Thursday, March 10, 2011

10th March, 2011 The Price of Freedom

At a secret location, on a triple SI site, somewhere in my area, I was asked to meet two rather special ponies. Gromit is a New Forest stallion who has being living out on this small but wild environment right next to housing and an industrial estate for many years. He lives with a New Forest mare but they have never produced a foal and they both perform an important role in conserving this site as naturally a possible. However, Gromit's feet have grown very long and although he will let the ranger put a headcollar on him, he pulls back and either breaks or slips his halter every time the poor farrier tries to get to his feet. Although seemingly friendly, the pony is highly reactive and apt to kick when he says no. My job was to see whether he was trainable. In most circumstances it is questionable whether it is wise to train a conservation pony when there are likely to be lots of people using the site for walking their dogs or taking a breath of fresh air. The ponies can become pushy and dangerous if they are indiscriminately hand fed. However, this site is so boggy that people don't tend to go there and the ponies are already happy to be touched around their front ends. Gromit is simply being a typical wild stallion when he objects to his legs being touched - his natural, automatic instinct is to bite or fold his leg as he would with another horse. Unfortunately he couldnt be persuaded to go into the pen on this occasion so I had to see what could be done out in the open. I used advance and retreat with the feather duster and gave him a click and treat when he allowed me to touch him. In time I was able to go all the way down both of his front legs and the backs too although he did demonstrate his mighty kick on one occasion. This at least proved that progress was possible and I am hoping that I will be asked to be involved in the future. In the meantime however it is likely that he will have to be sedated or confined in order to get his feet trimmed as a matter of urgency.

One of the downsides of treating horses like stock is that they become more and more difficult to handle over time rather than staying the same as cows may do. Like it or not, horses are not stock animals; they are more sensitive and reactive.

Using ponies for conservation grazing definitely has its pros, cons and ethical dilemmas. Mike Graper (2005) says: "My philosophy is that 'wild' horses get to live and die like wild horses, and tame horses get to see veterinarians; it is up to the owner to make conditions safe for the horse and for the vet". For conservation organisations it isn't as simple as that, whilst they can live in hope that the ponies will never need a vet or a farrier, one day a pony will need medical assistance or to be put down and the eyes of the public are upon them, especially on these small sites. People grow fond of the ponies and are more alert to their disappearance or neglect than they would be with cows or sheep where (most) people accept that they go off for slaughter. For this reason, Exmoor ponies make fantastic conservation animals as they rarely get into trouble with their feet but they are often so wild that medical treatment for ailments such as colic are almost impossible and sedation/anaesthesia is terribly risky. New Forest and Dartmoor Hill Ponies are also excellent conservation animals but more likely to become over friendly and far more likely to need attention for their feet.

The value of ponies as conservation animals has long been recognised. These unpaid employees do an amazing job and avoid the need for mechanical farming techniques on environmentally sensitive pieces of land.