Ponies of the Southern Sky

When Robert Falcon Scott set sail in 1910 on a quest to be the first to reach the South Pole, he took with him 19 Siberian ponies. Five of their names will always be remembered.


When aircraft pilots plan their routes, they map their flight paths along a network of navigational waypoints—fixed coordinates on the globe with a designated latitude and longitude. Pilots use these points to stay on course over featureless oceans, to follow specific paths through busy corridors near major airports, and to identify when it’s time to change altitude, turn toward a different heading or make other alterations in their flight paths.

Waypoints all over the globe are identified by five-letter names, which are meant to be pronounceable, if meaningless. “Waypoints are usually generated by a computer to spit out a five-character designation that is usually nonsensical, such as ANOPA or KALVA, which mean nothing to anyone,” says retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Ronald Smith, a navigator and former commander of the U.S. military arm supporting Antarctic research. Sometimes, waypoints might reflect local landscape or culture. For example, pilots descending into Boston might pass by waypoints BOSOX or CELTS, and those headed for Kansas City might encounter BARBQ and RIBBS.

And today, thanks to a two-year campaign led by Col. Smith, pilots flying on the nearly 2,100-mile route between New Zealand and McMurdo Station on Antarctica encounter waypoints that honor six sled dogs and five ponies—Snippets, Jimmy Pigg, Bones, Jehu and Nobby—who were taken to Antarctica just over a century ago. “As far as I know,” says Smith, “these are the only waypoints in the world named after animals.”

This is their story.


In the first years of the 20th century, Antarctica was one of the last great unexplored frontiers on Earth, for good reason. With temperatures that can drop to well below minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit, hurricane-force winds that create fierce snowstorms that last for days, more than five million square miles of treacherous rock and ice, all surrounded by an ocean prone to cyclonic storms and crushing ice sheets—it is a deadly and forbidding place.Still, there were those determined to fill in the blank spaces on the map. Explorers such as Irishman Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen of Norway and Englishman Robert Falcon Scott were locked in an intense rivalry, with nationalist honor at stake, to be the first to reach the geographic South Pole. Their grueling, multi-year voyages are still the stuff of legend: Scott’s expedition on the Discovery set sail from London in 1901; the expedition party that headed toward the Pole, which included Ernest Shackleton, was forced to turn back 460 miles from their goal. Shackleton soon mounted his own expedition on the Nimrod, which sailed from England in 1907; he was forced to turn back just 97 miles from the Pole.Scott’s next attempt, aboard the Terra Nova, sailed from Cardiff, Wales, in June 1910, headed first toward New Zealand, where it would pick up 33 dogs, three motorized sledges—and 19 Siberian ponies—for the long journey southward.The science and technology of polar exploration was still in its infancy. Nowadays, dog sleds might seem like the most obvious choice. But ponies? “It was actually madness on Scott’s part,” says Adrian Raeside, author of Return to Antarctica. Shackleton had carried ponies as well as dogs on the Nimrod. “Most of them perished in the cold, but Shackleton reported that the white-coated ponies seemed to fare better than the darker coated ponies. In Scott’s mind he equated that white coats were better suited to the cold.” Scott had carried dogs on the Discovery, but because the Englishmen were not experienced skiers or dog handlers, they did not fare well, leaving Scott with the belief that the ponies might be more valuable to the team.The Terra Nova expedition was fraught with trouble from the start. During preparation for the voyage, dog handler Cecil Meares was sent to Siberia to purchase experienced sledge dogs, and Scott asked him to acquire white-coated ponies as well. Meares, however, knew little of horses. He attended a horse fair in Mukden, Manchuria, and purchased 19 at five pounds each. “Unfortunately, the only ponies with white coats available were old and tired,” says Raeside. “‘A load of old crocks,’ as [British cavalry officer Lawrence] Oates stated when he first saw them in New Zealand.”


