Preserving Night Vision

As the fall equinox approaches, darkness is nearing my last feeding of the day, so I’m contemplating lighting assistance.  I’ve always had solar lights at the pony paddocks, and I’ve relied on my good night vision to navigate between paddocks.  That’s especially easy on moonlit nights or when there’s snow on the ground (plus our sole security light that cuts the darkness in many places).  On those rare occasions when my husband goes out to feed with me, he wears a headlight or uses a flashlight, and my eyes have a hard time adjusting to that light and then the darkness and then back again.

Many of the solar lights at the pony paddocks need to be replaced, as is normal every few years.  I have been using path lights that I mount over the gates to my hay yards because they are economical and shine broadly but not necessarily brightly.  My husband has been advocating for lights mounted elsewhere because often when we move the gates when stacking hay, the lights fall off the gates and break.  Most of the other solar lights I’ve looked at that could be mounted on the pony sheds are more expensive and are motion-sensitive.  I’ve been hesitant to go that route.  I’ve also considered just using a headlamp, but my experience when with my husband has made me hesitant to use that solution either.  To this point, then, I haven’t replaced my lights because a) I haven’t needed to with the long days, and b) I haven’t landed on a solution that felt right.

I’ve just learned something about equine eyesight that is helping me finally make the decision I need to make about lighting at last feeding (and some morning feedings in the dead of winter). (1)  Our human eyes adapt from light to dark in a matter of minutes.  We all know it isn’t instantaneous; we’ve walked from sunshine into a dark barn and can’t see, or out of the house into bright sunshine and have to shield our eyes from the glare.  Nonetheless, our eyes do adapt relatively quickly.  It turns out that equine eyes take nearly a half hour to adapt to changes in lighting.  They obviously can get along quite well as the sun makes its daily round because the transition from sunlight to twilight to dusk to dark for instance takes enough time that their eyes can adjust.  I do wonder, though, how the copious forelocks of some Fells might make eye adjustment to changing light even more interesting.  For instance, does lifting my stallion’s forelock to expose his eye mean he can’t see well because of the sudden change in light?  Interesting food for thought!

Applying this new information to my lighting problem, I’ve decided that motion-sensitive lights aren’t a good solution because the ponies’ eyes would take significant time to adjust to the sudden light, possibly many times during the night as the motion detector was triggered by moving ponies or wildlife.  Similarly, a headlamp or flashlight will disrupt their eyesight for a significant period after I would appear.  The lights I have been using are on all night (batteries willing), so the constant light is likely easier for the ponies to deal with since there isn’t an abrupt transition.  So I’ll go back to the solution that’s been working for several years and try to remember to take the lights down whenever my husband needs to move the gate they’re attached to.  Glad that decision is made!

1)      Eyesight chapter in Williams, Wendy.  The Horse:  The Epic History of Our Noble Companion. New York:  Scientific American/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2017

Guards Apollo

The World Large and Small

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The rain gauge contained a half inch of water, and it was clear from the washing on the ground in the pony paddocks and the rivulets in the driveway that most of the rain that had come when we were gone had come in a very short period of time.  Yet at the ponies’ summer pasture four miles away, no rain of any significance had fallen.  It’s amazing how something as big as a rainstorm can nonetheless affect a relatively small area.  It’s a reminder that despite something large like a rain cloud, our world is a much, much bigger place where some ponies went into the evening with damp coats while their relations were dry not very far away.

And while the world can seem like a huge place, on the other hand it can feel like a smaller place when things impact people and ponies we know.  At the moment, the world is feeling smaller due to the hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  My pony family is now large enough and scattered enough that these storms have touched my pony family members and therefore me.  Two people who bought ponies from me are dealing with Irma in Florida.  And two ponies I bred are recovering from the effects of Harvey in Texas.

