Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

– the march of the Bronies continues apace – literally. We now have a thriving “military bronies” community, dedicated to adult My Little Pony fans, and a full range of customised guns to accessorise. (Military Times)

– a two-year-old cob in West Yorkshire managed to trap himself in an underground pump chamber for five whole days. Thankfully he’s now been liberated. The BBC has a video of the rescue. (Horse Talk, BBC)

– ‘”Think about it: They spend most of their lives with the world looking down on them,” Murray said. “Now they are up on top and above everybody. It is very empowering.”‘ Equine therapy in Houston. (Chron.com)

– A horse festival in Tajikistan. (Huffington Post)

– Zippy Chippy, a racehorse who couldn’t win a race to save his life is now saving lives by being a loser. (Washington Post)

– Kathleen Stiles on “How to Survive a European Horse Shopping Trip”. “Meals are all taken and enjoyed. However, some are at “tank stops,” or gas stations as they’re known in the United States. They are everywhere since one blows through expensive fuel at an alarming rate. But I am horrified. I am spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on horses and am lunching where I would not normally visit a restroom?” It’s another world… (Chronicle of the Horse)

– Paralympic dressage rider Lee Pearon’s kit in detail. (Guardian)

– Thank you to Anne Billson for a link to Amazon’s sale page for those rubbery horsehead masks. Happy purchasers have sent in an entire album of images of themselves making use of them. Have fun. (Amazon)

– in a year in which horses have unexpectedly taken centre stage in politics, from David Cameron’s rides on Rebekah Wade’s old police horse to Rafalca Romney, we have the first dressage-based political broadcast:

Blatant Cobbery

THE COB.

This is essentially a fancy article. A cob is, compared to other horses, much what a ”concentrated luncheon lozenge’ is to a vol au vent. He must have as much breeding as possible, combined with the power of a carthorse. It is not everyone that is a judge of a cob. An underbred, under-sized, thickset punchy horse is not of necessity a valuable cob, though the owners of such beasts (when they are for sale) are sometimes very hard to persuade of this fact. Cobs are usually ridden by a class of men who can afford to pay for them; and as the demand is always in excess of the supply of these animals, they generally have to be paid for pretty freely, supposing them to be really good. But without a long list of virtues, a cob, however powerful, and in its own grotesque style handsome, will never fetch a price. To begin with, he must be perfectly quiet on all occasions; not inclined to shy; and possessed of a certain sedateness of character and demeanour, as it is his peculiar province to carry gentlemen of a certain age and weight, and usually of a position in life which renders their personal safety a matter of interest to the community at large.

… A cob who is not a good walker is of about as much use as a young lady who does not valse! … To be perfect in the country, a cob should let his rider kill a brace of birds right and left off his back without winking. Even if he be not wanted as a shooting pony, his nerves must defy alarm or excitement at any unexpected sight or sound, especially connected with gunpowder; for in these days of revolvers and rifle practice a quiet gentleman … may, in the course of his ride, whether in town or country, find himself almost at any moment in a “warm corner,” as far as numberless discharges of firearms can constitute one. Therefore the points most important in a good cob are strength, good mouth and slow paces, soundness (of course), good temper, moderate height, say 14 hands, and perfect steadiness and tractability. If anyone who may do me the honour to read these lines possesses a cob up to 16 stone, who can walk four miles an hour and trot twelve, with a good mouth and amiable disposition, who fears nothing, and never stumbles, let him, if a rich man, keep him — he will not get another such in a hurry; if a poor one, let him in offering him for sale, fear not to “open his mouth” boldly, and demand for him a price which shall make a difference in his (the owner’s) year’s income; for people must, and usually are ready to, pay for their fancies, and a good cob, as already remarked, is, of all the equine race, essentially a fancy article, and one too for which the demand is always brisk.

Unasked Advice, A Series of Articles on Horses and Hunting by “Impecuniosus”, reprinted from The Field, 1872.

Fly Grazing: Legal Precedent?

Vale of Glamorgan council are moving faster now, perhaps in light of the episode in which forty horses were left to trash Woodland Trust land. Sixty horses dumped on land near Cardiff Airport have been rehomed via charities like Redwings, Horse World and the Bransby Home of Rest for Horses. The BBC reports:

… as the landowner, the council had been left to foot the bill for their care and welfare.

Under the Animals Act 1971, a landowner can issue a 14-day notice for the owner of animals left on its land to claim them, after which the landowner becomes the legal owner.

A letter in the local Penarth Times draws attention to the frequency with which fly grazing occurs in the Vale:

This mass grazing started around mid-January 2011 and by the end of February, to local knowledge, there had been at least six to seven deaths, including two fatalities before December 2010.

The numbers of horses and ponies vary from 150 to 400 at any stage, all at different locations, however when they don’t have food they break out or are let out. Every day horses are out on public highways, dual carriageways, school rugby fields, and busy A roads. Police are regularly called out, up to 30 times in any one week.

