Unexpected Returns

One of the big projects I have undertaken since my husband’s death is an auction of our business’s assets.  With the auction over, the items are now being dispersed to their new owners.  Due to my need to move and lighten my load, some of the items in the auction were pony-related, and I feared that when they went, it would be difficult for me to watch.  While there will be financial returns from the auction to offset the loss of these items, there have been returns in other forms that were unexpected and equally valuable.

Willowtrail Mountain Honey and her foal in the paddock my late husband built for me just a year ago.  The paddock fencing has now been sold and removed.

Willowtrail Mountain Honey and her foal in the paddock my late husband built for me just a year ago. The paddock fencing has now been sold and removed.

The first pony-related item to leave was a fence in one of the stallion pens that my husband had completed for me just a year ago.  It was the pen that my beloved stallion Guards Apollo occupied for nearly all of his fourteen years here and is shown in the picture.  When the purchaser of the fencing was due to arrive, I was concerned I would burst into tears.  Instead, when I learned that the purchaser ran an equine-assisted therapy program, our conversation was so inspiring that the expected sadness was replaced with excitement that the fencing would be helping facilitate such important work.

Another pony-related item to leave was a very large box of electric fence supplies.  I didn’t have the same emotional attachment to these items, so it was relatively easy to help the purchasers load them into their trailer.  I asked what they planned to do with the fencing, they replied that they too had horses.  I of course asked what kind, and they replied Friesians and Friesian sport horses.  It was easy to get them talking about their more-than-thirty-years as breeders of sport horses, and since I know nothing about that market, I learned a lot.  As they were about to leave, they asked what sort of horses I had.  When I answered, the response was, repeatedly, “You breed Fell Ponies!”  After three or four of these choruses, they said of course they’d like to meet my ponies, and we had fun meeting the whole herd in two different locations.  They were sufficiently appreciative of my stock to ask for a business card, a reminder to me of something else I must revise before I move!

A local rancher came to pick up some items for a friend, and they saw my ponies in a nearby paddock.  They shared that they feed with Percherons, including a Percheron-Friesian cross.  I enjoyed hearing their perspective on the conformation, temperament, and action of their drafts and draft-crosses.  The unexpected return from that visit, though, was hearing about the movie they’d just watched.  It was about pit ponies, so I shared about my first pony who was similar in conformation to pit ponies and about my first Fell Pony mentor who trained pit ponies when he was young.  You won’t be surprised to learn that I immediately came inside and ordered the movie!

One lot and its purchaser gave me a chuckle.  The lot contained a bunch of heavy duty free-standing fence panels.  I bought them nearly two decades ago when I purchased my first Fell Ponies.  Then I moved the panels here with me seventeen years ago.  And now I will see them at my new home after I move.  My hosts at Scotty Springs Ranch have purchased them!

Another purchaser wasn’t at all horsey, but I enjoyed their question about the ponies, who were watching us load timbers that my husband had milled.  They said, “Aren’t they too tall for ponies?”  I explained how tall ponies can be and how I appreciated their height when lifting harness and packs.  That was all they said, and we went on about our work. 

While it is still possible that I will be brought to tears by an auction item leaving, I now know that the visits by purchasers are bringing me unexpected returns, and for that I am exceedingly grateful.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

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

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.

One Thing After Another

I needed to escape my desk, and the convenient excuse was to take my stallion Asi and his girlfriend Madie to pasture and to spend time writing while they grazed.  It was a good thing I wasn’t as tired as I thought I was because I had one thing after another happen that kept it from being the relaxing time I had hoped for!

190821 ponies at pasture.jpg

The first unexpected happening was when I arrived.  The mares and foals were lining the fence and watching with great interest as I unloaded the two newcomers.  Asi was reasonably well-behaved despite the mostly female audience, but I still had to modify where I was going to put he and his girlfriend because I didn’t want a lot of cavorting at the fence.  I thought I had a good solution, but it depended on the mares and foals respecting the river as a barrier.  That didn’t work!  Calista climbed up the three foot nearly-vertical river bank to tease Asi.  After trying to drive Calista back across the river, I realized I was faced with too many hormones, so I caught Asi and moved him to another pasture then I returned to the river bank to drive Calista across the river again. 

