One of the things that attracted me to Fell Ponies is their thriftiness. The flip side is that weight management of these easy-keepers can be pretty challenging. I don’t worry too much about it in the summer, as weight gain in the summer is part of the normal cycle of equine life, especially for Fells. But being a breeder and knowing that excess weight can be a hindrance to successfully breeding mares, I like to see mares start to drop weight after they come off summer pasture, especially those that are not in foal, and then maintain a perfect body weight through the winter.
After more than a decade with the breed, I’ve learned that the easy-keeping qualities of these ponies vary. I’ve also noticed that easy keepers have at least one of three characteristics. For instance, some are fell-bred, so they have those hardiness genes well-embedded in their DNA. Others are the boss of the herd, so they push all other ponies out of their way when it comes to feeding time. And some have a broad snout and big fat lips ideal for eating large volumes of hay quickly. I sometimes call this tendency vacuuming. I have several fell-bred ponies, so I’ve been able to conclude that they tend to be easier keepers than those ponies bred elsewhere. And more often than not, the bosses of my herds are prone to weight gain since no one interferes with them at feeding time.
Then there are the vacuums. I first noticed the vacuuming characteristic with my Norwegian Fjord Horse, Torrin. Even if I divide hay into multiple piles in the paddock he shares with other ponies, because Torrin has a big mouth and big lips, he is able to eat faster than the other ponies, so he gets more than he should and the other ponies get less. If I feed more to keep the other ponies in good flesh, Torrin’s ribs get lost under an unhealthy layer of fat. It’s definitely a management challenge.
I have one Fell Pony mare now who is open (not in foal) and is much heavier than I want her to be. She is the worst kind of easy keeper because she has all three of the characteristics that serve easy-keepers well. She is fell-bred, she is the undisputed boss of her herd, and she has that broad muzzle and fat lips ideal for vacuuming. This past week I realized that my current management of her was making things worse, not better, so this morning I decided it was time to make a change.
Fortunately, I’ve discovered one helpful technique from managing Torrin. I tie the easy -keeper during the first feeding of the day, restricting their access to the herd’s hay until a few hours later. This technique only works with dominant ponies since no one is going to hassle them when they are relatively defenseless because they are tied. This is the only way I’ve been able to manage these easy keepers’ weight, unless I put them into a heavy work routine, which often isn’t possible for me in the winter.
So this morning, my mare who is the worst sort of easy-keeper got tied up during first feeding. Fortunately, these sorts of ponies also are pretty low-key so they don’t argue too much about the management change. We’ll see if I can get this pony looking better or if I have to get even more creative as winter closes in.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012