Hot to trot

Although sometimes difficult to discern among many cross-breeds, purebred native Thai horses prove themselves the most reliable in a tropical climate

While some carriage horses in the northern province of Lampang can only manage a maximum of three loops of Lampang town, Kriengsak Jaiman's steeds are able to do five _ even in scorching heat.

Dr Thianthada Pothipongsatorn, a veterinarian from the Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation, has been working to promote purebred Thai horses as they are one of the most naturally suited breeds to be kept either as domestic or work animals in a tropical climate.

He has a secret behind such horsepower.

"There is nothing complicated about this," said Kriengsak. "I just use Thai horses."

The 47-year-old local is among 160 horse-drawn taxi drivers based at one of the province's three major carriage stations. Lampang is best known around the country, especially among tourists, for its horse-drawn taxis. During the high season, particularly the New Year holidays, riders can earn a daily income of up to several thousand baht, and horsemen such as Kriengsak are beginning to see why the native breed is the key to their profession, and to the province, the image of which is synonymous with horses.

Kriengsak has realised the importance of keeping Thai horses both for domestic and commercial purposes.

"Thai horses are strong," he explained as to why he has chosen to rely on the Thai breed. "They are easy to keep and, much more importantly, are incredibly resistant to sickness."

According to Lampang Pony Clinic veterinarian Dr Thianthada Pothipongsatorn, the promotion of Thai horses has been a significant issue for many years _ not just in Lampang, but countrywide.

"A lot of Thai horse lovers prefer to keep foreign species to Thai horses, because they are huge and tall," explained Dr Thianthada. "Their height means more money when the horses are sold on."

On average, a fully grown workhorse can be sold for around 30,000-40,000 baht, depending on its size and colour. But the price of a larger animal can go as high as 70,000-80,000 baht. Therefore, in order to get large, tall horses, owners cross-breed small females with larger males. The consequences of cross-breeding are larger ponies born with some significant complications, including low resistance to disease and abnormal body structure.

Lampang horses, according to the veterinarian, are among the Thai species also found in several other provinces in Thailand such as Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Nan. Studies carried out by Thai and American scientists have discovered that native Thai horses are related to Mongolian horses by DNA. The species is known as Przewalski, one of the planet's only remaining wild horse breeds.

Thai horse lovers are responsible for some of the most significant threats to the population of native horses, added the expert. While many tend to cross-breed Thai mares with larger stallions of other species, owners also lack proper health knowledge, especially regarding nutrition for horses and common diseases, and other general issues, such as how to make proper horseshoes and how to take care of a horse's hooves. This has resulted in a sharp decline in the native horse population.

"A number of horse breeders believe cross-breeding is an approach to the development and improvement of horse species," said Dr Thianthada. "But for me, cross-breeding means damaging and destroying horse breeds."

Dr Thianthada, along with other staff from the Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation, have been working actively to promote and raise public awareness regarding the importance of keeping and breeding purebred Thai horses. After checking the horses' colour, body structure and hair pattern, their DNA is tested to detect whether they are a Thai native species.

Around 30 hairs are collected from the horses' manes and sent to a laboratory in the US where the DNA will be extracted from the root cells. Horses suitable for the testing are those aged more than two years old. The entire procedure takes approximately three weeks.

''Right now we want to increase the population of native Thai ponies so we are willing to provide assistance to horse owners if they want their animals to have DNA testing.

''After we find more native Thai horses, we can use them as breeders when they reach four years old to produce more Thai purebreds,'' said the vet, adding that only 30% of horses in Lampang that undergo DNA testing are found to be purebred Thai species. The majority of them are cross-breeds.

One of the foundation's recent successful techniques to increase the native horse population is artificial insemination _ a process that uses sperm collected from stallions, which is then inserted into a mare.

''[Equine artificial insemination's] main objective is to meet the demand of horses and their owners in remote areas,'' explained Dr Thianthada. ''For example, a male horse is in Lampang while its female breeding partner is in Chiang Rai. It is more convenient to transport the sperm than the horse itself. So the sperm is collected here in Lampang, stored and carried to Chiang Rai. But the mare needs to be checked carefully [to determine] when ovulation is taking place so the sperm arrives at the perfect time.''

But the quality of sperm will lessen through time, he added. There are two sperm storage techniques: Cold-temperature storage and frozen storage. The former involves sperm being kept in a foam container at 4C. Done this way, it will last no longer than two days. The latter method freezes sperm in liquid nitrogen, which keeps it viable as long as it remains in those conditions. The current longest period of storage is more than 10 years.

Dr Thianthada stressed the importance of promoting purebred Thai horses because they are one of the most naturally suitable breeds to be kept either as domesticated or work animals in the tropical climate of this country.

''My focus is to increase the population of native horses and to raise awareness, especially among local people, regarding the value of Thai ponies,'' Dr Thianthada said. ''Przewalski horses are purebred, while a large number of horses you see these days _ be they racehorses, jump horses, carriage horses and so forth _ are 'man-made' species. So if we do not attempt to preserve Thai ponies, soon they will be gone forever.''

And as a horse-lover, Kriengsak has a word of advice for those thinking of keeping ponies: ''Keep at least one native Thai horse. They are tough and can earn you good money.''

DISTINGUISHED TRAITS OF NATIVE THAI HORSES

Foreign horse species have been popular as they are large and consequently can fetch more money. But according to veterinarian Dr Thianthada Pothipongsatorn, Thai horses can grow as high as 130cm given adequate nutritional intake, especially calcium, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium and cobalt. These are nutrients essential for the growth and development of horses' bones and muscles.

Here are some outstanding traits of native Thai ponies.

BODY STRUCTURE

Thai horses have large muscles, thick necks and wide chests. Such a body structure is considered suitable for work such as drawing carriages or carrying things on their backs. Thai ponies also have strong hooves, which are good for climbing and wandering around bumpy areas.

CARE

Thai horses can survive on grass alone, but it is vital to add some important nutrients so that they are physically healthy.

WEATHER RESISTANCE

Thai horses are highly resistant to tropical weather, while foreign breeds are less tolerant of strong sunlight and heat.

DISEASE RESISTANCE

Blood tests show Thai horses are immune to several diseases. Many times, although blood tests reveal infection, the horses show no symptoms of diseases.

Lampang is best known for its horsedrawn taxis. Unfortunately, only 30% of horses in this province that undergo DNA testing are found to be purebred Thai species.



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