The pleasures and pitfalls of managing ponies
RJ is quirky, quick, and opinionated. Ashlee is a fluffy butterball who’s so small she can slip through nearly any fence. Goldie’s often grumpy and goes borderline laminitic at the first whiff of spring grass.
RJ, Ashlee, and Goldie are Charles Sturt University project ponies. Equitation scientist Hayley Randle, PhD, of the university’s School of Animal and Veterinary Science, adopted them and keeps them at home near Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia. With their specific needs, her herd epitomizes the management challenges that go along with owning—and loving—ponies.
“I often find that people with horses take on ponies thinking they’re easy because they’re little, like having a little dog around,” Randle says. “But they actually have a lot more requirements than a big horse. You have to be a lot more rigorous and keep a really close eye on what’s going on with them.”
In this article we’ll look at what makes managing ponies special—from their critical need for nutritional supervision to their often feisty personalities.
Health Risks: Laminitis and PPID
Most pony breeds evolved in the harsh conditions of Northern Europe, living in bitter cold and thriving on low-quality forage. That background might help explain why they’re more at risk of developing laminitis (a hoof disease that causes the tissues suspending the coffin bone within the hoof capsule to become damaged and inflamed) than many horse breeds, especially on certain diets, says Pat Harris, MA, VetMB, PhD, Dipl. ECVCN, MRCVS, equine nutritionist and head of the WALTHAM Equine Studies group in the U.K. In a recent study she and her collaborators revealed that a significant risk factor for laminitis was simply being a cold-blooded-type breed measuring under 14.3 hands, such as Shetland, Fell, Welsh, and Dartmoor ponies.
Prone to insulin dysregulation, ponies risk getting laminitis from consuming even moderate levels of starch and sugars in supplemental feeds as well as from fresh grass and even hay. Good pony management therefore requires careful individual feeding to maintain metabolic health, she says.
Harris says ponies might also be prone to pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), or equine Cushing’s disease, but that’s under debate (though researchers have linked abnormal sweating, decreased athletic behavior, delayed shedding, loss of muscle mass, and weight loss to animals with PPID, those clinical signs aren’t size-dependent). Veterinarians make a PPID diagnosis based on plasma concentrations of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), but ACTH values vary significantly by season, and new research indicates they might naturally vary more in ponies during the fall.
“We have perhaps recognized that certain breed effects previously reported may have been complicated by breed variations in plasma ACTH concentrations, as we are now aware that some pony breeds may show larger autumnal increases than horses,” she says.
A Tendency Toward Obesity
Ponies might eat more than many horses do, says Harris. Whereas healthy adult horses typically consume up to 2.5% of their body weight per day in “dry matter” (DM—essentially, forage) on pasture, many ponies can consume up to 4% of their body weight or more in DM when it’s available. Further, they can eat about 1% of their body weight in DM within three hours of turnout, she says.
“A moderately sized pony out on good-quality grass in theory could eat sufficient energy to power a racing Thoroughbred,” she says.
Not surprisingly, ponies often end up obese, Harris says, putting them at greater risk of laminitis as well as increasing their joint loading and reducing performance. In a recent survey of nearly 500 ponies in the U.K., Harris and her fellow researchers found that 72% were obese.
Controlling ponies’ body weight requires good monitoring skills, Harris says. “Learn how to apply a body condition scoring system, and take pictures regularly to remind you of how their condition may be changing,” she says, adding that it’s critical to feel them to get an accurate body condition score rather than just looking at them. She also recommends tape-measuring specific areas—the barrel (heart girth), belly (at its widest), rump width, and neck circumference—and keeping good records of these measurements. “Discuss any changes with your veterinarian,” she says.
Increasing exercise—either by working them (riding, longeing, hand-walking) or encouraging free movement (with a pasture track system or arena turnout)—can also help manage weight and insulin dysregulation, Harris adds.
Overall, preventing weight gain is a far better strategy than trying to get ponies to lose it after they’ve gained, she says. In particular, owners should identify “very food-orientated individuals” to help them maintain an appropriate weight using exercise and careful management tactics.
Pastured Pony Challenges
Ponies’ worst enemy might be the green grass they graze on, our sources say. Reducing their intake of sweet grass—which is essentially most pasture grasses—is critical to their health and well-being, keeping their weight down and reducing metabolic and laminitis risks.
But keeping a pony from grazing grass can be challenging. You not only have to find ways to meet their outdoor foraging needs but also get around their apparent cleverness.
For example, many ponies figure out how to take off—or eat through—their grazing muzzles, says Karen Briggs, certified riding coach and equine nutritionist in Alliston, Ontario. These muzzles allow ponies to stay outdoors on pasture and pick up a little bit of grass—depending on the model—which is good for their welfare. However, “ponies will go to extraordinary lengths to get rid of them,” Briggs says. “My Hackney-cross mare had hers well-attached to her head, and she still managed to ditch it at least twice a day.”
Randle has tried keeping her ponies in an overgrazed lot, with constant access to low-sugar hay, fenced within the larger, greener pasture so they can still feel like part of the herd. But the smallest one, Ashlee, finds ways to get through the fence—either going between barriers or under them.
