Words Describing the Native Ground of the Fell Pony

The Fell Pony is named after the local word for hill in Cumbria.  It is often said that many of the characteristics of the breed are due to the ponies’ lives on the fells.  When considering the role of fell-bred and non-fell-bred ponies in our breed, it’s first important to understand what a fell-bred Fell Pony is.  It turns out that the definition of fell-bred ponies can be unclear in part because the definition of fell ground is also unclear. 

Greenholme Jewel courtesy Bill Potter

John Slater of the past Greenfield stud, when asked what a fell-bred pony is, answered, “Funny one! Where does the fell start! At Greenfield some mares foaled on the fell and some would be brought down to the pastures to foal. The fell peaked at 1600 feet yet the lower fells are on a level with the pastures, in Greenfield’s case the pastures peaked at around 1100 feet above sea level.  My land is around 800 feet where my ponies Greenfield Rose, Osprey, Polly’s Lad, and Rhona were born, but we used to exchange our land in spring with a farmer, so the mares and foals went up above our land on the high fells for a few months.  Foals born on higher pastures or fields in the Yorkshire Dales or Cumbria could have almost as tough a time as fell-bred foals.” (1)

The word fell is derived from the Norse word fjall meaning mountain or hill and more particularly a high barren mountainous or moorland landscape.  The Norse are thought to have arrived in Cumbria around 925AD.  This definition based on the Norse is quite general.  Getting more specific, Wikipedia says, in Northern England “…the word ‘fell’ originally referred to an area of uncultivated high ground used as common grazing usually on common land and above the timberline.”  Wikipedia then settles on a less precise definition:  “Today, generally, ‘fell’ refers to the mountains and hills of the Lake District and the Pennine Dales.” (2)

So, is a fell common land or not, above timberline or not, exclusively in the Lake District and the Pennine Dales or not?  Given these questions, it’s understandable that The Fell Pony Society would find it necessary to develop their own definition of where a fell-bred pony must exist and then keep a list of hill breeders who breed them.  The Fell Pony Society began keeping that list in 2007. 

My understanding of the Fell Pony Society’s definition of a fell-bred pony is a pony that is born into a herd that spends all or part of the year above the fell gate, is registered with the Fell Pony Society, and whose breeder is a member of the Society.  As is often the case when precise definitions for things are created, some breeders who keep ponies at high elevation and/or run them on the fell are left off the Fell Pony Society hill breeder list. 

For instance, the Waverhead Stud Facebook page describes its location as “overlooking the Caldbeck Fells, on the edge of the Lake District in Cumbria.” (3)  Another description of the stud says:  “Waver Head is a rough, windswept hill farm in the Caldbeck Fell region (Cumbria) at 1000 feet above sea level, well suited for hardy Fell Ponies.” (4)  Similarly, the Banksgate stud isn’t considered a fell farm but runs its ponies above 1000 feet above sea level.

Native heath is another term that one sometimes encounters when considering where Fell Ponies live.  Heath or heathland is a certain type of grazing environment where some pony herds graze.  Native heath may or may not be above the fell gate so may or may not be considered fell.

Another place where terminology gets confusing about Fell Ponies is when they are said to be running on the fells in Cumbria in semi-feral herds.  Semi-feral is not an accurate description of how Fell Ponies are owned and managed today.  Fell Ponies are not alone in being inaccurately called semi-feral.  Wendy Williams, in her book The Horse:  The Epic History of our Noble Companion, discusses this terminology problem in reference to the Pottok horse breed.  Yet her conclusion seems valid also for Fell Ponies.  “’Feral’ implies that the horses were once thoroughly domesticated and then escaped to the wild.  This is not the case….  A more accurate word… might be ‘semi-managed.’” (5)  Like Pottok horses, Fells on the fell are not ponies that were once domesticated and then escaped to the wild.  While perhaps wild in spirit, they are not wild like the previously domesticated but now wild horses in North America that are indeed feral.   Instead, Fell Ponies on the fell are owned by people and kept on the fell in a semi-managed state, meaning they may or may not get supplementary feed during harsh weather, they may or may not be regularly wormed and see a farrier, and the mares may or may not come in for foaling and breeding. 

Greenholme ponies in snow courtesy Bill Potter

The Fell Pony breed is considered vulnerable by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) in England and moves between Watch and Critical with The Livestock Conservancy in the United States.  These organizations exist to ensure that livestock breeds don’t vanish.  When determining whether a breed merits conservation efforts, the breed is studied to determine, among other things, whether it is a landrace or a standardized breed.  Members of a landrace breed are selected primarily through their existence in a particular landscape.  Members of a standardized breed are selected against a breed standard.  Standardized breeds often evolve from landrace breeds; the Fell Pony is an example of that. (6)

RBST in its description of the Fell Pony highlights the influence of the landscape on the breed’s characteristics:  “Herds of free-ranging registered ponies still run on the Cumbrian fells, playing an important role in maintaining the Fell pony characteristics of hardiness, sure-footedness and thrift.”  (7)

In the Fell Pony breed’s first stud book, Mr. W.W. Wingate-Saul, around 1898, said, “…Their habitat (having been bred for centuries on the cold inhospitable fells where they are still to be found), has caused a wonderful growth of hair, the winter coat being heavy and legs growing a good deal of fine hair, all of which, excepting some at the point of the heel, being cast in summer.  Constitutionally they are hard as iron, with good all-round action, and are very fast and enduring.” (8)  With so many of the breed’s characteristics shaped by the fell environment, it’s therefore crucial to consider the future of the fell-bred Fell Pony if we are concerned about the future of the breed as a whole.

  1.  Slater, John.  Email to the author, May 12, 2018.

  2. “Fell,” wikipedia.com, as accessed 7/31/18

  3. “Waverhead Fell Pony Stud,” About page, facebook.com, as accessed 7/31/18

  4. Gould-Earley, Mary Jean.  “The Waverhead Fell Pony Stud,” Fell Pony Express, The Fell Pony Society of North America, Volume 10, No. 1, May, 2011, p. 7

  5. Williams, Wendy.  The Horse:  The Epic History of Our Noble Companion. New York:  Scientific American/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015, p. xx.

  6. Morrissey, Jenifer.  “The Flip Side of Fell Life,” Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, p. 74.

  7. “Fell Pony,” at rbst.org.uk, as accessed 7/31/18.

  8. Fell Pony Stud Book Registrations 1898-1980.  Penrith, England:  The Fell Pony Society, p. 1.

The Fell Pony as a Rare Breed

This is a slightly updated version of a chapter in my first book about Fell Ponies (see end for more information).


