Breeds Have Unique Brain Traits

Willowtrail Fell Pony mares and foals

Research from Harvard University has shed some fascinating light on the impact we humans have in animal breeding.  Specifically, we have influenced the organization of the brains of dogs by the selection we do to create and maintain breeds.  Dr. Erin Hecht, an assistant professor of neuroscience in the department of Human Evolutionary Biology, found that “the breed differences weren’t randomly distributed, but were, in fact, focused in certain parts of the brain.” (1)   Companion-animal type breeds had different brain organizations than did herding breeds, for instance.  As one example of the way brains in breeds are organized, skill in scent hunting (think Bassett Hounds) is not “about having a brain that can detect if the scent is there. It’s about having the neural machinery to decide what to do with that information,” Hecht says.  In addition, “brain regions involved in movement and navigation were bigger in dogs bred for coursing, such as Greyhounds, than in dogs bred for companionship, such as the Maltese.” (2)

What might this research suggest about Fell Ponies?  Many Fell Ponies are hefted, having a knowledge of and relationship with a piece of ground on which they are expected to live and thrive.  Is it possible that hefted Fell Ponies have a particular brain organization that Fell Ponies living somewhere besides the fells might not have?  The researchers found that the brain organization changes occurred relatively recently in dog evolution, suggesting it didn’t take many generations for selection to have impact.  Is it possible that if fell-bred ponies continue to become rarer within the breed, we could lose relatively quickly the ability of Fell Ponies to be hefted to the fells?

In the Harvard research, working breeds had different brain organization than companion-type breeds.  Over its history, our breed has been bred to be multi-talented, to be used not only as a mount but also driven, packed, and in harness for work.  Today, the work that our ponies do, however, has changed.  What might we lose in our ponies’ brains as we select for this new type of work?  What might we gain?

Our breed standard calls for broad foreheads which are often thought to allow our ponies to have great intelligence.  That intelligence is needed for them to survive on the fells but also makes them adept at any job we put them to, hence the Fell Pony Society’s motto, “You can’t put a Fell to the wrong job.”  Researcher Hecht diplomatically points out that “This research suggests there’s not one type of canine intelligence… There are multiple types.”  No doubt the same will be found to be true in equines if and when our breeds are studied similarly. 

I had a visitor who runs an equine-assisted therapy program.  They said they prefer to use the more primitive types of equines because of their brains.  More commonly bred equines don’t interact with the clients in the same way.  In their case, they use Haflingers.  When I told a fellow Fell Pony enthusiast about this research, their reaction was that it was telling us what we already know: the brains of our ponies are different!  The therapy program person has certainly found that to be the case.

In the Fell Pony breed, as in the dog breeds in the study, we humans who are selecting breeding stock are influencing how our ponies’ brains are organized.  Even if the work they do is changing and the place they are being raised is changing, our ponies will likely remain intelligent.  How might that intelligence manifest, though?  And will it mean our breed is changed?  Breeders making selection decisions have these questions to keep in mind.

  1. Radsken, Jill.  “Hunters, herders, companions: Breeding dogs has reordered their brains,” The Harvard Gazette, 9/3/19, at

  2. “A dog’s breed is a window onto its brain,” Neuroscience,, 9/2/19.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More about the Fell Pony breed, breed standard, and breeding can be found in my book Fell Pony Observations, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.