Orion was our only colt foal in 2011, and it was tempting to keep him entire to see if he’d make the grade as a stallion. However, when we sat down and really thought about it, we realised that keeping him entire would mean we’d almost definitely have to sell him. We sold Ziggy, his dad, because we couldn’t keep a stallion safely on Ilkerton Ridge. Also, it’s difficult finding suitable fields for a stallion and some mares back at the farm because we have several riding horses, we take in visiting horses and our neighbours on two sides have riding stables. The third reason why we sold Ziggy was we’d kept back some of his daughters (who are Orion’s sisters) and breeding from such closely related animals isn’t a good idea.
All in all, the sensible and expensive option seemed the right thing to do, so we asked Simon Joiner, our vet from Western Counties Equine Clinic, to come and castrate Orion. Simon has gelded several of our Exmoor ponies over the years, and we’ve got a pretty good system which works well. Orion was particularly well-behaved, so the operation was performed with him standing up but heavily sedated. (Sometimes Exmoor colts battle against the sedative so fiercely that they have to be given a general anaesthetic.) Afterwards he was pretty groggy and, despite pain killers, obviously in quite a lot of pain for a few days. His sisters ran circles round him while he moved as little as possible. Although the weather wasn’t too good, the vet advised us to keep him outside because he’d be less likely to pick up an infection. Also, the swelling would be reduced by excercise. Seeing him standing miserably in the rain made me feel extra guilty for what I’d done to him! Luckily ponies never seem to look for something or someone to blame in times of adversity. They just try to make things better for themselves.
Within a week or two, Orion was back to his usual self, playing around with his sisters again. The ponies were put into a steep field by the barns, where they could have access to silage and could see lots of activity in the farmyard. The cattle had been brought in for the winter, so the sheds were now fully occupied.
Orion’s field companions were a motley crew: Gaia and Demeter (his sisters), Hell’s Angel and her surprise foal Hell’s Bells, Pixie (a fairly tame four-year-old mare with a few white hairs on her forehead) and Luke and Johnny (two geldings born in 2010 who were looking extremely malnourished having spent most of the previous year roaming the high moor with Pixie). Anyone who says that horses are never nasty to each other should see how the rest of the ponies picked on Luke and Johnny – presumably because they were so weak. Perhaps the reason for this is that in the wild a weak member of the group can draw attention to the whole herd, making it vulnerable to attack by predators, and therefore the herd tries to drive away weak members. Whatever the reason, there was a distinct possibility that Luke and Johnny would be killed, so we brought them into the barn to live with the cows until they were strong enough to stick up for themselves. The ponies had as much silage as they could eat, plus a mineral bucket. We’ve found that extra minerals make a huge difference to growing ponies, even hardy Exmoors who should be able to cope with our local mineral deficiencies.
As lambing time drew closer, the ponies were moved over to the other side of the farm, to a field we call Moor Field because half of it is pretty wild, with wet ground, a bit of woodland and a stream. Exmoor ponies seem to love it in this field, and they do a great job of grazing back the rushes and rough vegetation.
Very sadly, Acreswild Zeitgeist (aka Ziggy, who was Orion, Gaia and Demeter’s dad) was fatally injured by a car on the road above Countisbury during the Easter weekend. It was a great shock for all of us, especially James and Roz, his new owners.
I must admit that for a while I wished I hadn’t had Orion gelded, as Ziggy was such a lovely stallion with a very rare bloodline on his mum’s side, but on reflection having an adolescent colt to handle and keep separate from any mares, with no guarantee he’d pass the stallion inspection at two years old, wouldn’t have been much fun.
In the past month or so, Orion, Gaia and Demeter have changed immensely, like teenagers on a growth spurt. Their legs seem to elongate daily and they’re no longer chubby, fluffy babies. Their winter coats are coming out in tufts, and they definitely have a lot of attitude. They’re constantly sparring and, I’m afraid to say, they seem to delight in bullying Luke and Johnny. Orion seems to have found a special friend in Pixie, so much so that when I bring him back to the farm to continue his training I think I’ll bring her back too.
So that’s the next thing: in a little while we’ll bring Orion and Pixie back to the sheds, and the other ponies will be let loose on the moor for the summer. I hope Orion hasn’t forgotten everything he learned last autumn. We’ll have to wait and see!