Their manes and tails flying, galloping over the dusty plains or roaming high hillsides of the American West, they answer to no one.
So it is a bit jarring to find a herd of 70 semi-feral ponies roaming a 40-acre stretch of land a mile or so off Route 926 outside Kennett Square, Pa.
They have thrived at the New Bolton Center since 1994 when a group of 26 adult pony mares and stallions arrived from a horse auction at New Holland, Pa. Dr. Sue McDonnell maintains the herd so it can be studied in many aspects—from their day-to-day actions and interactions to their physiology and behavior as it compares to domestic horses.
Known for her down-to-earth explanations of what makes horses tick, McDonnell was raised in a dairy farming family in the anthracite coal regions north of Scranton. She consults worldwide on all types of equine behaviors and has authored books on behavior for both the layperson and equine professional. Still, the project closest to her heart is a study of the Shetland-sized ponies.
Twenty-five furry, fuzzy, frisky foals were anticipated this spring. The animals are not totally wild, but their behavior is consistent with what is known about wild herds. McDonnell says the trade-off is okay. The overwhelming opinion of veterinarians at New Bolton and those that visit is that the ponies are incredibly healthy, requiring little intervention. Literally, they are portraits of health as opposed to the vast majority of domestic horses.
“We have had none of the diseases that are so common among domestically managed horses,” notes McDonnell. “The lack of respiratory disease is likely because the animals are always out in the fresh air rather than in dusty barns, arenas, and trailers. It is also a closed herd, meaning no new animals to introduce disease.”
The ponies receive little handling, and that minimizes stress. They are gentled as foals so they can be handled for blood samples, evaluation for injuries, vaccinations, and anything else researchers might be monitoring. Their pasture diet is supplemented only with salt and mineral blocks and occasionally hay during extremely cold, snowy winters.
Under a bright sky, McDonnell pilots one of her lab’s golf carts through the wide-open spaces. When it comes to a stop, the cart is swarmed by young ponies—typically this year’s foals and their yearling siblings. She introduces the different “bands” of ponies within the herd.
“If you’re calm they”ll will come right up just because of their natural curiosity,” McDonnell explains. “They rarely get treats, and only when they have willingly complied with a procedure or need a little bribe.”
Newborn foals and older adults alike are easily trained, with positive reinforcement-based human animal interaction. That’s opposed to using negative reinforcement and punishment-based training that McDonnell says is the mainstay of domestic horse training methods.
“Working with the herd out in the open pastures makes this abundantly clear,” she says. “It reinfiorces the many laboratory studies in the 1960s and “70s that demonstrated how much more satisfying, efficient, and safe human-animal interaction can be for everyone when using only positive methods.”
One of the most surprising discoveries over the years is that, “The stallions are great dads,” McDonnell says with a broad smile. “In traditional domestic breeding management, mares are bred and are foaled and raise their foals without the sire in the picture. So most behaviorists looked at parental behavior with only mares and their foals. When the stallion is there, he has a lot to do. He plays with the foals, retrieves them if they stray too far from the band, and keeps them in line.”
The ponies” hoof health remains excellent in most cases with self-trimming. Laminitis, the hoof disease that eventually led to Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro’s death at New Bolton, has not occurred in any case in the 16 years of the project.
“They get no foot care, yet have none of the nagging foot problems of domestically managed horses,” McDonnell says. “Many factors may be at play—near continuous movement while foraging 24/7, continuous ingestion of forage, natural hormonal conditions, seasonal variation in nutrition, and possibly less social stress.”
Each year anywhere from 15 to 30 horses are adopted out, often the same numbers as the new foals. From two-year-olds to aged ponies, they wind up all over the country.
“They are adopted mainly through word-of-mouth in the horse community,” McDonnell says. “They could be used as ponies for kids or a quiet companion for an older horse that’s nervous. They are always in demand.”
As a behavioral specialist, McDonnell has spent more than two decades fostering positive changes in what outsiders might term oddballs and misfits. She simply says the horses are misunderstood.
She was thrust into the international spotlight a couple of years ago for her sex therapy treatments on War Emblem, the winner of the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. In 2006 and 2007 the $17 million stallion failed to breed at all.
His owners, the Yoshida family, flew McDonnell to their Shadai Stallion Station in Japan to boost the stallion’s libido. The intensive therapy paid off. He’s made a full recovery and is expected to breed well for years to come.
War Emblem benefited directly from McDonnell’s semi-feral ponies project findings. Having known the ponies from birth she says there is a greater appreciation in the variation of their behavior over time and season. One surprise is the amount of activity in the herd. The ponies are monitored by GPS in real time, and data can be downloaded so they can be continuously tracked. McDonnell and her staff learned that having a mixed age group (stallions, yearlings, two-year- olds) fosters at least 10 times the exercise of a typical mare and foal in a pasture.
“The year-round background average is about 15 to 20 miles a day for the herd,” McDonnell says. “But during breeding and foaling season, as the level of social activity increases, certain ‘busy” stallions may travel as much as 100 miles a day looking after the family or pursuing a young female. Besides fitness, it’s important to their digestive system. Horses are grazing animals so they should be moving all the time.”
The more ground the young ponies cover, the stronger their musculoskeletal development. “Even a few hours per day in a stall with the dam can lead to a measurable reduction in a racehorse foal’s development,” McDonnell says. “The pendulum has swung. Two or three decades ago it was about protecting the very young racehorses. Today, breeders are paying attention and trying to return to as much pasture exercise as possible for growing foals.”