The Best Kind of Visitor

We don’t get many visitors here at Willowtrail Farm because we’re a long way from anywhere.  Our most recent visitor confirmed what I’ve long suspected:  I can’t give people an address to use with navigation because navigation leads them astray.  That’s how off the beaten path we are!  So when we do have visitors, I hope they’re good at reading road signs and following my directions.  And I hope that they’re the best kind of visitor.

Willowtrail Mountain Honey

One advantage of visitors is that the ponies go to them so I have a chance for a decent photograph instead of a nose-filled lens.  The best kind of visitors, in addition to enjoying being with the ponies and allowing me to take pictures, is the kind that asks lots of questions.  It was a blessing to have our most recent visitors here for that reason.  A little trick about ears-forward in photos was a definite bonus as well!

These visitors had never seen a Fell Pony in person before and were keen to follow me about as I did chores and meet each pony in turn.  I appreciated the questions about what purpose each supplement I put in the ponies’ feed serves, what the difference is between short backs and short coupling, and the many colors of the breed.  I appreciated their observations about good bone and the subtle differences in conformation between three half-sisters.  It was helpful in our conversation to be able to point out which ponies were full grown and which weren’t yet.  One question, though, gave me pause.  In the end, that’s always the best kind of question because it means it’s one I haven’t answered before so it makes me think.

When my visitors learned that in addition to a herd of Fell Ponies that I also have a Norwegian Fjord Horse, they asked me how the temperament of a Fell differs from a Fjord.  My answer after some thought was that Fells seem to like people somewhat more than Fjords do.  After my visitors left, though, I’ve pondered that answer and realized there’s a lot more to that answer than I first communicated.

When with my visitors, I of course first answered with this caveat that is true regardless of breed comparisons:  there is more variation within a breed than between breeds.  In the few days since my visitors were here, I’ve realized that while I still think it’s true that Fells like people more than Fjords do, that’s a possibly deceptive answer.  For instance, I have a Shetland-Welsh pony that isn’t as friendly as my Fells, but she’s the hardest worker I’ve had in harness and when in her working years she would try just about anything I asked of her.   My Fjord horse is similar. 

Fells, I think, like people because they like to be mentally stimulated, and they can get that from their interactions with people.  I received an email from a Fell Pony owner after my visitors were here that helped me think about this characteristic of Fells.  The owner had had years of frustration with their pony and they had almost given up on it.  But when it turned eight, it settled down to being the type of pony they had always hoped they had purchased.

These ponies will play games, sometimes to the frustration of their owners and trainers.  They will seek openings to outsmart their human when we’re not paying attention (a mare slipped out a gate when my husband had his back turned to her, for instance).  They will swat you with their tail or bump you with their shoulder when you walk by, just to show they can. They will change direction or gait in an instant under saddle when they want to but will brace when asked by their rider to do the same.  They will do all these things until and unless they are satisfied with their relationship with you.

On the other hand, they will take you on magical trail rides or do dressage or play a unicorn.  They will trot up to you when they see you and ask to interact.  They will communicate very clearly, though just through the twinkle in their eye, that they are pregnant.  They will be foot-perfect carrying a child on a first ride.  They will do whatever you ask and offer helpful things as long as they deem the relationship with you worth it.

So once again I’m thankful to have had visitors here at Willowtrail Farm and the best kind of visitors at that.  They persevered in finding us, which was a good sign, and then the questions they asked helped me think about Fell Ponies in new ways.  I came to appreciate my ponies all the more, despite the occasional tail swipe across the face.  Best of all, I realized once again that my life with them is a blessing.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

So Much for Best Laid Plans

My twenty year old Norwegian Fjord Horse is watching me bring his paddock mate into ridden work.  I’m using much the same process I did seventeen years ago with Torrin.  The process worked so well then that he’s still with me after all these years.  I just haven’t been able to part with him despite accumulating a herd of Fell Ponies in the meantime.  I haven’t used a round pen, and no bits and no saddle, just a bareback pad, halter and lead rope.  Five-year-old Fell Pony gelding Restar Lucky Joe and I have taken rides around their paddock then we go out onto the driveway, increasing the length of each ride each day.    Sometimes the only change from one day to the next has been weather – high winds or snow flurries or drizzle – so that I can assess Lucky Joe’s response to changed circumstances. 

Restar Lucky Joe

I try to introduce new experiences in a controlled manner as much as possible to let Lucky Joe go from success to success.  Control is of course a matter of degree.  I live in a forest where it’s always a possibility for a chipmunk or a fox or a deer or a moose to suddenly emerge into view.  I ride in their paddock first because I figure Lucky Joe is accustomed to the disruptions that occur there.  Out on the driveway is where things get less predictable.  And then I always have opportunities for trail rides where I need to trust my mount even more for my own safety.  So I control what I can and show up each day to see how things go.  At least that’s been my plan.  Then one day my best laid plans blew up.  The good news was that Lucky Joe didn’t; he took the disruption in our calm, slowly progressive routine right in stride!

From the outset of our current training routine, it was clear that Lucky Joe is as he’s always been:  the easiest Fell Pony to train I’ve ever had.  It makes my program of building on successes incredibly rewarding when the successes are so easy to achieve. 

