“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)

An End-of-Life Lesson from Beauty

Sleddale Rose BeautyA friend once told me that the years in our fifties are the best time of life because you have enough body left and enough wisdom developed to do what’s important to you.  It also seems like it’s when we are faced with really difficult tasks with the elders in our lives.  I know my friend mentioned this fact in passing, but she definitely didn’t prepare me for the roller coaster ride that it is.  Sleddale Rose Beauty, my recently passed Fell Pony mare, had wisdom to share on this topic at the end of her own life, just as she did on so many other topics during my life with her.

The most intense roller coaster ride regarding my elders has been with my aging father.  My sister and brother have born the bulk of the caretaking responsibilities.  I help where I can (Dad seems to enjoy postcards of my ponies!), and I have not been immune to the emotions that result.  It is hard for all of us to watch this consummate gentleman and professional be taken from us by dementia.  What has made it harder is that my parents were very private about their affairs and felt they would manage their old age themselves.  Their plans, though, didn’t take into account that their minds would go before their bodies, so their ability to make appropriate decisions failed before their needs for such decisions did.  As their children, as a result, we’ve been left with some difficult decisions.  Anyone about my age undoubtedly knows what I mean, for I know we are not alone.

I read about a contrasting approach to end of life planning recently that, had I not experienced with my parents what I have, I might not have appreciated to the same degree.   A woman was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Rather than let the disease take her brain and impose difficult caretaking of her body on her loved ones, she planned her own death by suicide.  She surrounded herself by loving friends and family and peacefully departed in her own home.  It was an ending with dignity. Her daughter said, “It was just so obvious that this is about as good as it gets for a human exit.”  (1)

As anyone knows who has followed the stories of Willowtrail Fell Ponies, Beauty was my first of the breed.  After her first foal was born, I went through a difficult personal period where I put all my Fells up for sale.  Beauty went off to a new owner.  However, Beauty obviously didn’t like this turn of events, and she did everything she could to influence the human world so that she could return to my care.  She was gone less than three months.  As she neared retirement, I had more than one offer to give her a retirement home, but Beauty made it clear that she wanted to live out her days with me.  At the end of her life, it became fully clear why she had made that choice.

Unlike my parents who didn’t involve others in their end-of-life planning, Beauty chose me to help her at the end of her life.  Unlike the woman in the suicide article who had the ability to make the needed end-of-life plans herself, Beauty chose me as a trusted ally to make those plans for her.

In the spring for the past several years, I’ve begun writing Beauty’s obituary because of the toll our tough winters took on her.  Each time, though, Beauty bounced back.  This spring, though, despite a relatively mild winter, there were numerous signs that Beauty’s time was coming to an end.  Some health problems appeared, all of which could have been treated individually with some success, but collectively it was clear to me that Beauty’s body was starting to fail.  Her spirit was still strong, and this is the way I wanted to remember this mare.  I didn’t feel I had a good road map for this decision-making process, but to give Beauty the dignified ending I thought she deserved, I felt going out with her spirit still strong was the right thing to do, similar to the choice made by the woman who exited by suicide before dementia took her spirit.  Beauty accepted my decisions with grace, and I am glad that her last breath was taken sniffing my hand.

I don’t know if the tears will ever stop falling when I think back on Beauty’s exit from my life.  I am, though, fairly certain that I understand her lesson about what end of life planning needs to look like.  To have an exit with dignity, end-of-life planning needs to take the failing of mind as well as body into account.  Dementia to me is the worst way to exit; watching my father’s journey is made even harder knowing that I carry his genetics so I might be witnessing my future.  But the dementia aspect isn’t the key part of Beauty’s end-of-life lesson.

What I also have as a legacy from my parents is a strong degree of self-reliance.  It is that self-reliance that caused my parents to be very private about their affairs.  In the end I don’t think it served them well.  Beauty was in her own way also self-reliant, and it is perhaps because of this that her end-of-life lesson was so clear because it was a stark contrast to her general approach to life.   Beauty set aside her self-reliant streak and entrusted me with the responsibility for her end-of-life planning.  By doing so, she got the exit with dignity that she seemed to want.

