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Weather plays havoc with ponies

I feel almost guilty submitting a photograph of a fat, healthy, happy pony playing in the snow when I know that there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of others in less than favourable conditions at present.

Worst still, the immediate future looks even bleaker for them as the cold weather continues and the cost of feed rises. I wish that I could blame it on the extreme weather conditions alone – however, the problem extends beyond that. The stark reality of the situation is that there are too many horses and ponies round the country. Unlike cattle, sheep and pigs, we don’t eat our equines and, heaven forbid that we witness the day in Scotland when we breed them for the table. However, many of our critics would scorn this ideal for not only is it perfectly logical to eat horse meat but it would also take our excess equines out of the market fairly rapidly when prices are as low as they are at present. Satisfying a home market would also go a long way to reducing the traffic of horses and ponies making long and often uncomfortable journeys to the markets of Europe. Better they end their days close to home than end them in some unsavoury abattoir in a distant land. Unfortunately, there are people whose love of horses overcame their sense of responsibility when they went out and bought or possibly bred one. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that the vast majority of owners are completely responsible and many personally do without for their animals. But love alone is not able to sustain a living animal when its needs exceed the capability of its owner’s care either physical or financial. Certainly, the financial crisis has precipitated a higher level of animal welfare issues and the situation looks to becoming worse. Thankfully, there are people out there who care for equines and their owners’ plight and are prepared to do something about it. I was heartened to read a note about caring for equines during wintry conditions on the opening page of the BHS Scotland website. Well done them for getting their priorities right and what sound practical advice it was at that. On the nationwide BHS website, there is a contact telephone number for anyone concerned about caring for their horse and pony during the current weather conditions with members of the society’s welfare department ready to offer advice or assistance. Amazingly I also came across exactly the same type of information on the Hurlingham Polo Association’s website – who would have imagined that such a prestigious association, the home of the game of polo and its governing body, would be offering such a service? Pith-hats off to the polo pony administrators. A friend in Hampshire has recently chosen not to donate to an animal welfare charity but to give a neglected foal a home with a view to rearing it to riding age then find it a good home. This is one of the lucky ones however there are many sad stories currently going around concerning those that are not so lucky. For example there is the case of 10 colt foals that were abandoned in a terrible state of health but rescued by the Society for the Welfare of Horse and Ponies which will castrate them and eventually find them suitable homes. The animal lover in me commends this good gesture but the pragmatist questions why they weren’t humanely destroyed since surely the very costly act of ‘saving’ them puts at risk the welfare of others as they add to the global numbers of ponies being kept in the country. If we plan to make a real difference to the equine population in Britain, perhaps it is to the current foal population that we should look to address this by a radical organised cull by the welfare and breed societies. By making cheap foals available to the ‘knacker’ man, surely we are obligating our responsibilities as equine lovers. This is a hard one to call and most controversial, but perhaps we have to face the reality of the situation for the greater good of the horse and pony population in the long term. Ultimately it will be a combination of fewer owners and fewer breeders that makes a real difference to the welfare of the equine in Britain. I was interested to recently read comments attributed to Welsh Assembly Shadow Rural Affairs minister and Welsh breeder and judge, Brynle Williams. I share both his concern of the prospect of a crisis in horse welfare this winter and his view that the industry cannot continue to produce unwanted equines in such numbers. From comments I have gleaned round the country, I understand that there is welcome news that some breeders have reduced the numbers of mares put in foal for next year, which is a welcome start to addressing the problem. Without trying to sound elitist, it is the bottom end of the market that needs to be first addressed as this is where the bulk of the unwanted equines emanates. Other than appealing to those currently breeding horses and ponies of a lower standard to reduce their numbers, it is difficult to know how the over-breeding can be stopped without infringing human rights. On the matter of infringing rights, I came to grief at the Ponies UK judges’ conference that I mentioned in last month’s column. The the evaluation forms indicated that it went well. However, there was a lively discussion on one aspect of judging protocol which left the meeting