One of the elements of my program with Lucky Joe that’s been different than with my other ponies has been dog management.  Lucky Joe has exhibited aggression towards my dogs at feeding time, so when I began doing ridden work with him, I made sure the dogs were tied well away from the paddock fences so they wouldn’t attract Lucky Joe’s attention while we were working.  After a number of sessions when I finally felt I knew him well enough in the variety of circumstances we’d had together, I decided it was time to try a session with the dogs loose.  I gave the dogs bones to chew on so they would be focused on something besides what I was doing, and I set off with Lucky Joe around the paddock to make sure his mind was where I thought it was.  That’s when my best laid plans showed their flaws. 

I hadn’t anticipated my husband arriving home just as I started to ride.  The dogs joyfully greeted him and jumped in his truck and went up to the house with him.  Okay, I thought, we’ll do the ‘dogs loose’ test that I had in mind another day.  Lucky Joe was in good form, so I took him out onto the driveway and rode up towards the house a ways before turning around to go the other direction.  All seemed to be going well when suddenly Lucky Joe spooked, going from walk to canter in an instant.  It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, the dogs were running full speed down the driveway towards us from behind.  Lucky Joe was as surprised as I was.  Apparently, though, I had taught Lucky Joe the emergency brake, and I learned at that moment that he knew what it meant because after just a few strides he came back down to a walk, and after a few minutes with the dogs cavorting around us, he was as calm as ever.

Okay, I thought, I guess we’ll do a ride with the dogs after all.  We continued down the driveway, and the dogs went off into the woods somewhere, so it was just me and Lucky Joe again.  All was going well, and then the second unexpected circumstance presented itself with, thankfully, equally inconsequential results.  Lucky Joe had seen deer and moose and fox and chipmunk and probably even bear and elk, but that day we saw something I’ve rarely seen around our house:  a grouse.  It was scooting along underneath the trees in its normal manner but it’s a manner unlike any other animal in the forest.  I was surprised to see it, but Lucky Joe just glanced in its direction and continued to be a good trail mount.  Once again, I thought, so much for best laid plans.  But again I’d learned more about how well suited Lucky Joe is as a trail pony.

I was emboldened by all those successes with Lucky Joe that day, even though the lessons were unplanned.  So I began taking trail rides with the dogs loose.  Lucky Joe didn’t show any concern about the dogs accompanying us, so I concluded his aggressive behavior towards them was just around his feeding time.

The previous summer I had done a number of trails with Lucky Joe and Torrin. preparing them for paid employment packing gravel, so the first several trail rides we did were on routes Lucky Joe already knew, mostly walking, some trotting.  Those went so well that one day I decided to try a route that he’d never been on.  I hadn’t been on it for a long time, either, and it turned out there were numerous logs over the trail, but Lucky Joe maneuvered over and around them well.  Then when we rounded a corner, we encountered a small herd of deer.  Okay, I thought, here’s a good test:  new surroundings with new ‘company.’  The deer moved off calmly and Lucky Joe followed suit, continuing on the path I indicated without any sign of concern.

Because of an unexpected tour through the emergency room and operating room, I’ve had to take a break from riding Lucky Joe.  When I was finally well enough to start feeding ponies again, Lucky Joe greeted me at the gate when I appeared, looking expectantly for the bareback pad and halter and lead rope.  It nearly broke my heart to tell him ‘Not today, buddy.”  I look forward to our next riding session.  I fully expect him to be just as he was when we left off, ready and willing to go out into the woods to see what is there.  I think I’m the lucky one!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

There are more stories like this one in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Fell Pony Listed as Critical with The Livestock Conservancy

Matty and Theo at Willowtrail Farm

The latest issue of The Livestock Conservancy’s newsletter landed on my desk and immediately caught my attention.  The cover article explained changes to the organization’s Conservation Priority List for 2018.  I of course scanned it for the equine section and was surprised to read that the Fell Pony had been moved from Watch to Critical “based on global population numbers of less than 2,000.” (1)  This reasoning didn’t pass my common sense test, so I decided to learn more.

I felt fortunate when the organization’s executive director, Alison Martin, answered the phone when I called.  I explained that I felt there were more than 2000 Fell Ponies in the world, so I was curious about her organization’s reasoning.  The answer seems to be that The Livestock Conservancy used numbers from its British counterpart, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, extrapolating from annual registrations of foals.  It appears from our conversation that either RBST had preliminary annual registration numbers that were far below the final count for 2017 or they were tracking hillbred foal registrations.  Certainly the latter is cause for concern based on my own research and anecdotal comments from UK breed enthusiasts.  RBST lists the Fell Pony as Vulnerable, the third tier in their list, while the Livestock Conservancy has just moved the breed to their first tier.   In my opinion, the US organization shouldn’t be this out-of-step with the breed’s home conservation organization.

Since I had her ear, I asked Alison whether her organization would consider tracking hillbred Fell Ponies separately from the breed as a whole, just as the organization does with Traditional Morgans.  She reminded me that in the case of Morgans, an open stud book led to crossing with other breeds so there is a genetic distinction identifiable by DNA testing between Traditional Morgans and others equines in the breed.

