The Reward of a Nicker

I was spreading hay for the ponies midday when my young dog started barking.  I was pretty sure I knew why.  She’s decided part of her mission in life is to herd moose.  Sure enough there was one lying down on the south-facing flank of the compost pile, and my dog felt it needed to recline elsewhere.  For my part, I was thankful for the fence between us as it watched me continue spreading hay, especially when my dog had succeeded in getting it to its feet and it started moving in our direction!

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It occurred to me to wonder whether my newest pony had seen a moose yet and what she might have thought of a wild animal bigger than her.  And I wondered what the largest wild animal was that she’d ever seen on the fell in Cumbria.  Then it occurred to me that she might not understand the concept of wild animals.  Here my ponies know them as the ones who live on the forest side of the fences. 

I much prefer encountering moose during daylight hours, especially this time of year when snow covers the ground, making their dark form more obvious.  Usually at least I have a little more notice.  A few days before, I was walking a pony down the driveway when a cow moose made her presence known, and she had no interest in moving off.  My pony and I therefore modified our route instead.  I let my pony run up the driveway on her own, and she didn’t veer away from the moose as she passed at a gallop.  When I returned up the driveway, though, I did veer away until I realized the moose had finally done the same.

At night I rely on my dogs to tell me if moose are about, and I often have no idea how close or far off they are.   I’m most likely to encounter them on the long walk down the driveway to the farthest pony paddock.  The walk isn’t leisurely if the dogs are barking since I’m actively processing where the object of their attention is.  More often than not, though, it’s a quiet walk. 

Moose are definitely bigger than I am and while I’ve never been charged by one, they do charge the dogs who are usually with me, so I always consider myself potentially in danger.  For that reason, when I do get to that last paddock at night without an encounter, I feel myself relax.  And it seems a special reward for my efforts when my arrival is met with a nicker.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one can be found in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

I Must Have Needed A Hug

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I went through the gate and greeted each of the mares there individually.  It was after dark, and I knew who was who as much by their positions relative to each other as by their appearance.  It had been a long day with unexpected interruptions from a nail in a tire of my pickup necessitating a trip to town for repair and my husband needing help an hour away loading a recalcitrant piece of equipment.  I had squeezed in a pony training session between sundown and dark, putting off my dinner probably longer than I should have.

I made my way between the mares and headed toward the hay yard to get them their last feeding of the day.  I felt, more than saw, a pony walking close beside me.  I stopped and so did she, instantly.  We were already nearly touching, so it was natural to reach out and pet her, and then all of a sudden my arms were around her neck, and I was leaning heavily on her shoulder.  She stood completely still, letting me take a moment to release and receive.  I hadn’t realized how much I needed a hug.

After I stood up on my own again, I stepped back to say thank you.  I realized, though, that I wasn’t entirely sure which mare deserved my appreciation.  I cheated to find the answer by flipping her forelock up to reveal a star. It was Willowtrail Wild Rose, my heart pony, of course.  I should have known since I often give her a hug so she knows I like them.  Usually, though, when Rose offers something, it’s a tease such as attempting to take my hat as in this picture.  Her offer of a hug meant a lot by comparison.  What a blessing life is with these ponies.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories about life with Fell Ponies can be found in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

A Colorful Herd

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When a visitor commented on how colorful my Fell Pony herd was, I decided to find out how the color palette of my herd compared to that in the breed as a whole. The original article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, available by clicking here.

Here are the highlights:

  • My herd is indeed more colorful than the worldwide foal crops from ten years ago and more recently.  Of course in a herd my size (relatively small), a change in population of one pony has a big impact on numbers!

  • The worldwide foal crop has also become more colorful from 2005 to 2013, with the biggest change being the increase in bay/brown ponies.

  • The North American 2013 foal crop was slightly more colorful than England’s or the worldwide one.  It was also more colorful than the North American population overall.

  • The North American 2013 foal crop had a higher percentage of grays than the average for the breed.

  • The Dutch only registered black foals in 2013.

There’s more detail in the complete article, available internationally by clicking here.

And you can find more stories like this one in my book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Our Good-Minded Stallions

Kinniside Asi

The kindness and relative docility of most Fell Pony stallions is often remarked upon.  One multi-supreme champion stallion was especially valued because he threw good-tempered offspring that young women could easily handle in the show ring.  And with the majority of Fell Pony owners today being female, good-tempered ponies of all genders are important for the safety of pony and people alike and for the reputation of our breed.

Why might it be that our stallions are generally so well-regarded?  Here’s what Dr. Deb Bennett said in an article about the evolution of mountain horses in North America.  I think it applies just as easily to the history of the Fell Pony in Cumbria.  “Our pioneer ancestors had no time for difficult horses.  They valued good-mindedness as much as soundness.”  (1)  I think it’s very likely that today we are blessed with good-minded stallions because for generations they have been selected for by hill breeders who had no time for challenging temperaments, no matter how good the pony was otherwise. 

