Traditionally horses under the height of 14.2hh (148cm) at the withers are recognised as a pony.

There is a huge spectrum of them found in Scotland and we have several indigenous breeds, such as the Highland and Shetland. but the majority, however, are ‘imported’ breeds like Welsh and Irish ponies.

Within this equine group there is a large range in size and conformation due to them being selected for different traits and activities.

They are involved with a huge number of activities, including showjumping, eventing, dressage, driving and many are used for children’s pleasure activities. Despite their smaller size, they often show great athletic ability and when used for jumping can jump heights similar to their own height at the withers.

Ponies have a longer life expectancy and often remain in athletic work to a much older age than horses.

They can be afflicted with orthopaedic and lameness problems just as horses are, however, the overall prevalence appears to be less than in the horse. This may reflect differences in temperament and in weight transferred through their limbs.

However, as ponies often live relatively older than horses we see some geriatric conditions that are much more common in ponies, particularly laminitis and Cushing’s disease.

As a vet the assessment of ponies can be challenging because they often have a high cadence (limb speed) and so visual assessment can be difficult.

Ponies appear far more at risk of developing laminitis and this is often associated with equine metabolic syndrome (EMS). This may be in part that ponies live longer and are less athletic than horses but another contributing factor is that we may be selecting ponies for being ‘good doers’ based on their show ring success.

Many used for showing are, unfortunately, clinically obese and as a result have a higher incidence of EMS and these ponies often have repetitive bouts of laminitis, particularly in the Spring months.

Laminitis in Shetlands is common, although they often can live with considerable foot pain. It appears that they are also able to live with considerably more pedal bone distortion and deviation than other horses and ponies.

Desmitis (or inflammation) of the check ligament (desmitis of the accessory ligament of the deep digital flexor tendon (ALDDFT)) is one of the more common conditions seen in older ponies. It would appear that this is due to an age-related ligament degeneration.

Affected ponies present with a fluid soft filled swelling in the upper third of the forelimb cannon area with low grade lameness. Whilst many of these ligament injuries respond well to treatment, if they are not detected and suffer repetitive inflammation and tearing some of the affected ponies remain permanently lame due to adhesion formation.

The formation of windgalls, (or distension of the digital flexor tendon sheath) is a not uncommon injury in ponies, particularly Cob types. It usually follows an acute onset lameness with swelling of one, or both, of the hindlimb tendon sheaths.

Our understanding of these issues has grown considerably over the last 15-20 years and we now appreciate that, particularly in cobs, this distension can be due to the tearing of the manica flexoria. The other common cause can also be marginal tears of the two flexor tendons within the interior, or lumen, of the tendon sheath.

When windgall formation is bilateral behind, often the lameness is of equal grade in each hindlimb and owners are unaware of the bilateral nature of the lameness. As our understanding of formation of windgalls in ponies has evolved, our treatment options have considerably changed and many have a successful outcome when treated by keyhole surgery (tenoscopy).

Ponies suffer from joint disease not dissimilar to horses and the same joints are commonly affected, particularly the hocks and the front coffin joints. There are some anomalies however, that differ ponies from horses listed here:

• In Shetland and miniature Shetland ponies there is recognised a higher prevalence of osteoarthritis (OA) of the shoulder joint. This typically occurs in relatively young ponies, the mean age in one study was 5.2 years.

The lameness can be relatively severe, and the ponies often have a difficulty in protracting the limb (bringing it forward). The affected animals have a distorted and deformed shoulder joint which has been speculated as a congenital abnormality.

• In the stifle joints of cob-framed horses, particularly Highland ponies, it has been recognised that there is a higher incidence of OA of one of the three compartments of the stifle joint, this may often be associated with damage to the meniscus. These affected ponies often present suddenly quite lame and at the time of the detection of the lameness there is often considerable pathology within the joint.

• Older ponies appear to have a higher incidence of OA of the forelimb knee joint, particularly the bottom row of the knee joint which is often referred to as 'carpal spavin'. These ponies can also be lamer than one would expect in a horse.

• Ponies have a higher incidence of dislocation (luxation) of the hip joint. Whilst this is, thankfully, a rare condition, we do appear to have a higher incidence of this in miniature ponies and Shetland ponies.

• Shetland ponies, both miniature and normal ponies, are recognised as having an issue with partial dislocation (subluxation) of the patella whereby the patella (or kneecap) ‘slips’ to the outside of the limb. This can result in a rotational obscure gait in both hindlimbs.

The degree of luxation varies between ponies from a partial luxation to complete luxation on the outside of the limb. Some of these cases are congenital in nature.

As a veterinary surgeon, thankfully ponies are more responsive to treatment, possibly due to their lighter weight and more resilient temperament. Treatment options are usually similar to horses.

If you suspect your pony is showing any signs of the aforementioned lameness issues, please consult your veterinary surgeon.