I then led the conversation into losing traits from a landscape-adapted breed like the Fell when the ponies are removed from their home terrain.  She used a rare chicken breed as an example saying that the traits are still there in the DNA, so, for instance, returning non hillbred ponies to the fell should be theoretically possible.  I said that for welfare reasons this was rarely done, and she pointed out that it could be done with good management; it’s done with wildlife species regularly.  I appreciated this perspective.  She went on to say it would make a great graduate research project to study ‘refelling’ ponies.

As Alison emphasized, being back on the Critical portion of the conservation list isn’t a good thing.  I agreed.  Generally being there is an indication that there aren’t enough breed stewards.  That isn’t necessarily the case with the Fell Pony, but we are lacking hill breeders, people who steward ponies on their native fells.  Alison requested that I send my current research on hillbred ponies to her.  It will be in my June newsletter, so if you want to receive it and aren’t subscribed, click here!

  1. Couch, C.R., et al.  “Changes in the Conservation Priority List for 2018,” The Livestock Conservancy News, Spring 2018, Volume 35, issue 2, p. 1.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More information 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.

Two Mamas Face Off

180515 Shelley ears Chester.jpg

I now know that Chester, my one-month-old Fell Pony colt, has seen a moose.  I was mounted on his mom Shelley, and we were trail riding on the woods loop.  It was where the timber was its thickest, but I could see a brown form in the distance.  It was a cow with last year’s calf at foot.  From my high perspective, I was able to see them before either pony or my dog did.

Cows are known to be aggressive when they have calves at foot.  I could see that the cow was very close to our trail, so I announced our presence and asked her to move off.  She didn’t, just standing and watching us get closer.  I then felt, as well as saw, Shelley register that we had company in the woods.  I now had two mamas facing off.  If it had been just my dog and me on foot, I would have headed in the opposite direction, but somehow mounted, I felt that Shelley’s size, being three-quarters that of the moose, was enough margin for safety.

I called out a few more times in case the rumor of a moose’s poor eyesight was accurate.  When the cow finally began to move off with her calf in front of her, I saw Chester register that we had company, too.  He certainly wasn’t bothered at all, and Shelley never missed a step as we drew closer to where the moose had been.

I have taken detours enough times over the years when I’ve seen moose in the woods that I admit to feeling triumphant this time.  I was grateful for Shelley’s presence, and her mama’s protective posture, that allowed us to have the moose give way instead of us.  And of course I once again didn't have a camera with me!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one about life with Fell Ponies can be found in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

The Edinburgh Prize for Driving

Here are highlights from this article in the February 2018 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm:

2015 Edinburgh prize courtesy Libby Robinson
  • The Edinburgh Prize for Driving was created in 2014.  His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh intends it to “to be awarded internationally to a single or multiple turnout of registered Fell Ponies, for achievement in Driving.”
  • For 2017, the award went to a North American for the first time.
  • Upon my reading of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh’s book 30 Years on and off the Box Seat, it’s no surprise that he would establish this prize.
  • I was warned that the book might be boring for someone like me who isn’t involved in competitive driving.  On the contrary I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the sport, and I especially appreciated the second half of the book when he transitioned from horses to Fell Ponies. 
  • I’ve always been curious about the lineage of the ponies that HRH the Duke of Edinburgh has driven over the years.  I learned that only rarely were ponies bought particularly for his team...
  • The Fell Pony breed is very fortunate that HM the Queen and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh take such an active interest in our ponies.

To request the entire article, click here.

A Colorful Herd

Matty and Honey

In 2015, my Fell Pony herd grew more colorful when two black mares departed.  My curiosity led me to look at how the colorfulness of my herd compared to other 'herds.'  Here are highlights from my research:

  • 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.

The original article appeared in the June 2015 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.  To read the entire article, click here.

Riding a Powderkeg

Over the years, I’ve seen the phrase ‘riding a powderkeg’ on occasion.   Recently I’ve come as close as I’ll probably ever come to personally experiencing it mounted on an equine.  I’m pretty conservative and not inclined to mount an equine that is likely to be explosive.  And since I almost exclusively ride Fell Ponies, I’m of course fortunate to have usually calm and thoughtful mounts.

Restar Mountain Shelley III and Willowtrail Josie

I received some well-meaning feedback on the photo here.  I had submitted it with an application for a competition.  I was told it wasn’t acceptable because I was riding a mare with a foal at foot without wearing a helmet.  I knew the mare and the foal and their interactions at the time, so I knew as well as anyone can know that I wasn’t in any danger, but the photo was considered to send an inappropriate message about safety.  I found another photo for that competition.

More recently, it was first thing in the morning, and I was mounted on a mare with her week-old foal at foot.  And yes, I was wearing a helmet this time because once again I knew the mare and the foal and their interactions at the time, and I deemed a helmet necessary.  We were riding past the stallion pen where the foal’s father was running the fence, both because he hadn’t yet been fed and because there was a new pony, his son, on the move.  I could feel the mare under me becoming more and more tense, and while she continued to move where I wanted her to at the speed I wanted, I could tell she was far from content.  I considered dismounting because it felt like something big might happen – either I might get assistance in a dismount, or we might be departing at sudden and high speed.

