Shifting Seven

Willowtrail Fell PoniesWe arrived at pasture early in the morning, and happily all the ponies were close by for the chore at hand.  We needed to shift seven ponies – five mares and two foals – across the Michigan River to fresh grass.  We had already set up water in the new pasture, and I had opened the necessary gate.  I had also scouted a new route across the river since when the irrigation district installed a new headgate last fall, they roughened the river bottom where we used to cross, making the footing too tricky for this adventure.

After shutting another gate to keep the ponies close by, I interrupted my husband changing his boots.  “You won’t need your wading boots; I don’t think you’ll get wet at all.”  He looked at me incredulously.  I explained that we wouldn’t be using any tack such as halters and lead ropes and that I thought I could manage shifting all seven ponies by myself.  Perhaps he would take the camera to a midpoint to record our progress?

I changed into my wading boots and picked up the key tools of the morning’s chore:  feed buckets containing my friends’ accustomed ration of vitamins and other supplements.  I definitely had the attention of all seven ponies.  My biggest challenge was going to be keeping noses out of the buckets until we had reached the new pasture.

The trickiest part of the new route, after getting through the first gate, was walking over some downed willow switches; I wasn’t sure if the ponies would pause at this strange footing and get distracted enough that they wouldn’t continue to follow me.  No worries, it turned out.  The branches cracked as we all walked over them and we continued through the opening in the willow thicket that I had scouted, and we approached the edge of the river.

Because we are in the headwaters of the North Platte, the tributary we were crossing was about fifty feet wide and at this time of year just a foot deep where we were passing.  It was, though, the first time the ponies had encountered the river this year, and the first time ever for the two foals to enter running water.  I was pleased, then, when I heard lots of splashing behind me.  I was also pleased that my chosen route across the river was easy for me to navigate with buckets in my hands; in the past I’ve occasionally slipped and needed to catch myself on a nearby pony.

Willowtrail Fell PoniesWith lots of splashing, ponies and I climbed up onto the far bank.  Once I was on flat ground, I paused long enough to take role.  I couldn’t pause too long, of course, or there’d be noses in buckets too soon!  I was short one pony; I could hear my senior mare Sleddale Rose Beauty calling from the far side of the river, but I quickly concluded that going back for her later was the best plan.  All had gone so quickly and so well so far, in fact, that we’d beat my husband to the photo rendez-vous, and he was only able to record our retreat into the distance!

Sleddale Rose BeautyFour mares, two foals, and I made quick work of crossing a small grassy area, then splashed through a small slough, then crossed another grassy area before passing through the gate into the eastern-most pasture.  I quickly put buckets under noses to hold my friends in place while I shut the gate behind them.  I could still hear Beauty calling, so I began calling for her in return as I headed in her direction.  I watched from a distance as my husband haltered her and after a few moments I took the business end of the lead rope and led Beauty to the east.  We stopped outside the pasture for her to have her bucket, then I reunited her with the herd as they all began nipping the tops off the belly-deep grass.

As I headed back to the starting point to get into dry footwear, I admit to savoring the team accomplishment.  Shifting seven ponies across a river and through an intervening pasture with only minimal need of halter and lead rope was not only incredibly efficient, it was a thrill.  I of course work ponies in harness regularly, and there is indeed a thrill that comes from accomplishing work together in that way.  The thrill that came from ‘harnessing’ my ponies to accomplish a goal without any harness at all was of a different character but a thrill nonetheless.  Such a blessing to share life with these ponies.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

A Humbling ExperienceThere are numerous stories about Fell Ponies and natural water in the book A Humbling Experience, available internationally by clicking here.


Posted in Fell Ponies, Natural Horsemanship

Sound Familiar?

Willowtrail Farm Fell PoniesI heard a wonderful story on Wyoming Public Radio the other day about Colonial Spanish Mustangs.  And boy did a lot of it sound familiar!  There were the common characteristics of these sorts of equines:  sure-footed, hardy, small (by equine standards), shaped by their environment, etc.  But there were also some other gems.

