More needs to be done to control a genetic condition behind a debilitating hoof condition in Connemara ponies, a research group believes.
Members of the Connemara Pony Research Group, which has members around the world, are concerned that ponies affected by Hoof Wall Separation Disease (HWSD) are still being produced, with the problem centred in Ireland.
HWSD affects all four feet and causes the hoof wall to crumble and collapse. There is no treatment.
Primarily, it has been found in Connemara ponies and their part-bred progeny.
There is a genetic test for the condition, released in 2014. The testing of foals at registration has been compulsory for the breed around the world since 2016 — a key step in ultimately eliminating the condition from Connemaras.
Each pony’s status is then included in its passport or identity document.
The group is concerned that affected ponies are being exported from Ireland to the UK, continental Europe and Scandinavia, often through dealers.
“It is entirely possible that reputable dealers in these countries know nothing about HWSD and sell ponies on in good faith,” the group’s technical officer, Sheila Ramsay, says.
However, it has been brought to the notice of the research group that, for ponies born since 2016 that have their HWSD status in their passport, the test result page has in some cases been removed.
“The first thing the new owner knows about the situation is when the pony’s feet start to disintegrate,” says Ramsay, who explains that it is possible to hide the hoof defect from the uninitiated for a short period.
Some are being exported from Ireland on what is referred to as “white passports”, which do not require breeding, the breeder, or even the breed to be described.
“No testing of any kind is required to obtain what is merely a generic travel document,” she says. “Yes, there are ponies with these passports showing up and subsequently testing as HWSD-affected.”
The group believes a four-pronged approach would improve the situation: Increasing awareness of the condition among the public, veterinarians and farriers; genetic testing so that the carrier status of all stallions is known; better security in passport documentation issued by some authorities; and better, well-informed breeding decisions to ensure no affected foals are born.
The research group has a list of affected foals born in Ireland since 2016 and members are endeavouring to trace their whereabouts. It has lodged a Freedom of Information request to the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine for their equine export register to determine how many have been sent overseas.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that the department is investigating allegations of tampering with the passports of exported Connemara ponies.
There was a question on the issue asked in the Dail (Irish parliament) of Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue by Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív, who had been made aware of the passport-tampering allegation from the discussion on the HWSD Facebook page.
McConalogue told the Irish Examiner that any tampering with such identification documents was a very serious matter, and amounted to an offence under EU regulations on equine identification.
“My department will investigate the matter further with the society, in particular the security aspects of the passports, in an effort to eliminate this practice.”
Ramsay said the perceived lack of security in the passports issued by the Connemara Pony Breeders Society in Ireland was raised with that organisation in 2016.
“All other countries including all of the other EU countries have the HWSD status of the pony repeated each time the name of the pony is printed in the document,” she says.
There is no requirement at present to test stallions, which means that carrier stallions are continuing to be put over untested mares.
Given limited Connemara numbers, the breed cannot afford to stop breeding ponies that carry the HWSD gene because it would cost too much in terms of genetic diversity, the research group believes.
However, HWSD is caused by a recessive gene, meaning carriers can safely be bred as long as they are mated with ponies that have tested clear for the gene.
Careful and considered breeding management over several generations would greatly reduce the prevalence — or even eliminate — the gene, while at the same time produce healthy offspring.
The research group was aware of 106 affected ponies born in Ireland in 2016-2019.
Part of the problem appears to be that veterinarians and those buying the ponies don’t know enough about the condition. If the carrier status of a pony is in doubt, the simple hair test required to identify the gene costs just €35.
The registration information for 2020 born foals is now in the process of being entered into the Connemara Pony Breeders Society online database.
At the time of writing, a total of 304 foals born in 2020 have been entered into the research group’s database. Of these 255 (85%) are N/N, which means they are clear of the genetic problem. A total of 46 (15%) are N/HWSD, meaning they are carriers but will not be affected by the condition, and three (0.9%) are HWSD/HWSD, meaning they will be affected by the disease.
The Connemara Pony Breeders Society registers in the region of 1800 to 2000 foals per year, which extrapolates on present figures as 270 to 300 N/HWSD foals (carriers) and 18 to 20 HWSD/HWSD foals.
“There is no excuse whatsoever to be producing any affected foals,” Ramsay says.
The research group was established in 2010 in response to HWSD. It has also undertaken other research projects, relating to gene diversity in the Connemara breed.