Shelley Makes Me Laugh

Restar Mountain Shelley IIIWe got in late from work, so I was feeding at dark.  I’d been enjoying my last feeding of the day with some light since daylight savings time and spring equinox.  The darkness was making things just a little more work than usual.  So when my mare Shelley offered to give me a taxi ride from the fence to the hay yard, I thought twice.  I’d never ridden her after dark, and a taxi ride is ridden with no tack at all and I wasn’t sure I was up to that ‘first.’  On the other hand, it was dark, and Shelley’s surefootedness exceeds mine.  I opted for the ride.  I quickly realized how much I watch Shelley’s ears when I ride her, and I couldn’t see them!  I thought of Sally Swift’s soft eyes in Centered Riding and laughed because you have to be able to see to use them!

Restar Mountain Shelley III has been making me laugh on other occasions, too.  Usually it’s because she expresses her opinion about our relationship, and recently I’ve been quite flattered.  I’ve temporarily changed my management routine so we’re spending less time together, and she’s let me know she misses me.  It’s a nice feeling because it’s mutual.

Last month we had visitors on what I felt then was one of the muddiest possible days (since then it’s gotten worse unfortunately.)   Instead of venturing into the mud in Shelley’s paddock, I brought her out.  No halter or lead rope, just touching her under her chin to guide her.  We interact this way nearly daily.  It’s still a thrill every time she cooperates with me like this.  The picture here was taken by one of the visitors.

Twice a day Shelley is my chore pony.  I ride her down the driveway to the farthest pony pen.  I let her run back up the driveway while I feed ponies in the various paddocks on my own return journey.  My young stud colt Restar Lucky Joe is in the farthest paddock.  Usually Shelley gave Joe barely a glance before starting her run up the road.  One morning, though, after I let her loose, she took two steps towards Lucky Joe as if she wanted to go say hello.  Because I didn’t want the fence tested, I emphatically said, “No”.  Shelley gave a small kick in my direction then headed up the driveway as I’d wanted.  I laughed pretty hard.  When I got back up to the house, Shelley wasn’t as cooperative as usual.  Instead of letting me put her in, she ran away from me, then down and around the largest paddock and to the other stallion pen.  As I headed in that direction, I heard the unmistakable call of a teased stallion.  That explained a lot; Shelley was in heat.  I walked to her again, and this time she looked at me sweetly and compliantly, and we walked up to her paddock together without a halter or leadrope.  Yes, I laughed again.

After green grass started coming in this spring, Shelley didn’t run to the top of the hill after I turned her loose.  Instead she would run a short distance and then start nibbling green.  After feeding the farthest paddock, I would catch up to her and re-mount and have her take me up.  One day she didn’t go very far at all after I let her loose.  When I finished feeding, she came in my direction as if offering to take me back up.  It was an amazing feeling because this pony was loose, no tack, and had lots of other options.  Instead she chose to be with me.  Then when we got back up to the top, she went right in her gate, being a perfect partner rather than suggesting a detour for more green grass.  I really think Shelley likes being my chore pony.  The feeling, again, is mutual.

Another night I’d had a fence break and a loose pony, and I wasn’t in the mood for additional shenanigans.  When I let Shelley loose, I told her to run all the way up because I didn’t want any extra things to do.  When she did as I bid instead of stopping to graze, I had to laugh despite my annoyance about fence repair.  I was very sincerely appreciative of her cooperation.

Every day with my ponies is different.  Yet there are also things that are the same, like Shelley’s interest in my companionship.  The expression, of course, differs, and that makes me laugh.  I’m thankful for the variety and the joy it brings and for the laughter that brightens my day.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

What an HonorA Humbling ExperienceIf you enjoyed this story, 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)

Hoof Trimming and Other Travel Preparations

Willowtrail FarmI’m preparing a pony to go to their new home.  I have the brand inspector scheduled, and I have an appointment to take the pony to the vet in town for a health certificate and Coggins.  These are all legal requirements.  There are also a number of other things I do to prepare a pony for travel.  Because we as people travel regularly, we probably don’t think about the stress travel causes.  For ponies, the stress of travel can be high, so I try to do what I can to prepare them for it.  This means there are things I do and things I avoid.