190821 Asi Calista trouble makers.jpg

My presence on the river bank had the opposite effect than I wanted, as all the mares and foals headed my way.  It was incredibly flattering, but I really didn’t want pressure on that fence line.  Claire created the second ‘event’ by climbing the river bank onto a narrow ledge where the fence was.  Again it was incredibly flattering that Claire wanted my attention, but I didn’t like her being on that narrow ledge along the river.  I realized the only way Claire was going to go back down into the river and not try to come through the fence to be with me was if I disappeared.  So I went and hid in the shed and watched her.  Eventually the rest of the herd went across the river and disappeared. 

190821 Claire Honey riverbank.jpg

Claire, though, stayed at the fence and kept looking in my direction (she could tell I was close because she could see my dog Tika who was near me).  But eventually when she realized the herd was gone, she scrambled down the river bank and crossed the river and called and ran to join them.  Finally I could retreat to the trailer and sit and do some writing (and video production) while Asi and Madie grazed without company. 

190821 Claire.jpg

There was to be one more bit of excitement.  Just before dark, Tika, who’d been laying near me, took off at a full run straight north.  I saw in front of her a flash of orange which suggested it was a fox.  They quickly disappeared.  I hastily wrapped up what I was doing, and when Tika hadn’t returned, I started calling her.  It was a long five minutes (and getting dark) before she came to me panting hard from behind me, from across the highway, and soaking wet.   Obviously the chase had taken her through the river and across the paved road.  I’m so thankful traffic was light and she wasn’t hit because she pays no attention to traffic when she’s on the scent of something. 

After all that, I was glad Asi and Madie weren’t too full of themselves at departure time.  They led and loaded easily to come home.  The upside of all the commotion was some beautiful photographs at day’s end.  And of course an improved attitude for dealing with my desk due to spending time with all my friends.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

You can read many more stories like this one about my life with Fell Ponies in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

That Worked Out!

I’ve been stewarding my ponies long enough that I can usually make a pretty good guess about their behavior in a new situation.  Nonetheless, there’s always that little bit of doubt, usually because some other pony at some other time has done something I completely didn’t expect!  Today I had a challenging start to my day, so I wasn’t able to put the mares and foals out to graze like I usually do.  When I finally got freed up about 2:30 in the afternoon, I decided to do something new for them.  For a while I questioned my decision, but in the end it worked out!

Willowtrail mares and foals

The something new was to take them to a part of the property they hadn’t grazed before which is quite a ways away from where they’ve been grazing the past month.  To begin the adventure, I haltered the two most dominant mares but let six ponies total out the gate, one additional mare and the three foals.  We then began walking down the road.  All three foals cavorted around us, but the third mare was quickly left behind as she grazed along the verges.  When we went farther than usual and disappeared from sight, I heard her call to us and then come trotting down the road to rejoin us just as we were getting to the destination.  So far, so good!

I let my two haltered friends loose, and all six seemed happy with the new grazing opportunity.  I returned to the house and fed the last three ponies, scoring a really nice hug from my stallion in the process.  Then I went in to get a much needed and overdue lunch. 

I needed to run to town to do some errands, so I headed out after lunch.  I drove through the gate, then a nagging thought wouldn’t leave me.  The ponies hadn’t been where I’d left them when I passed by, and I hadn’t seen them anywhere else.  I got halfway to the highway and turned around, thinking I’d best know where they were before being gone for an extended period. 

I found them fairly quickly; they had moved around a corner of the clearcut into an area I’d never seen them graze before.  All was well, but since it was a new area for them, I didn’t know where they might move to next.  They could choose to move closer to the house or farther away, and I needed to know which they would choose as the day transitioned toward evening.  I once had a mare and stallion who went away from the house and went visiting neighbors, an experience I wasn’t interested in repeating.  I aborted my trip to town and instead ran a short errand and came back to check on them, then did the same again.  By that second check, they had moved slightly towards the house, with the lead mare headed toward an area she was familiar with, so I decided I could move on to other things and didn’t need to check on them again.  The discovery of some wild strawberries that were incredibly tasty confirmed that things were heading in the right direction!

