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 https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/09/harvard-researcher-finds-canine-brains-vary-based-on-breed/

  2. “A dog’s breed is a window onto its brain,” Neuroscience, nature.com, 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.

What Color is THAT?

This is the foal that got the whole conversation going!

This is the foal that got the whole conversation going!

Another breeder suggested that I was wrong about the color of one of my foals (see picture).  And then a potential buyer of the foal suggested the foal was grey.  I know from color genetics that the foal isn’t grey.  Responding to the breeder, though, required me to respond differently.  I had to say that based on my decade’s experience with this line and my nearly two decades experience with breeding Fell Ponies, that the foal is indeed black.

This foal out of the same mare seemed to have the mealy effect of her mother, making her brown, but she ended up black.

This foal out of the same mare seemed to have the mealy effect of her mother, making her brown, but she ended up black.

I understand why the breeder questioned my judgment.  When my first foal out of this line was born, I thought she was brown.  In this breed, the brown color is characterized by the mealy effect on a dark background (see mare in first and second pictures), and I thought that was what I was seeing in the foal (see second picture).  But as the foal aged, the lighter areas that I thought were mealy darkened.  In the end, I had to ask a breeder who had experience with brown ponies what color my foal was, and she said it was definitely black.  And she was right.  That foal has matured into a beautiful black Fell Pony.

The foal who began these conversations now is out of a non-black mare.  To most people’s eyes, she is bay, though in the Fell Pony she could be called brown with black points because she has the mealy effect on a dark background with black mane, tail, and lower legs.  When this mare is bred to a black stallion, then, every foal has the chance to be black, brown, or bay.  So far she has only had one non-black foal, and fortunately for me, that foal’s color was obvious from birth (see picture)!

This foal’s color was obvious, thank goodness:  mealy effect on bay.

This foal’s color was obvious, thank goodness: mealy effect on bay.

Being a breeder of Fell Ponies can be confusing when colors other than black are bred.  The confusion comes in part from the fact that there are at least two colors of black Fell Ponies:  jet black and summer or fading black.  Because my first two Fells were jet black and only produced jet black foals, I knew that black color well, but when a summer black joined my herd, I was in for an education.  It was her first foal for me fifteen years ago that informed my opinion of the foal before me now.

This foal was out of two black parents, so he is black but looks similar to the first foal above.

This foal was out of two black parents, so he is black but looks similar to the first foal above.

In that case, both parents were black, so I knew the foal was black, because that’s how color genetics work.  Nonetheless, he was very light in color, as the picture here shows.  Back then I wasn’t surprised when he matured into a black pony, as the picture at 9 months old shows.  Today, though, I might not be so certain, except experience is a great teacher!

This is the same foal as just above but at nine months, clearly black.

This is the same foal as just above but at nine months, clearly black.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More stories about the joys of owning and breeding Fell Ponies 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.

What's In A Fell Pony Name?

It took me six days to land on a name for this handsome boy!

It took me six days to land on a name for this handsome boy!

It took me several days to figure out what to call my third foal of the year.  My first two foals were named fairly quickly, within in a day or so of their birth.  The third one, though, took me longer than usual.  In part it was because he was born just two days after the previous one, and I had my hands full taking care of all the new life.  And then there was the fact that the third foal chose not to nurse for nine hours after birth, so for those first critical hours my thoughts were centered more on keeping him alive than what to call him.

When I name my foals, I try to choose a name that is reasonably consistent with Fell Pony naming practices.  Because I regularly peruse the stud books of the Fell Pony Society, I have become aware of what those naming practices are by watching how other breeders, especially long time ones, name their ponies.

Fell Pony names typically have two parts:  the prefix and the name.  In most cases, prefixes are related to the breeder’s location in some way.  My prefix, for instance, is Willowtrail.  Willow trees/shrubs/bushes (and their close relatives such as cottonwoods) grow along water in this part of the world.  Water is an incredibly vital resource here, so I am always watching where it flows.  Often willows are clues to where there is water, even if you can't see the water on the surface. So willows mark the trail of water, hence Willowtrail!

Somewhere I once read that pony names need to be limited to three words following the prefix.  I can’t find that rule in any regulation now, but generally speaking, names are simple.  Often they are names that people also might have:  Tom, Alice, etc.  Or they are about landscape features:  Heather, Mountain, etc.  I ran across a series of foal names from one breeder that were Caraway, Cardamom, and Chervil, which I found delightful since I also love to cook!  Sometimes themes are combined, such as Heather Belle or Mountain Lad.  Or names are somehow descriptive of a pony’s character, whether actual or fictional, such as Ranger or Warrior or Jester.  Or names are repeated from ponies-past in the pedigree:  Prince II or Model IV, for instance.  Some breeders choose to name all their foals in a given year with a common first letter:  Lily, Liz, and Lancelot for instance.  And some breeders choose names that don’t follow any of these conventions!