After a few moments, we had progressed past the stallion pen, and I could feel the mare relax under me.  With the agitated stallion no longer nearby, she was less concerned about the safety of her foal.  Dismounting no longer seemed necessary.

These days ‘riding a powderkeg’ usually refers to being on a roller coaster or a motorcycle.  While I’ve done both those things and I understand how the phrase might apply, I would suggest that being on a mare with foal at foot riding past an agitated stallion is an even more thrilling application of that phrase.  Riding a broodmare means there’s another independent-thinking brain involved, capable of making decisions in fractions of seconds, decisions about which the rider may have very little input.  I have a much better understanding now why my photo was rejected for that competition.  I’m thankful for having had my 'riding a powderkeg' experience, and especially thankful I did it with a Fell Pony who remained thoughtful enough to mind my safety while also minding that of her foal’s.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

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.

Fell Ponies and Milk Floats

Darkie in Silloth, 1974, courtesy Christine Robinson

Darkie in Silloth, 1974, courtesy Christine Robinson

First, a definition.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a float is “a low-bodied dray for transporting heavy goods.”  It has been suggested to me that the word in this context is of Scottish origin.  A milk float then is a low-bodied cart or wagon for transporting milk.

Two Fell Pony colleagues have shared with me that their first experience with Fell Ponies was with milk floats, so I had to learn more.

Here are excerpts from "Fell Ponies and Milk Floats" in the May 2015 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm (a similar story was published in the newsletter of the Fell Pony Society):

  • My first memory of the association between Fells and dairies is from talking to Bob Charlton of the Linnel stud.
  • Judith Bean shares, "A black Fell walked up the vicarage drive where I grew up and parked (without direction from the farmer/milkman) beside the back door."
  • Joe Langcake says Fells were ideal for this work.
  • Helen Gallagher shares about her grandfather's milk float.

To read the entire article, click here.

More stories 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 cover image.

Another Way Facebook Connects Us

Willowtrail Fell Ponies

It didn’t seem to matter what I did that morning; Facebook was involved.  My husband and I were discussing travel plans, so I needed to send a message via Facebook.  Then I needed to schedule a telephone conference, so I sent another message.  In the process I checked my news feed for anything Fell Pony related as well as glancing at what Facebook thought were the pertinent headlines of the day.  Then of course the radio news was full of Facebook because the company’s CEO was testifying before Congress.

During CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress, as reported on the news that morning, he was asked about the new requirements under the European Union (EU) data protection law called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which goes into effect on May 25, 2018.  He said his company was working towards compliance and that it might be a good starting point for similar efforts in the United States.

Later that day, I was speaking to someone with knowledge of the Fell Pony Society.  Most of the work of the Society is of course done by volunteers, with just a small staff in the office.  Whenever I talk to the office, I try to ask what is currently occupying the staff’s time because in the past I’ve been surprised by how much of that scarce resource goes into things the Society membership rarely knows about.  Years ago I remember learning about the amount of effort that was required to comply with European Union (EU) regulations around equine registration.  It seemed strange to me that the EU would be involved in this sort of minute detail.  I wasn’t surprised by the Brexit vote more recently as a response to this sort of burden due to membership in the EU. 

During the phone conference I had scheduled via Facebook, I learned that once again the office staff was having to spend some of their scarce time on something the membership might never be aware of.  It turned out it was that same topic that Mr. Zuckerberg had been asked about during his testimony before Congress:  compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation.  The connection with Facebook went beyond that, of course, because it is in part because of Facebook’s use of user data that the GDPR was put into effect in the first place.  Rather than spending time on more pony-related matters, the Society office was having to comply with yet another EU regulation.  The world felt small and very inter-connected as I began my day.

Shortly after I became involved with Fell Ponies, what I think was the first internet-based community for Fell Pony people was created as a Yahoo group.  I still have printouts of things long time breeders like Carole Morland and Christine Morton shared there. At the moment, the vast majority of sharing amongst the international Fell Pony community is done on Facebook.  It’s hard to imagine that changing, though a decade ago I might have said the same about the Yahoo group!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

It’s the Personality of the Fell Pony

180419 personality.jpg

There have been a few Fell Ponies whose personalities I could do without, but the two I’m working most with at the moment make up for all the questionable ones.  The title here is a shortened version of a quote by the late Mr. Henry Harrison, breeder of the Sleddale ponies.  “…it’s the personality of the Fell Pony that means so much, a kind natured pony, ever eager to please and provide good company.” (1)  That pretty much sums up the two I’m working with.

One of them I have just started under saddle.  I’ve maybe taken a dozen short rides on him.  And yet on my last one, the longest so far, you could have mistaken him for a seasoned trail pony.  He barely put a foot wrong despite going places he hadn’t gone in a year and never under saddle, despite footing varying from ice to mud to dry ground, despite occasional wind gusts, despite having to walk through a mud puddle at the gate, despite his paddock mate calling to him the entire time we were gone.  I gave him lots of praise at the end, and he licked and chewed for a long time.  I think he enjoyed our outing, too.

The other pony is just a few days old, but he comes to me whenever he sees me, appreciates scratches in his favorite places, and accepts lessons willingly.  Like the first pony, it’s motivating to work with him because he’s such a sponge for new information and experiences.  It’s very rewarding.