In the spring of 2011, 20 horses were dumped at Rhoose Airport site. All were re-homed except for one which had to be put to sleep.

However, later in the year a considerable number of foals were dumped in the same field, with one thrown over the fence. She was taken in by the Society for the Welfare of Horses and Ponies but later had to be put to sleep due to a broken pelvis. A number of others also died from Strangles, a dreadful disease. But these horses and ponies are still being moved around, spreading the disease.

Horses are struggling in South Wales, through no fault of their own. Last year commoners on Gower complained about the low value of their horses, which grazed on public land, and seventy strays were abandoned in Llanelli. Free-roaming horses were fitted with high-visibility collars after being hit by cars. The admin involved in introducing horse ownership licences would be huge and the loopholes inevitable, but when you read about case after case of fly grazing and neglect, it’s hard not to consider it.

21–05–2012 update: Horse and Hound on a bid to alter the law so that field owners can passport and sell horses left on their land.

Salvos Across the Equine Gene Pool: a Reader

This is not so much a post as a string of links to some interesting, thought-provoking essays elsewhere and a question: what is “pure blood” and should it matter?

Let me explain. Roughly speaking, until the nineteenth century and even the twentieth century, the vast majority of horses and ponies in the West were not bred by someone who wanted to “preserve a bloodline” or produce a very specific set of characteristics. The aim was to make a “type” of horse to do a specific job, using the sires and dams that were available – ideally with good conformation. It was thoroughbreds whose breeders, inspired by Arabian breeding practices, changed the game. You can see that in the etymology of the words “thorough bred” “pur sang” “voll blut”. Soon it wasn’t enough to have a good horse, it had to be a “pure horse” (The warmblood bucks this trend, in theory. More anon). To a large extent, this probably did improve the quality of many horses: stallions were selected for meeting certain characteristics and performance criteria. But could the preoccupation with “breeds” over “types” eventually cause problems?

Here are my scattered thoughts and links.

1 – I just finished reading John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs, which deals, among other issues, with the problem of pedigree dogs:

“Until very recently, the amount of variation in the domestic dog was sufficient to maintain genetic health. Multiple domestications and back-crossing with wolves meant that dogs worldwide still have an estimated 95 per cent of the variation that was present in wolves during the time of domestication. Most of this variation lives on today in street dogs and mongrels, but pedigree dogs have lost a further 35 per cent. That may not seem much, but let us imagine the scenario in human terms. Mongrels maintain levels of variability that are similar to those found globally in our own species. In many individual breeds, however, the amount of variation within the whole breed amounts to little more than is typical of first cousins in our species. And we humans know that repeated marriages between cousins eventually lead to the emergence of a wide range of genetic abnormalities, which is why marriages between close relatives are taboo in most societies. It is astonishing that the same consideration is not given to dogs.”

Over just the last six generations, inbreeding [of golden retrievers] has removed more than 90% of the variation that once characterised the breed. … In a recent sampling of Y (male) chromosomes of dogs in California, no variation was found in fifteen out of fifty breeds, indicating that most of the male ancestors of each and every dog in those breeds have been very close relatives of each other.”

This put me in mind of Fell Foal Syndrome, HYPP, assorted genetic problems in Friesians, Minxy the ill-fated miniature horse, the bug-eyed, seahorse-headed Egyptian Arabians who are unrideable…

2 – The new blogger at Fugly Horse of the Day asked readers to guess the breeds of a series of horses. Today she revealed that most of the commenters had gotten it right, they were all mustangs. She then embarked on what can only be a deeply unpopular polemic about America’s nominated “wild horse” and alternative national symbol:

“I’ve done some research on mustangs over the years, I’ve owned one, trained many and ridden one I would have liked to try to turn into a cowhorse. Each one was a very different type of horse. They were little and arab-y like, in the middle like a QH, big and draft-y or a horrible mix of it all. My overwhelming impression was I could easily find the domestic equivalent at an auction, or in someones backyard, or rarely, through a good breeding program. They had good feet and good bone, or bad feet and birdy bones, they were “primitive” in their coloring or they were red. Some had stubby appy tails, some had flowing tails, some were big, some were small, some didn’t seem like horses at all. OK, no more Dr. Seuss, you get my drift. I didn’t hate them, or consider them a waste of space, they were just horses. …

I learned there are pockets of different horses tucked away here and there with DNA which goes back to the Spaniards horses. Some go all the way back to the first horses reintroduced to America. This is kind of cool. I can see the value of preserving these little drops of history.I like the idea of watching a herd of ancient history running free through a national park. It does not make me think these horses are extra special, better than others, or worth more than any decently bred horse from a good breeding program. It seems to me small pockets of animals, holed up in a little tiny undiscovered part of the mountains for hundreds of years, will end up much like the royal families of yore which only married their kids off to others of royal blood. They ended up with weakened bloodlines, an influx of disease and mental instability. …

When I read about these rare pure bloodlines going back to the Arabs and Andalusians I think, Huh? Don’t ALL breeds go back to Arabs and Andalusians? Aren’t there still some Arabs an Andalusians out there? …

Then there are the other mustangs. The ones developed by ranchers turning out their own studs and shooting the wild ones to create their own herds. Or sprung up from the drafts and saddle horses turned loose before the World Wars or the Great Depression. These are nothing but grade horses folks. Nothing wrong with a good grade horse, but nothing to be revered either.