The Fell Pony breed received some good news in 2006.  According to two organizations who track rare breeds, the Fell Ponies’ status as a rare breed improved.  The Rare Breeds Survival Trust in England moved the breed from endangered to vulnerable, and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy moved the breed from rare to threatened.  These organizations use the number of breeding females as a measure of breed strength, and indeed this number did improve.  Yet there are a number of other measures of breed health that these changes in status have not considered and that I think are worth pondering.

Number of Breeding Females

As mentioned above, the way that the scientists of the rare breeds organizations have measured the health of the breed is by the number of breeding females.  As the chart at right shows, foal registrations by year, an indicator of breeding female population, show a steady gain over the prior 20 years. 

breeding females.png

The numbers in the chart only measure foals registered with the Fell Pony Society (FPS) in England.  FPS has daughter societies in The Netherlands and Germany that register their own foals, so the numbers are even larger.  (There is a much smaller population of unregistered ponies in the UK and abroad.) 

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust used the number of breeding females to improve the status of the Fell Pony on January 4, 2006.  Their press release states, “…the Fell moves from Endangered to Vulnerable and may drop another category next year if numbers continue to improve.” (1) The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy used a similar method, though in ALBC’s case, they found sufficient genetic similarities between the Fell and Dales Pony breeds to combine the two for conservation purposes, thereby increasing the breeding population size and improving the rating of the breed.

 Genetic Diversity

One drawback of the breeding females statistic is that it doesn’t measure genetic diversity.  Fell Ponies have had a closed registry since 1969. (2)  While more and more foals are born each year, they are still coming from a very small historic population.  According to researcher David Murray (citing Dr. Gareth Thomas’s PhD dissertation), two genetic bottlenecks occurred during the middle of the 20th century. (3) 

When I bought my first Fell Ponies in 2000, I learned firsthand the modern manifestations of these bottlenecks.  One of my first Fells was a 13-year-old mare whom I intended to breed.  In preparation for breeding her, I undertook a study of her relatedness to all the licensed stallions in the breed worldwide at the time.  (There were only four licensed stallions in North America at the time, and two were sons of the other two, so I wanted to understand the broader population.)  I analyzed the pedigrees of 153 stallions.  My mare was related to 75% of them somewhere in the first three generations.  On top of that, she has repetitions in her own pedigree in the first three generations.  These findings led me to conclude that we have a limited gene pool in this breed indeed and need to take care in proclaiming the breed’s recovery. 

In a book published in 1963 -- Ponies:  Their Origin and Development in Britain by Daphne Machin Goodall -- the Fell Pony is described as “dangerously near to extinction.”  It states, “About thirty ponies are registered every year and there are probably between 300-400 Fell Ponies left.” (4)  Obviously the Fell Pony is much more numerous today, but such a small population in the recent past, in combination with a closed stud book, is another indication of the possibility of a limited genetic pool.

Breeding Population Size

Breeding animals by decade.jpg

The gene pool may be even more limited than one might think.  In my studies of Fell Pony registrations, (5) I have learned that only about a third of the female Fell Ponies born in a given year are ever used for breeding.(6)  So, while there may be 300 Fell Ponies born in a given year, only a portion of those will contribute their genetics to future populations.  My research has shown that today’s registered Fell Pony population is based on fewer than 70 animals in the 1930s, a very small genetic foundation indeed.  (For this analysis, I assumed a decade to be a good period to study breeding population size, based on my research findings.(7))  

The chart shows the size of the breeding population by decade that has contributed its genetics to the current population. (8)  During the decade of the 1950s, approximately 114 ponies were actively being bred to produce today’s registered population.  If Goodall’s population data in her book are accurate, then again only about 1/3 of the population of 300-400 ponies contributed its genetics to future generations.

Foal immunodeficiency Syndrome

While the size of the breeding population is important to scientists who stand outside the breed looking in, other concerns are the focus of Fell Pony breeders.  One of those concerns is Foal Immunodeficiency Syndrome (previously known as Fell Foal Syndrome).  Foal Immunodeficiency Syndrome (FIS) is a disease found in our breed as well as the closely related Dales and Gypsy Cob breeds (Dales Ponies are closely related and shared a studbook with the Fells until 1916; cross-breeding was allowed into the 1950s. (9) Fell Ponies have been used to create traditional colored cobs and the more formal Gypsy Cob and similar breeds.) 

I consider FIS a threat not because of the foals who die each year, which is of course tragic.  Instead, I am concerned with how the syndrome influences breeding decisions.    All major family lines in the breed are affected.  Given the genetic bottlenecks in the breed’s history, it is imperative that breeders choose their breeding stock based on the breed standard, not on whether ponies are carriers.  Rather than avoid carrier parents, we need to breed from them prudently.  I feel that the integrity of the breed could be at stake if the carrier status of a pony influences breeding decisions.

stallion show.jpg

Loss of Type

Whenever there is a discussion of Fell Ponies as a rare breed on one of the internet email lists, invariably someone asserts that loss of type is the greatest threat to the breed.  The discussions seem to assume that “type” is well understood.  A recent discussion defined “type” as being what the breed standard in its entirety describes.  I’ve concluded that “type” includes everything from the specifics of conformation in the breed standard to the attributes of hardiness, intelligence, and sure-footedness that often are used to describe the breed.  I’ve also concluded that a breeder with any history has a firm idea of what they like about the breed, a firm idea of what they are aiming for with their breeding program, and, often but not always, a firm belief that the type they are breeding is the true Fell Pony!

As an avid student of the breed, it appears to me that there is a divergence of type within the breed.  It also appears that this divergence of type has existed for over a century.  Hoofprints in Eden, a book by Sue Millard, states that during the 1950s, “there were two different types of Fell, the heavier ‘Cumberland’ pony and a lighter ‘riding type.’  To accommodate this, two different types of stallions were chosen [for the enclosure scheme.]” (10)   Clive Richardson’s 1991 book on the breed states that a trotting type was common in the 1880s that was lighter in bone and substance than the typical Fell of the period. (11)  

At the Fell Pony Society Stallion & Colt Show in 2005, it was easy for me to pick out different “types” of Fell Ponies, from those very pony-like with short backs and good substance to those bordering on horse-y-ness with longer backs, longer legs, relatively fine bodies, and big heads and/or ears.  All of these ponies of course fit within the breed standard but portray the diverse manifestations that the standard can have.

