Fell ponies look like miniature Freisian horses, but look again: this is a unique breed with a long and glorious history. With long feathers and arched necks, they make the loveliest children's ponies, and the sight of them wandering their native Cumbrian countryside is the stuff that wild horse legends are made of.
But their numbers have dropped since World War II, and the gene pool has shrunken to a bottlenecked puddle. Can this breed be saved? The Horse Trust, a UK charity, has given a donation of more than US$200,000 to the Animal Health Trust, a research center known for its work on strangles and orthopedic problems in horses, and the University of Liverpool. The charity has charged them with the task of finding out how to stop Fells Pony Syndrome (FPS).
FPS is a severe immune system disorder that results in the death of some of the newborn foals, further shrinking the breeding stock available to help the breed survive. The breed is listed as "at risk" by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
Foals affected with FPS appear normal at birth but within a few weeks begin to lose condition and suffer diarrhea, coughing and weight loss. Severe anemia and immune dysfunction follows, leading to wasting and finally death. The disease is always fatal.
Studbook analysis and knowledge of affected foals strongly suggests that this is an inherited disease caused by an autosomal recessive genetic mutation. The problem may trace to a single stallion who was a dominant force in the breed. A DNA-based test for this mutation would enable carriers of FPS to be identified and the conception of affected foals prevented.
As well as identifying carriers in the Fell pony population, the project will be used to identify any carriers in other breeds which have been involved in the extensive outbreeding of Fell ponies over the years.
"Breeders are supportive of our attempt to develop a diagnostic test which will help to prevent carrier-carrier matings, one in four of which results in an affected foal," says project leader Dr June Swinburne, senior post-doctoral equine molecular geneticist at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Preventive Medicine. "Foals affected by the condition inherit an incurable genetic defect which results in severe wasting and a profound anaemia together with multiple infections. Veterinary intervention is in vain and once the condition is diagnosed foals are often euthanized. The gradual but relentless decline in these foals leaves both veterinary surgeons and breeders powerless."
According to the Horse Trust, FPS at the moment is restricted to the Fell pony population but could spread to other breeds at any time. Indeed it may be possible that carriers of the condition already exist in other breeds which have interbred with the Fell pony over many years.
Another rare breed, the Dales pony, and other native British breeds will be randomly tested to detect any further penetration of the defect into the equine population.
To learn more: The Horse Trust has one of the best horse charity web sites anywhere on the web. This remarkably generous and insightful organization funds research and welfare projects that benefit horses all over the world, not just in Britain. The Horse Trust was formerly known as the Home of Rest for Horses and has a long tradition of recognizing the welfare and health needs of horses.
The Fell Pony Society is trying to cope with the devastation of their breeding stock and preserve this lovely breed of pony, which dates all the way to the Roman occupation of Britain.
Photo from the Fell Pony Society.