Hoofbeats After Dark

Willowtrail Farm Fell PoniesI had brought in the electric fence battery for charging.  It was the first time I’d turned the fence off since installing the two current residents in that paddock.  So when I went outside for last feeding and heard hoofbeats moving rapidly, I thought the likely loose animals were those two ponies.  I immediately headed in the direction of the out-of­-place sound to solve the mystery.

The two mares closest to the house nickered to me when I appeared, so I knew they were where they were supposed to be.  As I walked down the driveway toward the normally-electrified paddock, I heard the footsteps of the stallion in the mud, so I knew he was where he was supposed to be, too.  The moon was past full, so the night was reasonably dark.  I called the dogs to me periodically in case the hoofbeats hadn’t been of the equine variety.  I had no interest in surprising a moose.

When I found the two residents of the not-electrified-at-the-moment paddock where they were supposed to be, I breathed a little easier.  Maybe I wouldn’t be searching for black ponies on a dark night after all.  At the last paddock, my heart pony met me at the fence, and behind her I could see silhouettes of the two weanlings.  Then the final two ponies appeared out of the black shadows.   That was the final confirmation that the hoofbeats I’d heard were not equine after all.  Nonetheless I was happy I’d put on water for tea before I’d ventured out.  Relaxing with something hot to drink would be a welcome and necessary antidote to my short period of heightened anxiety!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

A Humbling ExperienceIf you enjoy stories like this one, you might also enjoy the book A Humbling Experience, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies

Storm and Princess Made My Day

Willowtrail Mountain Storm and his sire Guards Apollo

Willowtrail Mountain Storm and his sire Guards Apollo

The day started early.  Willowtrail Mountain Storm had to be in town for appointments prior to his trip to his new home.  Since it was to be Storm’s longest trip in the trailer and his first off the farm, I chose to have him travel with his father and paddock-mate Guards Apollo.  I fed them before dawn, and we left just after first light.

Storm made my day by handling lots of ‘firsts’ without much issue.  He traveled with a pony other than his mother for the first time.  He traveled in a stall in the trailer instead of loose.  He unloaded and loaded at the vet clinic despite never having been there before.  He endured being poked with a needle by a stranger (though not without a little dancing; while I hoped for better, I could hardly blame him.)  He stood quietly in the trailer while we attended a short meeting.  Given the number of ‘firsts,’ how could Storm not make my day!?

At the other end of the day, it was Willowtrail Storm Princess’s turn.  I had entered her paddock with my wheelbarrow to fetch a bale of hay.  For some reason, most of the ponies in that paddock have decided that the wheelbarrow is a monster.  Their heads pop up when they see me approaching, and before I get too close they trot off in the opposite direction.

On this occasion, Willowtrail Wild Rose, who is the exception in that herd, met me at the gate and was walking alongside as I headed towards the hay stack.  We were passing Princess, who was about fifteen feet away, and I was watching her to see how she would react this time. When she indicated curiosity rather than alarm, I stopped, hoping to encourage her to approach.  She did so, tentatively, and I stayed still and told her she was a good girl.  She stretched her neck out to sniff the wheelbarrow then eventually stepped close enough that she could put her nose into the belly of ‘the beast’ to see what it contained.  Only when she left calmly and of her own accord did I resume my travels.  Like Storm, Princess made my day by accepting my requests that they do things that might not be their first choice, from traveling in a big metal box on wheels to approaching a scary metal tub on a single wheel.  It’s such a privilege to share life with these ponies.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

A Humbling ExperienceIf you enjoy stories like this one, you might also enjoy the book A Humbling Experience, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies, Natural Horsemanship

Ranger and Timmy’s First Snow

Willowtrail Mountain RangerWhether I like it or not, it’s that time of year when we start to get snow.  When I have foals, one of my first thoughts is which pony hasn’t seen snow before.  Willowtrail Mountain Storm and Storm Princess were born during snowstorms, hence their names.  But for Willowtrail Mountain Ranger and Timothy, last night’s white stuff was a first for them.