At the same time, the breed standard does provide a definition that some equines cannot meet.  I have seen Fell Ponies that barely fit within the standard, despite being bred from Fell Pony parents whose pedigrees go back generations.  It is those ponies that people must have in mind when loss of type is mentioned as a threat to the breed.  As a newcomer to the breed, I was under the impression that anything bred from registered parents must be considered a Fell.  Now, with a few years of experience under my belt and after observing hundreds of Fell Ponies, I recognize that if care isn’t exercised when breeding, it is indeed possible to produce ponies that do not reflect the breed standard.  Based on my research, it could take as little as ten years of indiscriminate breeding for the breeding population to be irreversibly changed. (12)

Away from the Fells – Part I

Like all the British native pony breeds, the character of Fell Ponies has been shaped by centuries of living in its home climate and terrain.  Its physical stature has been limited by poor quality forage, for instance.  Its surefootedness has been enforced by steep terrain.  Its hardiness has been enforced by weather, terrain, and forage quality. 

NA Pop growth.jpg

The American Shetland Pony is often used as an example of what can happen to a breed when it is taken away from its native ground.  The American Shetland with its flashy action, upright carriage, and fine bone bears little if any resemblance to the tough little ponies of the Shetland Islands.  Is it possible that the Fell Pony will suffer a similar fate if its popularity continues to rise away from its home terrain?

An e-mail string in 2006 asserted that such a fate was indeed a possibility if the North American Fell Pony market were to take off.  The American Quarter Horse was cited as a breed that has mushroomed in less than a century to become the most numerous horse in the world.  This example serves as a well-founded warning to those of us in the North American market to breed consciously and carefully. 

In my first six years of involvement with the Fell Pony, I saw the North American population grow sixfold, from 33 ponies in 2000 to 194 at the end of 2005. (13)  This rate of growth obviously far exceeds the rate of growth in England and stems equally from new ponies being born here and ponies being imported.  If the Fell Pony were to take off in popularity in similar ways to the Quarter Horse (albeit from a smaller base population), it is possible it could be changed from its original form.  It is the responsibility of American breeders to respect the breed standard and breed true-to-type to the best of our ability.

Away From the Fells – Part II

foals in Cumbria.jpg

While the Fell Pony takes its name from the Cumbrian hills, a number of Fell Ponies have also been bred in England but away from Cumbria since the inception of the stud book.  In the past decade we have lost a number of large Cumbrian herds that were owned by long-time breeders whose families declined to continue breeding.  I began to wonder if in fact the proportion of Fell Ponies being bred each year away from Cumbria was growing and possibly becoming a threat to the breed.

My research in the stud books has revealed that the percentage of ponies born outside Cumbria has not seen wide fluctuations in the past forty years, averaging 44%. (14)  Again, these numbers only reflect ponies registered with the Fell Pony Society in England.  In the past decade, when the popularity of the Fell Pony has been growing steadily concurrent with the loss of fell-bred herds, the percentage of the foal population born outside Cumbria is still just 49%.  The chart at right does show a slight downward trend in current times compared to the 1980s and early 1990s. (15) 

Away from the Fells – Part III

Fells on fell.jpg

While the proportion of ponies bred outside Cumbria does not appear to be changing radically, the proportion of Fell Ponies bred off their native fells may be more of a concern.  The population of fell-bred ponies is threatened from at least two directions.  First, as mentioned above, we have lost a number of large herds from the fells that were owned by long-time breeders whose families declined to continue breeding.  Second, some Fell Pony breeders are in danger of losing their grazing rights on the fells.  The fells are common ground, and changing public perceptions and management priorities can impact both the right to graze and the number of animals allowed to graze the common land.   “Breeders of 14 surveyed herds have and use their registered grazing rights, whereas 8 of 23 herds are on sites where breeders have no registered grazing rights.” (16)

One of the problems, according to Murray, with Fell ponies being bred off the Fells, is that they may lose their characteristic hardiness.  Hardiness is one of the most important breed attributes to me, so I will be studying this potential further.  One breeder outside England has asserted that non-fell-bred ponies who are returned to the fells do not do well and may die.  I queried one long-time fell breeder about retaining hardiness off the fells.  The response was that it depends on type and age.  The larger types bred away from the fells probably can’t survive there if returned, nor can older ponies who have been gone most of their lives.


It is obviously good news that the Fell Pony is increasing in popularity and in numbers.  The breed, however, still faces some threats.  Those of us who care about the Fell Pony and its future need to stay informed about the threats to ensure the breed’s ability to thrive well into the future, just as it has survived lean times in the past.

Note about footnotes: raresteeds.com no longer exists, but the data is in possession of the author.

  1. Rare Breeds Survival Trust website:

      http://www.rbst.org.uk/pdf/press_releases/watchlist_pr.pdf as accessed in 2007.

  2. Murray, David Anthony.  The Fell Pony:  grazing characteristics and breed profile – a preliminary assessment.  2005, Earthwatch Institute, p. 48.

  3. Murray, p. 42.

  4. Goodall, Daphne Machin.  Ponies:  Their Origin and Development in Britain, Cranbury, New Jersey, A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc., 1963, p. 60. 

  5. In studying Fell Pony registrations, it is important to recognize that the registration process is a human one and therefore is prone to errors despite our best intentions.  I have made corrections to pedigrees in the stud books where the corrections are obvious, and left inconsistencies intact when I could not resolve them.  I am also aware that the enclosure scheme, in use from 1945-1976, may have incorrectly identified sires of some ponies.  These problems only serve to further highlight the vulnerable gene pool of the breed.

  6. Original research as a byproduct of the Pedigree Information Service of raresteeds.com.  Foals were entered in the database from 2000 back in time.  When I reached 1993, 13% of the colts and 38% of the fillies were already entered because they had progeny (23% overall).  Sires and dams for foals from 2001 to 2003 were already entered, indicating that the breeding population was captured by a ten-year window of foal registrations.

  7. Original research as a byproduct of the Pedigree Information Service of raresteeds.com.  Foals were entered from 2000 back in time.  When I reached 1993, 94% of the parents of the 1993 foal crop were already entered, indicating that the breeding population was already substantially represented in the database.

  8. Original research as a byproduct of the Pedigree Information Service of raresteeds.com.  Breeding animals by year were determined from the mean kinship reports.  Unique animals were then identified for the decades shown in the chart.  Unknown sires and dams were assumed to be unique animals but may have been repeats.  Numbers do not include ancestors of latterly accepted inspection scheme mares, though they may be included by coincidence.

