Potential health problems for native breeds *H&H VIP*

Rugged, thrifty, sure-footed… Certain characteristics spring to mind at the mention of native ponies. These qualities, honed through centuries of hard, physical work and exposure to the toughest environments, have made our home-grown ponies popular around the globe.

But are modern-day animals as hale and hearty as their ancestors? We asked veterinary experts to outline the state of our natives’ health and to highlight the challenges they face…

Trouble afoot

Native pony breeds are typically blessed with quality feet, according to Richard Stephenson MRCVS of Pool House Equine Clinic.

“Their hooves tend to be slightly more upright, with better heels, than in some of the larger breeds where the thoroughbred has had more influence,” explains Richard. “The Shetland has small, hard feet with soles that are more oval in shape. They rarely require shoeing, yet all too often suffer hoof-care neglect as a result.

“While many natives manage well without shoes, their hooves still need trimming by a qualified farrier [DipWCF, or above] at eight-week intervals or less,” adds Richard. “Where shoeing is necessary, thought must be given to how the pony moves. The lightest possible shoe is usually applied for showing, as heavier shoes tend to give choppier movement.”

Following the emergence of hoof wall separation disease (HWSD) in the Connemara pony, genetic testing for this inherited condition has become more readily available. HWSD, which is caused by a recessive gene, can lead to the wall splitting away from underlying structures.

“A foal must inherit one copy of the HWSD gene from each parent before he will show signs of the disease,” says Richard, explaining that a pony can be a carrier while remaining unaffected.

“The Connemara Society has been proactive in seeking to eliminate this devastating disease from the breed and requires all foals to be tested before registration. The safest option when breeding from a Connemara mare is to use a completely negative stallion.”

Build quality

“These ‘working class’ members of the equine community have historically fulfilled multiple roles,” says Dr Rebecca Hamilton-Fletcher of Endell Equine. “Harness animals, such as the Fell, Dales and Welsh Cob, pulled and towed, while pack animals, including the Highland, Shetland and Exmoor, carried heavy loads across inhospitable terrain. Others, namely the New Forest, Connemara and Welsh ponies, developed under saddle for shepherding and hunting.

“Natives were thus never intended for speed, power or extreme athleticism,” she explains. “Instead, they evolved for strength, hardiness, stamina, agility, soundness and longevity — and their conformation reflects this.”

Many excellent conformational attributes remain, says Rebecca, common to all native breeds — from a deep chest offering ample heart room to short cannons with hard, flat bone, strong hindquarters and a good width and depth of jaw.

“There are also numerous breed-specific differences, which the breed societies work hard to maintain and promote,” she adds.

Their original duties may be largely obsolete, yet natives are in demand as riding ponies and for the increasingly popular mountain and moorland showing scene.

“This surge in competitive use has resulted in certain traits being selectively bred for and in some cases exaggerated, with worrying health implications,” says Rebecca. “An example is the excessive ‘dishing’ of the Welsh section A head profile, leading to increased dental problems. Magnified knee and hock action in some of the harness breeds can result in more joint and soft tissue ‘wear and tear’-type lamenesses, while a tendency to refine the riding pony-type breeds threatens the native pony toughness and sturdiness that defined them in the first place.

“Our native breeds are admired worldwide for their inherent strength and soundness,” she adds. “We must be mindful of this as market pressures continue to influence their roles within our society.”

Top coats

Natives tend to be well equipped for outdoor life, thanks to a natural set of winter woollies. The Exmoor’s double-layer winter coat, for example, provides insulation and waterproofing. Yet skin conditions can arise, as H&H vet Karen Coumbe explains.

“Breeds with abundant feather are prone to mange mites, known as Chorioptes, often evident because the  pony bites and rubs the backs of his lower legs,” she says. “Lice can also be an issue. Both problems are more likely in the stabled pony.

“Pony breeds in general are prone to sweet itch,” adds Karen, explaining that hypersensitivity to bites from the Culicoides midge can cause severe itching and scratching. “Topical treatments recommended by your vet should help, along with fastidious management that includes insect repellents and specially designed protective rugs.

“Try stabling the affected pony at dawn and dusk, or in still, humid conditions favoured by the midges,” adds Karen. “Stable fans or insect-proof netting on doors and windows will help, while turnout should be as midge-free as possible — ideally a windy, open field with no standing water.

“Research is investigating vaccines and dietary supplements as potential solutions, but currently the best option is to prevent midge bites in the first place.”

Foal fatalities

Sensible breeding is critical to maintaining the genetic health of our native breeds, as highlighted by a serious issue arising in the 1990s.

“Approximately 25% of Fell pony foals were dying at birth or shortly after,” explains Professor Derek Knottenbelt, who was instrumental in identifying “Fell pony syndrome”, now known as foal immunodeficiency syndrome (FIS).

“Affected foals displayed clinical signs including anaemia, fever, poor weight gain and wasting, diarrhoea and opportunistic intestinal and skin infections. More subtle signs included tongue hyperkeratosis [skin thickening] and fungal infections of the mouth.”

Like HWSD, this fatal disease is caused by a recessive gene.

“As a result of a forward-looking approach from the Fell Pony Society, which included widespread genetic testing in UK, the condition has been controlled,” says Derek, who adds that the gene was subsequently found in the Dales breed.

“Over the next few decades, it’s likely that the disease will be bred out. Using a known non-carrier stallion eliminates the risk of breeding an affected foal, as well as reducing the number of carriers.

Weighty issues

An ability to make a lot of very little has been the undoing of many native ponies.

“These breeds adapted to survive harsh British winters on relatively poor-quality pasture, such as Dartmoor or the Welsh hills,” says Edd Knowles MRCVS of Bell Equine.

“Due to hormones and genes, they’re very efficient at digesting feed and putting on weight. These characteristics​ are less well suited to a more luxurious lifestyle grazing richer pastures without needing to walk far to find food.

“Under these circumstances, ponies tend to put on extra calories as fat,” adds Edd. “The most notorious disease linked to obesity is laminitis, but excess weight can lead to a range of other health problems, including a swollen sheath or mammary glands, and may be involved in the development of some tumours.”

With obesity rates thought to be as high as 70% in some native pony breeds, owners are encouraged to take a two-pronged approach by restricting a pony’s food intake and helping him burn off any excess calories.

“Provide plenty of fibre, but bear in mind that a native rarely requires more refined feeds,” says Edd, who suggests reducing paddock size or turning a pony out with sheep or other animals to limit grazing.

“Give him regular exercise and try not to over-rug him in cold weather.”

Ref Horse & Hound; 25 July 2019