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Pottoks bred by the ZAPE Society
Distinguishing features: small, large head, heavy winter coat
Alternative names: Pottoka, Pottock
Country of origin: Basque Country
Horse (Equus ferus caballus)

The Pottok or Pottoka (pronounced /ˈpɒtək(ə)/ or /pəˈtjɒk(ə)/, Basque: pottoka ), is an endangered, semi-feral breed of pony native to the Pyrenees of the Basque Country in France and Spain.

It is considered an ancient breed of horse, particularly well adapted to the harsh mountain areas it traditionally inhabits.

Once common, it is endangered through habitat loss, mechanization and crossbreeding but efforts are increasingly made to safeguard the future of this breed. It is considered iconic by the Basque people.



Pottoka is the Basque language name for this horse, both north and south of the mountains. In Upper Navarrese, potto and pottoka are generic terms for colts and young horses whereas in Lapurdian and Lower Navarrese the meaning of pottoka is "pony".[1] Ultimately the name is linked to words such as pottolo "chubby, tubby".[1]

In French sources, the spelling Pottok predominates. In English, both Pottoka and Pottok are encountered[1][2] but the term term Basque Pony can occasionally also be encountered[3].


File:Ekainberriko zaldiak.jpg
Paleolithic paintings of horses in the Ekainberri cave near Ekain.

Many opinions exist on the origins of the Pottok. It is deemed by the scientific community to have lived in the area for at least several thousand years.[3] It displays signs of genetic isolation and is genetically closes to breeds like the Asturcón, the Losino, Galician ponies, Landés horses.[3] Tests have revealed considerable genetic differences between populations in the Northern Basque Country and the Southern Basque Country, leading some to consider them separate breeds.[3]

Some claim the Pottok's origins derive from the horses on ancient cave paintings in the area and thus claim to descend from the Magdalenian horses of 14,000-7,000 BC. Other link its origins to an influx of horses during the Bronze Age. However, neither of these theories has to date been scientifically verified.[4]

File:Pottokak armarrian.JPG
Pottoks on a coat of arms in Zestoa.

Genetic research by the University of the Basque Country's Genetics, Physical Anthropology and Animal Physiology department into various genetic markers amongst the 4 indigenous horse breeds in the Basque Country have examined their relationship to other horses. Based on microsatellite tests, of the four Basque horse breeds, the Pottok and the Basque Mountain Horse, are genetically the most distant from other breeds. The others, the Aurikzo and the Navarrese horse (today considered meat breeds), less so.[5] This variability in the Pottok and the Basque Mountain Horse appears to be related to the fact males mate range more widely and mate with more females in these feral or semi-feral herds.[5] Research into a known single-nucleotide polymorphism showed this non-native alternation is very rare in purebred Pottoks.[5] Tests of mitochondrial DNA revealed Pottoks are most likely to crossbreed with the Basque Mountain Horses, less so with other breeds.[5] Although some genetic markers of other European horse breeds were found, overall the genetic distance to the other European breeds is large.[5] Interestingly, one marker previously only found in certain British breeds has also been found in Pottoks.[5]


Its traditional range extends west as far as the Biscayan Encartaciones and east roughly as far as the Saint-Jean-le-Vieux area.[4] A census carried out in 1970 found roughly 3.500 purebred Pottoks north of the Pyrenees and approximately 2.000 purebreds to the south, a considerable drop from historic populations, linked to an overall drop in the number of horses being bred and used commercially[4] Competition with sheep and more recently commercial forestry has also infringed on the Pottok's natural habitat.[4]

The traditional core habitat are the mountains of Labourd and Navarre from about 1.500m upwards, generally on poor acidic soil and limestone formations.[4]


The Pottok averages in height between 11.1 to 14.2 hands (1.15 to 1.47 metres (45 to 58 in)), and weighs between 300 to 350 kilograms (661 to 772 lb). It has a large, square head, small ears, short neck and long back with short but slim legs, and small, sturdy hooves.[4]

The winter fur (borra) is one of the key characteristics of the Pottok and can reach up to 10 centimetres (3.9 in) in length on young horses.[4] The archetypal coat colorations are in bay range with no patterning, but today various shades of brown and black exist in Pottok herds.[4] Pottok pintos first appeared in Biscay in the 1850s and have spread to parts of Navarre and Labourd since.[4]

There are noticeable differences between mountain herds of Pottok and valley or flatland herds, with mountain horses generally being smaller.[4]

The Government of Biscay carried out research into some 250 horses of the Pottok population of Biscay, both wild and stabled, in 1996-97.[3] The census revealed that the majority of semi-feral Pottoks in Biscay live in the far northwest of the province, in the Encartaciones.[3] These semi-feral herds are rounded up twice a year, once in March before birthing and once in October after weaning.[3] The survey also concluded that the main characteristics of the Biscayan population were[3]:

  • black or blackish coats dominating (73%), followed by bays with (19%)
  • Height of 12.1 to 12.3 hands (49 to 51 inches, 124 to 130 cm)
  • long, slim legs with black hooves
  • large, heavy heads
  • a heavy winter coat (the borra)


Semi-feral Pottoks tend to be shy and live in small, territorial herds numbering between 10-30 mares.[4] They are able to predict the weather conditions, moving into the valleys in anticipation of bad weather and upland when high pressure builds.[4] During the autumn, the herd will break up into smaller groups of 5-10 horses and re-unite in spring.[4]

Foals mature quickly. Fillies begin to gestate at age 2, normally mate at age 3 and give birth at age 4, which is also the age of maturity for males.[4] Foals, like those of other breeds, are born after 11 months during spring/early summar and are weaned after 6–7 months.[4]


Cross-bred pottoks near Ainhoa.