In late November 1910, the Terra Nova team departed from New Zealand for Antarctica, laden with food and supplies for the coming years, including ample provisions for the ponies. In his journal, Scott reported that the ship carried almost 50 tons of compressed oat hay as well as “5 or 6 tons of oil-cake, 4 or 5 tons of bran, and some crushed oats.”The departure marked the start of an arduous journey. Travel in the Antarctic region was possible only in the summer months, which begin in November in the Southern Hemisphere. The wooden sailing ships of the time needed to push through the treacherous oceans during the brief thaws to land men and supplies on the edge of the continent. They would spend the remainder of that first season building their base camp and also traveling southward to build resupply depots with food for the following summer’s expedition. Then the men and their animals hunkered down in their base camp to endure the long winter. Only when spring returned could they begin the 858-mile trek to the Pole. If the expedition didn’t return to the coast in time to sail out before the sea ice formed, they might spend a second winter camped on the ice, waiting on the following spring to return home. The Terra Nova reached Antarctica on January 4, 1911, setting to shore on Ross Island, on a rocky cape Scott had visited during his previous expedition. The crew set about unloading their provisions and building the cabins and stable they would dub Cape Evans, which would be their primary encampment for the next two years. The 17 surviving ponies were among the first to set foot on the new shore. “Though all are thin and some few looked pulled down I was agreeably surprised at the evident vitality which they still possessed—some were even skittish,” wrote Scott. “I cannot express the relief when the whole seventeen were safely picketed on the floe. From the moment of getting on the snow they seemed to take a new lease of life, and I haven’t a doubt they will pick up very rapidly. It really is a triumph to have got them through safely and as well as they are. Poor brutes, how they must have enjoyed their first roll, and how glad they must be to have freedom to scratch themselves!”


The ponies proved useful at first, easily pulling heavier loads than did the dogs or motorized sledges as the crew ferried tons of supplies from the ship over the pack ice to their encampment. “I was astonished at the strength of the beasts I handled; three out of the four pulled hard the whole time and gave me much exercise,” wrote Scott on January 6. “I brought back loads of 700 pounds and on one occasion over 1000 pounds.” The next day, he reported: “One pony got away from Debenham close to the ship, and galloped the whole way in with its load behind; the load capsized just off the shore and the animal and sledge dashed into the station. Oates very wisely took this pony straight back for another load…. The ponies are certainly going to keep things lively as time goes on and they get fresher. Even as it is, their condition can’t be half as bad as we imagined.”But a major challenge lay ahead: ferrying supplies nearly 500 miles southward over the Ross Ice Shelf to lay depots for the team that would eventually embark toward the Pole. Although the ice shelf was frozen year-round, the surface grew soft and slushy in the harsh sunlight, which made pulling difficult—nearly impossible, in fact—for the ponies. “Their purpose was to drag sledges loaded with supplies, and on the initial depot-laying expedition, they proved completely unsuited for the task,” says Raeside. “Exhausted from the long trip and still battered and dazed from the storms they encountered in the six-week voyage to the ice—and still wearing their summer coats—they began to die of exposure and exhaustion. The dog teams performed excellently, and even Scott had to admit they were superior to the ponies in speed and efficiency of rations.”Snowshoes, made for the ponies, might have made the trek easier, but it was hard to keep them attached to their hooves, and they were left behind as the crew traveled southward. Glare from the sun made snowblindness an issue, for men and animals alike. The ponies did have makeshift “snow goggles” in the form of colored tassels draped over their heads. Because progress was so slow, Scott’s primary depot, “One Ton Camp,” was not placed as far south as he had originally intended—a decision that would have disastrous consequences the following spring. By April, only 10 ponies remained, and when the sun set for the winter, they were settled into a stable built for them at Cape Evans. “They were exercised by the men when they were able, but in the dead of winter, with blizzard conditions, it was not always possible,” says Raeside. “The scientists on the expedition would find excuses not to go out to exercise the ponies, especially in inclement weather.”Everyone’s spirits rose when the sun began reappearing each day. On August 14, 1911, Scott wrote, “The light is quite good for three to four hours at midday and has a cheering effect on man and beast. The ponies are so pleased that they seize the slightest opportunity to part with their leaders and gallop off with tail and heels flung high.” 