The reason the story aired on Wyoming Public Radio is because in the early part of the 20th century, a Wyoming family took an interest in the so-called Indian or cow pony that they discovered in their area.  Particularly, the family became interested in the type of mustang that could trace their ancestry back to the original equines brought to the Americas by the Spaniards in the 15th and 16th centuries.  In time the Brislawn family sought out representatives of these pure types of mustangs and in 1957 established the first registry for Spanish mustangs.

On the home page of the registry is the following statement:  “The Spanish Mustang is not to be confused with the BLM Mustang!”  So-called BLM mustangs are those wild equines that run on public land and are managed by the Bureau of Land Management.  Many of those equines have had outside blood introduced in the past, including draft, Morgan, and Thoroughbred, to create equines that met the needs of locals for horsepower.  The desire to emphatically distinguish Spanish Mustangs from BLM Mustangs was one of those things that sounded familiar to me; think “Fell Ponies are not mini-Friesians!”

Here’s some examples of other things that sounded familiar:

  • “They get in trouble because they think they know more about what you’re trying to do than you do.”
  • “[They’re] a smooth ride because their back is short and their legs are springy. They’re agile, able to make tight turns and stop on a dime, which can send the inexperienced rider tumbling.”
  • “I always say I just keep them around for laughs, because they’re always up to something.”
  • You don’t need a tall horse; you just need the right horse.
  • “You can’t fight ‘em, you can’t be mean to them; you gotta be nice to them.”

Do any of these ring bells for you about Fell Ponies?

To listen to the radio story about Colonial Spanish Mustangs in Wyoming, click here.  To learn more about Spanish Mustangs, click here for the registry.

Book Fell Pony Observations

If you enjoyed this story, you’ll also be interested in the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.


Posted in Fell Ponies, Rare Breeds

Princess and the Pony Shuffle

Willowtrail Storm PrincessWillowtrail Storm Princess is just 2 ½ months old, yet she’s the one who’s taught me the most during this year’s pony shuffle.  I knew she was quiet and smart, but now I also know she’s wise.  What a blessing to share life with these ponies!

Princess had never encountered the horse trailer before the pony shuffle.  Usually foals need a little ‘assistance’ to load the first time; the most effective assistance I’ve discovered is a chute that ends in the trailer.  Princess, though, has always seemed willing to please, so I thought I’d try loading her in the open.  I parked the truck and trailer in the driveway, brought Princess and her mom out of their paddock, and loaded Mom into the trailer.  Princess was distracted by the bits of green along the driveway and had no interest in following her mom into the big noisy metal box, a typical reaction of foals at this stage of their life with horse trailers.  So we moved the trailer to a place where we had a chute, and Princess followed her mom right onto the trailer.

When it came time to bring Princess and her mom back from pasture a few hours later, I was expecting that Princess might be tough to load since she’d needed ‘assistance’ at home.  Nope.  She popped right into the trailer after her mom and home we came.  After those two successful loads, the next day I thought we’d surely be able to load in the driveway.  After a bit of a rodeo during which Princess made it very clear she wasn’t loading on that trailer in that spot, she once again loaded without effort through the chute.

I’ve been around these ponies long enough to know that patterns have meaning.  So when Princess’s half-sister Willowtrail Mountain Honey also expressed concern about loading on that trailer in that spot, I realized Princess was trying to tell me something not about the trailer but about the trailer in that spot.  Honey loaded in that spot, but she used a four-footed hop to do it instead of walking on.  Apparently that spot was an issue.  I suspect two factors about that spot were problematic.  First, it was on a slight incline, making the ‘step’ into the trailer about twelve inches, a large transition.  Second, the driveway was very uneven in that spot, with small ruts from spring runoff that created sharp variations in the surface.

So when it came time to load Princess on day 3, I didn’t park the trailer in that spot.  I put it where the incline made the step small, and Princess followed her mom right onto the trailer and we proceeded to pasture.  Then Princess made me laugh when it was time to come home later in the day.  We had three of Princess’s paddock mates on the trailer who were all ready to get some green grass.  Her mom on the other hand was more interested in her bucket of vitamins that we had brought her than the green grass she’d had her fill of for the past several hours.  We unloaded the first two ponies, which caught Princess’s attention, and before we could get the third pony out of the trailer, Princess had jumped in, ready to go home!  She jumped out again as I unloaded the last pony then followed her mom onto the trailer without hesitation when it was time to leave.

Princess  has forgiven me for our rodeo when I tried to load her onto the trailer in the unacceptable spot.  And I have new appreciation for this wise young pony.  I look forward to finding her an owner who will appreciate her wisdom and will share stories about how her wisdom manifests as she matures.

(c) Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

Willowtrail Storm PrincessWillowtrail Storm Princess is for sale.  Click here for more information.


Posted in Fell Ponies, Natural Horsemanship


Willowtrail Farm Fell PoniesI stepped outside to undertake the next step in the pony shuffle, and the first thing I heard was gunshots.  During hunting season the sound of gunshots is fairly normal where we live because we live adjacent to the public land of the Routt National Forest.  But it isn’t hunting season right now.  Occasionally on the weekend I’ll hear gunshots indicating someone is doing target practice in an old gravel pit a quarter mile away, but these shots were much closer.  Too close for comfort, in my opinion.  My dog doesn’t like gunshots, and she let me know she was pretty uncomfortable with the situation, too.

I loaded the ponies that were due to head to pasture into the horse trailer, noting that they didn’t seem too concerned about the ongoing noise.  I on the other hand was becoming more agitated because I knew I was going to have to confront the shooters on my way out.  I also had in mind the dreadful news I heard in 2006 about the Fell Pony mare Lunesdale Spangler being shot on Roundthwaite Common in Cumbria.  I later learned Spangler was then the most recent of four Lunesdale ponies that were shot.  I hoped my ponies wouldn’t share those poor ponies’ fate.

We live in a fairly isolated location, but things have changed around us significantly in the past few years.  An epidemic of mountain pine beetles has killed 90% of the mature trees in the forests of our region, so the secluded forest road that is our driveway is now much more visible than it used to be.  People park along it where it crosses public land, bringing them closer to our home than they ever used to come.  It’s taking some getting used to.

I have never handled a firearm and know nothing about them.  I also don’t know the particular regulations that govern users of firearms on public lands.  I decided, then, that I needed to approach the shooters with a simple question:  what was the range of their firearms?  I could then assess whether our home and my ponies were in danger.  It turned out that the shooters didn’t know the range of the weapons they were shooting, so I told them that just two hundred yards away there was a house and livestock and I didn’t want anyone hurt or an animal injured.

The fact that the shooters didn’t know the range of their firearms did not help my anxiety.  Fortunately, my question about range seemed to make the shooters think twice about their choice of target practice location, as they were gone by the time I returned from pasture.  And of course I’ve added to my to-do list a phone call to the local office of the Routt National Forest to find out what rights I have regarding people doing target practice so close to my home.

(c) Jenifer Morrissey, 2014


Posted in Fell Ponies

The 2014 Pony Shuffle

The 2014 Willowtrail Farm Pony ShuffleThe pony shuffle is underway at Willowtrail Farm, and we’re a little later this year than usual.  The pony shuffle is the period when I move ponies on and off summer pasture to get their systems acclimated to green grass after a winter of hay and dry lot.  Summer pasture is a four mile trailer ride from home, and since my trailer only accommodates three ponies at a time, it takes a few trips to give everyone access to green each day.  We’re late this year because our trailer-hauling truck reached the end of its life unexpectedly, and replacing it was a time-consuming process because of our remote location and urgent job commitments.

While moving ponies on and off pasture at this time of year is a lot of work, I find that I really enjoy the pony shuffle because I get to handle every pony at least twice a day in a different situation than our winter routine.  Going through gates and loading on and off a trailer are great opportunities for teaching or reinforcing ground manners, especially with green grass as a major distraction.  And each year there are different ponies at different stages of experience with the pony shuffle.  The old hands are such blessings; they know the routine and they provide a calm and knowledgeable presence that I take full advantage of to ease the routine for the younger ponies.  This year for instance my Norwegian Fjord gelding Torrin, who is on his twelfth pony shuffle, is providing a positive example for my yearling colt Restar Lucky Joe.

Willowtrail Mountain Honey is a yearling, so this year is her first to trailer as a ‘grown-up.’  As a foal of course she traveled with her mother and she traveled loose-headed.  As a ‘grown-up’ she has to stand tied, and she is traveling with Sleddale Rose Beauty, another twelve year veteran of the pony shuffle, and Willowtrail Wild Rose  who’s on her sixth season.  While Beauty and Rose provide Honey with good companionship, Honey’s experience is different from Lucky Joe’s because she knows the pony shuffle routine and its benefit:  lots of green grass!

I always especially enjoy the second day of the pony shuffle because the ponies have the previous day’s experience very much in mind and are eager to stick their heads in a halter and get on the trailer.  This eagerness is even evident when it’s time to come home after several hours of green grass; the insects this time of year make summer pasture a mixed blessing compared to home.

The greatest gift that my ponies give me during the pony shuffle is a desire to work with me.  The veterans of course cooperate because they know the routine.  But even the youngsters when given the opportunity show a similar attitude of cooperation.  Lucky Joe, for instance, hadn’t been on a trailer since he arrived here in February after his long trip from Cumbria.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from him which is why I set it up for him to travel with my old hand Torrin.  While I wasn’t sure what to expect, I had high hopes because of the story I’d heard about another time Lucky Joe loaded on a trailer in a new situation.  It was when he started his journey this direction, and he was to be loaded into the last narrow stall of a long slant-load trailer completely full with other equines who were of course strange to him.  To load required him to step up and sideways at the same time, ending up parallel to the trailer opening, and he did it as though it was the most normal thing to do.  The transporter even remarked how impressed he was that an eight month old would load so easily.  Lucky Joe was similarly accommodating with us during his first experience with the pony shuffle, giving me the gift of cooperation that is such a pleasure to receive.

(c) Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

A Humbling ExperienceI tell lots of stories like this one in the book A Humbling Experience, available internationally by clicking here.



Posted in Fell Ponies, Natural Horsemanship

An Approving Glance

Sleddale Rose Beauty

Sleddale Rose Beauty

I had finished feeding the largest pony paddock one morning and had moved onto where Restar Lucky Joe, my young stud colt, is housed.  I had given Lucky Joe and his paddock mate their morning vitamin buckets and was waiting for them to finish so I could throw their hay.  I looked up to see Sleddale Rose Beauty, my senior Fell Pony mare, standing at the fence looking in my direction.  We were near the stock tank, so I assumed Beauty had come to get a drink.  Yet she wasn’t showing any interest in water.  She was looking intently at me.

I’ve shared life with Beauty long enough now to know she was trying to communicate something to me, so I asked her what was up.  She looked at Lucky Joe and then she looked back at me intently.  When I asked her again what she needed, she looked at Lucky Joe and then at me again.  When this sequence repeated itself again, I finally understood.  And then Beauty took a drink.

Imagine an aristocratic lady wearing an elegant hat and dressed perfectly.  Then imagine this lady entering a room and surveying the people there assembled.  Now imagine you are the host or hostess of that room of people, and you are awaiting the lady’s gaze to shift to you.  You know that in the instant she first looks at you, you will know immediately what she thinks of your gathering, though her facial expression will barely change at all.  Her glance will either be an approving one or it will be profoundly different than that.