Dr. Bennett then touched on a business case for producing good-minded equines.  “All sectors of the horse industry would do well to remember that today, comparatively few people have the knowledge or experience to work successfully with horses who are flighty or aggressive.  Any breed that consistently markets good-minded horses who are easy to break in and train is at an advantage now even more than in our great grandfathers’ time.” With fewer and fewer people taking up the equestrian life, it seems paramount to the success of any breed that good-mindedness be a focus.  We with Fell Ponies may have an advantage!

1)      Bennett, Deb, PhD.  “In Praise of Good-Mindedness,” Equus, #489 June 2018, p. 70.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More ponderings like this one can be found in my book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Sometimes It's the Little Things

I had tacked up my Fell Pony to go on a trail ride.  As I usually did, I threw open the paddock gate without having a hand on the reins.  What my pony did next speaks volumes about Fell Ponies and this one in particular.

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Green grass was there to be had just out that gate, so my pony certainly had enticements to move off.  It would have been in keeping with the pony character for her to pursue food.  On the other hand, I do train my ponies to stand to wait to be mounted, so she should have remained where she was.  My mare didn’t do that either, so I suppose you could say she misbehaved.  The choice she made, though, I found humbling.  She chose to move parallel to the fence.  She knew I needed to climb the fence to mount her.  This pony chose to facilitate our trail ride instead of eat green grass or stand still as she’d been taught.  Sometimes it’s the little things about these ponies that make them so special.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one can be found in my Fell Pony books A Humbling Experience and What an Honor, available internationally by clicking on the book covers or titles.

Invisible Uses

A visitor remarked that they wished more Fell Ponies were being put to use.  The comment came back to my mind when the end of the day took some unusual turns. 

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We stopped at pasture on our way home from work to see Matty and her son Theo.  I decided to turn them into a larger area.  It was new to Theo, but known to Matty, and almost immediately she crossed the river to get to her favorite grazing areas.  Just as I was about to leave, I realized that Theo hadn’t crossed the river, and Matty was ignoring his anxious cries.  I dug a halter and lead rope out of the truck and went to find Matty, crossing the river on the road bridge.  Matty came to me as I approached, and I haltered her and led her to the river.  It had been a long time since I’d ridden her, and I’d never ridden her across the river, but I hopped on and we crossed to the other side and soon found Theo.  I put them back in the pasture Theo was accustomed to, putting off Theo’s lesson about river crossing until another day.

I had Shelley and her son Chester at home for a day of stall rest after Chester’s castration, but when we got home it was time for Chester to have some exercise.  On our way up the driveway when we got home, I had started a generator to charge the batteries for our Airbnb trailer.  The generator needed to be shut off, and the paddock of ponies down the drive needed to be fed, so riding Shelley to do these three chores seemed like a perfect solution.   I tacked her up at dusk and we headed out for our first ride in a couple of months.  My seven month old puppy is showing herding instincts, and she kept Chester moving; he was a little reluctant due to post-surgical soreness.  But he soon go into our old riding routine, and we headed down the driveway.  We went to the generator first, and both ponies willingly approached the noisy machine.  I dismounted to flick the switch then re-mounted, and we headed back up the driveway towards the nearby pony paddock.  Shelley paused briefly to nip a flower off a thistle; our freezing temperatures the morning before hadn’t been quite severe enough to arrest the weed’s blooming, so I appreciated Shelley’s “treatment” of the problem.

When we arrived at the pony paddock, I tied Shelley to the fence while Chester grazed nearby, and I put out hay for the night.  Then I remounted and we continued up the drive to the house, where Chester followed his mom back into their stall, making things easy.

Later, as I was cleaning up manure, Chester came to say hello as he used to do when he was younger, and we had a good session of scratches-in-his-favorite-places.  I pondered my visitor’s desire to see more Fell Ponies put to use, and I wondered whether riding a mare across a river to reunite her with her abandoned foal or riding a mare to do chores at day’s end would count.  No one witnessed these ponies at work except me and their foals and my dogs.  I wonder if more Fell Ponies are being put to use than my visitor realizes.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one can be found in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Hero's Journey vs. Vacation Travel

Willowtrail Fell Ponies

We’ve all likely taken a vacation at some point in our lives.  We’ve traveled somewhere to get away from our normal life, to give our minds something different to think about, to not worry for a little while about the next thing on the to-do list or about planning for children’s college or our own retirement.  I heard a commentary recently that looked at approaches to life through the lens of either vacation travel or a hero’s journey.  A hero’s journey is of course intended in this context to be a contrast to vacation travel:  in it for the long haul, openness to learning new things, willingness to adapt and change, fully engaged on a moment-to-moment basis.  (And of course it’s intended to be gender-neutral.)

About the time I heard the commentary, I was speaking with a Fell Pony colleague from Cumbria.  They were comparing the North American Fell Pony community to the European one (outside Britain.)  They observed that in North America, many breeders had imported ponies with long term goals, that the community had established breed associations to promote the breed, and that there were some sizeable herds with diverse blood lines.  In contrast, with a few exceptions, Fell Ponies in Europe were novelties and small sidelines, with few large herds, few active breed associations, and little looking to the long term of the local population of the breed.  While one must be cautious when generalizing, it seemed my colleague was suggesting that North American breed stewards have embarked on a hero’s journey with the breed, while in Europe, people’s involvement with Fell ponies seems more like vacation travel.