After my last encounter with these boys, I chuckled as I thought about Mr. Harrison’s statement .  I’m convinced it’s the personality of the Fell Pony that makes it so hard for so many of us to have just one.  They’re addictive!

1)      Harrison, Mr. Henry.  January page, 2005 Fell Pony Society calendar.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

There are more stories about how Fell Ponies bring joy to my life in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

When Mares Make It Easy

180415 Shelley and colt.jpg

We have a friend who has made a career of equine reproduction but never wants to be a breeder.  “It’s too stressful,” she says.  I can’t blame her; it is stressful.  For the past week I’ve been monitoring a mare’s udder in advance of an important out-of-town meeting.  My stress level has notched up each day as the day of the meeting has approached, hoping that the foaling wouldn’t interfere with going to the meeting, and conversely that the mare wouldn’t use our absence for the meeting as an excuse to foal!

I have had great success using the pH of milk to predict foaling, but this mare has her own pattern.  She doesn’t let her milk even drop to be tested until less than 12 hours before foaling.  So, for the past week, I’ve religiously checked morning and night, twelve hours apart, but I’ve had no milk to test.  One winter storm came and went, which often triggers labor, but still no imminent foaling. 

The day of the meeting arrived.  I checked the mare when I first got up at 3:30am, and still no milk, so I knew we had twelve hours of freedom.  I also knew we were close because she cocked her off leg when I bumped her udder, similar to what she would do if a foal bumped her udder, angling the teats toward a waiting mouth.  I told the mare our plans for the day, asking her to wait until we got home that night at least.  This mare has often chosen to have our presence at foaling, so I was hopeful she’d heard my plea.

We were gone for sixteen hours, so we were both anxious as we drove up the driveway, eagerly following the beam of the headlights into the foaling shed to see if the mare had company.  She didn’t.  Before I’d even changed out of my dress clothes, I checked for milk.  There it was; less than twelve hours now.  And while I was already sleep-deprived from leaving so early for the meeting (and having a puppy who can’t make it through the night yet), I knew the next day was our weekly day of rest, so I summoned enough energy to commence regular checks during the night.

At first check the mare showed no signs of having laid down (no telltale straw on her body), so with so much fatigue, I opted for a two hour check.  No telltale straw then either, so I set the alarm for two hours again, having communicated the pattern to the mare by this point.  Fortunately my husband’s emergency radio went off, or we would have missed the action.  Since this is this mare’s seventh foal, we knew it was very likely that all would be well, and it was:  a big, beautiful and healthy black colt. 

After witnessing the important milestones of a newborn and mother, we gave ourselves the gift of a long nap.  Even the puppy allowed it to be peaceful!  Rarely is foal watch as easy as this one was.  That this mare chose to wait until we were home, to let us go to our meeting, to foal when we had a rest day during which to recover, made this foal watch less stressful than most.  I am so thankful this mare made it easy.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

My book What an Honor is full of stories like this one.  It is available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Fell Pony Breed-Specific Health Issues

Willowtrail Fell Ponies

People new to the Fell Pony breed often ask if there are breed-specific health issues they should know about.  We are so fortunate with this breed that these ponies are so tough and hardy and generally very healthy.  There are of course the common (and usually preventable) health issues with easy keepers such as founder and Equine Metabolic Syndrome.  And then there is our breed-specific problem of Foal Immunodeficiency Syndrome (FIS).

FIS is usually just a concern if someone wants to breed their Fell Pony.  It affects foals from 8 to 12 weeks of age and can be avoided by not breeding two carriers of the condition to each other.  We know now of course that FIS isn’t specific to the Fell Pony; it has also been identified in the closely-related Dales Pony and Gypsy Horse.  And we are fortunate now to have the FIS carrier test so that breeders can make informed decisions where FIS is concerned.

There are certainly implications for the future of the breed due to the presence of FIS and the availability of the test.  To read more about these implications and for more detail about FIS in the Fell Pony, click here.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

You can learn about the Fell Pony breed, including about FIS and its implications, in the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Better Than Breeding Stock

180213 Lady Madie Honey.JPG

I have a pony here now that has made me think hard about what sort of pony is the most ‘valuable.’  For some people breeding stock is the most valuable.  For some people a pony that can be shown at the highest levels is the most valuable.  The pony I have here now is neither of those types, but for me she’s more valuable than either of them. 

I’ve had a number of experiences over the years with ponies and their owners and dogs and their breeders that suggest that ‘valuable’ is definitely in the eye of the beholder.  There was once a Fell Pony that I admired, and I was surprised when it came on the market.  When I inquired about purchasing it, the owner said, “Oh, no, I have a number of people wanting him.  Thank you anyway.”  But then a year later, the pony was back on the market, again for sale by the same owner.  It appeared that the owner, while asking for a five-star home, didn’t consider a breeding home, like I would give it, good enough.  Because the owner was in the showing fraternity, I was left with the impression that showing was the owner’s view of ‘valuable.’

