Don't believe everything you read on the internet...
This isn't quite like our usual articles, but then, this isn't exactly your usual tale. Today, I was given a copy of the Horse & Hound as it features the Exmoor Pony and a friend had saved it for me. I enjoyed reading the 'Rare Breed Special' and was particularly amused by the reference to the extinct breed the 'Goonyhill' pony. I pointed it out to my husband and we chuckled again, thinking it was a regular journalistic error. As a Cornish girl, with an interest in the history of my county, I am well aware that the breed the article should be referring to is the Goonhilly Pony, a type of pack pony, similar (and no doubt connected to) to the Devon Pack Horse, another extinct breed. .Their homeland was the Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall (goon is a Cornish term for downland or flattish moorland) an exposed area of heath on the Lizard peninsula, also the most Southerly point in Britain.
Later in the day, I had a spare few minutes and as 'Goonyhill' doesn't seem an immediate typo, I plugged it into the search engine to see what it brought up. I was alarmed to find that there are several identical references to this misspelling, all contained in the same list of extinct species which seems to go back to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust website. I have notified them of the error and hope it is rectified soon.
For those researching extinct breeds, such as the author of today's article, the references to the 'Goonyhill' offer valid sources of citation - Natural England, RBST and now, Horse & Hound. It would therefore be easy to see how further documentation could be published and the belief in a 'Goonyhill' pony could have spread.
So, what of the Goonhilly Pony?
Much of my limited knowledge of the Goonhilly pony comes from talk, the odd article I might have gleaned some information from and I do have a recollection of a photograph or drawing of a Goonhilly pony; a smart sort of pony, strong in body but light of limb with a pretty head and nice length of rein. It reminded me more of a New Forest pony than of an Exmoor and no doubt had the same stamina, even temperament and surefootedness as the modern native breeds.
I am told that Cornwall was one of the last places in Britain to see the introduction of the wheel. Prior to this, ponies or oxen transported goods on their backs or loaded onto skids which they pulled and Cornish folk were reluctant to change their ways. The routes across the county were rutted, uneven and ill suited to wheels, the ponies were therefore a popular choice and it would seem the breed flourished as a packhorse.
A little bit of research both on the internet and in some of my old books turned out some more information this evening, it seems that the Goonhilly's fateful end was due to the many 'improvement schemes' that were so fashionable at the end of the 19th century. The following is a post by the Dartmoor Pony Chronicle:
The Dartmoor Pony Chronicle The Cornish Goonhilly pony, like the Devon Pack Horse is now extinct. It was bred out of existence through crossing with Arab blood. At the time it was considered that crossing would save it from extinction. In fact the progeny of the Arab were so popular that the best of the first crosses were all snapped up. This however signalled the end for the breed, nothing remained of the former Goonhilly, and the Arab crosses remaining were the weakest, and not tough enough to withstand the rigours of the exposed heath.
THE GOONHILLY NAGS (The Cornishman, March 6th, 1884) "Lord Falmouth has just presented Mr. John Williams of Lannarth, with a fine Arab steed, brought from Egypt---a stallion to be set free on Goonhilly-Downs. In connection with the gift one condition only was attached---that the horse should not be employed in any sense to work. In a few years The Goonhilly will again be noted for its breed of wild ponies---fleet of foot and difficult to overtake."
(Devon & Exeter Daily Gazette. Jan 14th, 1889) "The ancient breed of Goonhilly ponies, which have long braved the elements, in a wild and windy part of the coast of Cornwall between Helston and the Lizard Head, have recently been saved from extinction by Mr. John Williams, M. F. H., son of an extensive owner of adjacent property. The ponies are an exceedingly active weight-carrying breed, with stout cob-like frame, and the best of them are noted for their blood-like heads and legs. It is believed that the original Goonhilly pony was used as a packhorse before the extension of roads, and those who are learned in the history of the active little horses of Cornwall, to which the ponies are allied, are well aware that the breed has never crossed satisfactorily with thoroughbred sires, the offspring proving "a weedy trashy race, too light for the general purpose of riding or driving" (Mr. Karkeeks Farming of Cornwall, Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, 1845). Mr. Williams has acted with judgement in selecting his sires from among the ponies entered in the Hakney Horse Stud Book, the foals, as we have seen in his pastures at Scorrier House, Cornwall, having stout frames, pleasant features, and short clean legs. In one case the experiment of using a thoroughbred was tried, and the result is a foal far less promising than the others."
(Note from Webzine author: The Williams Family still reside at Scorrier House and still breed horses!)
Connection with Exmoor Ponies
So, this tale started with Exmoors and it will finish with them too. We can learn from this the importance of preserving our breed. Tailoring a breed to a market could potentially become it's downfall, as the Goonhilly pony suffered with attempts to 'improve'. I would hate, in 150 years, for a journalist to be getting a forgotten Exmoor pony name so very wrong. Instead, we need to focus on promoting what we have; a super all round pony, easy to train with a loyal and quick-witted nature and so very much to offer the world. We don't need to change our breed, we like our ponies just the way they are.
The decline of the Goonhilly has, however, offered our breed an opportunity as the Goonhilly Downs are currently inhabited by a little herd of (amongst others) Exmoor ponies!