Something a Bit Different

My normal work finished for Christmas last week, and I’ve got a nice long week to try to tick off some of my to-do list without adding to the bottom of it. However, today was the final Pony Club rally of the year.

Having only just taken over the role of chief instructor for this branch of the Pony Club, I’m still working out what members want in terms of rallies, as well as how I can improve their knowledge and ability within the equestrian world.

I had thought early on that I would like to see more stable management rallies, and to improve the children’s off horse knowledge. The obvious place to start is with the achievement badge scheme, run by the Pony Club. Fabric badges are available for a huge variety of subjects – points of the horse, poisonous plants, first aid, to name a few. They’re aimed at primary school aged children, and as they love receiving souvenirs, we decided to begin doing more badge rallies. I’ve also designed a rewards system for when the children achieve five, ten, fifteen, twenty and so on badges. A little prize or gift will be a great motivator for them, and hopefully by learning through the badge rallies their efficiency tests will seem easier.

With this in mind, we planned a stable management rally for the Christmas holidays. I suggested that because the weather was risky, the evenings dark, and parents so busy in the run up to Christmas, that we combined the lecture with an off horse, indoor activity. Then it doesn’t matter on the weather, parents can use those couple of hours for some last minute shopping or wrapping, and the children can have some fun.

So I sweet talked my farrier into providing me with some pony sized horse shoes. He cleaned them up for me and I had them sprayed silver so they won’t rust. Then I bought some ribbon, beads, glue and a lot of glitter!

I decided to teach the kids about the native breeds of the United Kingdom, so they could go home with that badge. Of course I had to revise my own knowledge, but I didn’t want to bore them to tears by just talking at them. I decided to ask them questions to engage them, to bring along one or my breed books which has photographs of all the native breeds, and to show them when the different breeds originated on a map.

As we discussed each breed, a child came and put the label on the correct area on the map.

To finish the lecture, I decided on a group exercise. I printed out a photo of each breed with six statements – the name of the breed, their height, two statements of distinguishing features (usually colour and something about their body shape), their original job, and what they are used for nowadays. Within each statement I tried to provide clues (e.g.”this Scottish breed of horse stands 13.2-14.2hh, slightly bigger than it’s cousin the Eriskay”). I laminated everything and cut the statements out into small strips.

Then of course I couldn’t match the statements to the picture myself, so I had to make the exercise easier! In the end I split the children into three groups and gave each group five sets of cards, all muddled up. Within each group I put one draught horse, and divided the other breeds up so that the similar ones weren’t in the same group. For example, I separated Fells and Dales, and Exmoor and Dartmoors.

I was really pleased with the children’s attempts at this exercise. There was some level of deduction, some debating about the meanings of the phrases, and some even remembered the facts I’d just told them!

Each group had an older helper to assist them, and read out the sentences if necessary, and I circulated, checking how they were getting on, and giving hints and encouragement to the sometimes lively debates. They soon matched all of the cards to the correct breed and then we did the fun bit!

Let’s just say that glitter went everywhere! But the shoes looked brilliant and the children had great fun.

Feedback was very positive, with happy parents, and the children proudly showed off their badges and horse shoes.

Today was a different rally, but really fun to do. I don’t think we’ll do crafts at every badge rally, but it’s certainly one to remember for next winter. I thought I might do a colouring competition, or design a poster, at a future badge rally where they can put their new found knowledge to good use. Then when the weather is warmer we can do the outdoor stable management, such as the grooming badge, and tie it in with a lesson.

Our Native Rare Breeds

I read a fascinating article a few weeks ago about The Welsh Ponies. Growing up in Wales, they were everywhere, but I do remember some talk in later years about them not getting very good prices at the auctions, particularly those fresh off the mountains.

There was also a paragraph about a small group of Welsh ponies, in the Carneddau mountains, that has recently been genetically tested and has been found to be genetically unique. This means that although genetically related to the Welsh Section A, they separated about 400 years ago and are now a distinct population which should be maintained and encouraged to thrive. The latest population estimate I could find online was 2015, which suggested there are 100-150 ponies. Which isn’t very many if you think about it!

Then I did some reading up on our other native breeds. It’s scary really, that a lot of them are actually on the endangered lists.

On the critical list, which means there are less than 300 registered breeding mares, are the Cleveland Bay, Eriskay Pony, Suffolk Punch, Dales Pony, and Hackney Pony. The endangered list, with less than 500 breeding mares, has the Dartmoor Pony and the Exmoor Pony. On the vulnerable list, with less than 900 breeding mares, are the Clydesdale, the Highland Pony and the Fell Pony. With less than 1500 breeding mares, the New Forest Pony and Shire are on the at risk group. Only the Shetland Pony and Welsh Pony and Cob have more than 3000 registered breeding mares.

These ponies and horses are part of our heritage, and I think we need to do more to help them. That doesn’t mean you should go and breed from your Shetland mare, or keep an unsuitable stallion entire and so inhibit his quality of life, but I think we should aim to buy or breed more pure bred natives instead of crossing them with a warmblood or thoroughbred to create a horse  that is more athletic and sporty. 

Yes the native ponies are hardy, which makes them good doers, and are full of character. But you need to have character to survive on the Scottish Isles, or out on the moors. I think sometimes owners are put off from having native ponies because they can be cheeky, but our ancestors only bred those which were easily trainable and friendly towards humans. Which means that a good routine and training will hone a cheeky temperament. Bad breeding and poor management in the last couple of generations has left us with some anti social types. 

I think with the recent problems the U.K. has had of overbreeding, not breeding good quality animals that are sellable, and the financial recession has led to a lot of horses being dumped. Some die, but some survive, which means they invariably mingle with our native breeds and dilute the gene pool. For example, I saw an advert not so long ago for a coloured New Forest Pony. Now call me colourist, but New Forests are supposed to be of solid colour. Which means that, whilst this pony is probably lovely, it should not be classified as a purebred. A coloured mare was probably dumped in the forest, and produced a foal from a randy New Forest stallion. Making it only fifty percent New Forest. Even if a horse looks typical of the breed, these other genes could cause it to become over height, or create unknown physical defects in the future (and after it has been passported), all of which lower the quality of the breed, particularly if this horse is bred from later in life.

I applaud the work done by the conservationists to round up the wild ponies, count them, register them, sell some, castrate the less desirable males, because these people are working on increasing the population, improving the quality of the breed whilst keeping it true to type, improving the diversity of the gene pool, as well as raising awareness for their cause. 

But the general public also needs to get involved. Don’t dump your unwanted horse where they could hinder a native breed, by breeding or fighting over territory. Research your breeds to find your suitable horse or pony; don’t breed willy nilly, and think carefully about mixing breeds – as with dogs, sometimes you get a good one but more often than not, they are just mediocre.

This new fashion of cross breeding does mean that we are seeing a decline in breed purity and standard, be they native or foreign, equine or horse. Which is sad, and I think it will cause problems in the future. After all, we’re meddling in evolution. 

Some may say that native breeds aren’t suitable for the sports disciplines they want to compete in. But be realistic with your goals. A native pony such as a Connemara is perfectly capable of jumping around a one metre course. And other breeds, like the Welsh, are perfectly capable of pulling of brilliant dressage tests up to elementary level. By the way, has anyone seen the Native Championships that British Dressage introduced last year? I think it’s a great idea and can’t wait for eventing and showjumping to follow in their footsteps. Other breeds may not be able to jump or dance, but they make sturdy and reliable hacking horses, or have the temperament to tolerate children all day, every day. Anyway, if your horse is trainable, friendly and lovable, you will find an area of horsemanship that you will both enjoy immensely.