An equine training clinic hosted by The Mare and Foal Sanctuary in Devon has given vets from all over the UK the opportunity to learn valuable field surgery and anaesthesia skills on semi-feral ponies.

The specialist clinic, organised by the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA), enabled vets to demonstrate gelding techniques in the field, rather than an operating theatre. It’s a valuable professional skill and greatly improves the futures of colts who, ungelded, are often difficult to find homes for.

Once gelded they can more easily become riding or companion ponies, or can return to moorland sites to graze in gelding herds, helping land conservation.

Working in partnership with Dartmoor pony keepers, the Mare and Foal Sanctuary invited delegates from BEVA to learn and share best practice at its Beech Trees Veterinary and Welfare assessment Centre in Newton Abbot. Seven ponies from Dartmoor and three colts, including two Shetland ponies, from a private owner based in Cornwall were brought to The Mare and Foal Sanctuary ahead of the clinic for pre-operative training. The colts spent more than a month adapting to their new environment, gaining confidence and being trained by Sanctuary Care staff for close handling by the vets.

“As a champion of excellence in equine education and welfare, we were glad to host such a valuable training event to help the continuing professional development of 17 vets who work across the UK,” said Syra Bowden, The Mare and Foal Sanctuary’s Head of Equine Welfare. “We had delegates from as far as Kilmarnock, Northumberland, Norfolk, Wales, the Midlands, Wokingham, Reigate and Cornwall. The clinic was extremely successful, and nine of the ten colts were able to undergo surgery, showing calm and relaxed behaviour throughout.

“The course taught several anaesthetic techniques which have different effects. It allowed the delegates to practice all the stages of the procedure from fitting catheters, administering drugs and the castration itself, right through to recovery.

“Partnerships are vital within the equine community, and we are proud to work so closely with other organisations and owners who put equine welfare at the heart of all they do.”

BEVA member Richard Frost, owner and director of Tor Equine Vets, based at The Beech Trees Veterinary and Welfare assessment Centre, said the course was incredibly useful.

“This kind of field clinic doesn’t happen frequently but is invaluable,” he said. “It might happen a couple of times a year and is usually hosted in Liverpool, so it’s a long way for people in the Southwest to travel.

“During the training event, relatively newly graduated vets literally had equine specialists at their fingertips to be able to give them guidance to understand the best ways of doing this kind of specialist work. Some of them will already have a little bit of experience, some will have never castrated an animal at all. They may never have done a general anaesthetic on a horse.

“They will vary in their ability but all of them will be at the earlier stage in their career and it’s vital that vets get the opportunity of these training days where they are able to work in an environment where they’ve got support, and they can make mistakes. Sometimes when the mistakes happen it’s even better because we all learn how to respond for the best possible outcome.”

Seven semi-feral ponies from the Dartmoor Pony Chinkwell Herd, working alongside the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust (DPHT), were brought to the Sanctuary to take part in the training.

“Collaborative partnership work like this is absolutely essential if we are to meet our objective of the survival of important heritage breeds with very rare bloodlines, following thousands of years roaming Dartmoor,” said The Chinkwell Herd’s generational farmer and breeder Margaret Rogers.

“The DPHT is dedicated to supporting breeders and keepers to preserve the native Dartmoor pony on Dartmoor. The semi-feral herds run on the uplands, continuing the essential conservation grazing and environmental management of the moor. But iconic breeds like The Dartmoor Pony face a struggle with diminishing numbers and their survival is dependent on breeders being able to sell drift colts that have been handled and castrated successfully. That’s why I’m pleased to have been part of this vital training.”

As Head of Sanctuary Care for The Mare and Foal Sanctuary, Sally Burton leads the team responsible for training the visiting colts.

“We’ve taken it quite slowly and kept them at a stage where they were always happy with what we were doing and didn’t become fearful or stressed,” she said. “The Sanctuary Care team has been working really hard on their training twice a day, every day, over several weeks and I think that the results have really paid off.

“I’m very proud of their hard work and dedication. It’s great to work with other organisations to demonstrate high equine welfare standards and it’s also really important for the heritage breed ponies who might not have such a great future if they can’t be castrated.”

All the ponies involved recovered from their surgery well after the successful clinic.

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