Strip-grazing is one practical solution for managing ponies at pasture, she says. With this technique, owners can keep ponies on an overgrazed section of pasture and move the fence over about 12 inches every day, depending on fence length and grass height. This lets the ponies have one long strip of green grass every day that they can graze down to the nub without overeating. The challenge with strip-grazing, though, isn’t so much the ponies trying to get through the fence as moving the fence itself, especially when the ground gets hard, and it becomes difficult to drive posts into the soil.
Pasture management is also critical with strip-grazing, because ponies might consume more sand, weeds, or even toxic plants if grass isn’t available, adds Harris.
Once you find the right containment system, consider the dynamics of your pony herd, says Christine Nicol, PhD, of the Royal Veterinary College in Hertfordshire, in the U.K. If several ponies share the same lot, they probably won’t be sharing the available grass equally, she says. So you also have to watch each pony’s behavior. If they’re relaxed while they eat, they’ll consume more. If they frequently stop eating to look around—watching for more dominant ponies approaching, for example—they’ll take in less forage. Knowing the individuals in your herd can help you pinpoint ponies that might need more or less muzzle time or access to grass strips. “Being aware of group dynamics might help manage the weight of certain individuals,” she says.
Hay Can Be Risky, Too
Ponies can also gain weight just eating hay, says Miranda Dosi, DVM (Hons) MRCVS, an equine medical resident at the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, in Scotland. In her recent study of 40 mixed-breed ponies, she and her colleagues found that when they ate about 1.5% of their body weight in hay every day, 80% became about 5% heavier within three months.
Owners can reduce rations, of course, but another solution could be replacing some of the hay with clean, high-quality unchopped barley straw. In their pilot experiment Dosi’s team found that the ponies lost an average of 5% of their body weight over three months when eating rations of 50% hay and 50% barley straw. Although none of the study ponies experienced colic, it’s important to monitor ponies closely when feeding straw in case they’re prone to impaction colic, she adds.
A potential downside to restricting ponies’ food intake—be it grass or hay—is reduced foraging time. To keep them happy, owners should try to prolong eating times, such as by using small-holed haynets, and “consider ways to enrich their environment,” Harris says.
“If ponies’ feet aren’t too small and aren’t shod, people can try nets with tiny holes that go over entire bales,” says Randle. “They can also spread hay out so ponies have to search for it, invent (safe) slow feeders, or hang nets from trees.”
As Randle mentioned, keeping little equids inside enclosures can be challenging simply due to their size. “Containing these guys is really something to consider in their management,” she says, adding that Ashlee just “climbs right through fences to the grass on the other side.”
Adding rows of electrical tape between fence boards and under the lowest board can help keep ponies safely where they belong, she says. It’s important to ensure these lines are stretched tight so ponies can’t push through areas with slack.
Pony Coats and Thermodynamics
Cold, windy northern environments caused native ponies to develop thick winter coats and, sometimes, extra-bushy manes and tails, Randle says. Therefore, it’s rare they need blankets in winter; on the contrary, they’re likely to get too hot in them. Some ponies—depending on their body condition, coat type, job, and climate—might benefit from body-clipping during warmer months to help them thermoregulate.
“I even cut off the underpart of Goldie’s mane,” Randle says of her retired Shetland whose 2-inch-thick mane makes him hot during Australian summers.
Equids convert food energy into heat to warm their bodies in cold weather, which can be an effective way to help some overweight ponies shed pounds, says Harris. “Consider very strongly whether you need to use a rug in the winter for those individuals that are prone to weight gain or are already overweight,” she says, adding that if they really need one (for example, to stay clean), choose a lightweight type. Importantly, handlers should remove blankets regularly to check ponies’ physical health and body condition, she says.
Many ponies have a reputation for being cheeky or naughty, says Randle. While it’s possible this is a genetic trait—perhaps as breeders unwittingly selected for it when going for “cuteness”—she says it likely has a strong training component.
“I have a theory,” says Randle. “You see this with dogs sometimes, too. People see Jack Russells as little and cute, and they don’t train them the same way as big dogs. And I think a lot of people do the same thing with ponies, especially the tiniest ones.”
Unwanted behavior, even in small equids, can be a safety hazard as well as a welfare issue. If they snap, bite, kick, run off, pull away, barge, or refuse to stand still, they can hurt someone.
As with any equid, owners should first rule out sources of pain that might cause problem behaviors—and poor welfare—Randle says. But if it’s just classic pony cheekiness, it’s possible they’ve learned an inappropriate behavior, which owners should avoid or correct through learning theory principles. Using techniques such as well-timed positive and negative reinforcement, handlers can teach ponies good practical behavior just like they can with horses.
“When we adopted Ashlee, they told us it took three people to wash her,” says Randle. “After 10 minutes of learning theory, I was washing her by myself while she stood still.”
While owning ponies can be a delightful experience, don’t consider it an easy alternative to managing horses, our sources say. Ponies have special nutritional challenges that make them not just “little horses.” With good science-based knowledge, owners can ensure they’re managing their pony herds with optimum health and welfare in mind.