I am thankful that breeding Fell Ponies has made these storms feel more personal and the world feel smaller.  As I check in with my own ponies here at the end of the day, I will think of the other members of our farm family who are displaced from home and farm and routine, wishing for them some peace as they ride out the tumult they’ve been dealt.  It is not an easy time for anyone.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2017

High and Low Blood Pressure

I headed as usual to summer pasture to check on the two mares with their foals there.  As I approached, I looked into the pasture to see if everyone was where they were supposed to be.  Both mares were visible but just one foal.  As I walked in their direction, the mares started toward me, again with only one foal following.  My blood pressure began to rise.  Where was the other foal?

I greeted the mares and the older foal, then walked past them into the pasture, calling the younger foal’s name.  The grass was tall, so it was possible the foal was lying down somewhere.  I kept walking and calling, my anxiety increasing with each step.  Then I saw the foal, lying in the grass, unmoving.  Because I’d had a foal die earlier in the year, suddenly, without notice, my thoughts turned to the worst.  Then the foal’s tail flicked.  As I got closer, she lifted her head, and by the time I was by her side, she was on her feet, stretching her hind legs out behind her and arching her neck as she awakened.  It took a few minutes for the anxiety to leave my system.

Both of my foals this year have pulled this routine on me more than once, yet my blood pressure still rises with alarm.  I’ve wondered if they inherited unusually low blood pressure from their sire.  Since I’ve never met him, the temperamental characteristics that he may have passed to these girls are unknown to me.  His daughters are perfectly content to lay asleep, completely oblivious to the world around them, letting their dams walk off a hundred yards or more without being concerned for their safety.  Then I remembered that one of their mothers did something similar once.  It was the same routine on my part, six years before:  walking faster, calling out, scanning the pasture, seeing a still form laying in deep grass.  Then the foal gets up perfectly normal, while we refrain from chastising it for raising our blood pressure so high.

What helps my blood pressure come down, of course, is the same thing that caused it to go up.  After the foal has finished stretching, and sometimes I have to wait until after it’s nursed, they come to me to say hello and get scratches in their favorite places.  The sweet innocence is so captivating, how could I not relax and smile and enjoy!  In the end, life with these ponies, despite occasional cause for high blood pressure, is a blessing indeed.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2017

The story of high and low blood pressure six years before is in the book My Name is Madie, available by clicking here or on the book cover.  More stories like this one can also be found in the book What an Honor, available by clicking here or on the book cover

Later Life with Fell Ponies

Raisburn Lettie II and Judith Bean.  Courtesy Judith Bean

Raisburn Lettie II and Judith Bean.  Courtesy Judith Bean

One of my best Fell Pony friends has turned ninety years old.  Whenever we talk, there seems to be an opportunity for them to say how young I am.  I certainly don’t feel young, but it’s always nice to hear nonetheless.  And of course it’s relative since I’m just over half their age.  Another blessing of that friendship and several others I have with septuagenarians and octogenarians is that I get to watch how they manage their later life while staying involved with Fell Ponies.

After thinking about my own later life with Fell Ponies, I’ve come up with what I think is my best option.  Since I don’t have children, I don’t have anyone to hand my herd off to, so keeping them isn’t an option.  Therefore, I know there will come a time when I’m unable to do the heavier work – trimming hooves, hefting hay, dragging hoses – so I will have to sell my ponies to new and like-minded stewards.  (Since my husband is eight years older, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to help me with the ponies in my later life.) 

For me, though, life without ponies isn’t an option I want to consider.  So I’ve decided that my best option is to relocate near the new steward so that I can still spend time with ‘my’ ponies.  I don’t put much stock in fancy surroundings for myself, so a little cottage or apartment adjacent to the farm where my ponies will live is my ideal later life.

Hopefully my transition to that later life is a few decades off yet, but I was nonetheless thrilled when I received a phone call indicating my ideal may be much easier to achieve than I’d imagined.  A mother-daughter pair of Fell Pony enthusiasts called to pick my brain about an idea they want to pursue.  They have a vision for combining Fell Ponies with senior care.  The specifics that they shared lined up so well with what I’d been envisioning for myself that I was almost giddy when I put down the phone!

