Footing Sense 5

Burnmoor, Lake District National ParkFooting sense is a characteristic of Fell Ponies that I learned about from a long time Fell Pony breeder.  It came up when we were discussing how important fell-bred ponies are to the preservation of the breed. Footing sense is one of the characteristics retained by fell-bred ponies but lost in many ponies reared away from the fells.

When footing sense was first described to me, it was implied that once Fell Ponies were kept away from the fells for several generations, footing sense was irretrievably lost.  I was thrilled, then, to learn of a Fell Pony that might be a counter example.  This pony was born away from the fell but returned to fell living as a four year old.  Her owner says she always puts her feet right, finding safe routes, and takes care of her rider.  Perhaps it’s possible that a Fell Pony can learn footing sense when given the right opportunity.

According to Dr. Paul René van Weeren, professor in the department of equine sciences at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, varied terrain is better for equines than lush green pastures, both physically and mentally.  “Evidence shows us that horses want to explore, but that explorative behavior is restricted in grass pastures of only two or three acres.  A more natural habitat, with woods, hills, bushes, creeks or ponds, and a variety of forage, is obviously better.” (1)

Because more and more ponies are reared away from the fells, strategies for retaining fell-induced characteristics such as footing sense are important.  Dr. van Weeren’s observation about exploratory behavior and the Fell Pony who showed footing sense after returning to fell living suggest that providing Fell Ponies with opportunities to explore and learn about varied terrain on their own terms may be an important management strategy.  Perhaps it is indeed possible that footing sense can be learned and that it isn’t irretrievably lost to our breed as fewer ponies remain on the fells.

I have experienced footing sense in a Fell one generation removed from the fell when riding on our icy driveway in the winter.  Now that I know what footing sense is and have experienced it while riding one particular pony, I will be watching for it in all my Fells.  It will be interesting to observe which have it and which don’t so that I can develop appropriate management strategies to try to conserve this important breed characteristic.  It’s certainly been my experience that these ponies are curious and willing to learn.  Perhaps that very nature is what makes footing sense possible.

  1. Lesté-Lasserre, Christa. “Managing Young Horses,” at

Book Fell Pony ObservationsFooting Sense is discussed in a chapter in Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.


Posted in Fell Ponies

She Still Amazes Me

Mya and I spreading manure fourteen years ago

Mya and I spreading manure fourteen years ago

I had the most amazing experience with Mya the Wonder Pony on a manure moving job.  We’ve been working together for nearly seventeen years and moving manure together for over fifteen years, so perhaps that explains what happened.  All I know is there’s always a chance to see something new!

I hadn’t worked Mya in a few months, but she was as willing as ever as I haltered her, groomed her, fly-sprayed her, and harnessed her.  I then ground drove her up to the barnyard.  I had previously moved her work cart and filled it.  It was in my stallion Apollo’s pen, and he was tied to the fence.  As we approached the barnyard, Mya slowed down, and I saw her look around as though she was a little confused and uncertain.

When we got to where she could see into Apollo’s pen, it was clear that she saw the cart.  She quit weaving, started walking faster, and made a beeline through the gate; all confidence and certainty had returned.  Then without prompting she began turning and spinning her rear end into place and trying to back between the shafts.  I had to slow her down to keep her from bumping her bum against the shafts.  Eventually we got her hitched properly, and I shook my head and laughed.  This pony is unlike any other that I work in her willingness to work any time any where no matter how much time she’s had off.  Even then, I’ve never seen her try to hitch herself before!

There are of course problems with ponies who anticipate the work to be done.  If they make a wrong decision, there can be safety issues immediately.  Fortunately for Mya and me, we know each other well enough that we didn’t have any problems as she continued to ‘get the job done’ by heading to the compost pile almost without any guidance from me.  And it wasn’t as though she was anxious to get the job over with, as she patiently and quietly waited while I got the cart emptied out, just as you see in the picture.

What I found amazing was that when we had gotten to the barnyard, Mya’s slowing down and looking around were due to her looking for a cart to be hitched to and not seeing one.  How she sped up and tried to get herself between the shafts when she did see the cart made it clear that indeed that’s what her prior confusion and uncertainty were about.  This pony is twenty three years old, and to still have that sort of work ethic is what still makes her the standard by which all other ponies are judged.  If she isn’t my ‘pony of a lifetime,’ I’m going to be extraordinarily blessed by whatever pony fills that role!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

Book Fell Pony ObservationsJenifer Morrissey is the author of several books, including Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Partnered Pony (TM), Work Ponies

A Good Fit for Working Ponies

Norwegian Fjord gelding OH TorrinA recent hazard tree project completed by our company reminded me of the advantages of working ponies versus larger draft horses.  The project site was one where we have worked several times before.  Our job was to remove standing dead timber from around an historic cabin.  There is no road access to this place, so using conventional logging equipment is out of the question, which is why the ponies have helped us nearly every time we’ve worked there.