One of the things I do is properly trim the pony’s hooves.  Over the years I’ve learned three reasons for doing this.  I once took delivery of a pony that helped me understand the first reason.  A few days before the pony was to arrive, the seller said “It’ll need to see a farrier soon.”  I was crestfallen.  This pony was traveling over a thousand miles on hooves that needed trimming.  When it emerged from the transport truck, the pony was noticeably stiff and uncomfortable.

It’s stressful enough for a pony to stand in a stall for a few days on the road.  Standing like that with hooves that need trimming is added stress that isn’t necessary.  There is abundant evidence that poorly trimmed hooves affect the rest of the body (click here for one example.)  For similar reasons, I also don’t think it’s fair to ask a pony to stand for a few days on hooves that are freshly trimmed.  I’ve seen ponies be more uncomfortable on freshly trimmed hooves than on hooves that are long and need attention.  When I’m about to ship a pony out, I make sure their hooves are properly trimmed two days and preferably more in advance so that standing for a long trip is as comfortable as possible.

I also learned the second reason for sending a pony off with properly trimmed hooves after taking delivery of a pony.  In this case, it wasn’t because the pony was uncomfortable upon arrival.  It was because the pony’s toes were long.  As far as I could tell, they’d been trimmed somewhat recently.  So why would this pony’s toes be long?  I suspect it was because this pony’s hooves tended to splay, and long toes were one manifestation.  The previous owner’s farrier didn’t try to correct the problem.  I’m lucky that a farrier once told me that as an owner I needed to work on hooves with a tendency to splay between his visits to help my ponies have better hooves.

I’m also fortunate to be a breeder where I see foals on a regular basis to remind me what hooves are supposed to look like at all ages.  I try to send ponies out with their hooves trimmed as close to ideal as I am able.  A client recently told me that their pony’s hooves were perfect when he arrived, and after a year with their farrier they weren’t nearly as nice.  By sending that pony out with good hooves, I helped his owner make better decisions about farrier care for him.

The third reason for sending a pony off with properly trimmed hooves is especially important to me as a Fell Pony enthusiast.  For many long time breed stewards, how a Fell Pony moves is an important characteristic of the breed.  How hooves are trimmed impacts their movement.  I often notice that a pony is due for a hoof trimming first because they aren’t moving like they should rather than by looking at the hooves themselves, much less a calendar.  Another reason with Fells for using movement to assess hoof trimming status is hair!  On ponies that have lots of feather, sometimes you can’t see the hoof well enough to evaluate hoof angle, toe length, etc.  So, the third reason to send a Fell Pony off to a new home with properly trimmed hooves is that it gives the new owner their best chance to see the movement that is a hallmark of the breed.

I don’t consider myself a farrier or an expert in hoof trimming.  I expect to continue to learn about proper hoof trimming as long as equines are in my life (which I hope is a very long time!)  I do know that being a farrier doesn’t guarantee proper trimming; I’ve had a so-called professional lame my ponies by trimming them improperly.  I’ve also been fortunate to learn from some gifted farriers.  (Click here to read an article about a particularly interesting clinic.)

In addition to hoof trimming considerations in advance of travel, I also adjust a pony’s nutritional program (click here for more information).  And then there are things that I avoid because they are stressful and a pony about to travel doesn’t need added stress.  One of the things I avoid is worming.  Many people take worming for granted, but I’ve learned it can stress the immune system.  I once took delivery of a pony that was wormed just hours before loading onto the transport truck.  The pony developed a minor infection while on the road that I then dealt with after the pony arrived, requiring that the pony be kept in isolation from the rest of the herd until normal health returned.

As a breeder, I’ve learned from my mares that weaning is stressful.  If I am shipping out a broodmare, I make sure the weaning process is well over before transport.  I’ve taken delivery of mares whose sellers used departure on transport as a weaning tool.  While convenient for the breeder, I don’t think it’s fair to the mare to have a sore udder while dealing with the stress of travel.

