Dynamic Tension 2

Willowtrail Farm Fell PoniesWhen we steward rare breeds of livestock, we are constantly aware of potentially opposing tensions.  On the one hand, we must pay attention to the market since recovering rare breeds is most successful when their economics make sense.  On the other hand, we must pay attention to tradition to make sure we are conserving what makes our rare breed unique.

In the Fell Pony, markings and feather are two characteristics often mentioned in the context of this market vs. tradition tension.  Markings used to be more common while today solid color ponies are preferred.  Feather on ponies in historic photos is decidedly less voluminous than in many ponies shown today.  Even the predominant color of the breed has changed:  brown ponies used to dominate and now black ones do.  Market demand is said to have driven the increase in solid color, profusely feathered black ponies.

Christine Morton of the Lownthwaite stud described one reason why markings were once preferred.  In her essay in the book Fell Diamonds, speaking about her grandfather’s time, she said “[Ponies], especially mares, with white markings were more valuable because when mated with a coloured stallion they were more likely to throw a coloured foal, an animal favoured by the travelling people as they were less likely to be commandeered for Army remounts….”(1)  Christine also reports her grandfather saying “all feather and no foot.”  Christine is of the opinion “that he would have disapproved of the modern fashion for a profusion of feather.” (2)  Personally, I suspect that feather may have been less valued when owners did their own hoof trimming.  It’s much more challenging to see the status of a foot when it’s hidden by lots of hair!

I am occasionally contacted by clients interested in a Fell Pony for dressage.  This is another area where the market vs. tradition tension manifests.  Usually it is the length, set, and shape of the neck that is a topic of conversation.  A particular pony that had already received ribbons at in-hand dressage shows was rejected by a dressage enthusiast because his neck was shorter than a trainer felt appropriate.  There’s no question that the Fells I’ve seen do well in dressage tend more to the riding pony rather than mountain and moorland pony end of the conformation spectrum that is present in the breed today.  On the other hand, I’m reminded of Bill Potter’s comment on the Fell Pony Breeders’ Association video:  “A lot of people have forgot about the little word ‘pony.’  These are ponies, not horses.”  (2)  Back to the other hand, I have no doubt that the Fell Pony’s recovery from endangered status is due in part to its successes in the show ring.

Regarding the market vs. tradition tension, Christine concluded in her Fell Diamonds essay that market forces will always rule.  “[The] breeder of livestock is always at the mercy of his wallet – there is after all no future in producing goods which no one will purchase.  Therefore I conclude that the future of the Fell Pony lies not with the breeders but with the consumers; breeders will breed whatever the consumer wishes to buy.” (3)

Rather than just react to market forces, however, I think when stewarding a rare breed it’s necessary to think about markets differently.  Perhaps it’s from my experience in the high tech industry that I get this attitude.  I worked for companies where it was and still is common to invent products and then convince consumers that they need them rather than just give consumers what they say they want.  In simple terms, we create markets rather than let markets dictate our products.  By articulating what makes the Fell Pony both unique and useful, I believe it’s possible to find consumers who want what the Fell Pony is already rather than what it might be changed into.  Indeed I have heard from many people who appreciate the breed for its history and its traditions after they have had a chance to learn about them.

A colleague contacted me about the dynamic tension between market and tradition.  They asked if ‘we’re doing enough’ to protect the traditional Fell Pony.  I told them I would think about the question and get back to them.  My husband, though, had an immediate response based on his many years of dealing with the tension between market and what’s right in his profession.  “It only matters what you personally feel, that you are doing what you are called to do.  You can’t do better than that.”  He is right, of course.  We can only do what we can do and do it to the best of our ability.  The Fell Pony we have today is the result of many people doing what they thought best with their ponies.  I’m thankful for what they did and for the inspiration it has given me to do what I do.  It’s my hope that my efforts and those of the many other stewards will see the breed well into the future.

