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.

Chestnuts and Fell Ponies

A chestnut on a Fell Pony

A chestnut on a Fell Pony

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.

A chestnut Fell Pony as a foal and an adult courtesy Michaela di Nanni

A chestnut Fell Pony as a foal and an adult courtesy Michaela di Nanni

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. 

A black foal was a surprise from a silver dapple mare crossed on a black Fell Pony stallion

A black foal was a surprise from a silver dapple mare crossed on a black Fell Pony stallion

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.

  1. Sponenberg, D. Phillip.  Equine Color Genetics, Second Edition.  Ames, Iowa:  Iowa State University Press, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, p. 183.

  2. 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.

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

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.

The Forgotten Hind End

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.


  • One of the criticisms my husband has of many modern day Fell Ponies is that they lack power in the hind end.  A mountain pony, to his way of thinking, should have a sufficiently muscular hind end to enable them to carry themselves (and a rider or load) strongly up steep inclines and hold back those same loads on the way back down.  Many modern day Fell Ponies, in his estimation, have hind ends inadequate to that task.
  • There is an important question to answer of course.  Is the strong, round, well-muscled hindquarter that I like consistent with the breed standard?
  • After considering the breed standard from various perspectives, I conclude that the hind end I liked on my first Fell mare falls within the breed standard and may even have been a good representation of it.
  • It turns out that light hind quarters and straighter-than-desirable hind legs like I’m seeing in my search for males isn’t just a Fell Pony problem.
  • I received a phone call from a Fell Pony owner, and after asking me several other questions, they asked if sticky stifles were common in the breed.
  • Stifle issues may be as much or more a management issue than a conformation one; a good colt in one person’s hands/management situation may develop stifle issues and in another person’s hands/management situation be just fine.
  • It doesn’t take much reflection to realize that if work on hills is a first-line of defense against sticky stifles, then Fell Ponies who are raised on their native fells are getting the movement-on-hills work in the course of their daily life that they need to have to avoid the problem. 
  • Because of the presence – and perhaps prevalence - of straight hind legs and less-muscled hindquarters, we modern day Fell Pony enthusiasts have an opportunity to make a contribution to the breed.  We can and must make strengthening the hind quarters of our ponies a priority – through managing them for movement and selecting better breeding stock - especially since more and more ponies are living away from the fells where their bodies evolved.

To read the full article, click here.

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