Hoof care and other aspects of husbandry all can be adjusted to assist with the stress of transport.  I think it’s important to make these adjustments to the extent we are able.  I know that having a pony leave my care is stressful on me, so preparing the pony for the stress they’re about to experience seems the least I can do and helps me with my own stress, too!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

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Posted in Fell Ponies, Natural Horsemanship, Partnered Pony (TM) | 1 Comment

Consequences of Breeding Closely in the Fell Pony

A sarcoid on a Fell Pony

A sarcoid on a Fell Pony

DNA research has found that the Fell Pony’s genetic diversity is healthy relative to other breeds.  Nonetheless I think we have to be careful when breeding closely-related ponies to each other.  I know there are benefits of linebreeding and similar techniques.  However my concern about using care in breeding is based upon my experience with rare breeds and on seeing adverse consequences from breeding closely-related Fell Ponies.

For a decade I bred Silver Appleyard ducks, listed in the Critical category of the Conservation Priority List of The Livestock Conservancy.  I learned during my stewardship that the North American population of this breed had descended entirely from a single pair of ducks that were imported from England.  I bought most of my outside breeding stock from a large breeder.  One year, though, I wanted to bring in different bloodlines, so I bought ducklings from a different smaller rare breeds steward.  The next year when I hatched out their offspring, I lost most of the ducklings at six weeks when they appeared to have heart attacks and die.  I have always attributed it to their parents being too closely related.

I have seen something similar in Fell Ponies.  Foals that fail to thrive have resulted when half brothers and half sisters are bred together.  This sort of cross is often successfully used in linebreeding.  In Fell Ponies I have seen more problems when the common ancestor is female rather than male.

Foals that fail to thrive aren’t the only consequence of breeding closely that I have seen.  The most extreme example I’ve seen is deformed foals that had to be euthanized.  In that case the mare seemed to have a compromised reproductive system.  She was the offspring of a particular stallion/mare combination, and her full sister had sweet itch which, if viewed as an auto-immune disorder, might be considered another consequence of close breeding.  Again in this case the close breeding was on the female side of that particular stallion/mare combination:  the mare and the stallion’s dam were half sisters.

Sarcoids are another problem we see in Fell Ponies. While they appear to be hereditary, in one case I’ve traced them back to a mare who was closely bred.  Her father and her mother’s father were half-brothers.  I suspect her immune system was in some way compromised due to close breeding, and sarcoids were the manifestation.

Another case was labeled a freak accident.  A pony broke its leg while running in a pasture which is of course something that ponies do on a regular basis.  This pony was the result of a stallion/mare cross whose fathers were half-brothers.

I do not of course have proof that these health problems I’ve seen in Fell Ponies are consequences of close breeding or a narrow gene pool.  That they might be though suggests that we as stewards of the breed need to take care when mating closely-related ponies.  As I’ve seen in some cases, the problems don’t necessarily manifest in the first generation but may be visited upon offspring.  The future of the breed as always depends on the current decisions of its stewards.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

Book Fell Pony ObservationsMore information like this is available 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

Nature and Nurture

Restar Lucky JoeIt’s such a thrill when my youngest pony has absolutely stellar foot-handling manners.  And then when my youngest is also a soon-to-be stallion, it means even more!  I was told recently that one farrier considers Fell Ponies brats because of their manners at hoof trimming time.  That’s so unfortunate.  It obviously doesn’t have to be that way.  Imagine what that farrier might be telling other people about the breed.

Restar Lucky Joe’s ‘family’ did well at the Fell Pony Society Stallion & Colt Show over the weekend.  His half brother was Supreme Champion.  I appreciate even more that another half brother was Driving Champion because it was a pony doing traditional work of the breed.  Since both those ponies are Lucky Joe’s half-brothers on the sire side and I’ve found that the sire contributes a lot to temperament, the Driving Champion especially says a lot about trainability.  I’m certainly seeing that trainability with Lucky Joe.

Balancing the ‘nature’ or genetic side of temperament, there is of course always the ‘nurture’ side, too. Lucky Joe’s breeder emphasizes how important it is to be gentle with the ponies because you can go so much farther with them.  That doesn’t mean coddling them, of course; they have to have manners, for instance, when it comes to foot handling.  But being rough isn’t necessary.  Unfortunately one person’s definition of rough is another’s normal handling.  When Lucky Joe was coming through quarantine last year when entering this country, because he was a stud colt, they put a nose chain on him.  He’d never had that sort of handling and he protested by striking out at a handler with his front foot which undoubtedly caused rougher handling.  Fortunately Lucky Joe was handed off quickly to my transporters who share my approach to handling.

I think Lucky Joe’s experience illustrates one of the challenges of ‘natural’ horsemanship.  When someone practices ‘natural’ horsemanship, their equines are used to being handled in a respectful way.  Then when someone else handles them differently, they become confused and can act out which is considered misbehavior when in reality it’s really them communicating confusion about the way they’re being treated.  Things aren’t necessarily as they seem.

Lucky Joe has shown me repeatedly that he is quiet and cooperative, just as his breeder told me he was before Lucky Joe left there.  The behavior Lucky Joe exhibited at the quarantine center was obviously communication about treatment that he didn’t understand and not a temperament problem.  Sometimes we don’t have control over how our ponies are handled or behave, such as I didn’t at the quarantine facility.  But we certainly do have control over how our ponies are handled and behave at other times, such as during hoof trimming.  Regarding that farrier that considers Fell Ponies brats, the owners have an opportunity to improve the perception of the breed.  Lucky Joe’s stellar performance demonstrates what is possible.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

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

A Cautionary Tale for Fell Pony Stewards from the Thoroughbred

Dads wall hanging giftWhat do you think when you hear that the Thoroughbred has a narrow gene pool?  Perhaps you are as skeptical as I was.  I was skeptical because of my two decades’ involvement with rare breeds of livestock where we think about the size of gene pools often.  But Deb Bennett makes a convincing case in the most recent of her series of articles on the history of the Thoroughbred in Equus magazine.  Of particular interest in this recent article is her discussion of the impacts of breeding winners to winners on characteristics of the breed.  Fell Ponies provide a notable contrast so far.

Bennett has laid out how the Thoroughbred gene pool has been narrowed by selection towards horses that can sprint.  She has also documented how race distances have decreased since the establishment of the breed.  By selecting for sprinters, Bennett suggests that other characteristics that have historically been important in the breed, including stamina, balanced conformation, disease resistance, and soundness, have been lost.  (1)

In the Spring 2014 newsletter of The Fell Pony Society, David Murray states, “The Rare Breeds Survival Trust believes that the Fell pony has suffered no such genetic erosion during the last century.” (2)  Murray is referencing studies that have shown that the Fell Pony gene pool is indeed healthy compared to other breeds, including the Exmoor. (3)  The context for Murray’s comment is the topic of conservation grazing where Exmoor ponies are sometimes chosen instead of the Fell.

In his discussion Murray points out that while Exmoors were naturally selected for survival in harsh environments, the current breed is “the product of circa only 50 individuals.” (4)  In contrast, while Fell Ponies have in theory, based on the stud books, been similarly genetically limited in the past, DNA research has shown that Fells have “comparatively high genetic and phenotypic diversity” that may mean Fells have “retained more genetic grazing characteristics required for successful adaptation to climate and land changes…” (5)

The most recent Conservation Priority List from The Livestock Conservancy has moved the Dales Pony to Critical status.  “The closely related Fell Pony is more popular and remains in the Watch category.” (6)  The Fell was moved to Watch status in 2010.  It is of course a testament to the hardiness of Fell Pony stewards that the breed’s conservation status has improved.

However, as the situation with the Thoroughbred demonstrates, any breed can lose genetic diversity.  With regard to the Fell Pony, in the North American population, currently 23% are related to a single, still-living, imported stallion. (7)  Bennett states that live cover requirements have kept the narrowing of the Thoroughbred gene pool from being worse than it is.  Her point is well taken:  artificial insemination (AI) is allowed in Fell Ponies, and some progeny of that imported stallion that is related to so many ponies here were conceived via AI.  Hopefully Fell Pony stewards will refrain from over-using particular stallions so that our gene pool remains diverse and all breed characteristics are retained.

