
The Connemara pony is known for its hardiness and intelligence, they excel at jumping and make excellent show companions.
Fun Fact: The Connemara Pony is one of the friendliest horse breeds in the world. If you manage to spot one while walking through the hills of Ireland, don’t be surprised to get a nosey greeting that expects a good scratch.
Resilient and adaptable
Strong but short legs
Intelligent and caring
What is the most common horse breed in the UK?
Some of the most common horse breeds in the UK include Clydesdales, Thoroughbreds, Shire horses, Welsh Cobs and Cleveland Bays.
What is the difference between a Clydesdale and a Shire Horse?
These two breeds are extremely similar in terms of appearance, and while they are both massive the Shire is slightly larger than the Clydesdale. Another difference is the markings, the Clydesdale often has white markings or roan in it’s coat whereas Shire horses are usually one solid colour with white markings on the face and legs. You could be forgiven for mixing them up though, becasue they are mixed up too. Shire blood has been bred into Clydesdales in the past to obtain desirable characterisitcs. The process is called “Grading up”. You can read about it here.