I received an impersonal email asking to buy Fell Pony breeding stock.  “Only the best quality is wanted.”   I saw the same person putting out similar requests on the internet, equally impersonal.  Then I got a message from a Cumbrian breeder saying they’d been contacted by the same person with the same request.  They wanted to know if it was worth making time to respond.  Immediately the vacation travel / hero’s journey contrast came to mind.  This Cumbrian breeder basically needed to know if the person seemed in it for the long haul or whether they were just chasing a passing fancy.  It’s much easier to make time to respond when someone seems sincerely interested in the breed, wants to ask questions and figure out how they can contribute to helping the breed thrive.  This particular inquirer didn’t seem to be that sort.

In North America we definitely have both types.  I’ve seen people spend lots of money buying or importing lots of ponies only to lose interest and sell off their herds.  And of course there are even more people in North America who have chosen to learn, to adapt their equine management practices, and to open their hearts to Fell Ponies, in some cases breeding second and third generation ponies with all the discipline in breeding that that accomplishment requires.

It was interesting to hear the vacation travel/hero’s journey contrast and the observations about North American and European approaches to our breed.  I’m now thinking differently about how our breed is stewarded individually and collectively.  What a fascinating journey Fell Ponies can take us on if we are so inclined!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one are in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Mixed Blessings

I admit to feeling a little melancholy this time of year.  When I walk out the door I’m no longer greeted by a nicker from a mare in the foaling pen.  Sometimes I even got a higher pitched nicker from a young occupant of the pen too.  The foaling pen is empty because the mares and their foals are now at summer pasture.

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It’s a little later than usual for them to have made the move, so I got even more used to them being at home and being talked to many times a day.  A very dry spring and hot dry summer have meant summer pasture has less than half its normal forage.  Fortunately I had put in extra hay last fall so that keeping the mares at home longer was an easy option.

While I may be a little melancholy, the mares of course are anything but.  They are thrilled to be on green grass, first for a few hours a day and now 24/7.  And trailering them to and from pasture is a great way to get their foals used to riding in big metal boxes on wheels.  I am always so impressed when these flight animals so easily and regularly load into trailers to be transported.  It helps of course that they know, at least in the case of my mares this time of year, that green grass is on the other end of the trip!

The salve for my melancholy is of course knowing that my ponies are content.  Green grass makes them happy, especially the mares with foals at foot.   And I still get greetings, this time when I get out of the pick-up truck when I arrive to check on them.  It really won’t be that long before frost nips the air and the ponies are all home again.  Until then I am grateful for the blessing that summer pasture is and the mixed blessing that missing them is as well.  It’s a good reminder how much I enjoy having them in my life.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

You can find more stories like this one in my book What an Honor:  A Dozen Years with Fell Ponies, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Lost in the Landscape

A Fell Pony colleague recently repeated an often-asked question.  Why is the Fell Pony not considered a regional treasure in its homeland?  For instance, the Fell Pony was not included in the application by the Lake District National Park for World Heritage Site status.  Further, in countless books about the Lake District and the natural beauty of northern England, the Fell Pony rarely is mentioned, and especially is a poor cousin to its fellow fell dweller the Herdwick sheep.  Why is it that the Fell goes unrecognized?

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I’ve finished reading yet another book about the Cumbrian countryside and the Lake District.  This one dates from the late nineteenth century, and there is not a mention of a Fell Pony anywhere.  Packhorse bridges are mentioned, as is the oft-repeated statistic about packhorses leaving the historic wool center of Kendal at the height of its influence.  “…for four centuries the Kendal cloth was the common clothing of the poor of the country.  As a proof of the vast importance of the Kendal trade, during the early part of the 18th century, it is on record that 354 packhorses, carrying goods passed to and from the town every week.” (1)   But the native ponies of the region are never referred to nor mentioned by name.  Sheep are mentioned a few times, but the author’s interest and focus is more on ecclesiastical and political construction.

Back in the modern day on modern media, I read a post on Facebook by a Fell Pony colleague who was exclaiming about the beauty of the Cumbrian landscape.  Many people travel to Cumbria and the Lake District because of its natural beauty and in fact the author of the book I’ve just finished spent a good part of his words describing and extolling upon the beauty of that area.

These exclamations of admiration for the scenery got me thinking that perhaps the Fell Pony gets metaphorically lost in the landscape of its home and hence goes relatively unnoticed.  Having walked there on numerous occasions myself, the landscape is in places out-sized and breathtaking and mesmerizing.  I took the photo here when Bert Morland of the Lunesdale Fell Pony Stud took me up onto Roundthwaite Common and he pointed in that direction indicating there were ponies to see (I didn’t see any!)  I can certainly imagine that if you lack a love and appreciation for these ponies away from their home terrain that it would be difficult to see and appreciate them there when visiting, especially since so few ponies actually run on the fells anymore.

There’s undoubtedly work that can be done to improve the Fell Pony’s image in its home terrain.  Given how most people seem to experience that home terrain, work on behalf of the Fell Pony will best be done if it remembers how easy it is to lose the ponies in the scenery.

  1. Bogg, Edmund.  A Thousand Miles of Wandering Along the Roman Wall, the Old Border Region, Lakeland, and Ribblesdale.  Leeds, England, self-published, 1898, p. 226.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More about the Fell Pony can be found in my book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

The Best Kind of Visitor

We don’t get many visitors here at Willowtrail Farm because we’re a long way from anywhere.  Our most recent visitor confirmed what I’ve long suspected:  I can’t give people an address to use with navigation because navigation leads them astray.  That’s how off the beaten path we are!  So when we do have visitors, I hope they’re good at reading road signs and following my directions.  And I hope that they’re the best kind of visitor.

Willowtrail Mountain Honey

One advantage of visitors is that the ponies go to them so I have a chance for a decent photograph instead of a nose-filled lens.  The best kind of visitors, in addition to enjoying being with the ponies and allowing me to take pictures, is the kind that asks lots of questions.  It was a blessing to have our most recent visitors here for that reason.  A little trick about ears-forward in photos was a definite bonus as well!

These visitors had never seen a Fell Pony in person before and were keen to follow me about as I did chores and meet each pony in turn.  I appreciated the questions about what purpose each supplement I put in the ponies’ feed serves, what the difference is between short backs and short coupling, and the many colors of the breed.  I appreciated their observations about good bone and the subtle differences in conformation between three half-sisters.  It was helpful in our conversation to be able to point out which ponies were full grown and which weren’t yet.  One question, though, gave me pause.  In the end, that’s always the best kind of question because it means it’s one I haven’t answered before so it makes me think.

When my visitors learned that in addition to a herd of Fell Ponies that I also have a Norwegian Fjord Horse, they asked me how the temperament of a Fell differs from a Fjord.  My answer after some thought was that Fells seem to like people somewhat more than Fjords do.  After my visitors left, though, I’ve pondered that answer and realized there’s a lot more to that answer than I first communicated.

When with my visitors, I of course first answered with this caveat that is true regardless of breed comparisons:  there is more variation within a breed than between breeds.  In the few days since my visitors were here, I’ve realized that while I still think it’s true that Fells like people more than Fjords do, that’s a possibly deceptive answer.  For instance, I have a Shetland-Welsh pony that isn’t as friendly as my Fells, but she’s the hardest worker I’ve had in harness and when in her working years she would try just about anything I asked of her.   My Fjord horse is similar. 

Fells, I think, like people because they like to be mentally stimulated, and they can get that from their interactions with people.  I received an email from a Fell Pony owner after my visitors were here that helped me think about this characteristic of Fells.  The owner had had years of frustration with their pony and they had almost given up on it.  But when it turned eight, it settled down to being the type of pony they had always hoped they had purchased.

These ponies will play games, sometimes to the frustration of their owners and trainers.  They will seek openings to outsmart their human when we’re not paying attention (a mare slipped out a gate when my husband had his back turned to her, for instance).  They will swat you with their tail or bump you with their shoulder when you walk by, just to show they can. They will change direction or gait in an instant under saddle when they want to but will brace when asked by their rider to do the same.  They will do all these things until and unless they are satisfied with their relationship with you.

On the other hand, they will take you on magical trail rides or do dressage or play a unicorn.  They will trot up to you when they see you and ask to interact.  They will communicate very clearly, though just through the twinkle in their eye, that they are pregnant.  They will be foot-perfect carrying a child on a first ride.  They will do whatever you ask and offer helpful things as long as they deem the relationship with you worth it.

So once again I’m thankful to have had visitors here at Willowtrail Farm and the best kind of visitors at that.  They persevered in finding us, which was a good sign, and then the questions they asked helped me think about Fell Ponies in new ways.  I came to appreciate my ponies all the more, despite the occasional tail swipe across the face.  Best of all, I realized once again that my life with them is a blessing.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

So Much for Best Laid Plans

My twenty year old Norwegian Fjord Horse is watching me bring his paddock mate into ridden work.  I’m using much the same process I did seventeen years ago with Torrin.  The process worked so well then that he’s still with me after all these years.  I just haven’t been able to part with him despite accumulating a herd of Fell Ponies in the meantime.  I haven’t used a round pen, and no bits and no saddle, just a bareback pad, halter and lead rope.  Five-year-old Fell Pony gelding Restar Lucky Joe and I have taken rides around their paddock then we go out onto the driveway, increasing the length of each ride each day.    Sometimes the only change from one day to the next has been weather – high winds or snow flurries or drizzle – so that I can assess Lucky Joe’s response to changed circumstances. 