Shoot, we’re breeding a whole new kind of mustang right now in 2011. With horses being dumped in record numbers, natural selection should kick in any minute. We should be ready to start saving the elusive, yet kind of stupid, ‘Bushama Mustang’ in just another couple of years.”

It was the original FHOTD blogger who introduced me to the ever-increasing roll call of new “breeds” from “Gypsy Vanners” to “Warlanders” – to give two of the more reputable examples. Everyone wanted to have a “rare” horse, a “special breed” with an exotic history. It wasn’t enough to have a good individual horse. It had to have history and pedigree.

3 – An Australian racehorse breeder is launching a legal attack on the national Thoroughbred industry’s ban on artificial methods of reproduction. As this is a global requirement in horse racing, it will be very interesting to see the result. All other sportshorses can be bred using AI and often embryo transfer. Horse Talk covers the debate:

“Smaller breeders – the vast majority in Australian thoroughbred breeding are small operators with an average of three mares – would benefit from not having to ship their mares to stud, and would also be able to gain access to semen from top horses around the globe, Tonking argues.

McHugh does not put much stock in the central argument from the Australian thoroughbred industry that it would become a world pariah if articificial insemination was allowed. He has proposed a separate registry for artificially bred thoroughbreds. France, he has pointed out, allows such separate registries and it did not appear to have damaged its industry.

The whole debate is fascinating. The arguments offered by McHugh are hard to challenge. Yes, relaxing the live-cover rules would give smaller breeders access to stallions around the globe. It would undoubtedly save them money. Australia’s ban on thoroughbred artificial insemination goes back to at least the 1940s. The practice was banned to prevent any skulduggery, and to ensure that mare owners got the stallion service for which they were paying.

However, in the modern era of DNA identification, that argument has long since been buried. Does the requirement for live cover effectively create a restraint of trade? If you’re a smaller breeder unable to afford a top stallion’s stud fee, but able to afford a straw or two or semen from a similarly-rated sire, it is hard to argue otherwise.”

What then happens to the mid-range sires, the rare ones with no Northern Dancer blood? The ones that represent an outcross and variation in one of the smallest gene pools in the equine world? Where are the limits when top stallions can already cover a hundred or more mares a year? (I blogged a little about “partbred” racehorses here)

4 – A video, rather than an article. When I made my return, of sorts, to the horse world, one thing which struck me was the breeding of specialist horses for eventing, dressage and showjumping – to the extent that there are now futurity competitions for foals and youngstock in these categories. Performance is paramount. As a lumpen outsider, I’ve started to wonder if dressage horses in particular might become too specialised in a few generations. Maybe I should just relax and enjoy the sight of the dressage-bred foal which raised a record price of €200,000 at the Oldenburg Elite Foal Auction last week in Vechta. He’s even called A la Dressage:

Cobsession

“At Harolds Park Farm, Essex (31 July), Vicky Westcott and her ‘hairy pony’ Ad Lib III won both elementaries on over 65% – their personal best scores to date.
Vicky said: ‘He’s a 15hh piebald Romany cob with full feathers and a full mane. He thinks he’s very handsome. When we go around the arena before entering he always turns to the judge at C and gives a little “nod and a wink”.
‘He’s so enthusiastic and forward I can have a braking issue in the simple changes, because he doesn’t like the idea of walking. But today I got a seven for one.’

Horse & Hound, 11 August 2011. This, I think, is the point of dressage – to get any horse going beautifully, whether he’s an 18hh expensive warmblood from the continent or a two-bob-cob with legs like Afghan hounds. When I was on holiday in Scotland earlier this year I had a lovely chat in one B&B with a dressage enthusiast who said she’d overheard an old horseman complaining  that you couldn’t get hold of Shire horses these days, ‘because all these bloody women buy them for dressage.’

(thank you to Estelle for the headline pun)

A Moustache: What the Well-Groomed Stallion is Wearing This Year

A survivor of Spindles Farm, happily esconced at the brilliant Redwings Horse Sanctuary. Not quite as impressive as that sported by Alfie, a Gloucestershire stallion, who featured in Metro this week. Maybe he should have laid off the hair gel?