  9. Millard, Sue.  Hoofprints in Eden, Hayloft Publishing, Kirkby-Stephen, Cumbria, England, 2005, p. 222.

  10. Millard, p. 115.

  11. Richardson, Clive, The Fell Pony.  J.A. Allen, Allen Guides to Horse and Pony Breeds, 2000, p. 45.

  12.   See footnote 6 above.

  13. North American Fell Pony roster from raresteeds.com as available in 2006, now available from the author.

  14.   “born in Cumbria” is determined by the address of the breeder in the stud book showing Cumbria as the county.

  15.   Original research as a byproduct of the Pedigree Information Service of raresteeds.com.  For stud books prior to 1981 where addresses of breeders were not supplied, locations of breeders were determined from later entries where addresses were provided, or breeders were assumed outside Cumbria.

  16. Murray, p. 70.

This essay is modified from a chapter out of my book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Fell Ponies and Inspiration

According to The Fell Pony Society, the Fell Pony is “the old breed of pony which has roamed the northern fells for years.”  Within the ponies’ home range lies the Lake District with its national park and World Heritage Site.  While the Fell Pony hasn’t been well integrated into the park’s activities or site’s plans in the past, it certainly can be in the future.  I love photographer Emma Campbell’s goal:  “…one day, I’d like the Lake District to become as famous for its fell ponies as its sheep.”  (1)

Fell Pony Hanging Bracket courtesy Eddie McDonough

The Lake District World Heritage site has three themes:  identity, inspiration, and conservation.  It’s fairly easy to see how the Fell Pony fits in the ‘identity’ theme as this theme is about the historic farming and industrial landscapes.  And our ponies likely can be fit in the conservation theme via conservation grazing, if not other ways.  But you may be surprised, as I was, that inspiration is more problematic.  Fell Ponies have certainly provided inspiration over the years to many with artistic and literary skill, but the inspiration in the World Heritage Site plan is defined quite narrowly:  “The beauty of the Lake District inspired artists and writers of the Picturesque and Romantic movements and generated ideas about landscape that have had global influence.” (2)

The Fell Pony isn’t unique in being left out of the inspirational view of the Lake District.  In his book The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks tells a story that is both disturbing and illuminating.  Rebanks recounts being a school boy and hearing a teacher lecture on the Lake District as a place of nature and romantic ideals of beauty.  He found himself confused because he lived in the Lake District, as had generations of his family before him, and what the teacher was describing was totally foreign to the place that he knew firsthand.  “The Lake District in her monologue was the playground of an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers, and daydreamers… people whom, unlike our parents, or us, had ‘really done something….’  Sitting in that assembly was the first time I’d encountered this (basically romantic) way of looking at our landscape.  I realized then, with some shock, that the landscape I loved, we loved, where we had belonged for centuries, the place known as ‘the Lake District,’ had a claim to ownership submitted by other people, based on principles I barely understood [at that time.]” (3)

The Picturesque movement was characterized by an interplay between architecture and landscape that resulted in a pretty picture like one might see in a painting.  A medieval ruin in a country setting was considered ‘picturesque,’ for instance.  William Gilpin, in his 1772 guidebook, encouraged tourists to the Lake District to visit particular places to see the sights from particular perspectives that were pleasing.

The Romantic movement was characterized by a love of nature and of history and a sense of the individual and of emotion.  Realism was considered a polar opposite to Romanticism.  The Fell Pony Museum indicates that Fell Ponies were available as mounts for tourists who wanted to see “the Romantic aspect of the countryside” during the period. (4)  Both the Picturesque and Romantic movements were in part a reaction against the Industrial Revolution.

While horses were sometimes the focus of artists and authors in these movements (late 1700s to mid 1800s), the equine subjects were often sporting, racing, or military in nature.  It doesn’t appear that there was any artistic interest in the native ponies of Britain, including the Fell Pony.  Perhaps their close association with industry through their use as pack horses and later as pit ponies made them uninteresting?

Beatrix Potter was not directly a part of the Romantic or Picturesque movements, but she does figure in the World Heritage Site plan.  And of course there is a Fell Pony connection through her.   Her essay “The Lonely Hills” has a short description of wild fell ponies on Troutbeck Tongue.  One reviewer calls the essay “…a ruminative piece… treating the Lake Country's romantic aura.” (5)  So here, at least, we have one tie of the Fell Pony to the Romantic movement’s view of the Lake District!

While Fell Ponies may not have been considered inspiring by the Romantic and Picturesque movements, they have been inspiring for a number of people since then.  In addition to paintings and books and photos and films, I’ve seen jewelry, holiday greens, textiles, and sculpture.  Here are some examples specific to the Lake District (some of which also touch on the identity and conservation themes):

I’m sure I’m forgetting some obvious artists and authors of the past who were inspired by the Fell Pony and its presence in the Lake District.  I look forward to being told about them so I can add them to this list.  In August 2018, numerous painters and photographers and authors who have taken inspiration from Fell Ponies exhibited their works at the Heritage of the Fells event in Shap.  While I was unable to attend, I was thrilled when a colleague sent me a poem they wrote about their ponies for the event. Heritage of the Fells was supported by Friends of the Lake District via a ‘Discover Cumbria’ grant and by the Fell Pony Society with a grant and merchandise.

The Lake District World Heritage Site plan is hundreds of pages long, and I admit I haven’t read it thoroughly yet.  I hope when I do I discover more ways that the Fell Pony fits within the site’s inspiration theme.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the many Fell-Pony-inspired works of art and literature that come my way.

  1. Campbell, Emma, as quoted in Borrell, Robert, “Fell Ponies in the Lake District,” Lancashire Life, 12 April 2018 as found at https://www.lancashirelife.co.uk/out-about/fell-ponies-in-te-lake-district-1-5466508,  accessed 1/10/19.

  2. http://lakesworldheritage.co.uk/blog/2017/july/euphoria-as-lake-district-becomes-a-world-heritage-site/

  3. Rebanks, James.  The Shepherd’s Life:  A Tale of the Lake District.  Allen Lane/Penguin, 2015, p. xiii

  4. “Tourists’ Mounts,” at http://www.fellponymuseum.org.uk/fells/19clate/19thc2.htm

  5. Thomas, Joyce.  “Beatrix Potter’s Americans:  Selected Letters (review),” at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/248147/summaryhttps://muse.jhu.edu/article/248147/summary, accessed on 1/10/19

First Step of a Fell Pony Mimic of a Dartmoor Pony Document

0505 Lunesdale herd3.jpg

In November of 2018, a document was submitted to the UK House of Commons Agriculture Committee in support of Dartmoor Hill Ponies (click here to read it).  A Fell Pony advocate suggested that Fell Ponies on the fells need something similar.  The Dartmoor document was a response to the Your Dartmoor Action Plan, and specifically an action included therein about “the importance of ponies for conservation grazing.” The Fell Pony unfortunately doesn’t have anything comparable to the Your Dartmoor Action Plan to respond to.  So the first step in preparing a Fell Pony mimic to the Dartmoor Pony document is an over-arching plan to respond to.  I offered to help pull information together to mimic the Dartmoor pony document for the Fell Pony.