  1. Bennett, Deb, PhD. “The Thoroughbred Gene Pool,” Equus #452, May 2015, p. 81.
  2. Murray, David. “Letter to the editor,” The Fell Pony Society Newsletter Spring 2014 Volume 28, Appleby, Cumbria:  The Fell Pony Society, p.12.
  3. See for instance the discussion in Morrissey, Jenifer. “Fell Pony Genetic Diversity 3,” Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, Walden, Colorado, Willowtrail Farm, 2013, p. 99.
  4. Same as #2.
  5. Same as #2.
  6. The Livestock Conservancy. “2015 Conservation Prioity List Released,” The Livestock Conservancy News, Winter 2015, Volume 32, Issue 1, p. 1.
  7. Morrissey, Jenifer. “Stallion Genetic Concentration in North America,” Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, January 2015.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

Book Fell Pony ObservationsIf  you like articles like this one, you’ll also like the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies, Rare Breeds

Hair and Halter Riding

Restar Mountain Shelley IIII’m riding ponies two to five times a day for short distances.   (Yes, I’m really lucky!)  For me this sort of riding means tying a lead rope through the halter into reins and hopping on bareback and mostly walking, sometimes trotting, sometimes cantering.  Tying the lead rope into reins, though, makes me think about hair.

I’m sure it was a foal that first alerted me to the interaction of hair and halters.  Foals, especially in their first few days, are incredibly sensitive to stimulation of their whiskers and hair on their faces and heads.  Because I use rope halters a lot and as a breeder I am the first to halter my foals, I have seen the foals react to hair that gets caught in a halter’s knot.  Consequently I’ve learned to be careful.  I want my foals’ first impressions of my handling to be positive not painful, so I avoid pulling on their hair with the halter (or any other piece of tack.)

The reason I use rope halters is because it’s possible to teach sensitivity to cues (for example, see the exercise “move the snap” by clicking here.)  When I work with youngstock, I start teaching progressive sensitivity, so again I’m careful that what they feel is my (progressively more insistent) cue, not their hair being pulled.

Tying a leadrope through the halter to create reins is done under the chin.  I’ve learned over time that I need to check that the hairs under the chin haven’t gotten caught in either the snap or the knot.  Again, I’ve learned from working with young ponies to take care here.  When I’m starting ridden work with a young pony, I want them to feel my cues through the lines to the halter, not their hair being pulled.

Fell Ponies have caused me to ponder a three point checklist when it comes to hair and halter riding.  The first point is clearing the hair under the chin, which I’ve heard called goat hair.  It takes quite a bit of effort to clear one of my mare’s goat hair because it is so prolific.  This first point is the only one that is relevant to riding my Norwegian Fjord horse; the second two points have to do with mane and forelock which are not an issue on him but are on the Fells.  Second, I clear mane hair from the results of my tying, and third I clear forelock.  My mare reminds me when I’ve forgotten to clear her forelock by tossing her head to try to free it so she can see (or sometimes it seems that she wants to toss it back over her eyes to obscure her vision ‘just so!’)  The photo here shows all three kinds of hair – goat, mane, and forelock – needing to be cleared from my rein-tying.

For many people, hair is an attractive defining feature of the Fell Pony.  For me, coming from a harness and working pony perspective, hair can be a nuisance, such as when tying a leadrope into reins.  But I realize that there’s an up-side to hair.  I’m thankful that it has taught me to be sensitive to what my ponies feel so that they in turn can be sensitive to what I am trying to communicate to them.  It’s too much fun riding a pony two to five times a day for short distances to do otherwise!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

What an HonorIf you enjoy reading stories like this one, you might also enjoy reading the book What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here.

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

Mental Maturity in Fell Ponies

Bowthorne MattyBowthorne Matty, my nine-year-old Fell Pony mare, is greeting me at the fence every chance she gets.  I don’t remember her ever doing this before.  This winter I rode her short distances across paddocks for the first time, and she was much more compliant than I expected her to be based on our eight years together.

In an online discussion about physical maturity, Sue Millard, author of Hoofprints in Eden and having numerous other Fell Pony credentials, commented that mental maturity doesn’t occur until nine years old, a year past physical maturity.  When I first heard it, I was intrigued but couldn’t say that I’d observed this milestone myself.

When I noticed Matty’s behavior, Sue’s observation came to mind.  I recognize that Matty is a half sister to one of Sue’s ponies, so it occurred to me that perhaps it was a feature of that particular line of pony.   Then I ran across notes about another of my ponies that changed when she passed that milestone.  I have another mare about to pass that milestone next year, so you can bet I’ll be paying attention!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

Book Fell Pony ObservationsEssays like this populate the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies