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Call it a case for Equine CSI
For Dawna Gillis, a spunky chestnut pony named Missy Jean (MJ) has quickly become her “heart horse”.
In the equine world, it is not a term taken lightly.
It denotes a spiritual bond akin to a soulmate.
Originally from Miscouche, P.E.I., Gillis now lives in Hartsville. Her family has owned and raised horses for generations. She acquired MJ in October 2020 and has stabled her at Dadoole’s Stables in Norboro, just outside Kensington.
On March 25, MJ was scheduled to have her hooves trimmed by farrier Mike Arsenault, and Gillis wanted to be on hand. As Arsenault did his work, she talked about why MJ is special to her – and potentially a living piece of Canadian history.
“She has captured my heart,” said Gillis with a smile, holding out her palm with a few treats that MJ eagerly gobbled up.
Gillis strongly suspects that MJ is a Newfoundland pony, a critically endangered heritage horse breed. There are believed to be only about 400 of the animals left, mostly in their namesake province of Newfoundland and Labrador, with a few more scattered around the rest of Canada and the U.S.
The breeding stock is even smaller – fewer than 250 specimens.
Newfoundland first saw European colonization in the early 17th century, and those first settlers brought horses from the British Isles. Thanks to Newfoundland’s relative isolation, successive generations of local horses started to develop unique characteristics such as low-set tails, hooded eyes, small and furry ears and thick manes.
The Newfoundland Pony Society estimates there were more than 12,000 of the animals alive in the 1960s. Stout animals, the ponies were used in various industries, as well as in everyday activities like transportation.
However, the breed was almost wiped out in the mid-20th century, as mechanization moved in and thousands of the animals, no longer needed to work, were sent for slaughter. There are stories of the first people who worked to save the breed, buying animals from the back of trucks as they were being taken for butchering.
Road to recovery
MJ was originally purchased as a yearling by a P.E.I. woman from the Cardigan area about 17 years ago. She had her for 15 years before losing her in a dispute with a third party.
When Gillis found MJ in late 2020, the horse was not in good health. By the time she was able to get control of her and seek medical attention, she felt she might have to euthanize the animal.
Tests showed MJ had equine Cushing’s disease, which is an incurable, but treatable, hormonal disorder that causes various health problems. But she also had founder (laminitis), which is a hoof condition that makes walking excruciating for the affected animal. There are treatments in some cases, but in others, euthanasia is often the only feasible option.
However, Gillis is happy to report that MJ’s health has steadily improved over the past couple of months, and she is now able to move freely, without pain.
Gillis has been in contact with MJ’s original owner and had originally intended to return the horse to the other woman. But while she is happy MJ is doing well, the original owner is no longer in a position to care for her and has relinquished any ownership claims to Gillis.
Making the grade
The Newfoundland Pony Society is a St. John’s-based non-profit organization with a mission to save and protect the breed. It keeps a registry of all known Newfoundland ponies, living and dead.
Gillis is making an application to the society to have MJ officially recognized as part of the breed. To do that, she has to send DNA samples to a lab for testing and submit various photos and information to the society’s registry committee, which makes the final determination.
Long-term, if MJ is certified by the society and her health continues to hold up, Gillis would like to see her bloodline continue and contribute to rebuilding the breed. That could be accomplished either through MJ being impregnated with sperm from an already registered pony or having her eggs collected for future fertilization and implantation in a surrogate mare.
“If she is a part or full Newfoundland pony, I think it’s important to contribute back to her heritage. Whatever it is that she and I can both do together, or apart, however that might come about,” said Gillis, as MJ insistently nuzzled the jacket pocket from which the treats had appeared.
Preserving the breed
The Newfoundland Pony Society was founded in 1981 by a group of concerned people who were watching part of their heritage disappear. Ever since they have worked to preserve the breed and reintroduce their fellow Newfoundlanders to it.
Libby Carew, councillor at large for the society, and Kelly Power-Kean, its volunteer registrar, have spent countless hours on back roads and in the tucked-away rural communities and outports of Newfoundland researching claims and looking for undiscovered ponies.
These animals helped build Newfoundland, said the women, so it’s only right that they do what they can to save them.
“I used to say, there’s an entire generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have never seen a Newfoundland pony. But now, I think, it’s a second generation. Those people are now in their 30s and having kids – and their children have seen never one,” said Carew.
The women, along with their fellow volunteers, are essentially genealogical detectives. They piece together bits of information and DNA evidence to make positive IDs and increase the known stock of ponies.
“It becomes almost an obsession,” said Power-Kean. “Both Libby and I work full time, but our Newfoundland pony (research) could absolutely be a full-time job.”
Five fast facts about Newfoundland ponies
- Estimates put their numbers at more than 12,000 in the 1970s
- Just 10 years later estimates dropped to a little more than 100
- Thousands of ponies, no longer needed to work, were sold to abattoirs in Quebec, which sold the meat primarily to Belgium and France
- In response to a concerted effort to save what was left of the breed, the Heritage Animals Act of Newfoundland and Labrador was passed in 1997, which made it illegal to take ponies out of the province without a permit
- There are now believed to be fewer than 250 ponies left who are able to reproduce and increase the herd
The women said the number of applications the registry receives each year varies. There are ponies on the registry who produce offspring, who are in turn added to the list. But then there are animals from previously unknown or otherwise presumed lost bloodlines that turn up every once in a while.
MJ may be one of those cases.
“Every application that comes in I’m excited to receive. It could be the answer to another question, it could be another addition to our registry,” said Power-Kean.
If MJ is approved by the registration committee, she will have company on P.E.I. There is already a handful of other confirmed or suspected Newfoundland ponies here.
But Power-Kean and Carew know there are more of these special animals here and elsewhere in Atlantic Canada. Anyone interested in having a horse tested or in just generally finding more information about the breed can find it online at newfoundlandpony.com.
“We know they are there; we just need to work them out,” said Power-Kean.
Small horse, big feelings
As the farrier finished his work on MJ, Gillis led her out of the stable and into the paddock.
MJ was the first of the farm’s residents to have her hooves trimmed, so she was temporarily alone in the enclosure. She stuck stubbornly close to the door and whinnied insistently at the separation from her motley herd of thoroughbreds, miniatures and ponies.
Gillis smiled as she patted her horse’s mane and slipped her a few more treats, which successfully distracted her until a squat miniature horse came through the door and the two equines started happily trotting around their enclosure together.
Gillis said she is almost ready to send off MJ’s application and DNA samples to the Newfoundland Pony Society. If the society decides, for whatever reason, against registering MJ, she has also prepared herself for that eventuality.
“I think I would be disappointed in the sense that it would be nice to be able to contribute back to the Newfoundland pony, to their heritage and to their present (endangered) status. It would be nice to be able to do something, in our own small way, to increase the numbers or to increase awareness of the plight of the Newfoundland pony. So, I’d be confused for sure, but it doesn’t mean I’d love her any less.” said Gillis.
Ultimately, though, the registration is secondary for her. As she watched MJ interact with her pint-sized herd-mate, Gillis said that she was just glad her new friend’s health seems to be holding up.
“It means the world to me that one horse has been saved from a possible euthanization. I come from a time and a place where (horses) weren’t always well understood and their needs weren’t always met. Horses are incredibly intelligent beings … and something about her, especially where she wasn’t well initially, really touched me.”
"She's a sweetheart, she's got tremendous spunk ... I think she has a bigger role to play than just being a little pony."