  1. Morton, Sarah Christine. “Sunday Talk – Memories of Fell Ponies,” Fell Diamonds:  celebrating 90 years of the Fell Pony Society 1922-2012.  Daw Bank, Greenholme, Cumbria:  Jackdaw E Books, 2013, p. 19
  2. Morton, p. 20.
  3. Potter, Bill in Endangered Species – Conversation with Bill Potter, produced by Tom Lloyd, Dreamtime Film, 2011 at https://vimeo.com/13389107
  4. Morton, p. 20

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

Book Fell Pony Observations“Dynamic Tension 1″ is a chapter 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

A New Ponying Pony

Ponying at Willowtrail FarmWhile the word ‘pony’ as a verb in a dictionary is about a monetary transaction, I typically use it to describe something I’ve been doing since very early in my pony career.  Ponying (which elicits a misspelling warning from my spell checker!) is riding one pony while leading one or more others.  (To see a slide show about ponying, click here.)

I started ponying as a way to accustom a young pony to different environments.  An unexpected benefit was that he learned lots of verbal cues that helped when it came to harness work.  More often, I pony to move ponies from one place to another, usually from pasture to trailer.  Most of the time I pony a single equine, but sometimes I ride one and pony two.

This summer I’ve been taking three Fell Pony mares to pasture:  Bowthorne Matty who is nine, Willowtrail Wild Rose who is eight, and Willowtrail Mountain Honey who is two.  They have been paddocked together most of their lives so are a nice grouping for doing things.  Rose has the most experience with ridden work, so one day when I needed to move these three two hundred yards to the horse trailer, I hopped on her back and ponied the other two.

It was Rose’s first time doing anything like this, and she did awfully well.  She also helped me understand that this situation was different than all of my previous ponying.  You can see in the picture that her ears are in an unsettled position.  Compare them to young Honey’s whose are forward and at ease.  Matty’s ears are also in an unsettled position.  The reason is that Matty is the dominant pony in this threesome, so she and Rose are in an unusual leader/follower situation compared to other times.

Previously I’ve always ridden the dominant pony and led the subordinate one or ones.  I think it’s quite a testament to Rose that she did this job, especially since ponying two is much more complicated than ponying one.  I admit that on our first trip I did a fairly slick and quick dismount when the leadropes all became hopelessly tangled and being on the ground seemed the best place to sort them out!  I then remounted, and we proceeded to our destination without issue.

I am grateful to Rose for accepting the ponying job I gave her.  I am more grateful, though, for her showing me that this ponying job was different.  I look forward to doing more ponying with this threesome and exploring the dynamics of ponying when mounted on a pony that isn’t the natural leader of the herd.  I love learning from my ponies!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

What an HonorA Humbling ExperienceIf  you enjoy stories like this one, you might also enjoy the books A Humbling Experience and What an Honor,available internationally by clicking here.

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

A Haltering Favor

Haltering is something I do so often that I take it for granted.

Haltering is something I do so often that I take it for granted.

The thank-yous seemed out of proportion for an act I perform several times a day.  Yet as the conversation went on, it became clear why they were being so heartily expressed.  We had stopped at our favorite feed mill to pick up a few bales of straw.  When I got out of our truck, I was surprised to see a horse standing loose in the mill’s yard.  Our favorite mill employee explained that it was a senior citizen and rarely moved very far because of sore knees.  Just then another horse came walking up to us, also loose.  This one, it was explained, was another matter.

It turned out that this horse was being boarded on the mill’s property, and its owner let it loose on the property without permission.  There was nothing stopping it from wandering out onto a busy road.  In fact, its owner often rode it on that busy road, so the gelding would be familiar with exiting the property on that route.  The gelding was friendly, and walked up to us readily to say hello.  To me he was big, being a Thoroughbred.  The mill’s owner was the only person with horse skills on staff, and he was off the property, and while our favorite employee had asked the mill owner to come put the horse away, he hadn’t appeared to take care of the chore.  The horse’s owner couldn’t be reached and hadn’t responded to previous requests to keep his horse where it belonged.