Several years ago, I was in the market for a purebred dog, and I inquired with a colleague about available puppies.  When I was pointed to their business partner, I was asked if I would be showing the dog, and I said no.  Then I was asked if I was a breeder, and again I said no.  I was then immediately told, “We’re not interested; our puppies aren’t for pet homes.”  For this person, apparently, the most valuable sort of animal was a show animal first, a breeding animal second, and a pet (or in the pony world a ‘using’ pony) a lowly third.

I sometimes do a thought experiment to double-check my selection criteria of ponies that I decide to keep or sell.  The experiment is to ask myself the question: if I could only keep one pony, which pony would it be?  Then I ask, if I could only keep two ponies, which ponies would they be?  And then, if I could keep only three ponies, which ponies would they be?  The first time I did this thought experiment, the results surprised me.  If I could keep only one pony, it wouldn’t be breeding stock or the fanciest looking or best moving one.  It wasn’t until I got to keeping three and four ponies that showing or breeding stock made the list.

The pony I have here now is the sort that if I could only have one pony in my life, she’d be the one I’d want.  She is kind, entertaining, and easy to get along with.  She always greets me at the fence, is always ready to receive scratches in her favorite places, is easy to halter and lead, and easy to train.  Even if this pony is never shown and never bred, for me, she’s more valuable than any showing or breeding animal because she’s such a joy to be around.

When I went looking for pictures of this pony, I realized all my recent ones have a fence in the foreground.  When she was younger I had a fair number that were close ups of her nostrils.  Rather than standing watching at a distance, posing in some majestic way, I’m inclined to think that my most valuable kind of pony is the one that has fence rails in front of it because they’d rather be with me than showing themselves off at a distance.  Or they’d rather be so close to me that the only pictures possible are of nostrils!

The Fell Pony market in North America has been a growing one since I got involved, and many customers have wanted ponies they could breed from.  I’ve tried hard to produce proper ponies for breeding use, not just for the market but also for the future of my own breeding program, since I’ve retained many of my own ponies for breeding.  But because of the way I steward my herd – very hands on – I haven’t been able to - nor wanted to - ignore what makes a pony I’d want to have around if it’s the only one I could have. 

While I take great joy in producing ponies that can excel in a breeding program or in a show ring, I take as much or more joy from producing a pony like the one I have now.  In the end, the number of breeding and showing homes will always be fewer than the number of pet or using pony homes.  Therefore, producing the type of pony like the one I have here now will always be a goal of my breeding program.  For me, a pony that is a joy to be around will always be better than breeding or showing stock.

© 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.

A Question Answered

Lady greeting me at the fence like she usually does

Lady greeting me at the fence like she usually does

Sometimes the universe has interesting ways of answering questions, including those that we sometimes aren’t consciously asking.  Willowtrail Moonlit Lady’s buyer asked how Lady was doing leading.  I said she was haltered and led one to two times a day with no problem, just as I expect at 9 months old.  In the back of my mind, though, I wondered how she would do in a challenging situation.

Work called me away unexpectedly late one day, so it was dark when I arrived back to feed the ponies.  I had missed one feeding, so I expected everyone to be a little on edge, but it had been a nice afternoon, and nothing seemed particularly amiss.  That is, until I went to the mares’ paddock, and Lady wasn’t at the fence to greet me as she normally does.  I entered the paddock, scanning the dark shapes against the snowy background looking for one smaller than the rest.  When I still didn’t see her, I then began calling her name.  Normally this will rouse her if she’s been napping.  But still no Lady.  Now I was getting concerned.

I went back to the house for a flashlight and searched the entire paddock, and still Lady was nowhere to be found, so she was clearly outside the paddock somewhere.  A few minutes more searching located her along the paddock fence in a stand of small trees.  She had apparently gone over a low spot in the fence (I’ve been planning the rebuild of that fence for this spring), but she then floundered in deep snow.  The snow was very shallow under the small trees, and she had spent her freedom wandering from one tree shadow to the next.  I had her feed bucket with me, but she was reluctant to follow her feed bucket out of her captivity in one direction, showing me that the required postholing through the packed snow was unacceptable to her.  I found another route where the snow was softer, and she followed me willingly to a plowed area and started working on her feed bucket, during which time I scanned her with the flashlight for any signs of injury.  After she finished, I repeated the scan with my hands and was relieved to find that she was just fine.

Now began the opportunity for me to find out how well Lady would lead in a challenging situation.  Haltering her was no problem as usual, but I had to lead her around a stallion pen out onto the driveway to get to a gate not blocked by deep snow.  I couldn’t have asked for better cooperation!  On top of that, when she had been eating her feed, I slipped on ice next to her and fell down, and she didn’t even flinch.  I love this pony!

Our light winter in the snow department has deprived Lady of a lesson most of my ponies get in their first year.  When we have normal snowfall, they have the opportunity to learn that they can get mired in deep snow, so they should avoid it.  Lady got this lesson that night when she jumped the fence, and she hasn’t ventured out again.  And I got the answer to that back-of-my-mind question.  She leads just fine!

© 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.

Pondering Prepotency

When I produced my first filly in my breeding program, I decided to keep her to use as a broodmare.  I assumed, therefore, that the breeding life of a stallion in my herd would be a single generation.  When the first crop of his daughters were old enough to breed, I’d move that stallion on and bring in another that was unrelated to the daughters of the first.  Managing one stallion is hard enough, and two is a definite workload.  In addition that strategy is what I’d watched a number of breeders in Cumbria do, so it seemed like a reasonable strategy.  A problem with this strategy has arisen, though. 

