On their first morning at our new home at Scotty Springs Ranch in South Dakota, my Willowtrail Fell Ponies had yet another adventure before them. The mares and foals, after our long trip and late arrival, spent their first night here in a paddock. After checking and feeding them at dawn and then giving them their late morning feeding, though, it was time to acquaint them with their pasture. I had planned it to be a special experience because where they now live is unlike anything I’ve ever been able to provide them. It is so much like a Cumbrian fell that a few English friends who have seen pictures have indeed called it a fell. And now after seeing the ponies on the ground here, it does feel much like my own experiences on the Cumbrian hills.
Fell Ponies on the fells in Cumbria are often referred to as extensively grazed. They range over large tracts of land, able to wander to find the food that they want and return to water and minerals as needed. Movement is a regular feature of their days, and hills are climbed as needed for forage and to cope with weather conditions. I am so very fortunate to now have an extensive grazing situation for my ponies. I have the ponies’ minerals in sheds near my home, and water is available in an automatic waterer several hundred yards away at the ranch paddocks. Pockets in the hills above create diverse forage opportunities as well as providing shelter from the wind, while higher elevations are available to catch those same winds during warm weather and insect season.
To be hefted is to have a knowledge of and relationship with a piece of ground on which the animals are expected to live and thrive. When I was doing research on hefting a herd of ponies to a new place a year ago, I learned that equines can become hefted to a piece of ground by learning from other equines there. However, here, the Scotty Springs Ranch herd was moved off the pasture in order to give the ponies their own place, so the ponies would need to learn the boundaries and key locations another way – from me!
My plan involved haltering the two lead mares and leading them around the perimeter of the pasture, along the way showing them where the minerals and water sources were. I chose to lead two mares and not one because I feared that the second mare might not follow, and then others might choose to stay with her. It ended up being a good choice to have a mare on each side as we were climbing and descending steep slopes; I often hung onto their necks to keep upright and to keep up!
It took us well over an hour to circumnavigate their pasture. I don’t know its size, but I do know we didn’t get to the most distant corners. The Murdocks told me that their horses rarely went that high, and when I climbed to the top earlier in the summer, it was true that I didn’t see horse manure past a certain elevation.
What a magnificent experience it was to see Fell Ponies climbing fell-like hills! Four mares and three foals made the trip around the pasture with me, and I felt so blessed to see these ponies both free and yet with me. I chose to walk with them rather than ride because there were so many unknowns: new terrain, foals at foot, extreme steepness, etc. While my legs at the end wished I’d ridden, I didn’t regret sharing the experience of walking the terrain the same way my ponies did.
My only fell-born pony, Drybarrows Calista, is usually a follower in the herd, but here she led us up and onward, often at a canter across ground that didn’t seem suitable for that gait. She appeared truly in her element, and I had to think she was remembering running above Haweswater a year earlier. None of the ponies seemed winded or hesitant about our trek. I was especially appreciative of the senior mare Bowthorne Matty who was fell bred (Wansfell) but not born; she was quiet and accepting of being constrained by the halter and lead rope and also patient with me grabbing on when I needed help staying upright or matching her pace.
The only regret I had was that there wasn’t someone else with us to photograph me with my ponies on our adventure. I tried as best I could to capture the ponies running with joyful abandon, stopping to enjoy grazing when we would take a break, and looking out at the vistas which were many and varied. And when we were back down to the ranch paddocks and everyone was getting a drink, I assured Willowtrail Wild Rose that next time she’d be carrying me on Scotty Springs Fell!
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019
More stories like this one can be found in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.