My husband asked the mill’s employee if they wanted help putting the horse away, saying that we had a halter and lead rope in the truck.  When his offer was eagerly accepted, I went to get the halter, though I wasn’t entirely sure we’d be able to help since I for one hadn’t ever haltered a strange horse out in the open before.  I let the gelding smell the halter, which was covered with dog hair from being in the dogs’ portion of the truck, and the horse walked off a short distance.  My husband and the employee left in search of some feed to entice the gelding.  I started talking to him, and when it was apparent he was listening, I began approaching and asking him for his assistance in solving the problem of his safety.  This time he let me halter him.

I called out to my husband and the employee, asking where the gelding needed to go, and we began walking towards his paddock.  On the way I learned that our favorite employee was very confident catching loose cattle and sheep but had no experience with horses.  I shared that this was the first time I had ever caught a loose horse I’d never met before, so I was glad I’d been successful!  I also learned that our favorite employee had fond memories of being around this horse when he was young, but then they’d become intimidated by him in recent years.  When his owner rode him, the gelding was very high strung and anxious, making our employee friend very uncomfortable around the horse.  Walking with him and me that day, though, made them realize that it wasn’t the horse but the way the owner handled the horse that made him intimidating.

We soon had the friendly gelding back where he belonged, and the thanks continued up until the time we left.  I was reminded how many people are unfamiliar with horses; I had had the mistaken impression that mill employees who mixed and sold feed all day would be familiar with all manner of livestock and be able to handle them.  I was also reminded about the 2013 court ruling that classed equines as potentially vicious (click here to read more.)  One of my biggest lessons from that story was  how important it is for horse owners to help the general public learn that our favorite animals have a potentially larger positive side.  Helping that particular equine show his congenial side rather than his anxious one also helped our favorite employee feel less intimidated by an animal with whom they’re in close proximity on a regular basis.  It was a fascinating, impromptu and multi-faceted experience, and I’m glad it turned out well on so many fronts.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

What an HonorA Humbling ExperienceIf  you enjoy stories like this one, you might also enjoy the books A Humbling Experience and What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Natural Horsemanship, Partnered Pony (TM), Sustainable Equestrianism

They Keep Count

When Lunesdale Silver Belle and Sleddale Rose Beauty were here, Beauty was usually the one that greeted me first at the fence, asking for a treat.  Usually she got one.  It didn’t matter how far away Ellie was, she always knew if Beauty had gotten a treat, and she became extra-demanding, wanting one, too.  If, on the way to the haystack, Beauty got a second treat, Ellie wanted a second one, too.  She kept count.  If Bowthorne Matty was the first one to the fence, and she got a treat, then Beauty wanted one, of course, and she kept count (though honestly Matty rarely ever got one because the other mares pushed her away before it could happen.)

Willowtrail Farm Fell Pony mares

Today Beauty and Ellie are no longer part of the herd, but I saw a variation on the counting game amongst the mares that remain.  I took Willowtrail Wild Rose for a long ride.  She got a treat for doing well, and Matty of course noticed.  When we returned, my husband had Shelley out for a short hand-grazing session.  When Rose and I reached the gate to the mare paddock, Matty let out an enormous squeal and buck.  She seemed to be expressing displeasure that Rose, who is below Matty in the hierarchy, and Shelley, were out amongst green grass.  Matty didn’t know that Rose didn’t get any green, of course, though she did see Rose get a treat.

A few minutes later, my husband put Shelley back in her paddock.  Shelley immediately trotted the length of her paddock to the fence next to where I was.  She was whinnying and moving more quickly than usual.  She seemed to be expressing her displeasure that I had taken Rose on a ride instead of her.  I smiled, and I admit that it felt nice to be so wanted!

