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.

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.

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.