The voices of my senior citizen pony friends are always brighter and lighter when they have spent time with Fell Ponies.  Hearing that brightness and contrasting it with how they sound when they haven’t had any pony time has greatly informed my thinking about my own future.  I’m thankful I’m not the only one working on ways for people to have pony time in later life.

© Jenifer Morrissey 2017

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.

Regarding the Power of Pen and Position

One of the greatest assets the Fell Pony breed has is its ardent enthusiasts.  A friend asked how anyone tells the ponies apart in a herd:  they all seem to look alike, often black, hairy, and no markings.  I replied that I know more than one breeder who can stand in a pasture with twenty mares around them and identify each one individually and correctly.  They know their ponies that well. The relationships these ponies give us inspire us not only to know them individually but also to defend their history, their heritage, and their type. 

It is good that the breed has its ardent enthusiasts and passionate breeders because there are times when action is required.  Of late there have seemed to be more numerous opportunities than usual.  In one case I found a very outdated description of the breed on a conservation website.  After informing a friend of the problem, the organization was contacted and was ‘mortified’ about the inaccurate portrayal of our breed.  In another case, a writer in a national magazine incorrectly identified an equine in a photograph as a Fell.  I informed a colleague well qualified to address the problem so that appropriate action could be taken.

In a breed newsletter, I was interested to read public apologies from the chair and vice-chair of the Fell Pony Society to a specific member.  I admire the member who had the fortitude to call out those in power and ask for appropriate behavior.  It is sometimes difficult but always important to confront those with the power of pen or position in defense of our ponies.  Just because they are in positions of power or are able to wield a pen doesn’t mean they necessarily have any better perspective on what’s best for our breed than we do. 

One area of focus for me has been intelligently interpreting the breed standard.  I’m even more motivated now after reading an article interpreting the breed standard that was published in a breed newsletter.  The article was a major feature and intended to inform people new to the breed.  Unfortunately the article contained a number of statements not supported by the breed standard it was attempting to explain.  Sadly, because of the social status of the author, it is likely that their published interpretation of the breed standard could be accepted without question.  I’ve written three articles so far to provide better information; it’s the least I can do.

Another situation has me vexed.  An article in a national magazine portrayed a Fell Pony stallion unfavorably, though factually the account was accurate.  In time I’m sure the right opportunity will come along to share with a national audience the true character of our breed’s male members.

I received the following comment from someone new to the breed.  “The admiration and love I see people have for Fells Ponies is so outstanding.”  These ponies inspire and motivate us to be vigilant.  We stand up to the power of pen and position when necessary to ensure that stories and conduct in the name of the Fell Pony are indeed worthy of the breed.  These ponies deserve nothing less.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2017

You can find more stories about the Fell Pony breed in my book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the cover image.

The Forgotten Hind End

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.


  • One of the criticisms my husband has of many modern day Fell Ponies is that they lack power in the hind end.  A mountain pony, to his way of thinking, should have a sufficiently muscular hind end to enable them to carry themselves (and a rider or load) strongly up steep inclines and hold back those same loads on the way back down.  Many modern day Fell Ponies, in his estimation, have hind ends inadequate to that task.
  • There is an important question to answer of course.  Is the strong, round, well-muscled hindquarter that I like consistent with the breed standard?
  • After considering the breed standard from various perspectives, I conclude that the hind end I liked on my first Fell mare falls within the breed standard and may even have been a good representation of it.
  • It turns out that light hind quarters and straighter-than-desirable hind legs like I’m seeing in my search for males isn’t just a Fell Pony problem.
  • I received a phone call from a Fell Pony owner, and after asking me several other questions, they asked if sticky stifles were common in the breed.
  • Stifle issues may be as much or more a management issue than a conformation one; a good colt in one person’s hands/management situation may develop stifle issues and in another person’s hands/management situation be just fine.
  • It doesn’t take much reflection to realize that if work on hills is a first-line of defense against sticky stifles, then Fell Ponies who are raised on their native fells are getting the movement-on-hills work in the course of their daily life that they need to have to avoid the problem. 
  • Because of the presence – and perhaps prevalence - of straight hind legs and less-muscled hindquarters, we modern day Fell Pony enthusiasts have an opportunity to make a contribution to the breed.  We can and must make strengthening the hind quarters of our ponies a priority – through managing them for movement and selecting better breeding stock - especially since more and more ponies are living away from the fells where their bodies evolved.

