They’re not plowing fields or hauling sleds of firewood like years ago, but there is a group of Newfoundland Ponies earning their keep on this blazing hot Sunday in Cupids. They’re carrying children on their backs and hauling small wagons as both kids and adults ride behind them. The ponies don’t know it, but they’re actually working to save themselves today. Or in the very least, their descendants.
The event is being held by the Newfoundland Pony Pals Project, and if you’re ever down this way looking to speak to somebody about the history of the Newfoundland Pony, it won’t take long before you’re put on to Byron Hierlihy, who is a co-ordinator for the project.
Hierlihy says the Newfoundland Pony Pals Project started last year as a result of the main sanctuary on Change Islands needing assistance with a barn. A group of pony owners from the area — Hierlihy included — raised $5,000 through rides, music and prize draws.
This year they’re back to raise more.
“If it wasn’t for the Newfoundland Pony, us fellas wouldn’t be here today,” Hierlihy says. “So we have a lot to thank these ponies for.”
The solid little horses that kept the food coming in the summer and the wood coming through the fall and winter are as marvelled at for their strength as for their personality. Their reputation in that way is not unlike the Newfoundlanders who originally owned them. Today Hierlihy says there are about 60 or 70 breedable ponies in the province and a total of 200.
“They’re on the endangered list,” he says.
And they have been for some time. It’s an agreed-upon fact there are actually more Newfoundland Ponies outside the province than inside. Kevin Dawson’s family has been breeding the ponies for 50 years or so. He’s sent foals to Ontario and New York.
“I guess they’re just trying to keep the breed. Something like the Newfoundland dog,” Dawson says. “A lot of people have looked at them and said they’re not like a horse, but more like a dog.”
They’re good-natured and seem to take pleasure in making their owners happy. Those qualities make them seem more like a pet than a work animal. It’s not the only comparison of the ponies to a dog that will be heard on this day.
But calling them a breed is a little misleading. Hierlihy says each area of the island has a different type of Newfoundland Pony. About 400 years ago 10 breeds of horses were brought over to help people survive. They were small, sturdy and hardy. Hierlihy adds they were then bred with the Welsh Ponies and the Sable Island horses.
“One fella says to me, ‘It’s not a breed. It’s a mutt’. And he’s not far wrong,” Hierlihy says.
But like any mutt, there’s a lot of love going around for them. Hierlihy had an older mare up until a few weeks ago when she had to be put down at 34 years old. That mare was at the event last year.
“We had an old man last year in Bay Roberts come out, and he cried his eyes out,” says Hierlihy.
The 85-year-old man wrapped his arms around the old mare’s neck and wept. He remembered the ponies from his younger days, Hierlihy says.
As much as he obviously misses that old mare, Hierlihy is also celebrating. His 12-year-old mare, Kula, had her first foal, Twinkle Star, two months ago. Kula and Twinkle Star are roaming a small patch of grass as people come to see them. Hierlihy fusses over the foal like any dog owner would over their best friend.
“Part of the purpose of the project was to get them out of our gardens and show the public, because a lot of people didn’t even know what a Newfoundland Pony was,” he says.
They’re the only heritage animal recognized in this province, but even if people learn what they are, Hierlihy says he knows the key to keeping the ponies around is being carried by the ponies themselves today.
“If we don’t get the kids involved, once us oldtimers are gone, well...,” he says, letting the possibility hang unsaid.
For this day at least, the ponies look safe. And they sound happy as well as they call to each other along Cupids Harbour.