A Mission of Miracles for Rare Breeds

The Hamilton Rare Breeds Foundation: Debbie Hamilton of Hartland, Vt., would rather talk about her animals than herself. Wouldn't most horse owners? But hers need talking about. They're endangered--some so critically close to extinction her farm may be their last salvation.
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The Hamilton Rare Breeds Foundation: Debbie Hamilton of Hartland, Vt., would rather talk about her animals than herself. Wouldn't most horse owners? But hers need talking about. They're endangered--some so critically close to extinction her farm may be their last salvation.

For Debbie, breeding is more than fine-tuning show stock. It's a delicate balance between species survival and limited genetic options. But no matter how shallow the gene pool, she's ready to dive in. This is her story.

The Hamilton Rare Breeds Foundation, begun in 1998, is dedicated to conserving rare domestic animals. While enormous media attention is given to vanishing wildlife, few know that many old farm breeds are endangered. We seek to produce genetically healthy specimens to exhibit in order to promote them and educate the public.

We have Mulassiere horses, Poitou donkeys, Dales ponies and Choctaw horses. All except the Dales have dropped to such low herd numbers that they are inbred, and will probably survive genetically only with careful out-crossing programs.

The Poitou and the Mulassiere are so rare that less than 300 genetically-pure animals remain of each breed. Both breeds are from coastal France. During the construction of canals in 700 A.D., the French imported drafters from Holland to help with construction. Over time, the horses became known as Mulassieres, French for "mule producer."

When these mares were bred to Poitou donkeys, they produced mules of great size and strength. The Mulassiere is a medium-sized drafter with huge bone and profuse knee-high feathers. Many are roan, buckskin, grulla and other unusual colors.

The Poitou, the largest donkey breed, is a primitive and unforgettable sight, with its large head and long, fringed coat. Jacks (males) reach 15.2 to 16 hands. Their bone size can measure 9" below the knee. We are one of only five U.S. breeders of Poitou.

Native to Britain, the Dale's small draft frame and sense of humor make it a great companion animal and inexhaustible worker. They are true ponies, standing under 14.2 hands, with heavy bone and profuse feathers. Early infusions of trotter blood show in its high action and attractive suspension. Used as British artillery ponies in WWI, war casualties almost caused their extinction. Early in the 1900s, when herds were lowest, they were crossed with Fell ponies. Today, there are 700 worldwide and inbreeding is not a problem.

We also preserve Choctaw horses. Despite its Native American name, it is of Spanish descent and a distant cousin of the Paso Fino; some are still born gaited. Eighty pure Choctaws remain; most with a conservation herd in Oklahoma. They were valued for their hardiness and distinctive buckskin, grulla, sabina and pinto patterns.

We are a not-for-profit organization. Donations are critical. Currently, we have 10 pure Poitou donkeys registered in the French studbook, five Choctaws and three Dales. Two Mulassieres will arrive soon from France.

Donations help us with programs like artificial insemination and embryo transplant. We have impregnated two Poitous with frozen semen and will help with a similar program in France.

This spring, we expect six purebred Poitou foals, four Choctaws and one Dales. Our greatest inspiration has been the birth of two Poitous, who arrived recently without incident, perfectly healthy and free of genetic faults. When you work with this kind of consanguinity, every healthy birth is a miracle. We hope as they mature they will remain healthy and continue their line.

Come see us. One visit with these animals, who are their own best ambassadors, can persuade anyone of the urgency to act before they are gone forever."

Contact Hamilton Rare Breeds Foundation, Box 282, Hartland, VT 05048, (802) 436-1376, email:hrbfpat@aol.com.