Around 7:30pm, before the sun began to set, I went outside to begin my last chores of the day.  I was about 45 minutes early, but I wanted to give myself plenty of time in case the ponies had done something unexpected.  Almost immediately that concern was put to rest when I heard a foal call at a distance and then a mare answer similarly far away.  If I could hear them, I could easily find them before dark, so I continued with my chores.  I put hay in the first mare/foal paddock, and as I was filling a tub for the second paddock, I heard a strange noise.  Then I realized it was rapid and multiple hoofbeats.  Very soon thereafter my heart pony and her foal cantered straight to me and stopped.  I led them to their gate and put them in after thanking them for making my life easy.  Then a second mare and her foal presented themselves, and I led them to their paddock and put them in, also thanking them.  And then the third mare arrived with her foal and I did similarly, again with no tack, just cooperation.  I felt triumphant!  I’d tried something new, and it had worked out well for all of us!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

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


They Try to be Helpful!

190628 Rose Henry.JPG

I’ve been putting this mare and foal out each day at 4:30pm to graze until sundown.  I walk them down the driveway a ways to release them in a clearcut, and they are free to find grass anywhere they like; there’s plenty for them to choose from.  The standing forest bounds them on one side and a fence on the other; the rest of the herd is a magnet that keeps them from going too far away.  I have learned, after doing this with mares for many years, that they have patterns.  Usually I know where they will be one, two, and three hours into their grazing period.

The past two nights Rose and Henry have come up to graze outside the office window just before sundown.  Last night I thought I was too busy to go out when I saw them, so I finished what I was doing before going out to put them in.  It was perhaps a half hour from when I saw them out the window, and since I hadn’t taken advantage of the helpful opportunity they had given me, they had wandered a quarter mile away.  It made a long day a little longer.  The only benefit was that I got to ride Rose in, and I really enjoy that.  Earlier tonight I was thinking I should take a camera with me to capture our end-of-day ride.

But as daylight gave way to sundown, I tried to be more mindful of the length of my day.  This time I was on the phone when Rose and Henry appeared out the window.  I quickly told my caller that I had to go; I didn’t want to miss tonight’s helpful opportunity!  And I forgot the camera, so I didn’t capture the light of the setting sun behind my ponies that was so gorgeous.  But I did tell them how much I appreciated them trying to be helpful!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More stories like this one are in my book What an Honor, 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.

Welcome Willowtrail Henry!

Willowtrail Henry at 31 hours

Willowtrail Henry at 31 hours

I didn’t realize how much tension I was holding, awaiting the birth of my first foal this year.  All that tension vanished, though, when Willowtrail Henry entered the world.  I was blessed to be able to act as midwife for his birth, and as always it was amazing to watch how quickly he began getting to his feet.  His abundant energy made for a long wait before he got serious about nursing, though!

The inspiration for Henry’s name comes from three places.  His father’s grandsire was Lunesdale Henry, an esteemed stallion from that longtime stud, whom I was fortunate to spend time with in 2006.  The breeder of my Henry’s mother’s mother was Henry Harrison of the no-longer Sleddale stud.  I was blessed to talk to Mr. Harrison and receive historic photos of his ponies in 2011.  Finally, the picture on the May 2019 page of the Fell Pony Society calendar is of Waverhead Henry with the late Miss Mary Longsdon, MBE.  I had great respect for Mary’s work as chairman of the Fell Pony Society and for the many things she did on either side of that part of her service to our breed.  I first spoke with Mary in 2007 and was thrilled to meet her in 2015 when I visited England.

