April 27, 2012 00:00 By Kornchanok Raksaseri
How will we keep the native Thai horse down on the farm after it’s been to Los Angeles and Paris?
Many Thais have by now heard that the ponies of Lampang – famous for pulling tourists around the northern city in quaint carriages – are genetic cousins of Mongolia’s endangered wild horses. But the native Thai horse is about to do some globetrotting – in Thailand’s first 3D documentary movie, no less.
“Trails of a Legend: The Ponies of Lampang” will be screened in June at the New Media Film Festival in Los Angeles and the Dimension 3 Festival in Paris, and if the makers can afford it, possibly the Cannes Film Market as well.
The 60-minute-documentary had a hometown premiere last month at Ban Saonak, in classic outdoor nang klang-plang fashion, with 150 people in attendance.
The film takes a tour of the old Lanna city by horse-drawn carriage and then visits the vast Mongolian grasslands to witness breathlessly swift bareback riding. Finally, there is the proof uncovered by scientists in the US that the Thai and Mongolian horses are related by DNA.
Mongolia’s steeds are properly known as Przewalski horses, the planet’s only remaining purebreds in the wild. All others, explains veterinarian Siraya Chunekamrai, who chairs the Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation, are crossbreeds, the work of humans.
It was Siraya and her co-researcher Carla Carleton of Michigan State University who several years ago discovered the genetic relationship with the Thai ponies. The new documentary includes footage of them collecting samples of the horses’ hair in both places and having them tested in the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California at Davis.
Siraya undertook the study to determine what had protected native Thai horses from six deadly infectious equine diseases. Her findings indicated that samples of the Thai breed’s blood must be preserved, especially since the population is declining.
Akarin Pichayakul, head of the Lampang Horse Carriage Association, credits the mode of transport’s continuing popularity to the province’s abundant forests and its woodworkers. In the old days they were famed throughout the region for the sturdy large cartwheels they built.
The horses themselves came from Burma until Siamese began breeding them. But Akarin says Lampang’s modern carriage owners avoid the high cost in money and time and buy horses from breeders elsewhere, usually when they’re around five years old.
Siraya points out, though, that breeders care little about keeping the lineage pure, and carriage owners and drivers prefer mix-breeds anyway. They say some of their passengers ask for bigger horses for their strength and speed, while others favour horses with fancy looks.
The smaller, plainer Lampang pony loses out in both cases.
Meet Thung Thong, a two-year-old in the care of the Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation whose name means “Bag of Gold”. That ought to be lucky.
But Thung Thong’s owner didn’t want her because her sire was a Thai pony that sneaked in while he wasn’t looking and bestowed its dull, diminutive physical traits on its offspring.
Fortunately, Thung Thong’s ancient Przewalski DNA makes her more precious than gold to the foundation. Wild Przewalskis are quite rare. Only about 100 have been bred for release in a Mongolian national park, says Siraya.
Thung Thong’s DNA revealed a 93- to 97-per-cent probability that she’s a native Thai pony. She certainly fits the type: dun coloured and less than 140 centimetres tall, but with a relatively large head, thick neck and wide chest. She bears some of the breed’s ancient markings – a dorsal stripe and paleness around the muzzle and eyes and on the belly.
Anyone who visits the foundation’s headquarters in Lampang meets Thung Thong. She’s the friendly official greeter, awaiting assignments to sire more purebreds. Three other native Thai stallions have been DNA-checked and microchipped as part of the same conservation programme that has produced “Trails of a Legend: The Ponies of Lampang”.
The movie is being released in Thai and various other languages through 3DGuy Productions, which, with the Albert Chandler family, provided all of the funding. Siraya is hoping private Thai firms will offer further support so she can “spread the story of these magnificent Thai ponies”.
Producer Al Caudullo of 3DGuy is looking at global distribution. He attended the recent National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas to speak about the 3D editing software used on “Trails of a Legend” and discussed possibilities with many distributors, including 3Net.
“Currently I’m in the final stages of licence contracts to show the film in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Brazil, Germany, France and Spain,” he says.
Bangkok, meanwhile, should get to see it later this year. A screening is being planned as a fund-raiser for the Pony Welfare Foundation.