I had to be gone for work during the afternoon.  When I left, it was a nice fall day, though somewhat overcast.  Timmy and his dam were out grazing as usual.  About 3pm, a front blew in with heavy rain, and over the course of the next hour the rain gradually turned to big white flakes.  We were working inside a house with a metal roof, and the change in sound during the transition to snow was notable:  rain was very audible but when it made the change to all snow, it was quiet.  I kept looking out the window to see if it was still precipitating (it was), and if it was sticking (it was).

When I returned home, it was still snowing, and Timmy and his mother were in their shed, though completely soaked.  Apparently they had only come in when the snow got heavy.  Timmy looked a little bewildered!  He has a heavy coat and plenty of cover, so I knew he’d be fine.  In fact, I’m not really surprised that we have an inch of snow this morning because of the coats the ponies have been putting on.

Willowtrail Timothy and Mya the Wonder PonyIn contrast to Timmy, Ranger seemed completely unfazed by the snow.  He’s such a mellow, uncomplicated guy, always ready to say hello, seemingly with a smile on his face.  Perhaps it’s because he was born in spring, even though he missed the snow, that Ranger was less bothered by our seasonal transition than Timmy.  This morning, though, Timmy was more than willing to go out into the white with his mom to find tendrils of green hidden beneath their cold cover.  Bless these tough ponies!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

A Humbling ExperienceIf you like stories like this one, you might also like A Humbling Experience, available internationally by clicking here.


Posted in Fell Ponies, Partnered Pony (TM)

An Entertaining First Day of Weaning

Restar Mountain Shelley IIII find the first day of weaning very stressful.  I work hard all year to minimize emotional stress for my ponies.  Training approaches, management strategies, and nutritional program are all designed with equine emotional (as well as physical) health in mind.  When it comes to weaning, though, there’s no getting around the fact that the process is stressful for mare and foal alike.  The vocalizations are what impact me most because I can hear the distress in their voices.  Fortunately I know that gradually after that first day, everyone gets used to the process and stress declines.

This year’s first day of weaning had some entertaining events to take my mind off the stress.  The first came when I moved two mares to an electric-fence-lined paddock with just a single wire.  The paddock has housed ponies for years, but it only works of course for those ponies who know that that single wire is indeed a barrier.  As I approached the paddock, it occurred to me that neither of these mares were trained to electric fence.  Sure enough, when I let them loose, one at a time, they went under the wire towards the green tendrils on the other side then bolted away when the fence shocked them.  I retrieved them, tied them to an interior wood fence, then put the electric fence back together.  I let them loose again, and while I was there, they eyed the fence respectfully and ate the hay I had put out for them.  Later in the day I found one of those mares again on the wrong side of the fence, but after I returned her that second time, she stayed put.  Those mares at least are now trained to that electric fence.

Another paddock and another pony posed a different challenge.  I put a mare and foal in with the rest of the herd then extracted the mare, intending that weaning would begin for that foal.  When I checked on him an hour later, he was on the wrong side of a wooden fence.  I don’t know whether he went under or through the fence, but when I put him back in that paddock again, he was out within five minutes.  I decided not to try to solve that problem at this point.  Instead I saw a silver lining.  I’ve been enjoying riding his mom with him at foot, and I’ll get to continue that until I figure out a different way to wean him.

The evening that I had all this weaning entertainment, an email appeared that offered advice to make weaning easier.  (1)  I eagerly read it, only to discover that I was already implementing their suggestions:

  • “[Wean] no earlier than four months of age, to allow the foal ample time to grow and develop a strong immune system before leaving mom’s side.”
  • “[Turn] weanlings out with a well-behaved gelding or nonrelated mare both for companionship and for teaching them how to behave.” I prefer instead to have the companion pony already be an established part of the foal’s herd, such as an older sibling or non-breeding mare.  Then when the foal’s dam is removed, the foal still has a familiar herd structure.  The one downside of this strategy is if the companion pony is bonded to the mare being removed.  They then may protest the departure of the mare as much as the foal does.  This situation increased my anxiety on the first day of weaning because the distress calls were coming from most of the ponies in the herd, not just the foals!
  • “[Gradual] weaning …. is less stressful for the foal than abrupt weaning…” Their definition of gradual weaning is a little different than mine.  They assume abrupt weaning to mean that all mares are removed from all foals at the same time with the foals all being together with no other companion ponies.  Gradual weaning is when a single mare is removed at a time.  For me, gradual weaning is time-based.  I have a mare who doesn’t do well with cold-turkey weaning, so I take her away during the day, which is about 8 hours, for two or three days then I take her away instead at night, which is about 16 hours, for two or three days, before taking her away permanently.
  • Introduce any dietary changes a month before weaning.