Henry is out of Willowtrail Wild Rose, the daughter of my first Fell Pony Sleddale Rose Beauty.  I am sentimental about this line for many reasons, and I am very interested in continuing it.  Now begins the long wait to get a filly like Henry!  While my pH-of-the-milk foaling predictor was off by a few days, Rose had an incredible amount of wax an hour before Henry was born.  Long time Cumbrian Fell Pony breeder Christine Robinson called it ‘candles’ and I can see why!  I appreciate that Rose chose to foal at noon and when I was on hand to help.

Rose waxing

Henry is my first foal by Kinniside Asi.  While I did as much research as I could in choosing Asi as a stallion, there remained uncertainty about my choice until Henry hit the ground.  No longer!  I have told Papa he did good several times!  Asi’s mother threw three colts in a row.  I sure hope Asi and Rose don’t have that sort of pattern; it will be hard to wait that long to get a filly I can keep!  I can certainly see some of Lunesdale Henry in Asi’s face; maybe someday I’ll see it in my Henry’s too.

The late Lunesdale Henry

The late Lunesdale Henry

Henry is proving to be one of the friendliest foals I’ve ever had.  And pictures are becoming harder to take as his eyesight improves; he comes to see me as soon as I get anywhere close!  What a blessing it is to share life with these ponies!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

Stories about other ponies born at Willowtrail Farm can be found in my book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here and 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.


So Much to Look Forward To

Willowtrail Mountain Honey

I admit to having a chronic case of the human condition known as ‘a search for meaning.;  I find life to be incredibly rich and rewarding due to this condition, but when something unexpected happens, it tends to set me back on my heels until I can discern a reason for the event.  When my husband was killed in an accident, it threw everything in my life into question. At the time, I had more Fell Pony foals due than ever before. It didn’t take long, though, for the meaning of this to become quite clear.

Of course, had I known I would be alone come foaling season, with an increased work load and an estate to settle and a business to close, I wouldn’t have bred as many mares.  That I did breed them and that I am now alone says to me that stewarding these ponies is something I’m meant to continue doing.  And that it will likely be an important part of my new life.

Willowtrail Wild Rose

From this perspective, then, there is so much to look forward to!  These foals will include the first by my new stallion as well as the last by my previous stallion, and I am anxious to compare the two.  There will be a foal from a line that I’m particularly sentimental about, and I’m hopeful it will be something I can be proud of.  I’m hoping for a foal from a line that is charismatic and has movement to die for.  And there will be two foals from a line that right now is eye candy for me.  I’m very much looking forward to more eye candy!  And I’m not just looking forward to this year’s foals but also to what they will tell me about my breeding program.  I’m always striving to produce better Fell Ponies with each generation, so I’m anxious to see what this foal crop will tell me about my progressive breeding goals.

So while my ‘search for meaning’ condition has been quite flared up of late, at least where my ponies are concerned, there is less uncertainty.  And as foaling season nears, I have much to look forward to!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

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

Burn Moor

Linnel Doublet and Don Ewy being passed by hikers on Burn Moor

Burn Moor in Lake District National Park in Cumbria can be traversed via a 5 mile hike between the villages of Wasdale Head and Boot.  It is a route used by mountain bikers and fell walkers.  But it also has two historic pack horse connections.  The first was for trade: moving goods from farm to market and from town to town.  The second was as a corpse road.  Until the early twentieth century, Wasdale Head didn’t have consecrated ground for burials, so bodies had to be transported through Boot to Eskdale to be interred.

Numerous stories exist about this corpse road when pack horses were used to carry coffins.  The stories usually include the route’s hazards of bogs and fog, as well as the loneliness of the route.  And the stories include bolting equines, lost bodies, and ghosts.  Even today, walking across Burn Moor it is easy to imagine the truth of these stories.

To read more about Burn Moor and corpse roads, click here to request the August 2015 edition of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm.

A Footing Sense Reminder

I learned about the footing sense of Fell Ponies several years ago thanks to a long time breeder and a particular Fell Pony mare.  This characteristic of Fell Ponies came up in a conversation with the breeder about what fell-bred ponies know that is lost over generations when the ponies are bred away from the fells.  It is the sense to know where to place their feet to be safe in crossing terrain.  For ponies on the fells, it can be a knowledge of how to cross bogs that is important.  In my case it is usually how to navigate over snow and ice.

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I’ve been using that same Fell Pony mare as my chore pony this winter.  And I’ve been trying to use her more than in the past, my thinking being putting miles on her legs is beneficial for her and saving miles on mine is beneficial for me.  Where I used to ride her up and down the driveway for chores once a day, I’m now doing it as often as three times a day.  I figure I’m saving myself nearly three miles of walking a week!

Rather than heading straight down the driveway, which is covered with packed snow, I noticed that my mare was starting to weave from side to side to middle to side to middle to side of the road.  We were taking longer to get to our destination, and I concluded my pony was asserting her independence rather than following my instructions about where to go.  Clearly I needed to take control of the situation, my thinking went.  So the next time she started to wander from one side of the road to the other, I took up the reins and asked her to continue on the line down the road that we’d been on.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed where this is going.  You would think I wouldn’t need to be reminded about the footing sense of a Fell Pony because I value their intelligence so much.  Within a few strides of me forcing my pony to stay on a line that I had in mind, she started slipping.  She hadn’t slipped on our rides for weeks before that!  Apparently that weaving from side to middle to side of the road was about finding good footing, and she was using her footing sense rather than being disobedient.  I chuckled at the comeuppance I’d been dealt (not the first time by a Fell Pony), and I’ve gone back to letting my pony choose our path down the drive.  Hopefully I won’t need a reminder about footing sense ever again but somehow I’d bet I will!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

You can read my previous stories about footing sense in my book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Luck Isn't Random

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I am often told how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful place surrounded by beautiful ponies.  I am indeed grateful for this amazing life I lead and that people find it admirable, but I’ve always been a little hesitant to acknowledge the other aspect of ‘luck’ that’s sometimes inferred, its randomness.  I was pleased to read about some research, then, that says that indeed luck isn’t random.  Dr. Tina Seelig, a professor in management science and engineering at Stanford University, says that luck “is something you can create for yourself by identifying and developing opportunities.” (1)

Two decades of research have led Dr. Seelig to find three things we can do to increase our chances of having good things happen to us.  The first is to take small risks.  When I got involved in sustainable agriculture, taking a small risk to steward rare breeds instead of conventional ones seemed a small chance with large rewards.  Never would I have imagined I’d end up with a herd of Fell Ponies in the mountains of Colorado and friends worldwide who love them!  I think of ‘taking small risks’ as poking the universe to see how it responds.  Shortly after I bought my first Fell Ponies (before email and social media were prevalent) I sent a paper letter to a long time breeder in Cumbria, not knowing if I would hear back.  Not only did I get a response, but that initial letter led to regular correspondence then more ‘penpals’ and eventually trips to Cumbria to visit the people I’d been corresponding with.  That small risk of sending a letter definitely had long term ramifications, nearly all positive.

The second thing Dr. Seelig recommends is to show appreciation.  “When someone does something for you, they’re taking that time that they could be spending on themselves or someone else, and you need to acknowledge what they’re doing.” (2)  I am grateful to my parents who were persistent in requiring a “thank you” whenever a courtesy was shown to me.  I’ve been surprised how many people don’t practice that simple custom.  I try to always give credit and express appreciation for all I learn about these ponies (as well as other things in life), and I have definitely benefited in ways I would never have imagined.

The third thing Dr. Seelig recommends is to embrace crazy ideas.  “Ideas that seem the craziest often have a seed of something powerful, and if you take a few minutes to think about how it might work, you open yourself up to really interesting possibilities.”  (3)  When I got involved in sustainable agriculture, using draft animal power was quite common in that community.  But I had the crazy idea that using ponies made more sense.  Talk about ‘really interesting possibilities’ opening up!  The fact that the same animal can be used in harness, ridden, driving, and for packing is truly more sustainable than having different animals for different uses.  I’ve never been sorry nor been tempted to get a bigger equine.

