Should elite competition ponies be managed like horses? *H&H VIP*

  • A championship-level team pony looks every inch the full package — lean, muscular and bursting with confidence and energy. But how do these mini athletes measure up in terms of management? Can a top pony be produced like a horse, or does size matter when it comes to fitness, feeding and keeping him sound?

    According to British pony eventing team vet Tim Booth MRCVS, of Hird and Partners Veterinary Surgeons, most competition ponies have an inherently tough constitution.

    “They are hardier, without doubt,” he says. “Lighter body weight creates fewer concussive forces through the limbs and feet, so ponies generally require less by way of joint injections. A greater depth of chest, relative to size, usually means a good respiratory system and a decent-sized heart — although you do see Connemaras built like whippets as well as the more barrel-chested type.”

    Event pony breeding is a “mixed bag”, says Tim, explaining that native pony lines could account for greater career longevity.

    “There’s a fantastic variety at the top,” he says. “Some ponies are accidents of horse breeding, while others have been bred specifically for the job. Many have made multiple team appearances with different children. It probably helps that they go through cycles, competing internationally before dropping down the levels to qualify again with a new rider.

    “Ponies have to run pretty much every week in the season to qualify,” he adds. “Problems can occur, often with age, notably injuries to the proximal tendon region at the musculotendinous junction at the back of the knee.”

    In terms of management, Tim likens team ponies to five-star eventers in miniature.

    “They’re treated like the elite athletes they really are, going to the gallops and undergoing regular bloodwork,” he says. “One pony we took to Malmö, Sweden, was wearing a compression suit.”

    Former pony showjumping team vet Andy Bathe MRCVS, of Rossdales Veterinary Surgeons, agrees that the larger and heavier the frame, the greater the strain — even within the pony world.

    “Properly small ponies rarely need treatment, but many of the 14.2hhs are small horses and can suffer similar issues,” he says. “We do see some problems with the front feet and fetlocks, or injuries to the suspensory or check ligaments. Ponies are often too clever to push themselves if something hurts, so lameness may be subtle but still performance-limiting.

    “The dates for eventing team selection are very precise and the season is quite intense,” adds Andy, whose daughter Daisy is on the pony eventing team development squad. “There is little leeway to choose good ground, for example, or to give ponies time off if they’re a bit sore. This can put them under pressure.”

    Andy points out that eventing and showjumping ponies must make more effort over a fence — size for size — than horses.

    “Despite this, they tend to be a bit less prone to everything,” he adds.

    Tiny dancers

    Dressage ponies are also afforded some degree of injury protection.

    “Increased height is a risk factor in top-level dressage, due to mechanics,” says Dr Rachel Murray of the Animal Health Trust. “The forces on the end of a horse’s legs will be greater, because his legs are longer and his body is heavier.

    “In addition, ponies at top level are competing at medium level rather than grand prix,” adds Rachel, whose daughters Ruth and Clare have both represented the British team at pony and junior level.

    “These ponies perform extravagant movements but they don’t really sit on their bottoms, and they face a less athletic challenge than jumping ponies. The most common problems we see in dressage are those suffered by horses at medium level, such as suspensory desmitis and front foot pain.

    “Dressage pony riders can be quite tall when they get to mid-teens, especially in the Netherlands and Sweden,” says Rachel, explaining that the shorter pony back and ribcage may not accommodate legs that are long from hip to knee.

    “You wouldn’t see such a tall rider, relatively speaking, on an elite dressage horse. The challenge is to find a saddle that allows the growing child to sit centrally and not at the rear, which can damage the pony’s back.

    “Pony weight can also be an issue,” she adds. “Many elite dressage ponies are now horse-bred, along warmblood lines, while others still have some Welsh blood. Both breeds are very efficient with their feed and can become overweight, leaving them at risk, in theory, of developing problems such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) and insulin resistance.”

    Quick and clever

    Most pony characteristics are a plus, however, emphasises former pony team physio Rachel Greetham MCSP, ACPAT physiotherapist.

    “Jumping ponies are typically clever and quick to sort themselves out in front of a fence,” she says, referring to the legendary pony self-preservation instinct. “They’re shorter and more compact than horses, with good core stability, which makes them easier to manage.

    “They have the same muscular and skeletal structure, but on a smaller basis,” adds Rachel, now a physio for the British senior team. “The top-level event ponies tend to work well within their scope, but others may struggle to make horse-length distances or when they’re jumping out of mud and working hard to make the extra height. If they do suffer muscle strains, sprains or spasms, the same physio principles apply.

    “Ponies in all disciplines will benefit from a bespoke fitness programme and regular attention from the vet, physio and saddle-fitter,” she says. “By routinely checking that the pony is moving correctly and performing well, small injuries and areas of concern can be picked up before they become big problems.”

    ‘She could get quite fat’

    Current European pony eventing champion Little Indian Feather (Jojo) was rescued from a Tipperary roadside as an in-foal two-year-old. Now 14, she is an international athlete.

    “We managed her to try to eliminate any risk of injury,” says Saffie Osborne, 17, who took team and individual gold with Jojo last year for Britain. “Her fitness plans were very thorough: she was always on the gallops and went in the cold-water spa every day. She could get quite fat, so we were very careful with her feed.

    “It was easier to get Jojo fit than the horses,” adds Saffie, daughter of racehorse trainer Jamie. “This helped at events where it was extremely hot, such as the 2017 Europeans in Hungary, but the dressage can be difficult if a pony is over-fit and too buzzy.”

    Jojo is now with Irish rider Susan Shanahan, while Saffie is already long-listed for this year’s junior Europeans with her horse Lakantus.

    “Attention to detail is every bit as important with ponies,” she adds. “You’re still competing on a British team, whatever the level.”

    ‘Building the correct muscle’

    “He has always been treated like a mini horse,” says Phoebe Peters of her record-breaking German riding pony SL Lucci, a veteran of bronze, silver and gold medal-winning pony teams.

    “When he was kept at Peter Storr’s yard he followed a similar routine to the horses, going on the walker and doing lots of stretching and strengthening work. With dressage, it’s all about building the correct muscle. His saddle fit was checked regularly, especially as he changed shape, and he had physio once a month to keep him loose. He also had a blood test after every international to make sure all was in order.

    “Lucci is a good-doer,” adds Phoebe of the 17-year-old gelding. “His diet was balanced so he had all the right nutrients and plenty of energy, without necessarily gaining weight. I’m at university now, but still try to fit in the occasional advanced medium.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 6 June 2019