The Your Dartmoor Action Plan is the management plan for Dartmoor National Park.  It is reviewed annually and updated as needed.  One of the priorities is, “A policy framework for upland farming that supports sustainable farming practices and National Park purposes.”  Action 6 regarding that priority states, “Seek to ensure that the importance of ponies for conservation grazing is recognised in future management and funding.” 

I propose that to mimic the Dartmoor Pony document, we in the Fell Pony world need a Fells on the Fells Action Plan.  The subtitle might be “working to ensure the future of the Fell Pony on the uplands of its historic range.”  I’m not aware of such a plan existing, and I would be ecstatic to find out I’m wrong. 

The Your Dartmoor Action Plan lays out high level priorities.  Then within each priority is a description of what is trying to be achieved and then actions to achieve those goals.  For each action, the questions how, who, how funded, and when are answered.  Click here to see the Dartmoor plan.

Any action plan, of course, is relatively meaningless without people wanting to implement it.  I was told that if all the information were collected, that it could then be put to use.  So I’m embarking on collecting information into one place.

The Fell Pony breed relies almost entirely upon volunteers for its stewardship.  Bits and pieces of the items that belong in a Fells on the Fells action plan have been mentioned, suggested, and advocated for by people in the Fell Pony community already (to whom I’m grateful.)  Yet I’m not aware of the existence of a publicly available comprehensive plan or a single person who has this goal as their full time job. I hate duplicating effort, so if I’m wrong, please stop me from wasting my time!

It’s so important that this sort of plan and work on it be visible, because as volunteers we don’t have time to waste due to duplicated efforts and disorganized voices.  We need to be coordinated to be efficient and effective, which means if we’re working on this topic, we all need to know what’s going on.  So many of us are on-line these days, that sharing information is easier than ever.  We just have to do it! 

Parenthetically:  My Motivation

Here’s why I care.  I’m an American, and I’m all too aware of the difference between the American Shetland Pony and the traditional Shetland Pony.  What happens to a breed that loses its roots is very clear to me.  (I was fortunate to start my equine life with a Shetland cross pony who still was connected to her working roots in her mind, if not in her body.)  A large share of Fell Pony owners in America have never been to England, much less walked on the fells.  Their eye for the breed is shaped by the ponies they see here and what other people here say is correct for the breed.  It seems entirely within the realm of possibility that several decades down the line, if the Fell Pony breed is no longer rooted in the fells, we could have a similar problem as Shetlands do in America. 

So many things point to the importance of this moment in time as being crucial to the future of our breed.  There are many in Cumbria who believe there is no future for the Fell Pony on the uplands.  They may be right.  But there are others who believe that until there are no longer Fell Ponies on the fell, there is hope.  An action plan relies on that second group of people who believe our breed has a future, and, hopefully, are willing to work together in that direction. 

I have begun the creation of a Fells on the Fells Action Plan by creating a preamble and outline.  I then intend, as time and information allows, to fill in the outline.  It will be available on-line so that anyone may use it in support of our breed.  If you’d like to see the outline, click here.    If you have information you think should be in the action plan, please contact me!

A Fells on the Fells Action Plan - DRAFT


A document prepared on behalf of Dartmoor Hill Ponies was posted on a Fell Pony Facebook page in November 2018.  The suggestion was made that we need to create something similar for the Fell Pony.  (to read more about the Dartmoor document, click here.)  In order to mimic the Dartmoor Pony document, we need a higher level plan on which to base it.  I’m not aware of such a plan existing, and I would be ecstatic to find out I’m wrong.  In the meantime, I’m laying out here an outline of what I think needs to be in that plan so that mimicking the Dartmoor Hill Pony document is possible.


Any plan like this, though, is relatively meaningless without people wanting to implement it.  The Fell Pony breed relies almost entirely upon volunteers for its stewardship.  Bits and pieces of the items in this draft plan have been mentioned, suggested, and advocated for by people in the Fell Pony community already (to whom I’m grateful).  Yet I’m not aware of a publicly available comprehensive plan that has support, as evidenced by people working on it and, most importantly, that has progress on the plan being recorded publicly.  I sincerely hope I’m wrong, and someone can correct my misunderstanding. 

So many things point to the importance of this moment in time as being crucial to the future of our breed (and these are just the things I see from across the pond).  There is increasing scrutiny of stewardship schemes.  In 2017, the Lake District National Park was granted World Heritage Site status based on characteristics favorable to keeping Fell Ponies on the fells.  Brexit will undoubtedly influence many things impacting on Fell Ponies.  There is increasing interest in using ponies for conservation grazing.  The breed generally is increasing its visibility throughout its native country thanks to the work of many in many different spheres.  And in my opinion, that the Potters and the Greenholme herd are going through the legal difficulties that they are is a public relations disaster for our breed community that needs to be faced up to.

There are many in Cumbria who believe the future of the Fell Pony on the fell is doomed.  They may be right.  But there are others who believe that until there are no longer Fell Ponies on the fell, there is hope.  This draft plan relies on that second group of people who believe our breed has a future, and, hopefully, are willing to work together in that direction.

The Fells on the Fells Action Plan has two main parts:  1) Priorities and Actions, and 2) Supporting information.  The Supporting Information section mimics the Dartmoor document in outline.

Fells on the Fells Action Plan:  Priorities – with a start on actions

Subtitle:  working to ensure the future of the Fell Pony on the uplands of its historic range

  • · Celebrate and support both long-time and new upland stewards of Fell Ponies.  Note this says stewards, not breeders.  Many stewards only breed occasionally and some may not have registered their stock.  This also says upland, not fell, recognizing that some important stewards of these ponies may not have traditional fell ground.  Note also that support may mean helping stewards work with other common land users in new and different ways towards the long-term goal of a future for the Fell on the fell.

  • Encourage and support people newly interested in stewarding ponies on the uplands.

  • Identify available fell rights that could be utilized for Fell Ponies and make their availability known.

  • Increase the profile of the Fell Pony amongst upland stakeholders

  • Integrate the Fell Pony into the Lake District National Park World Heritage site

  • Maintain a positive, inclusive approach to achieving the goal of keeping Fells on the fells.

