The Ariegeois mountain pony was developed between Rousillon and Catalonia, sometimes called the Cheval de Merens but is more often referred to as the Ariegeois. The breed takes its name from the Ariege River that runs nearby, and although the modern world may hardly be aware of the pony’s existence, there is evidence that it is very ancient. For instance, while some of the carvings and wall pictures at Niaux in the Ariege, made by Cro-Magnon man, are recognizably the Camargue horse, others, just as surely, show the Ariegeois in its winter coat, with its characteristic “beard”.
Julius Caesar knew this pony well enough to give an accurate description of it in his Commentaries on the Gallic War.
The Ariegeois pony almost certainly has a background of eastern blood, and it is very likely that substance was once added by being crossed with the heavy pack mares of the Roman legions. Pure-bred specimens no longer exist in the lower reaches of the Department of Ariege, for there has been much crossing of the local stock with heavy draught breeds such as the Percheron and the Breton As a result, the progeny retains nothing more than the black colouring as a reminder of its ancient ancestry.
The old breed may still be found in the high valleys on the Spanish border towards Andorra. Its territory is centred on a group of relatively inaccessible. Curiously, there are loose parallels between the ponies of the Pyrenees and those of the British Pennines. In the Pennines, allowing for an inevitable overlap, there are Dales Ponies on one side of the mountains, and Fell Ponies on the other. Likewise, on the Spanish Marches, there are different ponies on each side ? the little Pottok ponies are found in the Basque region in the west, and on the French side there is the Poney Landais whose territory extends into the plains of Chalosse near the Adour River.
The geographical resemblance is most marked in the territory of the Ariegeois, where the soulanes, or fells, are very like the high fells of Cumbria, and the black Ariegeois ponies are almost exact replicas of the British Fell Pony.
The handbook of the Syndicat des Eleveurs de Chevaux de l’Ariege describes the pony as standing at 1.35-1.50 m (13.1-14.3 hh), although larger animals are only likely to be found on the lower valley lands where the grazing is richer. The breed is solid black in colour, and in winter the coat has rust-brown highlights. White markings are very unusual. Its mane and tail are thick and harsh. The back is quite long, as befits a pack pony, and there is also a tendency to cow-hocks. this is not unusual in mountain breeds and does not seem to be detrimental to their sure-footedness.
The Ariegeois almost always has excellent feet. It has a hardy constitution, and manages very well on poor-quality, minimal rations, without oats or any other concentrates. The breed is also impervious to severe winter conditions, and so sure-footed that it copes easily with the snow and ice on the rough mountain trails. However, it is not resistant to heat and must have shelter from the mid-day sun in summer.
Ariegeois geldings work the upland farms, ploughing, harrowing, and drilling on slopes that would be impossible for a tractor or for any other horse. The pack-saddle is now less evident, but horse-drawn sledges are still used for transporting every sort of load, and the Ariegeois is no slouch as a riding pony. In the past, the breed played an important part in smuggling. As in north-eastern England up to the 19th century, smuggling was endemic along the Spanish border and was an acceptable and established occupation. Smugglers in England’s north-east used the Cleveland Bay while in the Pyrenees the clever Ariegeois, or mules sired by Catalan jackasses out of Ariegeois mares, were employed. It is not impossible, one imagines, that contraband still finds its way over the mountains by the same means.
There are no known individuals or breeders in Austalia though some people believe their genes came to Australia when mountain ponies were imported to be bred with Thoroughbred horses to develop a horse that was to later become the Australian stock horse.