Guards Apollo

I was talking to a gentleman who trains his sled dogs here in the winter.  When we talk, we inevitably get onto the subject of breeding.  In this case, he pointed to one of the dogs in his team, an intact male, and he said, “That dog is the sire of all my best racers.”  He then pointed to another dog and said, “That dog is the mother of most of my best dogs.  I spayed her so I’d quit breeding.”  John says he wants to retire, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

John then went on to say, “That male dog is prepotent.  You know Secretariat wasn’t.  He couldn’t breed anything as good as he was.”  John went on to tell me another horse-related story and then it was time for him to attend to his dogs.  What he said, though, crystallized a thought in my mind.

Prepotency is the ability of one parent to impress its hereditary characteristics on its progeny. One of the best known examples in the horse world of prepotency is Justin Morgan, the sole founding sire of the Morgan horse breed.  His ability to repeatedly and reliably stamp his offspring with his own desirable characteristics is the reason given for the breed’s existence.

In the Fell Pony, we don’t have a dominant ancestor stallion like Justin Morgan, but I do occasionally see stallions that leave their mark.  One that comes to mind has a number of daughters that I greatly admire.  Another seems to be leaving consistently good offspring of both genders.  In the case of the first stallion, I’ve wondered if the reason so many of his daughters are good is that good mares were put to him, or said another way, the breeder who controlled his breeding calendar had a very good eye for what the stallion would cross well with.

In the case of the second stallion, he’s linebred, and I’ve wondered if that is the reason that his offspring are so consistently good.  Both of these stallions might be considered prepotent, having the ability to impress their favorable characteristics on their offspring.  When I’ve heard stallion prepotency discussed, I’ve never heard if line-breeding or careful mare selection were in play, but from what I'm seeing, they certainly could play a role.

Each day when I enter my mare paddock, I encountered three daughters by my senior stallion, and I love the type of all of them.  And when I enter the paddock where my senior stallion lives, I love his type, his personality, his movement, his easy-keeping qualities.  Under my original breeding program strategy, because I have three daughters, this stallion should now be considered obsolete.  But the problem is I can’t part with him; I like him too much.

After talking to John about prepotency and especially when he mentioned that a great stallion like Secretariat couldn’t throw anything as good as he was, I reached a tipping point.  My stallion is throwing stock as good as he is.  As I’ve pondered this, I’ve realized he is both line-bred, and the mares he breeds are carefully selected.  He is therefore like both those other Fell Pony stallions whose stock I admire.  In addition, another breeder whom I admire has bought my stallion’s close relation for breeding, another affirmation of the line.

I have no idea how long the breeding life of a stallion is in my climate.  I know more than one stallion that has produced stock past the age of twenty, so in theory I have several more years left.  So I’ve decided to find another mare to put my senior stallion to.  Sometimes the best laid plans have to be modified!  I’ll be keeping two stallions after all!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

Solace 2

180124 Rose Madie foaling shed.JPG

I was sitting next to a paddock fence observing a pony that wasn’t feeling well.  I was deep in thought, so the nudge on my shoulder surprised me.  It was my heart pony, Willowtrail Wild Rose, in the adjoining paddock, who had reached her nose through the fence, wanting my attention.  I said hello and turned back to the object of my concern.  Rose then began playing with a piece of baling twine near where I was sitting.  I caught the movement of the twine out of the corner of my eye, and I realized she was trying to engage me, to distract me, to help me not be so troubled.  I thanked her, remembering another time when she had offered her proverbial shoulder to lean on.

Rose’s cousin H, a pony overseas, often has behaviors similar to Rose’s.  It seems H too has a knack for giving solace.  Her owner relates this story:  “My son was telling H about how sad he was that my Granny had died. H said nothing, but passed her bucket of feed over to him. Never ever has she been seen to offer food to anybody else, before or after.  Of course it worked! She managed to cheer him up for sure!”

In my first story about Rose giving solace, she too bypassed her feed to give me her attention.  In that story, I discussed one thing that was troubling my heart at that time, the death of a friend’s pony.  Yet there was also another cause for my grief:  the death of my mother.  Despite being much younger then, Rose demonstrated the same willingness to give her time and attention when I was distressed.  I wonder if I will ever completely discover how much these ponies have to offer.  The exploration is heartwarming regardless.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

The first "Solace" story can be found in my book The Partnered Pony:  What's Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Semi-Feral Pony!

Rose eating her hay on a normal chore ride.  Her tracks into the clear cut as a semi-feral pony are shown!

Rose eating her hay on a normal chore ride.  Her tracks into the clear cut as a semi-feral pony are shown!

She’s not really a semi-feral pony, since the photo clearly shows her tacked up to be ridden.  But I got such a kick out of what Willowtrail Wild Rose did when I let her loose before breakfast one morning.  It was snowing hard when I went out to feed, so I couldn’t tack her up as I normally do prior to our chore ride down the driveway.  So I changed my chore routine.  Normally I give her something to eat before our ride, but this morning I put her hay and feed bucket in her paddock but didn’t allow her to have them.  Instead, I hand-walked her down the driveway and let her loose, encouraging her to run back up the driveway to her breakfast (I’d left her paddock gate open).