I consider naming my foals an important part of my responsibility as a breeder.  Because I use their names every time I see them, the foals learn to recognize their names.  Therefore I try to choose names that subsequent owners will want to use so the ponies aren’t confused by name changes.  To try to give the names lasting power in the human realm, then, I try to choose names that have meaning for that particular pony.  As a result, there’s a story behind every name, a story which I enjoy sharing with new owners to introduce them to the wonderful world of Fell Ponies!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More stories about Fell Pony culture 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.

A Conversation Between A Mare and A Stallion

Asi and Madie

Because I breed almost exclusively by live cover, I do a lot of teasing, watching for how the mare and stallion communicate with each other.  Is the mare interested in the stallion’s flirtations?  Does the stallion sense the mare will be receptive to his advances?  Or is the opposite the case?  I realize that I’ve considered teasing to have two possible messages – interest and no interest - but a mare recently showed me there could be a third.

As I watched this mare over the course of several weeks of teasing, she showed me the two messages I was expecting.   At first she was uninterested in the stallion.  If I were to put words to her communication, they would be, “Don’t even dare coming any closer to me, or I’ll turn and kick your brains out!”  Then she came into heat, and if I were to put words to her behavior, they would be, “Come here pretty boy and let’s see what we can do together.”  The third message came after her heat cycle had ended.  I realized when she expressed disinterest in the stallion, it had a different character.  If I had to put words to her message, they would be, “Thank you for our interactions.  I’m no longer interested, but I appreciate your cooperation.”  The mare’s disinterest was less intense, and she tolerated the stallion’s company seemingly because she appreciates being in foal. 

Not all mares enjoy a stallion’s company after they’re bred.  I suspect that’s why I’ve never previously realized my inaccurately narrow view of the conversations between mares and stallions during teasing.  Now though, I realize that one other mare had a similar threesome of teasing communications.  She too enjoyed a stallion’s company while she was in foal.

I was speaking to an acquaintance the other night and expressing my envy at his multiple generations of animal husbandry experience.  Because I’ve been doing this for just twenty years, his 60 plus seems eons longer.  I was surprised by his response.  He said even though he has more years of experience than I do, nothing’s really ever the same, and he’s always learning how to steward his animals better.  Good to know!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More thoughts about breeding Fell Ponies 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.

Breeding for the Best

180726 ponies at pasture.jpg

It’s foaling season, so I have pony breeding on my brain anyway.  Then two conversations within the space of a week with long-time Cumbrian Fell Pony breeders touched on the same topic from different perspectives.  I always try to pay attention to those types of coincidences.

The topic was about how to breed for the best Fell Pony possible.  And in both cases the breeders presented evidence against a strategy that otherwise seems quite logical:  if you have a really good pony, and you breed it to a really good pony, then surely you’ll end up with a really good foal.  Yet both these breeders with a lifetime of experience said otherwise.  While it might make sense in theory, they said, it rarely proves out in practice.

From experience, they said that often the best won’t reproduce themselves.  It may be because they are already so good that anything they produce will be a come-down.  Or it may be that there are faults hidden behind them that manifest in the next generation.  Or it may be because they are sterile and just won’t reproduce at all. 

And also from experience, they said that matching a mare to a stallion is about a lot more than matching a good animal to a good animal.  It needs to be more about matching strengths in one to areas needing improvement in the other.  It needs to be about recognizing that the perfect pony, one without need of improvement, has yet to be born.

I have heard these ideas before, but I never really believed them.  Breeding the best to the best just seems so logical.  This time hearing them, though, I am in a different place.  I am watching the topic play out before my eyes in my own herd.  I have one mare line that I’ve always considered to be ‘the best.’  But it is proving tricky to breed the next generation.  And at the same time, I have a mare line that isn’t quite as spectacular to look at when only the matriarch is considered, but when she’s surrounded by her offspring, it’s hard to argue that there could be much better to look at.  These experiences and these conversations are making me look at my herd with new eyes.  That’s a good thing!

In both my conversations with these veteran breeders, we agreed that breeding is more art than science, more craft than logic.  It is that creative part that keeps breeding interesting and what adds richness to conversations with other breeders.  I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to talk to them.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More thoughts about breeding 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.


The Fell Pony is Fortunate

One of the first foals I saw a picture of this spring was conceived by artificial insemination (AI).  An article from The Livestock Conservancy about assistive reproductive technologies including AI said that since 2008, rare equine breeds have seen a 50% decline in registrations of new animals. (1)  The Fell Pony is fortunate compared to its rare brethren.  We’ve only gone below 50% once during those years, and in 2018 were at 68.3% of 2008 levels.  After year over year declines since 2008, we’ve been gaining since 2016.