Restar Lucky Joe

I try to introduce new experiences in a controlled manner as much as possible to let Lucky Joe go from success to success.  Control is of course a matter of degree.  I live in a forest where it’s always a possibility for a chipmunk or a fox or a deer or a moose to suddenly emerge into view.  I ride in their paddock first because I figure Lucky Joe is accustomed to the disruptions that occur there.  Out on the driveway is where things get less predictable.  And then I always have opportunities for trail rides where I need to trust my mount even more for my own safety.  So I control what I can and show up each day to see how things go.  At least that’s been my plan.  Then one day my best laid plans blew up.  The good news was that Lucky Joe didn’t; he took the disruption in our calm, slowly progressive routine right in stride!

From the outset of our current training routine, it was clear that Lucky Joe is as he’s always been:  the easiest Fell Pony to train I’ve ever had.  It makes my program of building on successes incredibly rewarding when the successes are so easy to achieve. 

One of the elements of my program with Lucky Joe that’s been different than with my other ponies has been dog management.  Lucky Joe has exhibited aggression towards my dogs at feeding time, so when I began doing ridden work with him, I made sure the dogs were tied well away from the paddock fences so they wouldn’t attract Lucky Joe’s attention while we were working.  After a number of sessions when I finally felt I knew him well enough in the variety of circumstances we’d had together, I decided it was time to try a session with the dogs loose.  I gave the dogs bones to chew on so they would be focused on something besides what I was doing, and I set off with Lucky Joe around the paddock to make sure his mind was where I thought it was.  That’s when my best laid plans showed their flaws. 

I hadn’t anticipated my husband arriving home just as I started to ride.  The dogs joyfully greeted him and jumped in his truck and went up to the house with him.  Okay, I thought, we’ll do the ‘dogs loose’ test that I had in mind another day.  Lucky Joe was in good form, so I took him out onto the driveway and rode up towards the house a ways before turning around to go the other direction.  All seemed to be going well when suddenly Lucky Joe spooked, going from walk to canter in an instant.  It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, the dogs were running full speed down the driveway towards us from behind.  Lucky Joe was as surprised as I was.  Apparently, though, I had taught Lucky Joe the emergency brake, and I learned at that moment that he knew what it meant because after just a few strides he came back down to a walk, and after a few minutes with the dogs cavorting around us, he was as calm as ever.

Okay, I thought, I guess we’ll do a ride with the dogs after all.  We continued down the driveway, and the dogs went off into the woods somewhere, so it was just me and Lucky Joe again.  All was going well, and then the second unexpected circumstance presented itself with, thankfully, equally inconsequential results.  Lucky Joe had seen deer and moose and fox and chipmunk and probably even bear and elk, but that day we saw something I’ve rarely seen around our house:  a grouse.  It was scooting along underneath the trees in its normal manner but it’s a manner unlike any other animal in the forest.  I was surprised to see it, but Lucky Joe just glanced in its direction and continued to be a good trail mount.  Once again, I thought, so much for best laid plans.  But again I’d learned more about how well suited Lucky Joe is as a trail pony.

I was emboldened by all those successes with Lucky Joe that day, even though the lessons were unplanned.  So I began taking trail rides with the dogs loose.  Lucky Joe didn’t show any concern about the dogs accompanying us, so I concluded his aggressive behavior towards them was just around his feeding time.

The previous summer I had done a number of trails with Lucky Joe and Torrin. preparing them for paid employment packing gravel, so the first several trail rides we did were on routes Lucky Joe already knew, mostly walking, some trotting.  Those went so well that one day I decided to try a route that he’d never been on.  I hadn’t been on it for a long time, either, and it turned out there were numerous logs over the trail, but Lucky Joe maneuvered over and around them well.  Then when we rounded a corner, we encountered a small herd of deer.  Okay, I thought, here’s a good test:  new surroundings with new ‘company.’  The deer moved off calmly and Lucky Joe followed suit, continuing on the path I indicated without any sign of concern.

Because of an unexpected tour through the emergency room and operating room, I’ve had to take a break from riding Lucky Joe.  When I was finally well enough to start feeding ponies again, Lucky Joe greeted me at the gate when I appeared, looking expectantly for the bareback pad and halter and lead rope.  It nearly broke my heart to tell him ‘Not today, buddy.”  I look forward to our next riding session.  I fully expect him to be just as he was when we left off, ready and willing to go out into the woods to see what is there.  I think I’m the lucky one!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

There are more stories like this one in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Fell Pony Listed as Critical with The Livestock Conservancy

Matty and Theo at Willowtrail Farm

The latest issue of The Livestock Conservancy’s newsletter landed on my desk and immediately caught my attention.  The cover article explained changes to the organization’s Conservation Priority List for 2018.  I of course scanned it for the equine section and was surprised to read that the Fell Pony had been moved from Watch to Critical “based on global population numbers of less than 2,000.” (1)  This reasoning didn’t pass my common sense test, so I decided to learn more.

