The University of Pennsylvania’s Semi-Feral Pony Herd: Why Are They So Healthy?

I was “flipping through” the latest edition of the online horse health newsletter distributed by The Horse.com.  

There was article after article about the health problems of captive horses (not surprising as “horse health” is, of course, the subject of the newsletter) and I was struck by how frequently the same “identify, control and contain” advice was given.  It boils down to “horses infect each other, occasionally humans and other animals, with pathogens that cause disesase in some of these animals; most likely the individuals with some type of immune system compromise.”  The way to prevent the spread of these diseases is to identify the “carrier horse,” control the horse and handler’s environment with hand and shoe washing, trailer washing, stall washing, etc., etc., and contain the horse by keeping it out of contact with other horses (no travel, no shared water, no shared pasture).  Some attention is paid to keeping the immune system healthy, but mostly it is “identify, control and contain.”  

I am all for hand-washing and “hygienic practices” in general.  My father actually taught us that “cleanliness is next to godliness.”  But I think this advice is impossible to practice perfectly in horse-keeping, ineffective in the long run and actually counter-productive if it causes horse handlers to keep horses in isolation.

Horse behaviorist Sue McDonnell, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, has maintained a semi-feral herd of Sheltland-sized ponies since 1994 at the university’s New Bolton Center so that their health and social interaction could be observed.

Perhaps the most striking overall observation is that with modest preventive health care, minimal supplementary feeding  in deep winter, and almost no other veterinary care or human intervention, these ponies thrive nutritionally and reproduce prolifically.  Mares are continually fertile, have very little reproductive wastage or difficulty, with no need for veterinary intervention.  Hoof health remains excellent in most cases with minimal need for hoof trimming or other care.  Lameness and colic are almost non-existent.  Laminitis has not occurred in any case in the 11 years of the project.  We are interested in understanding the factors contributing to their extraordinary good health and fertility compared to similar stock kept under domestic conditions.

One of those things that “everyone knows” about horses and yet is so frequently ignored in the keeping of horses, including my own, is that “the horse is a social species.”  My own horse has lived in partial isolation much of his life.  When I first met him, he was part of a bachelor herd of geldings that lived together in a small field.  I think of that time as the best time of his life.  He had his buddies around, lessons to watch in the adjacent arena, and room to move around.  It was not perfect–nothing is in this life–but not bad for a captive horse.

Since that time, he has been kept in a stall attached to an arena (with turn-out time with his buddies), in a stall alone while recovering from colic surgery, in a pasture alone (again while in recovery), in a field with several other geldings (not his buddies), in a pen alone (stall rest ordered for a muscle pull; possibly injured while out in the field), in a paddock alone (same reason) and now in an outdoor pen with shelter and solitary turnout.  I know this is not optimal but we are working back toward pasture with buddies.  My challenge is getting him healthy and sound enough (emotionally and physically) to behave as nature intended, as a good member of a herd.  Easier said than done.  

I want to be as certain as possible that his introduction to a new herd is well-managed, or to re-unite him with a former buddy so that we can avoid injury and emotional distress that could compromise his immune system.  At the same time, I am convinced that living in relative isolation is not good for his overall health and I am resolved to get him to a point that he may comfortably be turned out with compatible horses.

Every account I have read online of horse introductions in human-controlled environments is loaded with caveats and “dust ups.”  Horses in nature have a lot of room to get away from horses that are incompatible or competition, but our captive horses need to “work things out” in unnatural environments.  

How do we respect the social needs of horses, including their right to select their own companions?

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