The crew of the Terra Nova had been divided into several research and exploration parties, which traveled northward and westward from Cape Evans to collect fossils and specimens to study the geology and wildlife of Antarctica. But by September, Scott announced his plans for the southern journey—the attempt to reach the Pole. The group would start out with 16 men, as well as the remaining ponies, dogs and two motor sledges. As their need to haul supplies dwindled, members of the group would turn back, eventually leaving only Scott and a handful of men to seek the Pole. The motor sledges, which departed on October 24 with provisions for the trip, failed within 50 miles, and their drivers manually hauled the sledges to their rendezvous point. Meanwhile, the pony and dog teams started southward on November 1.They would attempt to follow the same route previously explored on Scott’s and Shackleton’s earlier voyages. The plan was to cross the Ross Ice Shelf, a relatively level expanse of permanent sea ice, to reach the base of Beardmore Glacier, along the coast of Antarctica. The Beardmore is 120 miles long, 40 miles wide in places, and rises to an elevation of 9,000 feet. No animals would ascend the glacier; 12 men would proceed at this point, packing their own supplies for the remaining 360 miles up the glacier and across the polar plateau, until finally only one group would head toward the Pole. The travel over the ice was less difficult this time. Scott often commented on how well the ponies were doing, “marching steadily and well,” often reaching the end of each day’s pull as fresh and lively as they had started.Nevertheless, the ponies grew thinner with each passing day of hard work. The teams traveled during the sunlit Antarctic nights so that the ponies could walk when the surface was colder and firmer, while they had the warmer part of the day to rest. Their loads were lightened as supplies were left at each depot for the return trip, and as their usefulness wore out, one by one, four of the ponies were shot—but not without regrets. “Chinaman died tonight of senile decay complicated by the presence of a bullet in the brain,” wrote team member Charles Wright. “Poor old devil, he never shirked and was capable of reaching the Beardmore. Dogs had to be fed was the trouble. He was the smallest and the oldest of the lot and the first to cross every degree of latitude.”Blizzards struck the remaining party in early December, forcing the men to stay in camp and break into supplies meant for the return trip, and stretching thin the remaining forage for the ponies. Finally, on December 9, the four surviving ponies made one last pull: “We pressed on the poor half-rationed animals, but could get none to lead for more than a few minutes; following, the animals would do fairly well,” Scott wrote. “At 8 P.M. the ponies were quite done, one and all. They came on painfully slowly a few hundred yards at a time.”Apsley Cherry-Garrard, another member of the expedition, also described that day in his memoir, The Worst Journey in the World: “The ponies still plugged on in the most plucky way, though they had to be driven. Scott settled to go on as far as they could be induced to march, and they did wonderfully. When we had reached a point some two miles from the top of the snow divide which fills the Gateway we camped, thankful to rest, but more thankful still that we need drive those weary ponies no more. Their rest was near. It was a horrid business, and the place was known as Shambles Camp.”


Before departing from New Zealand, Scott learned that his rival, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, was also on his way to the Pole. On January 14, 1911, Amundsen landed at the Bay of Whales, a starting point that required him to travel over unknown terrain, but which was 60 miles closer to the Pole than Cape Evans. Amundsen set out for the Pole on October 20, 1911, 11 days sooner than Scott, and his party was experienced with both dog sleds and Nordic skiing, so they traveled faster. On January 16, 1912, just 15 miles from the Pole, Scott’s party spotted a black speck against the white snow ahead of them. Approaching it, Scott wrote, “we knew that this could not be a natural snow feature … we found that it was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; near by the remains of a camp; sledge tracks and ski tracks … and the clear trace of dogs’ paws…. This told us the whole story. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole.” Amundsen had beaten Scott by 34 days.Scott arrived at the Pole to find a black tent. Inside, the contents included “a note from Amundsen [that] asks me to forward a letter to King Haakon [of Norway]!” The English team planted the Union Jack and recorded their own presence there before turning northward. “We have turned our back now on the goal of our ambition and must face our 800 miles of solid dragging—and good-bye to most of the daydreams!” Scott wrote.On the return trip, the team was beset by more blizzards that slowed their progress, and in March of 1912, Scott and the surviving two men in his party died of cold and starvation, just 11 miles short of One Ton Camp.