Willowtrail fillies conceived by AI

As registrations of rare equine breeds drop, there’s a fear of losing blood lines, hence the article about assistive reproductive technologies to assist in preserving lines that might otherwise be lost.  I learned about some of them at Colorado State University several years ago when we took a seminar about them, but there have been many advances since then.  The technologies discussed in the article include:

  • Fresh semen collection for use in artificial insemination.  This is allowed in the Fell Pony breed.

  • Semen collection for freezing, which can also occur in the event of injury or death of a stallion by harvesting the testes and extracting the sperm.  Frozen semen is allowed to be used in the Fell Pony breed.

  • Embryo flushing when a mare can conceive but not carry to term.  The embryo is transferred to a recipient mare for gestation.  This has been done in the Fell Pony but the resulting foal was not eligible for registration.

  • Oocyte harvesting when a mare cannot conceive or has died recently.  The embryo is fertilized in a lab using a technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection and then transferred to a recipient mare.  Foals produced using this method are not eligible for registration in the Fell Pony breed.

  • Cloning.  This has successfully been done in equines but is not allowed in Fell Ponies.

The Livestock Conservancy article went on to discuss the role of tissue banks in breed conservation.  Some Fell Pony semen is being stored in a tissue bank.  Optimally, says the Conservancy, the stored tissues will be representative of all blood lines and with representation of more mares than stallions.  We have a ways to go in our breed toward that goal.

Of course if the Fell Pony is above 50% in registrations then other breeds are sadly much worse off.  We are fortunate to have AI available for use, with many stallions in North America permitted for AI by the Fell Pony Society.  I’ve used AI to progress my own breeding program and was happy with the results.  Hopefully our breed’s situation will continue to improve so that more aggressive assistive reproductive technologies won’t be needed.

1)      Couch, Charlene, PhD and Katrin Hinrichs, DVM PhD. “Applying Assisted Reproductive Technologies for Conservation of Valuable Equine Genetics,” The Livestock Conservancy News, Autumn 2018, p. 3.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More articles like this one about stewarding the Fell Pony 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.

Shelley Goes Visiting

What a blessing it is to be having a real winter!  Normal amounts of snow that will hopefully keep the fire danger down this summer and will provide plenty of irrigation water for hay crops.  And what interesting timing.  With my husband gone, I’m now solely responsible for snowplowing and filling stock tanks and moving hay bales and all the other chores of the farm in winter (and I’m grateful for all the help I’ve been offered, too).  It didn’t take me long, though, to know that there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Restar Mountain Shelley III

It’s normal when practicing progressive breeding to have ebbs and flows in the size of a breeding herd.  As one works to produce better ponies with each generation, it’s common to retain daughters.  Then a need for a second stallion emerges, and the population grows.  Then when those daughters begin to produce offspring, it becomes time to select which females to retain and which to rehome to keep the herd size realistic.  

I knew I was reaching the point where I was going to have to make some difficult decisions this year.  With my husband’s passing, though, I began to see opportunities to reduce my pony population that I might not have seen otherwise.  For instance, I had kept my Fell Pony mare Restar Mountain Shelley III open (unbred). While I wasn’t interested in selling her, an idea occurred to me. My friend Tina has a two year old Fell that she hopes to eventually use for riding and driving. I thought Tina might find it appealing to have a full grown mare to ride until the filly is ready to go to work.

While the idea made sense logically, I wasn’t fully prepared for how much I would miss Shelley.  Fortunately, letting her go temporarily is already producing gifts.  Tina asked for some video of me working with her, so she would better know what Shelley responds to.  My heart was warmed when Tina observed how much Shelley enjoys being with me.  The feeling is definitely mutual!  Then I got the pictures here of Shelley encountering new beings in her life with quiet acceptance and curiosity.  That’s my girl!

Having Shelley go visiting has definitely freed up some time each day.  Her departure is the first of several.  My goal is to get from five paddocks of ponies down to two while I adjust to life without my husband.  It won’t surprise me at all if I’m back up to five paddocks again a few years out!

There is still a void here that Shelley used to occupy.  It is hard to see her stall empty, her tracks still in the snow, her voice not greeting me at feeding time.  But I take great solace from knowing Shelley will be coming back to me before long, and in the meantime Tina will have lots of stories to tell me about my girl.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

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

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

Mind Grandma!

This story originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.

Highlights:

  • When choosing a breeding stallion, it pays to look at not only the stallion, but also the stallion's dam.
  • It turns out that Grandma has a significant influence on the quality of the stallion's offspring.
  • Three photo pairs in the essay, one of which is shown here, illustrate the influence.

To request the complete article, click here.

Shelley Prince.jpg

Articles like this one make up the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Slow Sleddales 2/Maturation

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

Highlights:

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.