Taking the ponies to this place still has its logistical challenges.  While we can pull the horse trailer to within a quarter mile, turning it around is another matter.  We had to drive an extra half an hour down the road and back in order to find a place with the right dimensions to turn it around.  I was very thankful for its relative small size, facilitated by having smaller equines, as it was still tough to find a place where we could get headed back out again.

The historic cabin where we worked sits on a lakeshore, with the road about 200 feet above it.  The quarter-mile-long access trail down from the road to the cabin is quite steep and narrow.  I was thankful for the agility and sure-footedness of my pony friends, as well as their small size, as we worked our way down single file between trees and over and around rocks and logs.

The work site is quite constrained, with the lake on one side and marshy areas on two of the three others.  Within the domestic area there are three structures as well as boats, a boat dock (pulled out of the lake for winter storage), a firepit, and other features.  Most of the downed timber in the domestic area had to be skid around various obstacles and stacked in only a few places.  The last area we worked had the additional challenge of dealing with trees that had been blown down.  Not only did they fall in less-than-ideal directions but the root wads took up space that we might have been able to use for skidding.  I was very thankful, then, for the small turning radius of my ponies because we often were nearly pirouetting with me holding the singletree and log chain in the air to get in position for each skid.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been thinking about the question ‘why work ponies?’  This project, with the need to transport the ponies to a backcountry location, its steep narrow access trail, and its constrained physical layout, was a great example of a good fit for working ponies.  I’m so fortunate that we can use the ponies in this way and that my pony partners are so willing!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

Posted in Partnered Pony (TM), Work Ponies

Wellbrow Stud Open Day 2015

Andrew Thorpe Wellbrow StudI had the great good fortune to attend the Wellbrow Stud Open Day in Lancashire on August 30.  Nice weather, a good crowd, and a well-organized event by the Thorpe family made for an enjoyable outing.  And it wasn’t just enjoyable for a Fell Pony addict like me.  I talked to a local young woman who was new to the breed and looking to downsize from bigger equines.  There were ponies for sale that day, but she wisely was choosing to take her time and take advantage of her proximity to work with the Thorpes to find just the right pony for her.

I made the Wellbrow Open Day a priority on my visit to England for many reasons.  First, the Wellbrow Stud is one of the biggest breeders of Fell Ponies today.  Second, the stud got its start in large part from the liquidation of the Heltondale herd twenty years ago, so I got to see the results of crossing many old bloodlines.  I also thought it likely it would be a good place to put faces to names (I was right!)  And of course it was a good way to see lots of Fell Ponies all at once.

What impressed me most was Andrew Thorpe’s ability to stand in a herd of twenty or so ponies and identify them by name and even their breeding.  It was clear that the ponies are not just a casual hobby for this family.  I saw the same thing the day before when walking with Bill Potter amongst his Greenholme ponies.  Our breed is lucky to have these stewards.

In the faces-and-names department, I am thankful that Elizabeth Parkin, former secretary of the Fell Pony Society (FPS), sought me out to say hello.  I also appreciate that Claire Simpson, FPS publicity officer, did the same.  It was a pleasure to talk to Mary Longsdon, former FPS chairman, in person after our several phone calls over the years.  Walking the fields looking at ponies with other breeders was very enjoyable, too.  I look forward to staying in touch with them and watching their herds evolve.

The final formal presentation of the day was a stallion parade.  It was a rare opportunity to compare and contrast different ways of going.  The best movement got oohs and ahhs from the crowd.  I feel that a pony’s movement, especially at the trot, is a quick way to assess proper conformation.  I shot video of each stallion moving so that I can study them in more detail in the future.

I know that Open Days are a tremendous amount of work.  Andrew mentioned that he had been up late one night prior to the event laying stone in the road to accommodate visitor traffic.  I am grateful that the Thorpes, and on the previous weekend the Townend and Greenholme Studs, are willing and able to host the Fell Pony community and help us learn about our breed.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

Book Fell Pony ObservationsIf you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies

Was It A Dream?