While luck may not be random, it isn’t necessarily easy to cultivate, either.  My mother, rest her soul, thought my change from a high tech career to one in agriculture and land stewardship was ill advised, and she reminded me of her opinion every time she talked to me (she grew up on a farm, so she spoke from first hand experience). Of course my mind was pretty good at amplifying that nay-saying from an important person in my life.  It takes consistent effort to continue taking small risks, showing appreciation, and embracing crazy ideas.  So while I’ll always wrestle with nay-sayers, including myself, there’s no question I’ll keep trying to cultivate luck.

  1.  “Out of Luck?  Try This,” Stanford Magazine, December 2018,p. 25.

  2. Seelig, Tina, in #1

  3.   Seelig, Tina, in #1

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More stories like this one can be found in my books What an Honor: A Dozen Years with Fell Ponies and The Partnered Pony: What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally by clicking here or on the book covers.

The Evolution of Fell Ponies and the Lake District

In 2017 when the Lake District was awarded World Heritage Site status, Lake District National Park Chief Executive Richard Leafe said, “The Lake District is an evolving landscape that has changed over time and will continue to do so.”  (1)  In the Fell Pony world we know of this evolution because of its impact on our ponies.  For more of the human history of the Lake District than not, the local native ponies provided the ‘horsepower’ for the region’s economy.  Uses ranged from plowing and pulling sledges to shepherding and hunting wolves.  When used for pack work, their loads of local goods included fleece, fish, metal ore, and more.  (2)  It is unlikely that any facet of the Lake District’s economy or history were untouched by the Fell Pony and its ancestors.

Of course, like most working equine breeds, the Fell Pony’s work changed with the advent of the internal combustion engine (as well as the construction of railroads, roads, and canals).  Since then, the Fell Pony has more often been put to use in recreational riding and driving.  Stables for pleasure riding in the Lake District have existed at various places through the decades, and occasionally more adventurous outings have been possible when small enterprises have offered Fell Ponies re-enacting their historic role as pack ponies on Lakeland trails. 

The author and two Fell Ponies at Maiden Castle on Burnmoor in the Lake District in 2015.

The author and two Fell Ponies at Maiden Castle on Burnmoor in the Lake District in 2015.

I learned of the evolving landscape of the Lake District when I had the great good fortune to walk over Burnmoor in the Lake District.  One of the first milestones of the trip was Maiden Castle above Wasdale Head.  The presence of Maiden Castle in what today is an uninhabited landscape seems odd.  One theory says it was a residence during the Bronze Age.  Its location up on the fell where not a soul lives today was due to the fact that living down in the wooded valleys was dangerous for humans because of large predators including wolves.  It was safer to live up on the relatively barren landscape where predators and other dangers could be more easily seen at a distance.  Today of course the uplands are considered uninhabitable by humans because of that barrenness and remoteness, and instead the valleys are preferred since the woods have been cleared, and the landscape has been domesticated for life. 

I did that walk over Burnmoor with two Fell Ponies, so I got to experience the evolution of both the Lake District and the Fell Pony first hand.  The route was once a corpse road over which pack ponies carried bodies for burial in Eskdale because there wasn’t a proper burial place in Wasdale.  When I first had the idea to traverse an historic pack horse route in the Lake District with Fell Ponies, I had no idea how hard it would be to find a route open to equines in modern times.  I’m thankful that the Lake District landscape will continue to evolve so that perhaps more historic packhorse routes will again be available as bridleways in the future.

Richard Leafe’s comment about the evolving landscape of the Lake District is both a statement of fact and a statement of political necessity.  Naysayers about the World Heritage designation point to environmental health issues that they feel were unaddressed in the bid for World Heritage site designation.  Leafe went on to say, “Improving landscape biodiversity and looking after our cultural heritage underpin the [Lake District National Park] Partnership’s management plan which sets out how, together, we will look after the National Park as a World Heritage Site for everyone to enjoy.” (3) 

The Fell Pony is already playing a role in improving landscape biodiversity as a conservation grazer.  (4)  And the Fell Pony clearly is part of the Lake District’s cultural heritage through its many roles as horsepower and recreation in the region.  While the Fell Pony community may not have been involved in the creation of the management plan, it seems likely that the plan, too, can evolve so that together we can ensure that the Fell Pony’s part in the Lake District’s story is not forgotten.