Scott’s hut at Cape Evans has been restored and preserved as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area, as has a cross on Observation Hill, Ross Island, erected in 1913 as a tribute to the lost party. And the map of Antarctica is dotted with physical features that bear the names of the men who first explored it. There is the Amundsen Sea, the Shackleton Ice Shelf and Scott Island. Also, of course, there’s the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a permanent research facility at the geographic South Pole, now occupied year-round by scientists.But the ponies and dogs who made these voyages possible were largely forgotten. “The animals never got their due credit,” says Smith. “There’s a statue around, here and there. And as a poet, I saw this as not just a heroic /romantic period of history, but one of neglect for the animals who made it possible for the success of the brave men. They literally could not have done it without the animals. They didn’t have the technology.”Commemorating individual animals with names in Antarctica wasn’t an option. “International rules prohibit the animals having any physical feature of Antarctica named after them,” Smith says. And so Smith turned his attention toward the sky. Two years prior to the 100th anniversary of Amundsen and Scott’s reaching the South Pole, Smith launched a one-man campaign to rename 11 navigational waypoints after six of Amundsen’s dogs and five of Scott’s ponies.It was no easy task. “Several international and government agencies had to agree to it,” Smith says. “Human factors played in—who gets the credit; whose turf is it, and why should anyone listen to an Air Force officer in the level of government at which this had to get approved. This was all ‘extra work’ for people; it was not a requirement for anyone to prioritize its completion from agency to agency.”But Smith persevered: “First, I had to get people interested and made them aware of what I wanted to do. I started with the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Department of State, the National Science Foundation and the New Zealand Air Traffic Control responsible for the airspace. Once I had complicit agreement among them (and I found out later there were those who thought the project would never get anywhere), I worked with the Air Traffic Control agency to develop the five-letter names.” Smith researched the names of all of the animals on the two expeditions, to determine which ones lived and which ones didn’t, as well as how they died. “I did this to evaluate which ones ‘deserved’ to get the waypoints named after them,” he says. The names he chose were six of Amundsen’s sled dogs—Per, Helge, Lasse, Mylius, Frithjof and Uroa—as well as five of Scott’s ponies: Snippets, Jimmy Pigg, Bones, Jehu and Nobby.“Once the names were developed, I had to work with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which makes the maps, to get the new chart printed in time,” Smith adds. “I had to coordinate with all the embassies in the United States and internationally who would be affected so no one got blindsided. And I had to get the Department of State on board and get their continued blessing and backup. I sent official letters to all the ambassadors and their staffs, and all the other agencies’ leadership, which were all way over my head.”But Smith’s work did all come together. In November 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presented a copy of the new aeronautical map at a meeting of the U.S. Antarctic Center and Antarctica New Zealand in Christchurch, with the comments: “The map has many benefits, but one especially unusual feature. As a reminder of the sacrifices it took to conquer the conditions on the continent, 11 of the waypoints have been named after the unsung heroes of Antarctic exploration—the dogs and ponies that made those early trips possible. In the story of the Antarctic, the names of the explorers are well-known and famous, but now they’re joined by the likes of Helge and Snippet and Bones and Nobby.”Commemorative first editions of this chart can now be found in three museums: Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand; the AKC Museum of the Dog in St. Louis, Missouri; and the Kerry County Museum in Tralee, Ireland.National rivalry may have driven the initial quest for the Pole, but today international cooperation governs the use of the southern continent. “The second reason I did this was to unite the countries involved for national bridge-building,” says Smith. “This small gesture gave the U.S. Embassy another way to bond with Norway, Great Britain and New Zealand over this celebration of the chart and the 100-year anniversary. It’s ‘global poetry’ for me

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #460, January 2016.




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