A Fell Pony in CumbriaThere is evidence that time has passed.  The aspens are yellow now, and I remember them being green.  The rosehips have turned red, and they were indistinguishable from the foliage, last I knew.  Sunrise is later, and sunset is earlier.  The ponies’ coats are longer in preparation for the coming winter.  Could it actually be true that a week has elapsed and that indeed we did spend that time in Cumbria?

I’m sure the grogginess from the 26 hour journey that was required to travel home is one of the reasons that our trip has a dream-like quality.  Also, the many months that I spent thinking about and planning the trip made it seem always in the distance.  There is also the strange sense of being at home away from home.  I feel so comfortable there, recognizing people and landscapes from study and correspondence and photos and previous visits.

I will forever be indebted to my husband for taking time during our company’s busy season to travel with me.  The timing of this trip was far from ideal, as it was during our busiest busy season in many years.  But my instincts said that it had to happen, that it was important to take time right now to be able to see the people I wanted to see and do with some of those people the things I wanted to do while they were still able.  Being with my husband one more time in Cumbria was high on the list: walking amongst ponies, hearing his observations of both breeders and equines, and this time focusing more than in the past on experiencing the landscape that has shaped the breed.

We don’t find travel particularly easy.  Just the logistics to leave behind our business and a herd of ponies were daunting.  We were blessed with the best possible house-and-critter sitter.  Even then, my instructions for her ran to nine pages.  She brought a smile to my face by writing a six page response for me to read when I returned!

The long journey was made easier for me by the knowledge that there were ponies to be seen.  After we arrived, I knew just where to look to see my first Fell Pony.  It wasn’t at Roundthwaite Farm which seemed strangely quiet after being home to so many ponies in the past.  Instead I looked the other way, and a pony stood on the mid-horizon near where the Bybeck stud is based.  A little further on, on the other side of the highway, my eyes were rewarded with even more ponies.  It took me a bit to figure out why so many of the Greenholme herd were down at the farm, until I remembered their Open Day the previous weekend.  Then in Shap there were ponies where I remembered them, so even though I didn’t touch a pony that first day, I took comfort knowing they were close at hand.  Every other day, though, I had my hands on at least one.

I have more than 400 photographs that are additional evidence that I traveled to the land of Fell Ponies.  In addition to ponies, there are pictures of people.  I am thankful that I now have faces to put to names that I have ‘met’ thanks to the internet.  If I am never so fortunate to visit again, I will at least be able to hold in my heart the love for the ponies and our breed that was shared with us by so many.  And I will have the experience of having walked where many a pony has walked both on the job and at home.

Was it a dream?  Yes, it was a dream in the sense that it was a dream come true.  I didn’t accomplish everything that I’d hoped to, but I’m pretty sure I accomplished what I really needed to.  I was asked several times whether I was shopping, and the answer was no.  I was instead experiencing again what makes Fell Ponies special:  the people and the landscape and the work that shaped them into what they are today.  Those experiences will enrich my Fell Pony journey for many, many years to come, and I will be forever grateful for them.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

Book Fell Pony ObservationsIf you enjoy stories about Fell Ponies like this one, you might also enjoy Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies

“Can He See?”

Guards ApolloThe phone rang and my mind was on business, so it took me a moment to respond to the greeting of a friend rather than a client.  Fellow horsewoman Peg Brocker of Brocker Quarter Horses began, “I have a 4-H Horseless-Horse student, and we’re researching the horse breeds of North Park.”  After a few minutes, we agreed she would bring the student out to see the two breeds I have here at Willowtrail Farm.

When my guests arrived, I began by talking about the multiple uses that my pony breeds have historically had (ride/drive/draft/pack), and that their size makes harnessing, lifting loaded packs, and riding bareback easier.  The Horseless Horse student was a quiet sort, but when she met my Fell stallion Guards Apollo, she assertively asked, “Can he see?”  It was a great question.  Compared to my other Fells, Apollo’s forelock is long and thick, so his eyes are rarely visible.  I explained that when I work with him, I braid his forelock so he can see any visual cues I offer.  Peg added that equines have much more highly developed other senses than humans, so when Apollo chooses not to see by leaving his forelock over his eyes, he is likely monitoring his environment with hearing and smell and even touch (think flies and wind for instance) instead.

TorrinThe other question that the Horseless Horse student asked about hair was when she met my Norwegian Fjord Horse.  “Why do you cut his mane?”  I touched briefly on the idea of the breed standard requiring it and then explained that when doing harness work, it’s helpful to not have hair mixing with the collar and lines and other tack.  Later I explained my observation that generally Fjords are more likely to be seen in draft work than Fells, and Fells are most often used in ridden and driven work where hair isn’t as much of an issue.

