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  • Writer's pictureKaty Brown

Timor Ponies become life's work for woman who needed a project

ABOVE: The Timor Pony Project open day attracted a large crowd. Picture: SUE McNAB

SOMETIMES in life you just get that feeling that everything is how it is meant to be.

That is exactly how I felt when I visited The Timor Pony Project open day recently. One could have been forgiven when looking at the A4 laminated direction sign that this was a small affair but, nothing could be further from the truth.

The event, held on a rainy day at Barb Bleicher’s lovely property in central Victoria, was attended by around 20 people, all passionate about her effort to conserve the Timor Pony.

Timor Ponies were very popular in Australia between 1800 and 1900 and were widely used as beasts of burden. Being small but strong and renowned for their thrift and hardy constitution, they were often loaded with packs that were greater than their own weight. Their hard feet and good bone meant that they soundly performed over rough unmade tracks, and many were taken to war as pack animals. With a top height of 12.2hh this small but powerful pony was able to survive on far less feed than larger breeds. Like many horse breeds however, the popularity and need for the Timor ponies declined and although they were used in the founding of the Australian Pony and the Waler, they had dwindled over time to the point they only existed in a wild population.

The sense of camaraderie at the event was inspiring and Barb was quick to acknowledge the work done by Reg Wilson who, encouraged and informed by the founder of the Waler studbook Janet Lane, went and captured several ponies in the wild and brought them into captivity. Three of these ponies – Snowy Balios, a chestnut stallion, Snowy Xanthos a palomino stallion and Snowy Indira, a chestnut mare, all now in their mid-twenties – were there on the day and form the nucleus of the breeding program. After Reg’s death the ponies found a home with Richard Crispin, an airline pilot, who was passionate about this breed that had played such an important role in Australian history. Sadly, Richard passed suddenly and unexpectedly, but fortunately Tess Wallis became the custodian of Richard’s small herd. Although Tess was familiar with the ponies, Richard’s untimely death meant that many of her questions would remain unanswered. Keeping two stallions is a challenge and after a short stay with Connemara breeder Kate Storey White, the ponies found their forever home with Barb.

ABOVE: Timors are known for being small but strong, their thrift and hardy constitutions. Picture: SUE McNAB

Barb had lost her son and knew she needed a worthy project to keep her busy and along came the Timor Pony. As a certified Equine Assisted Learning practitioner and qualified nurse, Barb knows first-hand how this modality can help people overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression. In her practice, she helps people from all walks of life but has a special interest in PTSD, the autism spectrum, troubled kids and women challenged by domestic violence.

Barb’s science background comes to the fore when it comes to genetically defining the Timor Pony and its place in the global population and as an influence on other breeds. As the ponies are wild caught, they are not pedigreed in the traditional way to prove breeding and breed. To validate the breed and to ensure their robust survival into the future Barb has personally funded the Timor Pony Project. This is no small undertaking, and she recently signed a contract with the Department of Life and Environmental Science at Sydney University to do extensive DNA work under the direction of Dr Brandon D. Velie BSc/MSc/PhD and his team. Dr Velie is a leader in the field of equine genetics and has vast experience in breeds and interpreting DNA.

What is amazing is the foresight Reg Wilson and Richard Crispin had in collecting samples for future interpretation. Given the passage of time, some of this material was substandard and Dr Velie’s team has had to use more refined methods to extract DNA and soon the analysis of the first 96 horses will be back. Dr Velie has access to many DNA results from across the world and hopes to see where the Timor pony originated genetically and how it has influenced other breeds. On this scale it can demonstrate where the Timor sits as a global breed and this can help determine the best breeds that may be used in a grading-up program. Dr Velie has also sampled Brumbies from Kosciusko and Snowy River as well as horses running in the Kimberley and there is a good chance that these animals may have “a touch of Timor Pony”.

Timor used to be a major trading centre on the tea trail and many horses passed through and were traded there, many heading to Manipur, Burma and India for the war trade. Australia exported many horses at this time. Comparison to the Manipurian, Mongolian and Java ponies may also yield some results and Dr Velie will also look at how they relate to other wild pony populations such as Icelandic ponies, which have no outside influence.

The whole equine genome has 2.7 billion markers (which takes about six hours to print). To determine breed factors a high-density array looking at 80,000 genetic markers will be used to establish ancestry. Of these there are specific markers and if 10 of fifteen of them are consistent the animal may be considered a Timor, depending type, history of trapping, temperament, height and general appraisal. At this level they are assessing very specific genes and the work is expensive and time consuming.

This painstaking process aims to establish several things, mainly are Barb’s Timor ponies free of outside influence and what Timor populations are left in the wild on the Coburg Peninsula and Croker Island amongst other traditional lands. Also where does the Timor fit in the ancestry of the horse and at a more practical level, what is the relationship between the horses in captivity and in the wild so inbreeding can be managed into the future.

You may be thinking if the three ponies are mid-twenties, Barb may be lucky to get a foal but I am thrilled to report that recently Indira has had a very precious filly. After a rocky start and some first class nursing, the foal named Ningrum (Indonesian for “inside the soul”) is growing well and represents the future for this very important project. Barb has two other mares, both expressing Timor traits, that have been selected for the breeding project. The chestnut mare Hale, trapped at Todd River Downs Station in the NT by Angela Tiede, is a classified Waler Pony and a perfect type for a foundation mare. After capture Hale delivered a colt foal conceived in the wild and more recently produced an upstanding colt by Balios called Zephyr. It has been recently weaned I was impressed by his type and movement. Hale is now running with Xanthos . Savannah, owned by Krystal Geddes, is believed to be purebred and is on loan to Barb for the project. She is running with Xanthos as well. Barb has purchased Savannah’s foal (now around 10) and she will be coming down from north Queensland before spring for breeding. She has also secured frozen semen from both stallions, Balios having the higher success rate and therefore they have more straws saved from him.

ABOVE: The precious foal Ningrum with mum Indira. Picture: SUE McNAB

To ensure pedigree transparency moving forward the Timor Pony registry is held by the Australian Pony Stud Book.

This project is ambitious and expensive and Barb will follow the footsteps of those who have strived to preserve this ancient breed as a wonderful custodian. In fact, she is seeking permission from traditional landowners to visit the ponies in the wild and to try and collect DNA, the aim into the future being to capture some ponies to increase the gene pool in the captive breeding program.

I came home that day totally inspired and look forward to following this project for years to come.

* Katy Brown is a rare livestock breeds conservator specialising in horse and pig genetics.

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