Our normal twice-daily chore routine is to ride down to a paddock where I dismount and tie her and feed the ponies there while she eats hay that I put out for her where she’s tied.  When I let her loose on this morning, though, instead of going up the driveway, she jumped a snowpile and ended up right where I normally tie her, settling in to eat what hay was left from the previous afternoon’s chore ride.

I laughed and went about feeding the ponies in the paddock, thinking that Rose would head up the driveway eventually.  I expected she’d go up the driveway at speed since normally I keep her at a walk when we’re riding because I’m holding feed buckets and stretching her legs would probably be a welcome change.  This is, after all, what my other chore pony Shelley does.  But Rose hadn’t left by the time I did, and she hadn’t returned to her breakfast by the time I got back to the top of the road and began putting feed buckets together for the next pony paddock.  She did eventually return and settle into her breakfast normally, and I shut the gate behind her.

Later in the day I discovered, however, that Rose hadn’t come up the driveway after all (it was easy to see her route through the snow!)  The driveway is plowed, but instead Rose chose to circle out into the clearcut where there are a couple of feet of snow then where she could have rejoined the driveway she again veered away from it through the log yard where there was more than a foot of snow.  She visited both gates of the mare paddock before going to her breakfast, using the plowed driveway only for a short portion of her journey.  She definitely didn’t take the easy or direct route, instead choosing to blaze a trail of her own through ‘wild’ territory.  I laughed when I saw the route, thinking she was harkening back to her ancestors who were in the semi-feral herds of ponies in Cumbria.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

There are more stories like this one in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

The Curiosity Gene

Willowtrail Fell Pony filly
  • A correlation has been identified between a particular strand of genetic material and certain traits, specifically curiosity and vigilance.
  •  If curiosity and vigilance are indeed genetically based and at opposite ends of a spectrum, I can definitely say that both are present in the Fell Pony.

  • Two different interpretations of curiosity and vigilance that I’ve found demonstrate that there is much more to be learned about what a genetic basis for temperament means and how it is used.

To read my complete article about "The Curiosity Gene" in Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, click here

More stories like this one can be found in my book Fell Ponies:  Observations in the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Which Way Will She Go?

Willowtrail Fell Pony filly

When Fell Pony breeders apply for registration of their foals, identifying characteristics must be noted on the passport application.  Whorls are one characteristic that is to be noted, with several different whorl shapes to be distinguished between.  I find the whorl portion of the passport application to be the most challenging because I inevitably wait into the fall to fill the application out, and the foals’ winter coats have come in, making the whorls harder to find.  Fortunately I take lots of baby pictures, so I am able to go back and look at hair coats at a younger age to answer questions about whorls.

A 2016 study at Colorado State University gave new interest to whorls, especially those on the forehead which are common in Fell Ponies.  “New research suggests there’s a surprisingly simple way of predicting whether a spooking horse will turn to the right or left:  Check out his facial whorls.” (1)  Fell Ponies aren’t particularly spooky, so the research may not be of significant interest to Fell Pony owners.  The general idea, though, was that an equine with a whorl whose hairs turn in a counterclockwise direction when viewed straight on was more likely to spin left when startled with an opening umbrella.

In 2017 I had a foal with a whorl pattern on its forehead that I’d never seen before.  There were two whorls side by side with the hairs radiating out in different directions.  When I read about the ‘whirls and whorls’ research, I curiously wondered, which way will this filly go?  Will she go straight up?  I did see her take an amazing flying leap over a brush pile once.  Will she go one way or the other depending on the situation?  Or is there another possibility?  She was definitely one of the mellower foals I’ve ever had, so maybe she’ll just calmly take in a startling event, standing still.  I never tried the umbrella experiment on her when she was here to find out, but I’ll certainly pay more attention to ‘whirls and whorls’ in my ponies in the future!

  1. Barakat, Christine and Mick McCluskey.  “Whirls and Hair Whorls,” Equus #470, November 2016, p. 18.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

If you enjoy stories like this one, you'll also enjoy the book What An Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Mares and Temperament

It has been my experience in breeding Fell Ponies for the last fifteen years that stallions have a significant influence on the temperament of their foals.  And since traits can skip generations, I’ve also seen an influence in the second generation.  Having noticed this pattern regarding temperament, I have made breeding decisions towards or away from certain stallions.  After a conversation with another breeder on the topic, though, I saw a pattern in some of my foals that pointed to the mare side of the breeding equation instead when it came to temperament.

Here are highlights from this article that appeared in the October 2017 issue of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm:

  • It was after a third foal was born that exhibited disinterested behavior at a young age that I spoke to the breeder on the topic of mares and temperament.
  • This breeder was seeing a pattern of temperament inheritance on the dam side, and sometimes the particular behaviors were even seen in the grandchildren. 
  • Suddenly a lightbulb went off in my brain, and I saw a pattern in my disinterested foals.

To request the complete article on Mares and Temperament, click here.

The book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding contains many stories like this one.  It is available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Willowtrail Mare and Foal