What Beauty seemed to be communicating to me that morning was her approval of Lucky Joe.  That she ceased her pattern of looking from me to him when I reached this conclusion confirmed that I had correctly understood her communication.  Her approving glance means a lot to me.  Once before she passed judgment on my choice of stud colts (and there have been a number of other good colts here that she hasn’t shown partiality to.)  The previous experience of her showing approval helped me to more quickly understand her communication this time than I might have otherwise.  Five years ago she made it very clear that Willowtrail Black Robin had her blessing.  And Robin matured into a very fine stallion indeed.

I was recently contacted by someone who’s become fascinated with Fell Ponies.  Their interest is in driving a pair, which is of course laudable.  Yet they also communicated that their fascination goes beyond putting these ponies to use.  I shared that I understood that fascination.  Beauty’s approving glance is one of the many profound interactions I’ve had with these ponies that makes them endlessly fascinating to me.  I’ve just heard about a few Fells who are still living in their late thirties.  Another decade of approving glances from Beauty?  I think I can live with that!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

A Humbling ExperienceIf you’re looking for more stories like this one, look no further than the book A Humbling Experience, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies, Partnered Pony (TM)

Falling in Love with a Stallion – Take Four

I find it more than amusing that I fall in love with my stallions.  It’s amusing because I never intended to own one when I got started with Fell Ponies, and now I can’t imagine life without one.  I’ve just embarked on a journey with my fourth, and as usual I entered the relationship with skepticism.  Just as before, now that several months are complete, I’m fully committed!

There’s a chapter about stallions one and two in my forthcoming book What an Honor (click here for more information).  Stallion #3 was my homebred Willowtrail Black Robin.  I knew from birth that Robin was special, and as time went on, that initial impression was confirmed.  As I worked with him and then bred him and saw his offspring, my appreciation for his role in the breed grew.  Robin has now undertaken a successful dressage career in New York and will see his first offspring for his new owner next spring.

Willowtrail Black Robin

Willowtrail Black Robin

One of the things I remarked on when I wrote about my first two stallions was being able to put a halter and lead rope on them and jump on their back.  I went one step further with Robin and mounted him with no tack at all.  The picture here shows how concerned Robin was:  he was more interested in a stick on the ground than the person on his back!

The same pattern has emerged with my new stud colt Restar Lucky Joe.  Lucky Joe is just a year old, so of course I’m not mounting him yet.  But I have done something with him that I never did with any of my other stallions.

Lucky Joe traveled from Cumbria to Willowtrail Farm during the winter, and his journey was held up a number of times because of weather.  He arrived here after 55 days on the road instead of the anticipated 21, and it soon became clear that he had been mistreated while en route to me from his breeder.  He was very skittish and uncomfortable about things that had once been routine for him.  He shied when approached from certain angles, for instance, suggesting he’d been hit.  I was told he’d had a chain put over his nose at one point, and that sort of handling would have been very foreign to him, so it’s likely that his reaction caused an equal and greater reaction from a human handler that left a lasting impression on Lucky Joe.  Fortunately, Lucky Joe has been able to put most of that behind him as he’s gotten to know us and realize that we will never harm him.

Restar Lucky Joe

Restar Lucky Joe

One of the things that Lucky Joe was uncomfortable with was having his feet handled.  This was one of my first clues that something went amiss during his travels because his breeder had been handling his feet daily with no issues at all.  To make a long story short, the other day I trimmed Lucky Joe’s hooves for the first time, and he allowed it while standing at liberty – no halter, no lead rope, not tied, just standing patiently while this new-to-him experience unfolded.  I was terribly pleased that our relationship has progressed this far.  And I couldn’t help but think that if this is what’s possible at a year old, the sky’s the limit as we go forward together!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

A Humbling ExperienceMy forthcoming book What an Honor is the sequel to A Humbling Experience.  Get started on the collection by clicking here!

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