I felt fortunate when the organization’s executive director, Alison Martin, answered the phone when I called.  I explained that I felt there were more than 2000 Fell Ponies in the world, so I was curious about her organization’s reasoning.  The answer seems to be that The Livestock Conservancy used numbers from its British counterpart, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, extrapolating from annual registrations of foals.  It appears from our conversation that either RBST had preliminary annual registration numbers that were far below the final count for 2017 or they were tracking hillbred foal registrations.  Certainly the latter is cause for concern based on my own research and anecdotal comments from UK breed enthusiasts.  RBST lists the Fell Pony as Vulnerable, the third tier in their list, while the Livestock Conservancy has just moved the breed to their first tier.   In my opinion, the US organization shouldn’t be this out-of-step with the breed’s home conservation organization.

Since I had her ear, I asked Alison whether her organization would consider tracking hillbred Fell Ponies separately from the breed as a whole, just as the organization does with Traditional Morgans.  She reminded me that in the case of Morgans, an open stud book led to crossing with other breeds so there is a genetic distinction identifiable by DNA testing between Traditional Morgans and others equines in the breed.

I then led the conversation into losing traits from a landscape-adapted breed like the Fell when the ponies are removed from their home terrain.  She used a rare chicken breed as an example saying that the traits are still there in the DNA, so, for instance, returning non hillbred ponies to the fell should be theoretically possible.  I said that for welfare reasons this was rarely done, and she pointed out that it could be done with good management; it’s done with wildlife species regularly.  I appreciated this perspective.  She went on to say it would make a great graduate research project to study ‘refelling’ ponies.

As Alison emphasized, being back on the Critical portion of the conservation list isn’t a good thing.  I agreed.  Generally being there is an indication that there aren’t enough breed stewards.  That isn’t necessarily the case with the Fell Pony, but we are lacking hill breeders, people who steward ponies on their native fells.  Alison requested that I send my current research on hillbred ponies to her.  It will be in my June newsletter, so if you want to receive it and aren’t subscribed, click here!

  1. Couch, C.R., et al.  “Changes in the Conservation Priority List for 2018,” The Livestock Conservancy News, Spring 2018, Volume 35, issue 2, p. 1.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More information about the Fell Pony breed can be found in my book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Two Mamas Face Off

180515 Shelley ears Chester.jpg

I now know that Chester, my one-month-old Fell Pony colt, has seen a moose.  I was mounted on his mom Shelley, and we were trail riding on the woods loop.  It was where the timber was its thickest, but I could see a brown form in the distance.  It was a cow with last year’s calf at foot.  From my high perspective, I was able to see them before either pony or my dog did.

Cows are known to be aggressive when they have calves at foot.  I could see that the cow was very close to our trail, so I announced our presence and asked her to move off.  She didn’t, just standing and watching us get closer.  I then felt, as well as saw, Shelley register that we had company in the woods.  I now had two mamas facing off.  If it had been just my dog and me on foot, I would have headed in the opposite direction, but somehow mounted, I felt that Shelley’s size, being three-quarters that of the moose, was enough margin for safety.

I called out a few more times in case the rumor of a moose’s poor eyesight was accurate.  When the cow finally began to move off with her calf in front of her, I saw Chester register that we had company, too.  He certainly wasn’t bothered at all, and Shelley never missed a step as we drew closer to where the moose had been.

I have taken detours enough times over the years when I’ve seen moose in the woods that I admit to feeling triumphant this time.  I was grateful for Shelley’s presence, and her mama’s protective posture, that allowed us to have the moose give way instead of us.  And of course I once again didn't have a camera with me!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one about life with Fell Ponies can be found in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

The Edinburgh Prize for Driving

Here are highlights from this article in the February 2018 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm:

2015 Edinburgh prize courtesy Libby Robinson
  • The Edinburgh Prize for Driving was created in 2014.  His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh intends it to “to be awarded internationally to a single or multiple turnout of registered Fell Ponies, for achievement in Driving.”
  • For 2017, the award went to a North American for the first time.
  • Upon my reading of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh’s book 30 Years on and off the Box Seat, it’s no surprise that he would establish this prize.
  • I was warned that the book might be boring for someone like me who isn’t involved in competitive driving.  On the contrary I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the sport, and I especially appreciated the second half of the book when he transitioned from horses to Fell Ponies. 
  • I’ve always been curious about the lineage of the ponies that HRH the Duke of Edinburgh has driven over the years.  I learned that only rarely were ponies bought particularly for his team...
  • The Fell Pony breed is very fortunate that HM the Queen and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh take such an active interest in our ponies.

To request the entire article, click here.

A Colorful Herd

Matty and Honey

In 2015, my Fell Pony herd grew more colorful when two black mares departed.  My curiosity led me to look at how the colorfulness of my herd compared to other 'herds.'  Here are highlights from my research:

  • My herd is indeed more colorful than the worldwide foal crops from ten years ago and more recently.  Of course in a herd my size (relatively small), a change in population of one pony has a big impact on numbers!
  • The worldwide foal crop has also become more colorful from 2005 to 2013, with the biggest change being the increase in bay/brown ponies.
  • The North American 2013 foal crop was slightly more colorful than England’s or the worldwide one.  It was also more colorful than the North American population overall.
  • The North American 2013 foal crop had a higher percentage of grays than the average for the breed.
  • The Dutch only registered black foals in 2013.

The original article appeared in the June 2015 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.  To read the entire article, click here.

Riding a Powderkeg

Over the years, I’ve seen the phrase ‘riding a powderkeg’ on occasion.   Recently I’ve come as close as I’ll probably ever come to personally experiencing it mounted on an equine.  I’m pretty conservative and not inclined to mount an equine that is likely to be explosive.  And since I almost exclusively ride Fell Ponies, I’m of course fortunate to have usually calm and thoughtful mounts.

Restar Mountain Shelley III and Willowtrail Josie

I received some well-meaning feedback on the photo here.  I had submitted it with an application for a competition.  I was told it wasn’t acceptable because I was riding a mare with a foal at foot without wearing a helmet.  I knew the mare and the foal and their interactions at the time, so I knew as well as anyone can know that I wasn’t in any danger, but the photo was considered to send an inappropriate message about safety.  I found another photo for that competition.

More recently, it was first thing in the morning, and I was mounted on a mare with her week-old foal at foot.  And yes, I was wearing a helmet this time because once again I knew the mare and the foal and their interactions at the time, and I deemed a helmet necessary.  We were riding past the stallion pen where the foal’s father was running the fence, both because he hadn’t yet been fed and because there was a new pony, his son, on the move.  I could feel the mare under me becoming more and more tense, and while she continued to move where I wanted her to at the speed I wanted, I could tell she was far from content.  I considered dismounting because it felt like something big might happen – either I might get assistance in a dismount, or we might be departing at sudden and high speed.

After a few moments, we had progressed past the stallion pen, and I could feel the mare relax under me.  With the agitated stallion no longer nearby, she was less concerned about the safety of her foal.  Dismounting no longer seemed necessary.

These days ‘riding a powderkeg’ usually refers to being on a roller coaster or a motorcycle.  While I’ve done both those things and I understand how the phrase might apply, I would suggest that being on a mare with foal at foot riding past an agitated stallion is an even more thrilling application of that phrase.  Riding a broodmare means there’s another independent-thinking brain involved, capable of making decisions in fractions of seconds, decisions about which the rider may have very little input.  I have a much better understanding now why my photo was rejected for that competition.  I’m thankful for having had my 'riding a powderkeg' experience, and especially thankful I did it with a Fell Pony who remained thoughtful enough to mind my safety while also minding that of her foal’s.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one can be found in my book What An Honor:  A Dozen Years with Fell Ponies, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Fell Ponies and Milk Floats

 Darkie in Silloth, 1974, courtesy Christine Robinson

Darkie in Silloth, 1974, courtesy Christine Robinson

First, a definition.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a float is “a low-bodied dray for transporting heavy goods.”  It has been suggested to me that the word in this context is of Scottish origin.  A milk float then is a low-bodied cart or wagon for transporting milk.

Two Fell Pony colleagues have shared with me that their first experience with Fell Ponies was with milk floats, so I had to learn more.

Here are excerpts from "Fell Ponies and Milk Floats" in the May 2015 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm (a similar story was published in the newsletter of the Fell Pony Society):

  • My first memory of the association between Fells and dairies is from talking to Bob Charlton of the Linnel stud.
  • Judith Bean shares, "A black Fell walked up the vicarage drive where I grew up and parked (without direction from the farmer/milkman) beside the back door."
  • Joe Langcake says Fells were ideal for this work.
  • Helen Gallagher shares about her grandfather's milk float.

To read the entire article, click here.

More stories like this one can be found in my book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the cover image.

Another Way Facebook Connects Us

Willowtrail Fell Ponies

It didn’t seem to matter what I did that morning; Facebook was involved.  My husband and I were discussing travel plans, so I needed to send a message via Facebook.  Then I needed to schedule a telephone conference, so I sent another message.  In the process I checked my news feed for anything Fell Pony related as well as glancing at what Facebook thought were the pertinent headlines of the day.  Then of course the radio news was full of Facebook because the company’s CEO was testifying before Congress.

During CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress, as reported on the news that morning, he was asked about the new requirements under the European Union (EU) data protection law called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which goes into effect on May 25, 2018.  He said his company was working towards compliance and that it might be a good starting point for similar efforts in the United States.

Later that day, I was speaking to someone with knowledge of the Fell Pony Society.  Most of the work of the Society is of course done by volunteers, with just a small staff in the office.  Whenever I talk to the office, I try to ask what is currently occupying the staff’s time because in the past I’ve been surprised by how much of that scarce resource goes into things the Society membership rarely knows about.  Years ago I remember learning about the amount of effort that was required to comply with European Union (EU) regulations around equine registration.  It seemed strange to me that the EU would be involved in this sort of minute detail.  I wasn’t surprised by the Brexit vote more recently as a response to this sort of burden due to membership in the EU. 