  1. Leake, Richard.  As quoted in “Euphoria as Lake District Becomes a World Heritage Site,” 09 July 2017 blog post at lakesworldheritage.org.uk, as accessed 20 November 2018

  2. “Early History,” on “About Fell Ponies” page at www.fellponysociety.org.uk as accessed 20 November 2018.

  3. Same as #1.

  4. See, for instance, Morrissey, Jenifer, “Fells on the fells and Wild Horses on the Range,” Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, April, 2015.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

The author’s exploration of matters relating to the Fell Pony can be found in her book Fell Ponies: Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

The Reward of a Nicker

I was spreading hay for the ponies midday when my young dog started barking.  I was pretty sure I knew why.  She’s decided part of her mission in life is to herd moose.  Sure enough there was one lying down on the south-facing flank of the compost pile, and my dog felt it needed to recline elsewhere.  For my part, I was thankful for the fence between us as it watched me continue spreading hay, especially when my dog had succeeded in getting it to its feet and it started moving in our direction!

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It occurred to me to wonder whether my newest pony had seen a moose yet and what she might have thought of a wild animal bigger than her.  And I wondered what the largest wild animal was that she’d ever seen on the fell in Cumbria.  Then it occurred to me that she might not understand the concept of wild animals.  Here my ponies know them as the ones who live on the forest side of the fences. 

I much prefer encountering moose during daylight hours, especially this time of year when snow covers the ground, making their dark form more obvious.  Usually at least I have a little more notice.  A few days before, I was walking a pony down the driveway when a cow moose made her presence known, and she had no interest in moving off.  My pony and I therefore modified our route instead.  I let my pony run up the driveway on her own, and she didn’t veer away from the moose as she passed at a gallop.  When I returned up the driveway, though, I did veer away until I realized the moose had finally done the same.

At night I rely on my dogs to tell me if moose are about, and I often have no idea how close or far off they are.   I’m most likely to encounter them on the long walk down the driveway to the farthest pony paddock.  The walk isn’t leisurely if the dogs are barking since I’m actively processing where the object of their attention is.  More often than not, though, it’s a quiet walk. 

Moose are definitely bigger than I am and while I’ve never been charged by one, they do charge the dogs who are usually with me, so I always consider myself potentially in danger.  For that reason, when I do get to that last paddock at night without an encounter, I feel myself relax.  And it seems a special reward for my efforts when my arrival is met with a nicker.

© 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.

I Must Have Needed A Hug

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I went through the gate and greeted each of the mares there individually.  It was after dark, and I knew who was who as much by their positions relative to each other as by their appearance.  It had been a long day with unexpected interruptions from a nail in a tire of my pickup necessitating a trip to town for repair and my husband needing help an hour away loading a recalcitrant piece of equipment.  I had squeezed in a pony training session between sundown and dark, putting off my dinner probably longer than I should have.

I made my way between the mares and headed toward the hay yard to get them their last feeding of the day.  I felt, more than saw, a pony walking close beside me.  I stopped and so did she, instantly.  We were already nearly touching, so it was natural to reach out and pet her, and then all of a sudden my arms were around her neck, and I was leaning heavily on her shoulder.  She stood completely still, letting me take a moment to release and receive.  I hadn’t realized how much I needed a hug.