Some research indicates that foals’ immune systems become depressed during weaning, likely from the stress of the process.  Doing what we can, then, to minimize stress certainly will benefit our foals and may even help our own stress about the process, too!

  1. http://www.thehorse.com/articles/34548/weaning-ways?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=breeding&utm_campaign=09-21-2014

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

A Humbling ExperienceIf you like stories like this one, you might also like A Humbling Experience, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies, Natural Horsemanship

An Experiment in Touching Foals

Willowtrail Mountain RangerHave you ever seen two ponies mutually grooming each other?  It doesn’t happen often in my herd, but there are a few ponies who have shown me this practice.  I find it particularly touching to watch.  While I can’t definitively know what emotions are involved, it certainly appears that the ponies are expressing an appreciation for their grooming partner.

I still remember the day when I learned that ponies like to be scratched and that in fact many of them have favorite places that they like to be scratched.  This was a revelation to me in part because in our dry climate petting can produce static electricity, and the last thing I want is for my pony to associate my petting to electrical shock!  Scratching is much less likely to have an unintended consequence.  Finding a pony’s favorite places and scratching them to reward good behavior is something I now do regularly.

Early in my pony breeding career I was told by a colleague about a pony they had purchased from someone else.  They found the pony to be overly friendly and somewhat hard to manage, and they attributed the undesirable behaviors to how the pony had been handled when a foal.  Ever since then I’ve been mindful about how I handle my foals, recognizing that behaviors that I may be able to handle might not be acceptable to others.

As is usually the case, my foals this year want to explore things with their mouths.  When I am around them and if I allow it, they mouth my clothing or nibble it or nip it.  I know this isn’t uncommon behavior, and they certainly aren’t doing it aggressively; it’s a form of interaction they use with each other.  Of course I want to discourage that sort of interaction with people, and I’ve written in the past about how using blocking maneuvers in early foal training is effective (click here for more information.)  But as I’ve pondered the behavior in this year’s foal crop, I’ve wondered if there’s something I’m doing that’s encouraging mouth-expressiveness towards me.

In my herd, mutual grooming is most often between a particular mare and her offspring, which is what got me thinking about how I interact with my foals.  That mutual grooming involves them using their teeth to scratch favorite places.  Is it possible that by me scratching my foals’ favorite places when I’m working with them that I’m encouraging them to reciprocate as in the mutual grooming behavior?  I decided to conduct an experiment.

The humidity is higher here in the summer and has been higher recently, so static electricity while petting is less likely.  So, when I’m working with my foals right now, I’ve begun petting them rather than scratching them to see if they are less inclined to want to nibble.  I don’t have enough data yet to draw definitive conclusions, but so far it appears that this change has indeed reduced the nibbling behavior.  They’re more inclined to stand quietly instead.

It took many years before I witnessed the mutual grooming behavior in my pony herd.  I’m so thankful I’ve seen it now because it may be explaining that my foals are trying to mutually groom me when I scratch them in their favorite places.  Redirecting their behavior by blocking it is effective, but using psychology to redirect it by not encouraging it in the first place may be an even better approach!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

Posted in Natural Horsemanship

Footing Sense 4

Willowtrail Wild RoseWe had a break in our wet weather, so I went out to get reacquainted with Willowtrail Wild Rose.  It had been a few days since we’d worked together, so I started with a simple on-line exercise, asking her to walk in a circle around me.  She refused.  She would take a few steps then stop and look at me.  I encouraged her to start again, and she would take a few steps then stop and look at me.  I was stumped.  Why was the circling game broken?  Had she never really learned it?

