The rugged mountainous terrain with steep snow-clad peak makes the Himalayan region a formidable challenge for military operations. The strategic importance of guarding these regions to prevent hostile infiltration requires huge deployment of troops along with logistic supply chain. Army has been using the GS & MA mules for AT Bn in the mountain region for logistic supplies as most of this terrain is not accessible by MT vehicle. Mules have been the main pack animals to maintain the logistic supply to the troops in this region. GS mules have been used to maintain the winter stocking items like ration, water, FOL etc since long whereas the MA mules are being used to carry the heavy artillery guns in mountain warfare. So far these mules were being bred and trained at sea levels and subsequently deployed in High Altitude (HA) areas at various AT Bns. But most of these mules have suffered from lack of HA adaptability and succumbed to various HA related maladies thus, affecting the operational efficiency of AT Bns and preparedness of units.
Thus, a challenge was thrown to Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), DRDO, to identify and propagate pack-animal for army transport which will successfully take on the challenges of HA adaptability and be more resistant to high altitude related maladies like pulmonary oedema, mountain sickness, etc, with equal thrust on the load carrying capacity as carried by the mules in mountain areas.
DIHAR identified the local Zanskar ponies which are native to the Zanskar valley in Ladakh region as packer for the high altitude region. 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. Their importance has been amply demonstrated during Kargil operations.
Zanskar ponies were selected because they are local to the region and well-adapted to high altitude. These ponies are generally docile and easy to handle. These ponies are sure footed to negotiate narrow tracks and their weight carrying capacity is same as that of GS mules. They are more resistant to diseases and less prone to HA maladies. They can survive on local feed and fodder and, in case of emergencies, can be deployed without any acclimatisation. The Zanskar ponies require least manage practices and less feed consumption.
The Zanskar Pony Research Station under Animal Science Division, DIHAR, Leh has successfully carried out selective line breeding and, subsequently, the progeny was put to field trials with Ladakh Scouts. These fields trials have established that Zanskar ponies are the best transport animals for military transport in this region. Subsequently, the entire breeding operation of Zanskar ponies was transferred to Remount and Veterinary Corps which has established a Zanskar breeding station at Partapur.
After as successful induction of pure-bred Zanskar ponies, further crossbreeding was done with 'Halflinger' male (Austrian draught purpose breed). The aim was to increase the load carrying capacity of pure-bred ponies. These cross-bred ponies have undergone trials at Zanskar pony training track at DIHAR and at 8 Mountain Division Sector. It has been found that these ponies are equivalent to MA mules in their weight-carrying capacity. These crossbred ponies are well-adapted and less prone to HA maladies with enhanced weight-carrying capacity. Trials have found that these cross-bred ponies are a valuable asset to Army in this region and their further propagation is suggested. This has proved to be yet another feather in the cap of DIHAR (DRDO).
- Col PB Deshmukh
and Dr RB Srivastava