After I stood up on my own again, I stepped back to say thank you.  I realized, though, that I wasn’t entirely sure which mare deserved my appreciation.  I cheated to find the answer by flipping her forelock up to reveal a star. It was Willowtrail Wild Rose, my heart pony, of course.  I should have known since I often give her a hug so she knows I like them.  Usually, though, when Rose offers something, it’s a tease such as attempting to take my hat as in this picture.  Her offer of a hug meant a lot by comparison.  What a blessing life is with these ponies.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

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

Our Good-Minded Stallions

Kinniside Asi

The kindness and relative docility of most Fell Pony stallions is often remarked upon.  One multi-supreme champion stallion was especially valued because he threw good-tempered offspring that young women could easily handle in the show ring.  And with the majority of Fell Pony owners today being female, good-tempered ponies of all genders are important for the safety of pony and people alike and for the reputation of our breed.

Why might it be that our stallions are generally so well-regarded?  Here’s what Dr. Deb Bennett said in an article about the evolution of mountain horses in North America.  I think it applies just as easily to the history of the Fell Pony in Cumbria.  “Our pioneer ancestors had no time for difficult horses.  They valued good-mindedness as much as soundness.”  (1)  I think it’s very likely that today we are blessed with good-minded stallions because for generations they have been selected for by hill breeders who had no time for challenging temperaments, no matter how good the pony was otherwise. 

Dr. Bennett then touched on a business case for producing good-minded equines.  “All sectors of the horse industry would do well to remember that today, comparatively few people have the knowledge or experience to work successfully with horses who are flighty or aggressive.  Any breed that consistently markets good-minded horses who are easy to break in and train is at an advantage now even more than in our great grandfathers’ time.” With fewer and fewer people taking up the equestrian life, it seems paramount to the success of any breed that good-mindedness be a focus.  We with Fell Ponies may have an advantage!

1)      Bennett, Deb, PhD.  “In Praise of Good-Mindedness,” Equus, #489 June 2018, p. 70.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More ponderings 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.

Sometimes It's the Little Things

I had tacked up my Fell Pony to go on a trail ride.  As I usually did, I threw open the paddock gate without having a hand on the reins.  What my pony did next speaks volumes about Fell Ponies and this one in particular.

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Green grass was there to be had just out that gate, so my pony certainly had enticements to move off.  It would have been in keeping with the pony character for her to pursue food.  On the other hand, I do train my ponies to stand to wait to be mounted, so she should have remained where she was.  My mare didn’t do that either, so I suppose you could say she misbehaved.  The choice she made, though, I found humbling.  She chose to move parallel to the fence.  She knew I needed to climb the fence to mount her.  This pony chose to facilitate our trail ride instead of eat green grass or stand still as she’d been taught.  Sometimes it’s the little things about these ponies that make them so special.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one can be found in my Fell Pony books A Humbling Experience and What an Honor, available internationally by clicking on the book covers or titles.

Mixed Blessings

I admit to feeling a little melancholy this time of year.  When I walk out the door I’m no longer greeted by a nicker from a mare in the foaling pen.  Sometimes I even got a higher pitched nicker from a young occupant of the pen too.  The foaling pen is empty because the mares and their foals are now at summer pasture.

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It’s a little later than usual for them to have made the move, so I got even more used to them being at home and being talked to many times a day.  A very dry spring and hot dry summer have meant summer pasture has less than half its normal forage.  Fortunately I had put in extra hay last fall so that keeping the mares at home longer was an easy option.

While I may be a little melancholy, the mares of course are anything but.  They are thrilled to be on green grass, first for a few hours a day and now 24/7.  And trailering them to and from pasture is a great way to get their foals used to riding in big metal boxes on wheels.  I am always so impressed when these flight animals so easily and regularly load into trailers to be transported.  It helps of course that they know, at least in the case of my mares this time of year, that green grass is on the other end of the trip!

The salve for my melancholy is of course knowing that my ponies are content.  Green grass makes them happy, especially the mares with foals at foot.   And I still get greetings, this time when I get out of the pick-up truck when I arrive to check on them.  It really won’t be that long before frost nips the air and the ponies are all home again.  Until then I am grateful for the blessing that summer pasture is and the mixed blessing that missing them is as well.  It’s a good reminder how much I enjoy having them in my life.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

You can find more stories like this one in my book What an Honor:  A Dozen Years with Fell Ponies, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.