I wracked my brain, trying to remember our past sessions.  My memory was that we’d had it working well, but then why was it broken now?  Was Rose having a pony moment, being stubborn?  Certainly that was a possibility, but it wasn’t like her.  I took off Rose’s halter and gave her some hay and went off to think about the situation.

Rose had been unresponsive to visual cues.  Perhaps her forelock was preventing her from seeing them?  This is an important question when working with Fell Ponies since some of them have very thick forelocks and shouldn’t be expected to see visual cues.  That didn’t make sense, though, since Rose doesn’t have the heavy forelock of her father.  Her eyes are usually visible, unlike Apollo’s; I’ve never had to braid her forelock for training sessions like I have his.

During the next break in the wet weather, I went out again to test circling with Rose.  This time, though, I immediately got the answer as to why the game was broken.  It was the footing.  The answer came when I was a little more insistent, still at the walk, and Rose immediately slipped.  Ah ha!  We moved to a different place in the paddock that was drier and firmer, and she executed the circles perfectly.  Ah ha!

Last year when I was riding my Fell Pony mare Restar Mountain Shelley III during the spring thaw, she taught me about footing sense, the ability to discern a safe route through treacherous conditions, in that case through patches of snow and ice and mud.  Footing sense was a revelation to me because I’d ridden other ponies that didn’t have the ability that Shelley showed for choosing a safe path.  I don’t know whether the judgment Rose showed about ground conditions while circling is unique to Fell Ponies, but it certainly reminded me of the lessons Shelley taught me.  I am thankful that I didn’t push Rose to circle and that when I did get more insistent, I immediately recognized the problem.  She wasn’t being stubborn at all, just self-preserving.  Can’t blame her for that at all!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

Shelley’s lessons on Footing Sense are included in the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies, Natural Horsemanship, Partnered Pony (TM)

First Woods Loop!

Willowtrail Wild RoseThe woods loop is a ½ mile route down the driveway then off onto a trail through the woods ending back up at the house.  Because the mountain pine beetle has killed a substantial amount of our forest and we have logged some of the dead trees, the woods loop is now more than half out in the open rather than in the woods.  The vistas are incredible, though, so while the experience is different than it used to be, it still makes for a pleasant outing.

A milestone in developing my ponies for riding is ‘doing’ the woods loop.  Since I do nearly all my pony work solo, doing the woods loop alone is a common occurrence.  Sometimes a pony’s first experience with the woods loop is scampering loose beside its dam, sometimes it’s being ponied.  Riding the woods loop is one of my favorite things to do which is why it has become a milestone in developing my ponies for ridden work.

I’ve had Willowtrail Wild Rose, my seven year old mare, at home for the past several weeks.  I had to bring her in off pasture because she was gaining weight so quickly.  She’s in a paddock by herself, which is definitely not her favorite thing, so I’ve been doing things with her numerous times a day to take her mind off her solitary confinement.

I don’t remember ever taking Rose on the woods loop before, and we hadn’t ever progressed our ridden work enough to ride the woods loop.  It therefore became a goal to do my favorite trail ride with Rose.

The woods loop has many opportunities for surprises.  The dogs are the most likely sources of surprise: chasing squirrels, popping in and out of brush, and sometimes being in front and sometimes behind.  Then there is always the possibility of seeing a deer or a moose, with a bovine cow or bull less likely.

Because I haven’t had Rose in many unusual situations, I worked to set her up for success by hand-walking her around the woods loop two days in a row at the same time of day.  The third day, I mounted her and we headed down the driveway.  I didn’t expect we’d ride the whole loop; my plan was to ride her as far as she was comfortable and then hand-walk her the rest of the way so that she understood my goal.  To say I was thrilled when she took me the whole way that first time is an understatement!

We’ve now ridden the woods loop numerous times together, and it’s still a thrill each time.  There is one place where the vista of mountain ridges to the west is particularly nice, and Rose makes me laugh because she always wants to stop and take in the view there.  I’m so fortunate to share my life with Rose!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

A Humbling ExperienceIf you like stories like this one, you might also like A Humbling Experience, available internationally by clicking here.


Posted in Fell Ponies, Natural Horsemanship