Supporting Information (outline mimics the Dartmoor document)

1.       Executive Summary

Fell Ponies have roamed the northern hills of England and the border region for centuries.  They have traditionally been bred on the common lands (fells and moorlands) and used for work in the valleys and hills.  In modern times, they have been used in nearly every imaginable equestrian pursuit.  Fell Ponies born and reared on the uplands are becoming less and less common in the breed, with possible adverse consequences on the future of the breed.  The reasons for the declining upland population are many and complex.  The future of Fells on the fells is in part dependent on the quality of stewardship of the ponies on the uplands.

2.       Impacts of Agri-environment Schemes to-date 

3.       Not sustained by market

4.       Semi-wild and Native Breed at Risk

5.       Central to Lake District/Eden Valley/Northern Pennines History and Culture

6.       Conservation Grazing

7.       Value to Tourism

8.       Rare Genetics

9.       List of Links/Appendices

Now that an outline for a Fells on the Fells Action Plan exists, it’s possible to start filling in the sections with information so that our breed’s many enthusiasts can do the important work of breed conservation.


0505 Lunesdale herd3.jpg

A Footing Sense Reminder

I learned about the footing sense of Fell Ponies several years ago thanks to a long time breeder and a particular Fell Pony mare.  This characteristic of Fell Ponies came up in a conversation with the breeder about what fell-bred ponies know that is lost over generations when the ponies are bred away from the fells.  It is the sense to know where to place their feet to be safe in crossing terrain.  For ponies on the fells, it can be a knowledge of how to cross bogs that is important.  In my case it is usually how to navigate over snow and ice.

181222 Shelley pony ears2.jpg

I’ve been using that same Fell Pony mare as my chore pony this winter.  And I’ve been trying to use her more than in the past, my thinking being putting miles on her legs is beneficial for her and saving miles on mine is beneficial for me.  Where I used to ride her up and down the driveway for chores once a day, I’m now doing it as often as three times a day.  I figure I’m saving myself nearly three miles of walking a week!

Rather than heading straight down the driveway, which is covered with packed snow, I noticed that my mare was starting to weave from side to side to middle to side to middle to side of the road.  We were taking longer to get to our destination, and I concluded my pony was asserting her independence rather than following my instructions about where to go.  Clearly I needed to take control of the situation, my thinking went.  So the next time she started to wander from one side of the road to the other, I took up the reins and asked her to continue on the line down the road that we’d been on.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed where this is going.  You would think I wouldn’t need to be reminded about the footing sense of a Fell Pony because I value their intelligence so much.  Within a few strides of me forcing my pony to stay on a line that I had in mind, she started slipping.  She hadn’t slipped on our rides for weeks before that!  Apparently that weaving from side to middle to side of the road was about finding good footing, and she was using her footing sense rather than being disobedient.  I chuckled at the comeuppance I’d been dealt (not the first time by a Fell Pony), and I’ve gone back to letting my pony choose our path down the drive.  Hopefully I won’t need a reminder about footing sense ever again but somehow I’d bet I will!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

You can read my previous stories about footing sense in my book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Luck Isn't Random

180726 Cheser Jen.JPG

I am often told how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful place surrounded by beautiful ponies.  I am indeed grateful for this amazing life I lead and that people find it admirable, but I’ve always been a little hesitant to acknowledge the other aspect of ‘luck’ that’s sometimes inferred, its randomness.  I was pleased to read about some research, then, that says that indeed luck isn’t random.  Dr. Tina Seelig, a professor in management science and engineering at Stanford University, says that luck “is something you can create for yourself by identifying and developing opportunities.” (1)

Two decades of research have led Dr. Seelig to find three things we can do to increase our chances of having good things happen to us.  The first is to take small risks.  When I got involved in sustainable agriculture, taking a small risk to steward rare breeds instead of conventional ones seemed a small chance with large rewards.  Never would I have imagined I’d end up with a herd of Fell Ponies in the mountains of Colorado and friends worldwide who love them!  I think of ‘taking small risks’ as poking the universe to see how it responds.  Shortly after I bought my first Fell Ponies (before email and social media were prevalent) I sent a paper letter to a long time breeder in Cumbria, not knowing if I would hear back.  Not only did I get a response, but that initial letter led to regular correspondence then more ‘penpals’ and eventually trips to Cumbria to visit the people I’d been corresponding with.  That small risk of sending a letter definitely had long term ramifications, nearly all positive.

The second thing Dr. Seelig recommends is to show appreciation.  “When someone does something for you, they’re taking that time that they could be spending on themselves or someone else, and you need to acknowledge what they’re doing.” (2)  I am grateful to my parents who were persistent in requiring a “thank you” whenever a courtesy was shown to me.  I’ve been surprised how many people don’t practice that simple custom.  I try to always give credit and express appreciation for all I learn about these ponies (as well as other things in life), and I have definitely benefited in ways I would never have imagined.

The third thing Dr. Seelig recommends is to embrace crazy ideas.  “Ideas that seem the craziest often have a seed of something powerful, and if you take a few minutes to think about how it might work, you open yourself up to really interesting possibilities.”  (3)  When I got involved in sustainable agriculture, using draft animal power was quite common in that community.  But I had the crazy idea that using ponies made more sense.  Talk about ‘really interesting possibilities’ opening up!  The fact that the same animal can be used in harness, ridden, driving, and for packing is truly more sustainable than having different animals for different uses.  I’ve never been sorry nor been tempted to get a bigger equine.

While luck may not be random, it isn’t necessarily easy to cultivate, either.  My mother, rest her soul, thought my change from a high tech career to one in agriculture and land stewardship was ill advised, and she reminded me of her opinion every time she talked to me (she grew up on a farm, so she spoke from first hand experience). Of course my mind was pretty good at amplifying that nay-saying from an important person in my life.  It takes consistent effort to continue taking small risks, showing appreciation, and embracing crazy ideas.  So while I’ll always wrestle with nay-sayers, including myself, there’s no question I’ll keep trying to cultivate luck.

  1.  “Out of Luck?  Try This,” Stanford Magazine, December 2018,p. 25.

  2. Seelig, Tina, in #1

  3.   Seelig, Tina, in #1

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More stories like this one can be found in my books What an Honor: A Dozen Years with Fell Ponies and The Partnered Pony: What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally by clicking here or on the book covers.

When Moonlight Gives Way to Dawn

When I am outside, I often find transitions in lighting magical.  Sunrises and sunsets are of course the most common.  The last few days, though, it’s been moonlight giving way to dawn.  Temperatures have been well below zero Fahrenheit (-14 F or -25 C), so I’ve been out at 5:30 or 6 in the morning to feed the ponies.  As a result, I’ve gotten to see the light of the half-moon giving way to the light of the rising sun.  It has been magical watching my shadow change intensity and direction.  And of course everywhere I go, I’m greeted by frosty noses! 