During the phone conference I had scheduled via Facebook, I learned that once again the office staff was having to spend some of their scarce time on something the membership might never be aware of.  It turned out it was that same topic that Mr. Zuckerberg had been asked about during his testimony before Congress:  compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation.  The connection with Facebook went beyond that, of course, because it is in part because of Facebook’s use of user data that the GDPR was put into effect in the first place.  Rather than spending time on more pony-related matters, the Society office was having to comply with yet another EU regulation.  The world felt small and very inter-connected as I began my day.

Shortly after I became involved with Fell Ponies, what I think was the first internet-based community for Fell Pony people was created as a Yahoo group.  I still have printouts of things long time breeders like Carole Morland and Christine Morton shared there. At the moment, the vast majority of sharing amongst the international Fell Pony community is done on Facebook.  It’s hard to imagine that changing, though a decade ago I might have said the same about the Yahoo group!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

It’s the Personality of the Fell Pony

180419 personality.jpg

There have been a few Fell Ponies whose personalities I could do without, but the two I’m working most with at the moment make up for all the questionable ones.  The title here is a shortened version of a quote by the late Mr. Henry Harrison, breeder of the Sleddale ponies.  “…it’s the personality of the Fell Pony that means so much, a kind natured pony, ever eager to please and provide good company.” (1)  That pretty much sums up the two I’m working with.

One of them I have just started under saddle.  I’ve maybe taken a dozen short rides on him.  And yet on my last one, the longest so far, you could have mistaken him for a seasoned trail pony.  He barely put a foot wrong despite going places he hadn’t gone in a year and never under saddle, despite footing varying from ice to mud to dry ground, despite occasional wind gusts, despite having to walk through a mud puddle at the gate, despite his paddock mate calling to him the entire time we were gone.  I gave him lots of praise at the end, and he licked and chewed for a long time.  I think he enjoyed our outing, too.

The other pony is just a few days old, but he comes to me whenever he sees me, appreciates scratches in his favorite places, and accepts lessons willingly.  Like the first pony, it’s motivating to work with him because he’s such a sponge for new information and experiences.  It’s very rewarding.

After my last encounter with these boys, I chuckled as I thought about Mr. Harrison’s statement .  I’m convinced it’s the personality of the Fell Pony that makes it so hard for so many of us to have just one.  They’re addictive!

1)      Harrison, Mr. Henry.  January page, 2005 Fell Pony Society calendar.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

There are more stories about how Fell Ponies bring joy to my life in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

When Mares Make It Easy

180415 Shelley and colt.jpg

We have a friend who has made a career of equine reproduction but never wants to be a breeder.  “It’s too stressful,” she says.  I can’t blame her; it is stressful.  For the past week I’ve been monitoring a mare’s udder in advance of an important out-of-town meeting.  My stress level has notched up each day as the day of the meeting has approached, hoping that the foaling wouldn’t interfere with going to the meeting, and conversely that the mare wouldn’t use our absence for the meeting as an excuse to foal!

I have had great success using the pH of milk to predict foaling, but this mare has her own pattern.  She doesn’t let her milk even drop to be tested until less than 12 hours before foaling.  So, for the past week, I’ve religiously checked morning and night, twelve hours apart, but I’ve had no milk to test.  One winter storm came and went, which often triggers labor, but still no imminent foaling. 

The day of the meeting arrived.  I checked the mare when I first got up at 3:30am, and still no milk, so I knew we had twelve hours of freedom.  I also knew we were close because she cocked her off leg when I bumped her udder, similar to what she would do if a foal bumped her udder, angling the teats toward a waiting mouth.  I told the mare our plans for the day, asking her to wait until we got home that night at least.  This mare has often chosen to have our presence at foaling, so I was hopeful she’d heard my plea.

We were gone for sixteen hours, so we were both anxious as we drove up the driveway, eagerly following the beam of the headlights into the foaling shed to see if the mare had company.  She didn’t.  Before I’d even changed out of my dress clothes, I checked for milk.  There it was; less than twelve hours now.  And while I was already sleep-deprived from leaving so early for the meeting (and having a puppy who can’t make it through the night yet), I knew the next day was our weekly day of rest, so I summoned enough energy to commence regular checks during the night.

At first check the mare showed no signs of having laid down (no telltale straw on her body), so with so much fatigue, I opted for a two hour check.  No telltale straw then either, so I set the alarm for two hours again, having communicated the pattern to the mare by this point.  Fortunately my husband’s emergency radio went off, or we would have missed the action.  Since this is this mare’s seventh foal, we knew it was very likely that all would be well, and it was:  a big, beautiful and healthy black colt. 

After witnessing the important milestones of a newborn and mother, we gave ourselves the gift of a long nap.  Even the puppy allowed it to be peaceful!  Rarely is foal watch as easy as this one was.  That this mare chose to wait until we were home, to let us go to our meeting, to foal when we had a rest day during which to recover, made this foal watch less stressful than most.  I am so thankful this mare made it easy.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

My book What an Honor is full of stories like this one.  It is available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.