The question I was most interested to ask myself was “What breeds do we have here in North Park?”  The answer so far in their research was Quarter Horses, Paints, Appaloosas, Morgans, Percherons, Shires, and of course Fells and Fjords.

The best thing about having visitors to Willowtrail Farm is the questions they ask.  This time was no different.  Once again I got to see horsemanship in general and my ponies in particular through other people’s eyes.  I learned that Peg had already shared many of the things I said, such as equines like to have a job.  It was nice to know that my disclaimer that horsewomen often have strong and differing opinions wasn’t true in this case.  Peg quickly corrected me, saying that she’d shared many of the same things with her student.

I also appreciated Peg’s reaction to my stud colt Restar Lucky Joe.  Peg and I usually see each other only once a year, and the last time we talked, we commiserated over the job it is to find a stallion to follow one we really like.  When Peg said about Lucky Joe “I really like him,” I was heartened that I was on the right track.

I am thankful for people like Peg who give of their time and knowledge to young people, especially those who don’t have an equine of their own.  Giving more people chances to experience the relationships that equines offer enriches the lives of all involved.  There can’t be a much better investment of time than that!

© Jenifer Morrissey 2015

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

Posted in Fell Ponies, Rare Breeds, Work Ponies

An Unusual Eighteen Hours


My three homebreds came running to see me

My three homebreds came running to see me

It had been a long week, and we were looking forward to the short pause we try to give ourselves before another week gets under way.  I put out the last hay of the day at dusk, looking forward to going inside for my own dinner.  When I went into the house, though, my husband was dressed in fresh clothes ready to head out the door.  “Search and rescue,” he said.

The night ended up being very short; organizing the search for the next day delayed bed time by several hours.  Then it was an early start; I took my husband to the firehouse at 6:30am, from where he left to join the rest of the search team.  On the way down the driveway I noticed two ponies inside the hay stack yard in their paddock.  Apparently I’d been too tired the night before to shut the gate properly, and my two boys were happily having an early breakfast.

When I returned from the firehouse, I walked down to correct my error.  Lucky Joe, my two year old stud colt, seemed a little apologetic, as though he knew he was somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be.  Once he was back on the proper side of the fence, he looked at me very oddly.  I was wearing pajama pants because I was trying to delay launching into the rest of the day.   Lucky Joe lowered his head and sniffed my pants curiously, seeming to say how different they were from my normal blue jeans.  His expression and action made me smile.  So perceptive!

Mya precedes me across the river so I can take a picture

Mya precedes me across the river so I can take a picture

After the (successful) search was over, about eighteen hours from the first alert, I met my husband at summer pasture to do a few chores.  One of them was to reunite the mare herd, combining two smaller herds back to the normal single one.  This involved leading my newest pony Madie across the river to the east pasture.  I wasn’t sure how Madie would react to crossing the river.  I couldn’t remember if she’d ever done it when she was a baby here, and I knew she hadn’t crossed it since she returned.  I was thrilled, then, when she followed me into the water and across to the other side without hesitation.

This large bear track is in the mud near the river at summer pasture

This large bear track is in the mud near the river at summer pasture

A second unknown then quickly presented itself.  We had seen a very large bear track the previous day, and I didn’t know if a scent remained that might alarm Madie.  Again I was thrilled that she continued to follow me willingly all the way to the rest of the herd.  I moved Mya shortly thereafter, remembering to grab the camera this time to photograph us crossing the river!

After the chores were done, I walked back over to check the reunited mare herd.  They were all happily grazing in grass up to their withers and didn’t hear me approach until I called a greeting.  My three homebreds came running to me, which I found really touching.  Then the oldest, Rose, followed me as I headed back to the gate.

Love this pony!

Love this pony!

I stopped and scratched her in her favorite places and gave her a hug and told her how much she meant to me.  She kept following me, seeming to say that she missed spending time with me.  The feeling is mutual, so when she called out as I disappeared from view, my heart swelled with gratitude for the presence of these ponies in my life.  Their varied expressions of interest in our relationship helped me forget for a moment the fatigue from the unusual eighteen hours we’d just experienced.



© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

A Humbling ExperienceWhat an HonorIf you enjoyed this story, you’ll also enjoy the books A Humbling Experience and What an Honor, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies, Inspirations, Partnered Pony (TM)