The recent holidays have had their melancholy moments.  I’ve heard from three long time Fell Pony breeders who are struggling with various effects of aging.  Each of them has contributed significantly to my Fell Pony education over the years.  It has been hard to hear of their health struggles.  And it’s harder to think of our community without them.

When I am out feeding on these crunchy, cold mornings, I am amidst ponies whose pedigrees include ponies bred by the aging breeders who have given so much to me.   I know it is inevitable that a day will come when they’re no longer with us.  My moonlight-to-dawn mornings remind me, though, that there are always transitions, and usually where one light fails, another replaces it.  And while the transition times can be difficult, they can also be magical.  What a blessing.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

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

Kinniside Asi

No Longer Wild as the Hills?

Drybarrows Calista hasn’t ever been too wild for a Fellfie!

Drybarrows Calista hasn’t ever been too wild for a Fellfie!

Roy Ottink once described the Drybarrows Fell Ponies as “diamonds in the rough straight from the fell and wild as the hills….” (1)  This description was very much on my mind when I decided to import Drybarrows Calista.  I took reassurance from David Thompson’s description of Calista as the friendliest pony in his herd of youngstock.  Nonetheless, the journey from fell-living in Cumbria to Rocky Mountain living in Colorado requires transit via truck and plane and days of standing in stalls, so I wondered what the pony would be like that I received compared to the one that David sent me.

The pony that arrived here, despite the rigors of travel, was indeed the pony that David sent away.  I don’t think I’ve ever called a Fell Pony “sweetie” as often as I have Calista in the month that she’s been here.  It somehow seems unfair to all the other Fell Ponies I have here to so enjoy this newly arrived one.

It would be easy to assume, based on how David described Calista to me initially, that she is an anomaly in being so easy to get along with.  But a story in the recent Fell Pony Society Magazine and another on Facebook suggest that perhaps the Drybarrows Fell Ponies are no longer as ‘wild as the hills’ as they used to be.  David took his youngsters to the Fell Pony Society & Northern Dartmoor Group Study Day in April 2018.  One of the ponies “had only been brought in off the fell and haltered the previous week.”  (2)  Then Penny Walster says of Drybarrows Dissident who took 2nd in the Fell, Highland, and Dales class at the British National Foal Show in November 2018, “What a fabulous little man he has been today a massive long day at The British National Foal Show…  A month off the fell, and you could not buy this temperament…he showed like a pro!” (3)

It appears that Calista is not an anomaly but instead just another representative of the type of pony that David is producing at Drybarrows these days.  I agree with Penny’s assessment:  “Credit to you for superb breeding!”  I look forward to watching the continued evolution of the Drybarrows stud under David’s stewardship, with a little help locally from Calista to interpret it all!

  1. Ottink, Roy, as quoted in Miller, Francis.“Drybarrows Fell Ponies”,  The Fell Pony Society Magazine, Spring 2015, Volume 30, p. 78

  2. Simpson, Claire.  “Fell Pony Society & Northern Dartmoor Group Study Day,” The Fell Pony Society Magazine, Autumn 2018 – Volume 37, p. 79.

  3. Walster, Penny.  Facebook post 26 November 2018 at 12:14AM

© 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.

Thank You Sleddale Fern V!

Sleddale Rose Beauty in 2006

Sleddale Rose Beauty in 2006

I became acquainted with the Sleddale Fern line of Fell Ponies through a friend who owned one.  I was intrigued, then, when another Fern was mentioned in the Chairman’s Report in the Autumn 2018 Fell Pony Society newsletter.  It appears we have a lot to thank this pony for.  Her late owner Anne Carslaw bequeathed £100,000 to the Fell Pony Society.  This pony must have had a special relationship with her owner to inspire that sort of legacy.

I appreciate Chairman Peter Boustead helping me figure out which of the Ferns was owned by Mrs. Carslaw.  Before long I understood how Fern might have had such influence on her owner.  One of Fern’s half-sisters was my first Fell Pony Sleddale Rose Beauty, and Beauty certainly inspired me.  That strength of character must be in their genes!

The Sleddale ponies are no longer being bred, but their influence obviously continues.  Thank you Beauty and Fern and all the rest for your gifts to the humans in your lives.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

There are lots of stories about Beauty and her strength of character in my books A Humbling Experience and What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book covers. That’s Beauty on the cover of What an Honor!

The Evolution of Fell Ponies and the Lake District

In 2017 when the Lake District was awarded World Heritage Site status, Lake District National Park Chief Executive Richard Leafe said, “The Lake District is an evolving landscape that has changed over time and will continue to do so.”  (1)  In the Fell Pony world we know of this evolution because of its impact on our ponies.  For more of the human history of the Lake District than not, the local native ponies provided the ‘horsepower’ for the region’s economy.  Uses ranged from plowing and pulling sledges to shepherding and hunting wolves.  When used for pack work, their loads of local goods included fleece, fish, metal ore, and more.  (2)  It is unlikely that any facet of the Lake District’s economy or history were untouched by the Fell Pony and its ancestors.

Of course, like most working equine breeds, the Fell Pony’s work changed with the advent of the internal combustion engine (as well as the construction of railroads, roads, and canals).  Since then, the Fell Pony has more often been put to use in recreational riding and driving.  Stables for pleasure riding in the Lake District have existed at various places through the decades, and occasionally more adventurous outings have been possible when small enterprises have offered Fell Ponies re-enacting their historic role as pack ponies on Lakeland trails. 

The author and two Fell Ponies at Maiden Castle on Burnmoor in the Lake District in 2015.

The author and two Fell Ponies at Maiden Castle on Burnmoor in the Lake District in 2015.

I learned of the evolving landscape of the Lake District when I had the great good fortune to walk over Burnmoor in the Lake District.  One of the first milestones of the trip was Maiden Castle above Wasdale Head.  The presence of Maiden Castle in what today is an uninhabited landscape seems odd.  One theory says it was a residence during the Bronze Age.  Its location up on the fell where not a soul lives today was due to the fact that living down in the wooded valleys was dangerous for humans because of large predators including wolves.  It was safer to live up on the relatively barren landscape where predators and other dangers could be more easily seen at a distance.  Today of course the uplands are considered uninhabitable by humans because of that barrenness and remoteness, and instead the valleys are preferred since the woods have been cleared, and the landscape has been domesticated for life. 

