Modern Eriskay ponies are the last surviving remnants of the original native ponies of the Western Isles of Scotland. Recent DNA testing by the University of Leicester has proven that they are a distinct, primitive breed, with ancient origins. Certainly they have ancient Celtic and Norse connections and Eriskays have been proven by measurement to be of similar proportions to those found on ancient Pictish stones throughout the North and West 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 everyday tasks such as bringing home peat and seaweed in basketwork creels slung over their backs, pulling carts, harrowing and even taking the children to school.
In some ways the ponies were subject to "human" in addition to "natural" selection. The ponies had evolved to survive on meager food supplies, with coats, ears and tails well adapted to coping with a harsh, wet and windy climate. Eriskays were then 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, the Eriskay ponies evolved into the hardy, versatile, people friendly characters we recognize 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. On the remote island of Eriskay in the Western Isles, however, due to difficulties with access, other breeds were not introduced, leaving a stock of pure bred ponies which had declined to a around 20 animals, due to mechanization, by the early 1970s.
It was at this time that a dedicated group of people comprising a local priest, doctor, vet, zoologist and crofters, got together and decided to save the ponies whose numbers were dangerously low. Through their hard work and the establishment of breeding groups throughout the British Isles, numbers have risen steadily and now there are around 300 Eriskays in the world. Obviously, the breed are still seriously threatened and are listed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust as category 1 "critical", but with 12 pure bred stallions and a record 25 foals born last year, the future is looking a little brighter.
Eriskays find excellent homes as family ponies, with their human friendly characteristics coming to the fore playing football in the garden with the kids, or working with special needs children as RDA ponies. Eriskay ponies are very distinctive in that they are usually born black or bay and usually turn grey as they mature, a few individuals have remained black or bay into adulthood, but no other colors occur. They have a dense, waterproof, but not overly long, coat which enables them to live out in the harshest of conditions, and have a little, light feathering on their fine legs. The head is sensible and workmanlike with plenty of room for air to warm in the sinuses before it reaches the lungs, and the tail is low set to keep the hind end warm in the wind and rain.