Later in the day, I tied Apollo to a fence so he could get a little green grass.  He was in full view of the mare paddock, so he occasionally called to them but mostly ignored them while he was indulging.  Matty, on the other hand, was regularly vocalizing, making it clear, once again, that she had now counted three ponies that had gotten special treatment in the green department, and she hadn’t gotten any.  I’m not sure yet if she’s going to be at the top of the mare herd now that Beauty and Ellie are gone, but she’s sure saying she should be treated as #1, keeping count of important matters like green grass and treats.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

A Humbling ExperienceWhat an HonorIf you enjoy stories like this one, you might also enjoy the books A Humbling Experience and What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here.

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

What About a Five-Year-Old?

When a Fell Pony owner read my ideas for working with a three-year-old, they asked for the same sort of information for a five-year-old.  The goal, of course, is the same:  to prepare the pony for a long working life.  You’ll notice, though, that the character of this list is quite different .  With a three-year-old, you’re familiarizing them with as many relevant stimuli as possible.  With a five year old, you’re attempting to establish a working mindset.Midnight Valley Timothy

Towards that goal, the most important thing you can give a five-year-old is your time.  It needs to be of sufficient quantity to engage them.  I have found sessions of an hour and a quarter to two hours to be the minimum.  You need them to understand that you want their complete attention and focus, that this isn’t just a short break from eating and sleeping.  Remember that for the other 22 or so hours a day, they’re free to have their own agenda, so you need your sessions together to be sufficiently long that they understand that things are different.

A close second to giving time is to give that time consistently.  At least in the beginning, I’ve found that the sessions need to be at the same time of day.  Daily is best, too:  the pony needs to feel a pattern to your working relationship.  The reason this is important is that just as a pony can be made physically fit, they can also be made mentally fit.  Those of us who work equines in harness well know that a working mindset is a joy to work with, easy to maintain, and time-consuming to regain once lost.  By establishing a working routine at five years old, you develop in your pony a mindset that will serve them well for a lifetime.  I have found that the ponies with whom I’ve established a working mindset very much enjoy the regular working routine and seem to prefer it to being pasture or paddock ornaments.  The key is consistency.

It’s also important to have a goal but not a timeline.  Many Fell Ponies truly want to be involved in our lives, but they can’t be expected to automatically know how that involvement should look.  It’s up to us to prepare them.  Break your goal down into small pieces and take the pieces one at a time.  Work up to the ultimate goal.  The reason you don’t want a timeline is that schedule pressure could make you ask for more than your pony is prepared to give.  Unfortunately this will set you back.  One Pat Parelli truism I like is, “Take the time it takes because it takes less time.”

Because consistent doses of substantial time is likely a huge commitment for the human half of the partnership, the actual ‘what’ of the time together had better be something interesting, important, and engaging to the person, too.   Start with something comfortable so that you’re not stressing both of you out.  For instance, if taking a walk is already part of your daily life, consider just adding your pony to it.  There are plenty of opportunities on a walk to expand your relationship, not least of which is observing what they observe and how they react so that you can set them up for success when you are next together.

If the work you’re doing with your five-year-old pony lacks variety, then consider adding some variety to your routine.  Even the Fell Ponies trained to elite levels of competition need something besides their competitive environment (at least if it’s a show ring) to keep them fresh.  Trail rides for a show pony, for instance, or a packing trip for a ridden pony.  Parelli Natural Horsemanship advocates unstructured time, such as grazing in hand, to develop a relationship.  I have found that this sort of time together, while it contributes to the relationship, doesn’t necessarily contribute to developing a working mindset.  Eating is already foremost in a pony’s mind; it’s work that needs to be emphasized!

One of my fondest memories of this process was with my first stallion Midnight Valley Timothy.  The pictures here show me in turn ponying Midnight’s son after Monte’s castration surgery, riding across the Michigan River, working in the round pen, and riding in the woods.   I don’t have pictures of what occupied us most, though, when day after day we rode into the forest adjacent to where we live getting to know a timber sale that our company subsequently purchased.  Every day we went a different direction, seeing different terrain.  Midnight became very responsive in his ridden work, a mindset that he carried to his subsequent owners.

Any pony five years old or older can benefit from this sort of approach.  I know of a Fell Pony stallion who was thirteen years old before he was put to work.  He’d previously only been used for breeding and shown in-hand, but he went on to a successful ridden and driving career, evidence that a working mindset can be developed in a fully mature pony, as well as a younger one.

There is of course a reason why people take their equines to a professional for this work.  It takes incredible discipline and focus to execute the routine needed to develop a working mindset.  I once took a pony to woman who had this process down to a science.  In addition to working a physically challenging job, she had three equines in her yard at a time.  Her ‘hobby’ was this process of instilling a working mindset.  My pony’s new owner remains pleased with him many years later.

Developing a working mindset in a pony is both a gift to you and a gift to your pony.  You will enjoy a pony who looks forward to your time together, and your pony will be happier having something to do besides gain weight.  Most of my Fell Pony breeding stock would like to have a job besides parenthood to occupy their minds and time.  And if your pony ever needs to go to another owner, the new owner will appreciate that your pony understands the difference between work and play.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

The Partnered PonyIf you enjoy these sorts of articles, you might also enjoy The Partnered Pony.  For more information, click here.


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

Words from My Husband

Don Ewy and Sleddale Rose Beauty in 2011My husband asked that I post these words from him here:

“Thursday we left with Beauty which was going to be a very difficult day.  As we went down the driveway and all the ponies called to her and she called back, they all knew as she did that something very different was about to happen.  Usually this time of year, Jen loads three ponies in the trailer for intermittent times at pasture so they get used to green.  This time there was only one.

“What made the day easier on me was the courage and dignity it took for Jenifer to say good bye to Beauty.  And Beauty with her courage and dignity made it very easy on us.  I’ve learned so much from ponies.  I hope when it is my time, I know it, and I can learn from the dignity and courage that the two girls I love showed.”

© Don Ewy, 2015

Posted in Fell Ponies, Inspirations

RIP Sleddale Rose Beauty

Beauty's eye - always wise.

Beauty’s eye – always wise.

By far the hardest thing I have had to do so far in my stewardship of Fell Ponies is say goodbye to Sleddale Rose Beauty.  She was the mare who started it all, the one who caused me to fall for the breed.  She epitomized for me a traditional Fell Pony:  lots of bone and substance, unconquerable spirit, active paces.  She died at 28 years old, and I got to spend more than half her life with her.  What an honor.

Beauty gave me five wonderful foals –  Lily, Willow, Yarrow, Rose, and Laddie – and her previous owner three.  Rose is still with me.  More than that, though, she taught me so much about stewarding this breed.  Her role as a lead mare, her toughness in our climate, her love of being a broodmare, her birth on a Cumbrian fell, even her jet black color, all allowed me to learn things that I might not have learned without her.  I always knew the herd was well-watched-over when she was there.  I always knew youngstock would get appropriate guidance.  I always knew she’d let me know if something was amiss.  The void of her absence will take a long time to fill.  My oldest Fell Pony now is less than half her age.

Beauty also caused me to meet so many people in the Fell Pony community.  Libby Robinson of the Globetrotter Stud told me the story of how she came to own Beauty and then export her to America.  When I traveled to Cumbria in search of a stallion to match Beauty, I met breeders and enthusiasts, many of whom I’m in touch with regularly and some have honored me with friendship.  I was humbled to interview Beauty’s breeder Mr. Harrison before he passed away.  These last few days have been made easier by a friend in Germany who reminded me that we met because of Beauty’s pedigree.

I have said goodbye to numerous ponies through my time with the Fell Pony breed.  This is the first time, though, that the farewell was permanent.  Beauty remained strong in spirit until the end, making my job as her caretaker easier.  It’s just one more thing I have to thank Beauty for.  At this point though, thanks don’t seem nearly enough.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

What an HonorWhat an Honor:  A Dozen Years with Fell Ponies is dedicated to Beauty.  It is available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies