Project Rehab: Feral Ponies

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Skinny horse - feral rescue pony
Photo by Anna Krivitskaya/Shutterstock

It was obvious that the two little feral ponies wanted absolutely nothing to do with humans. They huddled together at the far end of the paddock watching us warily. Lonnie sighed and rested her hands on the wooden fence.

“It wasn’t like I wanted two ponies, but I couldn’t leave them there, Dr. Diehl. They would have ended up on the meat truck for sure.”

Initial Assessment

Lonnie had just come from a large horse sale outside of Denver. She’d been looking for a driving team but came home with two feral ponies instead. While I admired Lonnie’s good intentions, I also knew that she or I could be seriously injured trying to handle them.

Lonnie’s son tossed some hay into the pen and the ponies began to eat, never taking their eyes off of us. We entered their pen slowly and spoke to them in calm voices, but they immediately crowded against the fence, almost climbing over each other in an effort to escape us.

I studied the feral ponies. They were on the thin side, although the smaller mare had a potbelly. Their long manes were tangled and their coats dull; their feet were very overgrown. The larger mare had deep sores on both of her hips and
a swollen hind fetlock. They still had their hip numbers glued in place, which somehow made them look even more pathetic, and I felt a rush of affection for Lonnie, who was going to have her hands full.

“Let’s get them on a good feeding program and we’ll test their manure for parasites and start a deworming protocol,” I said. “Maybe they’ll come around with some good food and handling, and then we’ll be able to do more with them.”
Lonnie nodded, and I could already see the wheels turning in her head. She was an excellent horsewoman, and whatever had previously happened to these little mares, they’d landed well and at least would have a chance for a new life at Lonnie’s place.

Worms Confirmed

That evening I took the manure samples to the small lab in my basement. I mixed the manure with fecal solution and spun the individual containers in my centrifuge, then let them sit for a few minutes with a glass cover slip on top. I lifted off each cover slip, placed them on glass slides, and peered at each through my microscope.

Both slides were a veritable who’s who of the parasite world—each was teeming with a selection of tiny parasite eggs, ranging from tapeworms and ascarids to large and small strongyles.

I chucked the slides into the medical waste container and called Lonnie. Since the ponies would be quarantined for 14 days, there was no risk to the other horses on the farm, but I wanted to start them on a deworming protocol right away. Lonnie promised to compost the contaminated manure properly, and we’d retest them after treatment.

Getting On Their Good Side

Two weeks later, I was on a call near Lonnie’s place and on a whim and decided to stop in and check on things. I started laughing as I pulled in, because Lonnie was sitting in a chair in the middle of the pen reading a book while the ponies munched their hay nearby. She looked up as I got out of the truck and waved happily.

“Grab a chair and come on in!” she shouted.

I spied a folding chair, picked it up quietly, and practically tiptoed over to Lonnie. I gingerly started to unfold the chair, but Lonnie grabbed it and gave it a shake, and the chair snapped open loudly. The ponies jerked their heads up for a minute but soon returned to their food.

“Sit down, Doc! You’re walking around like you’ve peed yourself!”

Lonnie reached in a paper bag at her feet and pulled out two apples, handing me one.
“What are we doing?” I asked.

Lonnie bit into her apple loudly and gestured for me to do the same. She leaned back in her chair, waving the bitten apple around, and one of the little mares took a step toward her, then another. Lonnie pretended not to notice as the pony snatched the apple and retreated quickly, then she winked at me.

Bonus Surprise

When Lonnie was able to reliably get halters on the mares, I did check-ups and shots. The littlest mare flinched but held still as I listened to her heart and lungs. She fought me when
I tried to check her teeth and turned into a demon when I vaccinated her.

The second mare was also uncooperative for the shots, but soon I was tossing my used needles into my sharps container and pulling off my exam gloves.

They were about 8 and 15 years old. The older pony needed X-rays of the bad ankle, but her sores were healing, and Lonnie had been able to remove the hip numbers and cut off some of the worst tangles from their manes. They both had lice, and because they came from an unknown situation, there were other things that also needed to be investigated.

“Lonnie, did they say anything at the sale about the possibility of either mare being bred?”
Lonnie frowned. “No, I don’t think they did. They couldn’t be pregnant, could they?”
I shrugged. “Who knows. But we better check them.”

It was several more weeks before I was able to safely sedate the mares and ultrasound them, and sure enough, the smaller one was about seven months pregnant.
Lonnie was able to track the former owner down, but the man had insisted that the mare couldn’t possibly be bred because the only stud horse around his place was a 17-hand Percheron.

Lonnie and I looked at each other in dismay. A 13-hand pony mare bred to a draft horse? I’d never heard of such a thing and had no idea what to tell Lonnie. I decided to call my mentor, Dr. George Platt, and ask for his advice.

The story of these feral ponies to be continued next month…

This Vet Adventures column about feral ponies appeared in the July 2021 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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