I did that walk over Burnmoor with two Fell Ponies, so I got to experience the evolution of both the Lake District and the Fell Pony first hand.  The route was once a corpse road over which pack ponies carried bodies for burial in Eskdale because there wasn’t a proper burial place in Wasdale.  When I first had the idea to traverse an historic pack horse route in the Lake District with Fell Ponies, I had no idea how hard it would be to find a route open to equines in modern times.  I’m thankful that the Lake District landscape will continue to evolve so that perhaps more historic packhorse routes will again be available as bridleways in the future.

Richard Leafe’s comment about the evolving landscape of the Lake District is both a statement of fact and a statement of political necessity.  Naysayers about the World Heritage designation point to environmental health issues that they feel were unaddressed in the bid for World Heritage site designation.  Leafe went on to say, “Improving landscape biodiversity and looking after our cultural heritage underpin the [Lake District National Park] Partnership’s management plan which sets out how, together, we will look after the National Park as a World Heritage Site for everyone to enjoy.” (3) 

The Fell Pony is already playing a role in improving landscape biodiversity as a conservation grazer.  (4)  And the Fell Pony clearly is part of the Lake District’s cultural heritage through its many roles as horsepower and recreation in the region.  While the Fell Pony community may not have been involved in the creation of the management plan, it seems likely that the plan, too, can evolve so that together we can ensure that the Fell Pony’s part in the Lake District’s story is not forgotten.

  1. Leake, Richard.  As quoted in “Euphoria as Lake District Becomes a World Heritage Site,” 09 July 2017 blog post at lakesworldheritage.org.uk, as accessed 20 November 2018

  2. “Early History,” on “About Fell Ponies” page at www.fellponysociety.org.uk as accessed 20 November 2018.

  3. Same as #1.

  4. See, for instance, Morrissey, Jenifer, “Fells on the fells and Wild Horses on the Range,” Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, April, 2015.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

The author’s exploration of matters relating to the Fell Pony can be found in her book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

The Good News for the Fell Pony about the Lake District World Heritage Site

courtesy Bill Potter, Greenholme Fell Ponies

courtesy Bill Potter, Greenholme Fell Ponies

The Lake District National Park was awarded World Heritage Site status in July 2017.  Many comments in the Fell Pony community since then have been critical of the process that led to the designation because the Fell Pony wasn’t included, in contrast to fell-dwelling sheep such as the Herdwick.  Two people have told me, however, that the World Heritage designation is good news for the Fell Pony despite the breed not having been explicitly included.  It has taken me several months of study to understand why they were so emphatic in their opinion.  In short, the success of the Lake District bid for World Heritage Site status addresses one of the worst threats to keeping Fell ponies on the fell.

We all know the Fell Pony on the fell is threatened.  It’s threatened by the declining number of hill breeders.  It’s threatened by other hill farmers not wanting ponies on the fell.  It’s threatened by the costs not matching revenue.  But there’s another threat that’s probably the worst threat of them all.   That threat is the belief by some people that the proper state of the fell is to have no domesticated animals living there at all. 

This recent success of World Heritage Site designation for the Lake District was the result of a third application.  The first application was made in 1986 and was as a mixed state of cultural and natural values.  The second was in 1989 in the cultural category.  The successful application submitted in 2016 was for cultural landscape which recognized the role of farming and industry in shaping the area, as well as the area’s impact on artists and writers and on the conservation movement.  

The fells we have today, including the uplands of the Lake District, have largely been shaped by the presence and grazing of domestic animals.  In an article in The Guardian, fell farmer Annie Meanwell describes what happens when domestic grazing animals are removed from the fell.  “There are some areas near our farm that have ‘rewilded’ themselves where people did not have the heart to restock their sheep after the foot and mouth outbreak. These are now wildernesses of bracken and brambles, and I have never seen a single ‘eco tourist’ up there among the impenetrable vegetation. The views over Coniston Water have been obscured; although it is common land, it is now largely inaccessible.” (1)

From the perspective of the Fell Pony, it is the recognition of the role of farming and domestic animals in shaping the landscape and culture we know today that gives hope.  Had the focus of the designation been instead on a natural landscape, then the future of domestic animals on the fells would be bleak.

While the World Heritage Site designation gives hope, work is required for the Fell Pony to benefit.  Fell-dwelling sheep are well integrated into the Lake District National Park’s Farming initiatives.  Sheep-related events are listed on the Park’s website.  Given the Fell Pony breed’s part in the region’s cultural heritage both as a fell-dweller and the source of early horsepower for industry, the breed certainly can and should become a part of the World Heritage Site story.  I believe it can be if we as a community want it to be.

  1. Meanwell, Annie.  “As a shepherd, I know we have not ‘sheepwrecked’ Britain’s landscape,” The Guardian, 21 Jul 2015, as found on 17 Oct 2018 at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/21/farmers-sheep-lake-district-preserve-environmentalists?CMP=share_btn_fb

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

Information like this 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.

I Am Grateful

I am tired.  We’ve had a several-days’ run of cold weather, when everything is harder, including pony chores.  I am very grateful for this life with ponies, but there are these times when I wear thin.  Inevitably, though, something happens to remind me how lucky I am and how important the work I do on behalf of Fell Ponies is.  That has been the case the last few days.  Words of thanks, support, and encouragement have come from multiple directions, and I am extraordinarily grateful.  Then a gift that I can hold in my hands carrying similar sentiments arrived, and it took my breath away.

To most people, a pair of socks wouldn’t seem very exciting.  But living where winter occupies as much as half the year, wool socks are very dear to me.  And the socks I’ve just received aren’t ordinary.  They are works of art, with all the inspiration and craftsmanship that that moniker requires.  From their maker:  “I found the wool for the ‘Fell Pony in first morning light’ colored socks and thought of you.  Please keep up your work for the Fell Pony breed!!!  You rock!!!”

Then when I showed them the picture I’d taken of my ponies a few days before, they replied, “That’s exactly what I had in mind when I saw the ball of wool!”  I have never had the pleasure of meeting this person and may not ever because we live across an ocean from each other, but they are uncannily aware of why I do the work I do with and for Fell Ponies.  They are always there, however remotely, when I need to celebrate or need encouragement.  A friend like that is priceless.  The Fell Pony breed is stronger because of connections between people that it weaves, and for that I am grateful, too.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

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

181114 fell pony morning light sox.jpg

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!

181111 ponies hay.JPG

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

180905 Rose Jen hat.jpg

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

150710 Matty Honey.jpg

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.

180515 Shelley ears Tika.jpg

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. 

180822 Matty crossing river.JPG

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.