Pottok numbers have been severely reduced by habitat loss and crossbreeding. In the 20th century, piebald Pottoks were bred, particularly for circus use. Stockier ponies for agricultural work were bred by crossbreeding with draught horses, also often with a large variety of coat colours.

They have also been bred with Iberian horses following guidelines of pony clubs, Arabian horses and Welsh ponies. This cross-breeding has left perhaps no more than 150 purebred mares north of the Pyrenees.


File:1872 nafarroa.jpg
A Pottok used by the military in the Third Carlist War.

Their adaptation to mountain life and coloration made them ideal for use by smugglers in former times.[4] From the 16th Century onwards, they became popular as circus horses but also as pit ponies in France and Britain.[4] Today, they are in demand as children's ponies because they adapt well to domestication.


Efforts are now being made to ensure the continued survival of purebred Pottoks. The Pottok was the first Basque horse breed to be included in the list of indigenous Basque breeds requiring conservation efforts in June 1995.[6] Its status was classified as endangered.[6]

Various reserves, for example in Bidarray in Lower Navarre or the ZAPE Society in the Aralar Range have been set up to protect the pony and its environment. There is much debate about how best to increase numbers - whether to focus only on the purebreds or to employ selective crossbreeding to build greater numbers of Pottok-like ponies.

Pottok are shown both at agricultural shows and town festivals:

  • Espelette (Labourd) on the last Tuesday and Wednesday in January
  • Markina-Xemein (Biscay) on the second Saturday in October at the Euskal Herriko Arrazen Erakusketa ("Basque Country Breeds' Show")
  • Zumarraga (Gipuzkoa) on the 13th of December at the Santa Lutzi Feria


In the Northern Basque Country, two studbooks for pottok were set up in 1970. Crossbreds, covered under Book B, must have at least 50% pottok blood, Book A covers those of higher purity, specifying:[7]

  • robust, intelligent horse
  • short, forward facing ears
  • broad chest, long back
  • short, sloping croup with a thick tail
  • small, hard hooves
  • height of 11.1 to 14.2 hands (1.15 to 1.47 metres (45 to 58 in)) at the withers

In the Southern Basque Country, the criteria specify:

  • Type A: Purebreds with original coat types in black or bay with a height of 12.3 hands (51 inches, 130 cm) or less.
  • Type B: Purebreds with any coat type up to 13.3 hands (55 inches, 140 cm) in height.
  • Type C: Crossbreds with at least 50% Pottok blood up to 13.3 hands (55 inches, 140 cm) in height.

According to an atlas of Basque breeds compiled by IKT Nekazal Ikerketa eta Teknologia (Agricultural Research and Technology), there were 986 Pottoks in the Basque Autonomous Community in 1997; 40 in Álava, 849 in Biscay and 97 in Gipuzkoa.[8]

Currently Switzerland is the only other country[citation needed] which holds its own studbook (since 2000) that is recognised by the (French) mother studbook. This is kept by the Swiss Pottok Society, which since 2004 is a member of the Swiss Society for Ponies and Small Horses SVPK.[9]

Pottoks in popular culture

  • Pottoks featured in the 1935 film Ramuntcho by Réné Barbéris with Louis Jouvet.
  • Bayonne's rugby club, Aviron Bayonnais has 'pottoka' as its official mascot.
  • The Smurfs are known as the pottokiak in Basque

See also

  • Basque breeds and cultivars


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Trask, L. Etymological Dictionary of Basque, edited for web publication by Max Wheeler, University of Sussex 2008
  2. Morris, M. Euskara Ingelese Hiztegia Klaudio Harluxet Fundazioa: 1998 ISBN 84-89638-13-6
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Moro, P. & Intxausti de Casal, JI Estudio zoométrico en la raza poni vasco-pottoka Archivos de zootecnica Vol 47 Num 178-179, 1998
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 Aizpuru, ML Pottoka: Liraina, librea, aintzinakoa Zientzia.net, retrieved 16.11.2009
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Andonegi, G. Euskal Herriko zaldiak Zientzia.net, retrieved 16.11.2009
  6. 6.0 6.1 Decree 373/2001 Boletín N. 2002014 - 21/01/2002, Government of Euskadi; retrieved 18.11.2009
  7. Association Nationale du Pottok, retrieved 19.11.2009
  8. Gómez, M. Razas Autóctonas Vascas IKT Nekazal Ikerketa eta Teknologia S.A.: 1997; [1] retrieved 21.11.2009
  9. SVPK, retrieved 19.11.2009

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