Modern Eriskay ponies are the last surviving remnants of the original native ponies of the Western Isles of Scotland.
Until the middle of the 19th Century ponies of the “Western Isles type”
were found throughout the islands and used as crofters ponies, undertaking a variety of everyday tasks on crofts such as bringing home peat and seaweed in basket work creels
slung, pulling carts, harrowing and even taking the children
The Eriskay Pony we see today is a result of human in addition to natural selection. The ponies had evolved to survive on meagre food supplies, with coats, ears and tails well adapted to coping with a harsh, wet and windy climate. Eriskays were domesticated and subject to the forces of living in a society where women and children did most of the work while the men were at sea. Poor temperaments could not be tolerated. Only those ponies happy to live in close proximity with their handlers, those willing to be trained and work hard, were retained. Unsuitable specimens were culled.
Over the centuries of domestication, the Eriskay ponies evolved into the hardy, versatile, people friendly characters we recognise today.
On many of the islands increasing mobility and farming pressures led to larger ponies becoming fashionable. Norwegian Fjords, Arabs, Clydesdales and others were introduced to “improve” the native stocks and produce larger, stronger animals.
Due to difficulties with access, other breeds were not introduced to the remote island remote island of Eriskay, leaving a stock of pure bred ponies which. However, due to mechanisation their use declined and so did their poplation until there were only around 20 animals by the early 1970s.
It was at this time that a dedicated group of people comprising a local priest, doctor, vet, scientist and crofters, got together and decided to save the ponies. Through their hard work and the establishment of breeding groups throughout the British Isles, numbers have risen steadily and now there are over 400 Eriskays in the world.
The Eriskay Pony is classed as critical by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Although numbers have increased from the historic low, they have remained stable for some time and the population remains too low to ensure survival without constant work and vigilance.
Some years ago the Eriskay Pony Society contributed to research done by Texas A&M University and the University of Saskatchewan into the Genetic Diversity among Canadian, Mountain and Moorland and Nordic Pony Populations under the auspices of the Canadian Govt.
More recently the Society contributed to research funded by the the British Society of Animal Science and support by The University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna researching the ancestry of Northern European horse breeds through the male (Y chromosone) line.
These two research projects, done years apart, for different purposes and by different individuals came to startling similar conclusions which has provided new, scientific evidence to support some previously held beliefs about the Eriskay breed and to rebut others.
In short they showed that the Eriskay Pony is not only one of the most genetically distinct breeds of Mountain and Moorland ponies, it is also one of the most ancient. This is believed to be due to its isolation, which also applies to other breeds for whom similar conclusions were reached such as the Shetland and the Icelandic.
One of the key facts demonstrated is the Eriskays relationship with the Highland Pony, or rather the lack of any relationship. There have been a variety of opinions on this matter. There are claims that the Highland is descended from the Eriskay and vice versa. It turns out both are incorrect. Despte there geographical proximity, it turns out the Eriskay and the Highland are surprisingly genetically distinct.