To read the full article, click here.

To subscribe to Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, click here.

Greenholme Ponies in Landscape Magazine

I’ve just had a chance to read the gloriously illustrated article about the Greenholme Fell Ponies in Landscape magazine.  Landscape “brings you the very best of Britain.”  The Greenholme herd was featured because it’s one of the last semi-feral herds of Fell Ponies.

While there were twenty-three breeders considered hill farmers by The Fell Pony Society in 2015, the article in Landscape points out that the Greenholme herd is one of only a few remaining that have more than 20 mares.  The article says there are just three; I count as many as six, so more research is in order!  The Greenholme ponies have been running on Birkbeck Common since at least 1972.  Bill Potter bought his first Fell Pony in 1952.

I interviewed Bill several years ago, yet I still learned more about his life with Fell Ponies from this story.  While I knew he had worked them when he was young, I didn’t know that he had taken milk to the milk stand on one on his way to school.  I also didn’t know that one of Bill’s ponies is now Prince Philip’s off-side leader in his four-in-hand.

The article briefly described the recent interest in using Fell Ponies for conservation grazing.  I appreciate the authors pointing out that because of the nature of conservation grazing, hefted ponies can’t be used.  Hefted ponies are those that are bonded with their terrain, and conservation grazing schemes often require short duration grazing.  Ponies that are bonded with their terrain shouldn’t be uprooted to do the grazing work, and ponies that are only allowed to graze a landscape for part of the year won’t become hefted to it.

One of Bill’s comments gave me pause: that Fell Ponies born and bred away from the fells aren’t true Fell Ponies.  For breeders like myself who don’t have the opportunity to run these ponies on the Cumbrian hills, it’s a hard truth to hear.  All we can do is try our best to keep our ponies true to the breed and lend our support to breeders like the Potters who are doing the hard, unprofitable but important work of keeping these ponies in their native environment.  Here’s hoping the article in Landscape brings more awareness to the important work that hill farmers do with and for Fell Ponies.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2017

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

Fells on the fells and Wild Horses on the Range

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.  The image here was kindly lent by Alison Wales Bell of the Lownthwaite Fell Pony Stud.


  • Fell Ponies get their name from the hills in the north of England. 
  • Many of their defining characteristics have formed from their presence there.   
  • In the last five years, there have been seemingly conflicting reports about Fells on the fells and their future on the hills that give them their name. 
  • In two cases environmental stewards have made decisions that adversely affected Fell Pony herds. 
  • In two other cases environmental stewards have embraced Fell Ponies to help them with their conservation work. 
  • I have found the situation complex to watch at a distance.

This thorough treatment of the status of Fell Ponies on their native fells is a must-read for all passionate stewards of our breed.

To request and read the full article, click here.

To subscribe to Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, click here.


The Importance of the Shoulder

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This article first appeared in the February 2015 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.


  • No matter the role a pony plays in our lives, its ability to move is involved.
  • Ponies are special because they move in ways that make them suitable for many different disciplines.
  • Ponies provide us with a special opportunity to appreciate the shoulder, as their versatility requires that the shoulder be just right in conformation for the work they have traditionally done. 
  • In the Fell Pony in particular, shoulders count for 15 points in judging guidelines out of a total of 125.  Movement, which is related, counts for 25 more points.  One could argue, then, that the shoulder influences nearly one third of Fell Pony quality.

To request the entire article, click here.

To subscribe to Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, click here.

Stallion Genetic Concentration in North America

This article first appeared in the January 2015 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.


