When I first read that there had been ponies on the continent of Antarctica, I thought there must have been some editorial mistake. Why would anyone want to take equines to a land of perpetual snow and ice? I live in a place where snow and ice and cold are facts of life six months a year. In addition, I’ve visited more extreme alpine environments where glaciers and crevasses dominate. These firsthand experiences informed my incredulity when I heard about the South Pole Ponies. Despite being a pony enthusiast, I still think there are limits to what ponies are capable of.
After that first introduction to the South Pole Ponies, I had to learn more. (1) It turns out that not once but twice ponies were taken to Antarctica in the very early twentieth century as beasts of burden on expeditions towards the South Pole. Of course, that ponies were chosen over other equines made perfect sense to me; the choice reflected an understanding of the versatile working heritage that most pony breeds have. I was interested to learn that the South Pole Ponies were asked primarily to pull sledges rather than pack; the thinking may have been that they would be less likely to ‘posthole’ into the snow with the weight behind them rather than on their backs. I make similar accommodations here.
I was astonished to learn that untrained ponies were purchased, of Manchurian and similar origins, and that most of the explorers had little to no equine experience. Perhaps that lack of equine savvy explains why some of the ponies that were purchased and transported south were unhealthy or aged and from the outset were unfit for the task ahead. Given these issues, that the ponies were able to accomplish as much as they did seems even more remarkable.
One of the reasons equines were chosen was so they could eventually be slaughtered to provide meat for the humans and canines of the exploration parties. The few ponies who made it far enough on the expeditions did indeed serve that purpose. Others were lost from illness, exposure and accident.
I found it curious that grey ponies were chosen. It was the belief of the first expedition organizer that that color was best suited to the extreme climate of Antarctica. In my experience here, dark colored ponies always have the warmest coats to the touch because they soak up any available sunlight more readily. Perhaps now that I have a gray pony here, I’ll better understand the expedition leader’s reasoning. An interesting challenge also related to the ponies’ coats was that the ponies were taken from the northern to the southern hemisphere, and their shed cycle was timed for the opposite season. Hindsight says they should have been taken south a year or more in advance.
The South Pole Ponies have been in the news recently thanks to one man’s tireless work to commemorate their contribution to the South Pole expeditions. Navigational waypoints have been named for five of the ponies after a two year campaign by retired US Air Force colonel Ronald Smith. Six sled dogs were also recognized. (2)
Recent visitors to the Terra Nova hut of the second South Pole expedition that used ponies found the hut in nearly identical condition to one hundred years before, with bales of fodder stacked outside and pony hairs still caught on rough wood in the stables. (3) Decay takes longer in cold environments, something else with which I’m familiar. Composting manure, for instance, is a longer process here than other places I’ve lived.
It was well into my second decade as a pony enthusiast when I first heard about ponies being on the Antarctic continent. I still think it’s remarkable that anyone would consider ponies to be an appropriate draft animal at the most southern reaches of our planet. Perhaps it’s because the expeditions were ill-fated and that the ponies didn’t survive that their story is less appealing so took longer to come to my attention. Still, the ponies obviously revealed their unique strength of heart to their human companions. It’s undoubtedly this that kept them from being forgotten and ultimately led to them being perpetually honored and remembered through the newly named navigational waypoints.
- I highly recommend Theodore K. Mason’s book The South Pole Ponies: The Forgotten Heroes of Antarctic Exploration.
- Archer, Colleen Rutherford with Laurie Bonner. “Ponies of the Southern Sky,” Equus #460, January 2016, p. 54
- Furse, Cynthia, PhD. Letter to the Editor, Equus #462, March 2016, p. 11.
© Jenifer Morrissey , 2016
What ponies are capable of is celebrated in the book The Partnered Pony: What’s Possible, Practical and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally on Amazon and by clicking here.