Nearly 1,000 fells and dales breeders have submitted samples from their horses to be tested for Fell Pony Syndrome in the past year.

Fell Pony Syndrome, which is now known as Foal Immunodeficiency Syndrome (FIS) as it also affects other breeds of ponies, is an untreatable, fatal condition.

Foals affected by FIS have severe progressive anaemia and a deficient immune system, which leads them to succumb to infection. Foals with FIS usually die by the age of three months.

A three-year research project to create a genetic test for the syndrome was led by Dr June Swinburne at the Animal Health Trust in collaboration with Professor Stuart Carter of
Liverpool University and was funded by equine charity The Horse Trust.

It identified the mutation that causes the disease and developed a genetic test to identify ponies carrying the mutation.

As the disease only occurs in foals when two carriers are bred together, breeders can use the test to prevent the disease by ensuring that known carriers are not bred together.

Since the genetic test was launched in February 2010, Swinburne’s team has tested 970 samples from fell and dales ponies, of which three quarters were from fell ponies.

There are around 8,000 fell ponies worldwide and around 1,100 dales ponies in the UK, so this means that nearly 10 percent of fells and more than 20 percent of dales ponies have been tested for FIS.

“This test has been a massive success among the fell and dales pony breeding communities,” said Dr Swinburne.

“We hope the test will prevent unnecessary suffering among fell and dales pony foals as breeders can now easily prevent the conception of foals with FIS.

“As so many breeders tested their breeding stock last year, we hope there will be very few foals affected by this horrendous disease in the future.”

Dr Swinburne found that 47 percent of fell ponies and 10 percent of dales ponies carry the mutation for FIS.

“We are really excited that the research we’ve funded has had such a big impact on the welfare of fell and dales ponies.

“We hope that breeders will continue to make use of this test to ensure that no more ponies have to suffer needlessly from this distressing disease,” said Jeanette Allen, chief executive officer of The Horse Trust.

This news story was first published in the current issue of Horse & Hound (10 March, 2011)