Shetland Ponies out of Fashion?

A long piece in The Shetland Times reports that the economic crisis is putting the pinch on the traditional Shetland pony, and how changing fashions in colour and size of pony are affecting the stalwarts in the isles:

Looking around the marts, my first impression is of a sea of red-and-white backs. You’d think Shetland ponies only came in skewbald. A closer look shows that every colour of Shetland pony is here: black, chestnut with a blonde mane, smoky grey or blue; red and white, black and white, bay, dun with a black back-stripe. Broken colours predominate, though, because colour is a key factor in the price a breeder can hope for, and unusual colours is what buyers want.
Another thing that affects the price is size. A Shetland can grow up to 42” at the shoulder and still be a Shetland under the Shetland Stud Book Society’s guidelines for breeders. EU rules say a registered Shetland must be accepted in the stud book, even if it is larger, although a too-tall colt can’t become a licensed stallion. However, the current fashion is for miniatures. …

There are a number of Shetland pony sales throughout Britain, with the Shetland Sale quickly followed by the Aberdeen sale and the seading Sale. This year’s Reading sale, held on 19th October, illustrates the different prices quite nicely. 13 colts went up for sale first. Only two went for just over £200, both small palominos. The top filly price of £1008 went for a “tiny” piebald filly – and we’re talking really tiny here. A number of catalogue entries give the current height as 22”, with parents of 30” or 31”. One filly’s mother is listed as being only 29”, and any broken-coloured blood in the foal’s ancestry is emphasised.

Of the 40 fillies sold, only four were plain colours – two black, two chestnut, and one of the blacks was the only filly sold for under £100. Seven larger foals were sold for prices between £105 and £190, and the rest – all miniature, all broken coloured – went for between £200 and £350. The five that gained prices over £500 were all miniature, and all unusually coloured – cremello, blue and white, cream skewbald.

The top price of the show, £1176, went to a licensed palomino stallion, 31”.

For more on the impact of the econmic crisis on British native ponies, check here (the negelct of semi-feral horses in South Wales), here (abandoned and dying ponies on Bodmin), and here (the culling of Dartmoor ponies). Prices are down at sales from the New Forest to the northern most isles, and both Dartmoor Hill Ponies and New Forests are being treated with contraceptives in an effort to end the sheer wastage of ponies. I can’t link directly to a piece on the charity Equine Market Watch’s website about falling prices and the way that UK legislation lets ponies down (they are not classified as agricultural animals and hence lack the protection that cattle and sheep have), but click on through. It’s called November 2011 Market Value of Ponies Plummets. This kind of news has been cropping up regularly since 2008.

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:

The Price of Cuteness

I’d like to say straight off that I’m not a vet, also that to read this post properly you will have to click on a lot of links and read the material sourced at other sites in order to make up your own mind about this story. Anyone who is a vet is welcome to chime in and tell me if I’ve gotten something wrong, or been unintentionally misleading.

Several newspapers and media outlets are currently featuring the story of Minxy, a miniature horse recently born in Cornwall, whose owners are appealing for donations to raise £6,000 for operations on Minxy’s legs.

Here is a high-quality miniature horse foal for sale for £2,000 on the British Miniature Horse Society’s website. Notice that it “does exactly what it says on the tin” – i.e. it looks like a horse shrunk with a ray gun. Its legs are relatively long for its body, straight and well-conformed.

Now look at Minxy. And Minxy without his splints.

The owner talked to This is Cornwall:

“He needed feeding every half-hour and couldn’t stand to suckle from his mother,” said Ms Morris, who moved the pint-sized pony to her home to continue caring for him. “He was around six weeks premature and not fully formed. His legs were severely twisted.”

About £1,600 has already been spent on vets’ bills splinting Minxy’s legs to help straighten them and wrapping them in bandages each day.

“His front legs have become a lot stronger but his back legs will need pinning. He needs a scan which costs £800 per leg plus around £4,000 to operate.”

As others have pointed out, Minxy’s legs are not twisted because Minxy was premature. Minxy’s legs are probably twisted because Minxy suffers from dwarfism, and he was probably born early because Nature tries to press “eject” on pregnancies that are going awry. If you’re in the UK you can watch footage of him trying to walk here.

Furthermore:

“Minxy also has problems with his throat. His teeth are growing to the back of his mouth and could block his airway, so he will need an operation to fix that,” she said.

This is a complication of brachiocephalism, the feature of dwarfism that gives Minxy that bulge-y “My Little Pony” head and curves his muzzles down like a beak or a claw. He’s reportedly already had pneumonia twice in ten weeks of life.

This site claims that the mortality rate for miniature horse foals in the USA is one in three; with due care and attention this can be reduced to one in ten. Needless to say, this is still ridiculously high. Here’s a memorial site for dwarf horses produced by US breeders. Notice that most of them live a few months at most.

So, what does the future hold for Minxy if he doesn’t succumb to another bout of pneumonia and end up like the poor wee things in Horsie Heaven?

Here’s a pony like Minxy being kept in an equine “wheelchair”.

Here’s another dwarf mini called Koda between his leg and skull operations, doing well, it seems, although whether his deformities were as severe as Minxy’s is unclear. He appears to be leading a relatively normal life. Once again, however, this is a numbers game, because horses have a poor survival rate with general anaesthesia.

Koda was lucky. There’s a good Horse and Hound summary of the risks here. The risks of fatality stand as follows:

  • 1 in 110 for healthy horses
  • 1 in 8 for horses undergoing colic surgery
  • 1 in 20 for horses having fracture repair surgery
  • 1 in 900 for cats
  • 1 in 1,800 for dogs
  • 1 in 10,000 for humans

For a pony like Minxy who is already very sick, the odds of surviving repeated operations are pretty poor. Furthermore, the recovery period is crucial. Horses’ digestive and respiratory systems have evolved to function best when the horse is moving more or less constantly. In the wild, horses spend very little time either on their sides or immobile (they sleep for only 3 hours out of 24, and usually stand to do it as the weight of their internal organs is not well supported when they are prone), and horses recuperating from leg operations usually spend time in cross ties or even slings to immobilise them.

The most famous recent example is the American racehorse Barbaro who broke down catastrophically and publicly in the 2006 Preakness Stakes. Wikipedia has a blow-by-blow breakdown of his subsequent operations and the eight months he spent being treated for the complications resulting from that initial treatment. One operation turned into many, and the horse finally had to be euthanized when three his legs became laminitic as a result of taking the weight for his injured right hind leg.

So, what do you think Minxy’s future holds?

Incidentally, the UK currently has a surplus of native ponies, which I’ve written about here, here and, in most detail, here. In February the Mail reported that dead ponies were found on Bodmin Moor, not far from Minxy’s home. It would cost a lot less than £6,000 to snap up some ponies at UK markets, worm them, feed them and train them up till they had some value and were less likely to be sold for zoo meat. Dartmoors, New Forests, Welshies and Exmoors may not be the smallest ponies in the world, but I think they’re pretty damn cute.

 

UPDATE: Minxy was put down in early August, on vets’ advice.