divided. It concerned whether or not the judge(s) should place the class in a rough order following the preliminary ‘go round’ as an integral part of their assessment of the class. While I strongly advocated that this should be a mandatory aspect of the judging process, several judges present strongly disagreed. I have to admit that I enjoyed the ‘banter’ but the only argument that I could glean from my opposition was the disappointment felt by those whose horses or ponies were regularly given a low pull in the class. Generally, it was felt that this disappointment escalated over a period of time and those exhibitors lost heart and fell by the wayside. While sympathising, I argued that the answer was not to change the judging system, but to help such exhibitors with a reality check through education. At some point they have to realise that their animal is not fit for purpose, their rider or handler isn’t capable of producing a winning performance or their own production is not up to the mark. Most of us have started at the bottom and been a bit disappointed but the answer is not to feed our deflated egos by some sort of ‘kidology’ or the ‘smoking mirrors’ of class management as proposed by the ‘no pull-in’ lobby. With dwindling class sizes and reduced memberships of the showing societies, there is an obvious need to encourage all levels of exhibitors to take part. I am sure this is the theory behind the latest move by the British Show Pony Society (BSPS) which has introduced an attractive new championship series to showing called the Bright Stars Performance Supreme, especially designed to introduce new exhibitors to the BSPS. Affiliation for shows is free and exhibitors do not need to be members to compete or qualify. While I applaud the BSPS for recognising this need, I feel that this society has recently deserted its first principles by literally entering the arena at Olympia, in 2011, with a mountain and moorland championship under their ‘Heritage’ banner. In response to their own question: ‘What is the BSPS?’ the BSPS website states that: ‘Founded in October, 1949, the British Show Pony Society is a family orientated society which aims to improve the showing of ‘the childrens’ riding pony’ by promoting classes and competitions for childrens’ show ponies, show hunter ponies and working hunter ponies.’ Where does the new Olympia Heritage Championship square with this? What a marvellous opportunity missed by the very society with the promotion of the British riding pony at its very heart. Would it not have been a marvellous spectacle to bring plaited ponies back to a ‘London’ show albeit less conventional format as required by the organisers? I As for the NPS’ loss of the venue, who can be sorry for a society that has doggedly remained in a time warp watching the rest of the world pass by? There is no question that their ridden mountain and moorland championship at Olympia gave native breeds a great boost when first introduced and remained a prime motivator for many years. However, a history of flawed and misguided decisions over rules for the competition, including one which went through three series of voting by members in order to achieve the desired result, only to be thrown out literally months after its inception, was surely a key element of its demise. As much as I don’t agree with the focus of the new BSPS championship, full marks to them for posing a challenge – and winning. Following the embarrassment of losing their flagship event, there is some evidence that the NPS Council is starting to think ‘out of the box’ as there will be a new time and venue for the former ridden championship along with the introduction of two new championships. The NPS grand prix final for open ridden natives replaces the old Olympia championship and the new championships include a ‘champion of champions’ and another for show and show hunter ponies as yet to be described. These have been pencilled in for an Autumn Festival to be staged in November, 2011. Has the council not learned anything from their recent set-back? Has it not noticed that exhibitors struggle to keep their show animals in condition for the Horse of the Year Show, in October, so why a month later? What’s wrong with promoting its own summer championships at Malvern, in August? Generously, Grandstand Media has thrown the NPS a life-line by offering an overall native ridden championship that brings together the Horse of the Year Show’s own mountain and moorland championships into an overall award on the last day with an NPS banner. Thankfully, the show’s organisers will continue to handle the organisation of this championship, the judges and the various qualifiers, so it is assured success. This is one of several moves recently announced by Grandstand that demonstrates, as I have often written previously, their dominant role within the showing industry. Arguably the most significant announcement amidst news of new classes for Highland ponies and ‘maxi’ cobs, has been the lifting of the restrictive practice of membership and registration of ponies for the plaited classes at the show. Surely it can be only a matter of time before horse exhibitors enjoy the same freedom. At a time of rising costs, this will make a financial difference to exhibitors in a practical way. We wait with anticipation for the next steps Grandstand Media will make aimed at making the show more competitor friendly.