Quit horsing around, seems to be the message when it comes to the Army’s pony express. The DRDO’s Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) laboratory in Leh has crossbreed Zanskar ponies which are native to the Zanskar valley in Ladakh region with the Austrian Halflinger male, a draught purpose breed.
The Indian Army is in the process of breeding some 10,000 crossbred Zanskar ponies to be supplied over a period of five years. These horses are said to be a more sturdy and disciplined lot than the mules presently used for ferrying ration, arms and ammunition for soldiers in high altitude zones not accessible by vehicle.
It was not an easy task as it took eight years for scientists at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to succeed in meeting the Indian Army’s requirement of ponies, which are lifeline for soldiers in the mountain region of Kashmir valley.
Following the successful trials of Zanskar ponies in Kargil region, DIHAR has now transferred the germplasm, which includes semen and other tissues that can be used for breeding, to the Army’s Remount Veterinary Corps (RVC) for further breeding of ponies to meet the demand of Indian Army.
“The difficult mountainous terrain of the Himalayan region poses a formidable challenge for military operations. The strategic importance of guarding them to prevent hostile infiltration requires huge deployment of troops along with logistic supply chain and ponies play a very important role in it,” said DIHAR Director Dr R B Srivastava.
The Indian Army has been using mules which are being bred and trained at sea levels and subsequently deployed in high altitude. But most of these mules, close to 10,000 are in use at present, suffered from lack of high altitude adaptability and succumbed to various maladies thus, affecting the operational efficiency and preparedness of units.
“It was also found that the mules lose their tracks and their weight carrying capacity was not much. So some seven-eight years back we were told to identify and propagate pack-animal for army transport which is more disciplined, resistant to high altitude related maladies and has more load carrying capacity,” he said.
DIHAR got an Austrian Halflinger male as the breed is known for its hardiness and crossbred with the Ladakhi Zanskar ponies. The progeny produced using artificial insemination was put to field trials with Ladakh Scouts and are found to be the best transport animals for military transport in this region.
“These crossbred ponies are sure-footed to negotiate narrow tracks and their weight carrying capacity is about 50-60 kilograms. They can also carry heavy artillery guns and ammunitions. They can survive on local feed and fodder and require less feed. In case of emergencies, they can be deployed without any acclimatisation,” said another scientist, who is part of the project. However, he refused to disclose the costs involved in the pony breeding project, which is part of their other animal breeding programmes.
Equines have been playing significant role in defence forces since time immemorial. Even in today's era of modernisation, the equine draught power cannot be done away with in many strategic areas of the Kashmir valley.
“Their importance has been amply demonstrated during the India-Pakistan Kargil war in 1999, when mules were used to carry all logistics and ammunition supply,” the scientist said.