  • Because the most prolific North American Fell Pony breeder had used just three stallions for many years, it seemed possible our North American population could have a high genetic concentration from them.
  • To determine stallion genetic concentration, I looked at the pedigrees of all the registered ponies in North America through 2013 to see how many had the three stallions from the ‘big’ breeder in them.
  • I learned that the older the pony, the more likely it will be prominent in the pedigrees of other North American ponies. 
  • The oldest of the stallions from the big breeder shows up in 23% of pedigrees of ponies on this continent.
  • None of these stallion statistics are necessarily cause for alarm.  It will, however, be important to monitor how the genetic concentration changes over time.

To read the entire article, click here.

To subscribe to Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, click here.

Driving Radio Show Interview

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.


  • In June 2014, I accepted an invitation to be interviewed by the Driving Radio Show, a production of the Horse Radio Network.
  • In preparation for the interview, I pulled together some information about Fells and driving, including several stories that I felt highlight what makes a Fell a unique driving partner.
  • I am thankful to the Driving Radio Show for taking an interest in Fell Ponies.  To listen to the interview, click here.
  • The photograph here was used by the Driving Radio Show to illustrate the interview on their website.

To read the full article including several stories about what makes a Fell a unique driving choice, click here.

To subscribe to Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, click here.

Foaling and the Moon

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.


  • After my two foals in April, I began to wonder about foaling and the phases of the moon.  Then after I looked at the patterns in my own herd, I began to wonder about the breed as a whole.
  • The moon is known to have influence over water, such as the tides of the oceans, and given that the birth sac is filled with water, it’s reasonable to wonder how the moon might influence the birthing process.

  • In my own herd, I observed that foal dates did not cluster around moon phase transitions (new, full, etc.)

  • When I looked at the breed as a whole using the 2007 foal crop, I learned that foals are born on every day of the moon cycle.

  •  There are slightly more foals born during the waxing crescent moon and just before full than on other days in the cycle.

To read the entire article, click here.

To subscribe to Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farmclick here

Slow Sleddales 2/Maturation

This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.


Bowthorne Matty and Willowtrail Mountain Ranger

Bowthorne Matty and Willowtrail Mountain Ranger

  • This past winter, Matty visibly changed and matured as she turned from seven to eight years old.
  • I watched Matty’s bone increase, leaving her in wonderful proportion throughout in the bone and substance department.

  • Willowtrail Mountain Prince, Matty’s two year old son, gave me reason this spring to ponder the slow maturing rate of ponies with Sleddale blood.

  • One of the concerns I had about Prince as stallion potential was that he seemed to lack bone.  

  • At the same time that I was scheduling Prince's castration appointment at two years old, I realized his bone was increasing.

  • I began pondering how we choose stallions in this breed today..

  • Colts must mature in the bone department relatively quickly if they are to pass the licensing exam at two years old. 

  • After my experience with Prince, I began wondering how many good quality colts are neutered just because they are slow to mature.

To read the complete article, click here.

To subscribe to Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farmclick here.

The Fell Pony Enclosure Scheme and a Narrow Gene Pool

This article appeared in the April 2014 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.


Wet Sleddale enclosure circa 1970.  Photo courtesy the late Henry Harrison

Wet Sleddale enclosure circa 1970.  Photo courtesy the late Henry Harrison

  • In place from 1945 to 1976, the enclosure scheme was unique to the Fell Pony breed.  It was used to encourage breeding of ponies in the post world-war years
  • The enclosure scheme involved the Fell Pony Society securing land where a stallion could run with a herd of mares during the breeding season. 
  • The stallions were chosen at the Stallion & Colt Show each year, often by people planning to send mares to the enclosure for breeding.
  • Three consequences of the enclosure scheme could have led to a narrowing of the Fell Pony gene pool. 
  • It’s certainly likely that some narrowing of the gene pool resulted from the enclosure scheme.  However, we as modern stewards of the breed are fortunate that this adverse impact of the enclosure scheme hasn’t left us with a dangerously narrow gene pool.  We can thank past breeders for their breeding practices, whatever they were, that have ensured a healthy genetic diversity in the breed today.

To read the complete article, click here.

To subscribe to Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, click here.