In the Fell Pony breed, when we hear the word ‘chestnut,’ most of us think of the vestigial toe above the inside of the knee (and sometimes hock). However, a recent change to the Fell Pony Breed Description brought another chestnut to mind: the color. Previously, chestnut-colored Fell Ponies were not allowed to be registered; now if they are born to registered parents, they are eligible for registration in Section X of the stud book.
In addition to chestnut, treatment of the skewbald and piebald colors also changed similarly. Chestnut made sense to me because it is recessive to black, so two black Fell Ponies who carry the recessive gene, when mated, have a chance of throwing a chestnut foal. I had heard, rarely, of chestnut foals being thrown before, but only recently through the wonders of the internet was I introduced to a breeder who has one. The picture here by Michaela di Nanni of her black mare with its chestnut foal is quite a sight! And the picture of the same chestnut pony full grown certainly looks like a Fell Pony except for the color.
I know what it’s like to be completely surprised by the color of a foal. When I first decided to cross my silver dapple Shetland/Welsh mare on my Fell stallion, I looked up in the book Equine Color Genetics what colors I should expect. There is a table in an appendix that says that a black bred to a silver dapple will ‘always’ produce a silver dapple. But the first foal from this cross wasn’t a silver dapple at all; it was a black! “Other colors are expected to occur frequently in most breeds if certain fairly common recessives are present in the parents.” (1) Obvious my silver dapple mare had a black recessive! The table indicates that black is a common color resulting from this cross. The two subsequent foals from that mare, to a different Fell stallion, were silver dapples. Chestnuts are in the ‘occasional’ column of the table for a black x black mating so would be even less likely to result in Fell Ponies than black was in my Shetland/Welsh/Fell.
When I read about the change in the color section of the Fell Pony Breed Description, I was confused. I understood why chestnut should be an allowed color now, but I was puzzled why skewbald and piebald were included. I know ponies with those colors can be found way back in the stud books, but my understanding of color genetics indicates that those colors shouldn’t ever show up in our breed today because they’ve been bred out. On the other hand, I do know that Fells and Gypsy horses/coloured cobs are often interbred, so it wouldn’t surprise me if a piebald or skewbald pony was presented as a Fell at some point.
In the language of color genetics, piebald and skewbald are types of the tobiano pattern. “Piebald refers to any black and white horse…. Skewbald refers to white spotting on any color other than black.” Equine Color Genetics goes on to say, “The tobiano pattern is caused by the tobiano allele which is dominant to its absence.… it is very rare for the tobiano allele to be present and not betray its presence in the coat.” (2) So unlike the chestnut color that can stay hidden for generations in our breed, piebald and skewbald would likely be visible immediately. I was very pleased to hear from the Fell Pony Society secretary that any pony of these colors (including chestnut) would likely be asked to have confirmed parentage via DNA testing.
Often, breeders are interested in focusing on particular colors. I remember hearing one family say they hoped to revive the roan color in the Fell Pony which could be found a few generations behind my first Fell Pony mare. Chestnut could inspire a similar goal, but with Section X registration only, there are likely too many obstacles to overcome. For me, the Fell Pony is defined by type, not color, so I am likely in the minority in thinking a chestnut or roan pony could be a good Fell!
The current change to our Breed Description was forced on the Fell Pony Society; FPS is required to register any foal born from two registered parents. And since chestnut can result from crossing two black ponies, chestnut should be an allowed color for registration. I’m pleased that our Breed Description is closer to reflecting the current understanding of color genetics.
Sponenberg, D. Phillip. Equine Color Genetics, Second Edition. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, p. 183.
Sponenberg, p. 74, 76.
With thanks to Michaela di Nanni, Sue Millard, and Fell Pony Society Secretary Katherine Wilkinson.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019
More articles 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.