Exiting with dignity may not be everyone’s goal.  And even if it is, what an exit with dignity looks like will be as individual as each of us is.  What Beauty taught me, in contrast to my parents’ approach, is that involving a trusted ally may be necessary.  For a self-reliant sort like me, this is tough medicine to swallow.  Fortunately, Beauty was as gentle in her instruction in this lesson as she was in all the others she blessed me with.  I was fortunate to spend so many years with her.

  1. Nelson, Mariah Burton.  “A Feminist Suicide,” Stanford, May/June 2015.  Palo Alto, California:  Stanford Alumni Association, p. 45.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

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

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

Pony Moments July 2015

Bowthorne Matty & Willowtrail Mountain HoneyHere in the mountains of Colorado, during our crazy-short busy summer season, I’ve learned to treasure brief moments with my ponies because longer periods are few and far between.  July especially seems to be the month when pony moments are the highlight of my days.  Here are some recent ones:

  • A non-pony visitor met one of my ponies and remarked, “What big feet they have for such a small animal.” I’m never very good with quick comebacks.  I should have said, “What small feet we expect bigger animals to work on…!”  I also laughed to myself because the visitor was talking about my tallest Fell Pony, so not small at all by my standards, and she isn’t one of my ponies with Sleddale heritage and even bigger feet for their size!
  • I put Restar Mountain Shelley out to graze the open areas here at first light. When I later finish all the other chores, I call to her, telling her it’s time to come in.  She canters to the road from wherever she’s been grazing, continues up the driveway to her paddock and puts herself in.  Management made easy!
  • I have gotten very used to being greeted with a whinny any time I open the door to go outside. The door’s hinges apparently have a distinctive sound.  Willowtrail Spring Maiden can’t see the door opening, so I know she’s responding to the sound with her greeting.  I always try to answer, “Hello Madie!”
  • A sixty-five mile-an-hour two lane highway passes by the summer pasture. Our pickup truck must have a distinctive sound when we slow down as the pasture comes into view.  We intended to just take attendance as we drove past, delaying a longer visit for the end of the day.  But as we came into view, the ponies confirmed it was us and started galloping towards the gate to say hello.  How could we not stop when presented with such a greeting?!
  • My husband’s grandsons were visiting. They are city boys with interests consistent with that locale, so they were throwing a baseball around.  One got by the mitt of one of the boys and went zinging into Shelley’s pen.  I’m not sure if she’d ever seen a baseball before, but she seemed hardly bothered by its sudden crash against her fence and subsequent careening before coming to a stop.  Later another errant ball hit the outside of her fence, and again she barely lifted her head from her pile of hay.  What a gift a calm temperament is!

I am feeling particularly blessed by my ponies right now.  More than at any time in the past, I have a close and satisfying relationship with each of them, which makes caring for them and spending time with them even more enjoyable.  These pony moments brighten long days and make me look forward to when we can spend more time together.

© 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 Inspirations

Using Alliances

Restar Lucky Joe and OH TorrinI needed to move three ponies to the horse trailer.  I haltered all three and chose one to just throw the lead rope over her back.  I led the other two.  The third stayed with us, between the two other ponies, all the way to our destination.  I had assumed she would do just that since she was accustomed to following the lead mare.  I used that alliance to accomplish my goal.

Many years ago I was discussing ‘natural horsemanship’ with a trainer.  We agreed that it was the only way I’d be able to achieve what I wanted to achieve with the herd size that I had.  By partnering with my mares especially, I would be able to accomplish more training than a single person would normally be able to do.  I use the alliances in my herd for many things, including teaching foals to trailer load, accustoming a pony to voice commands, and shifting a herd from one pasture to another.   In the case of the three ponies at pasture needing to go to the trailer, I used the alliances amongst them to move three ponies by only leading two.

I also use alliances when I ‘take attendance’ at feeding time.  When there is one pony instead of two in a group greeting me at the fence, or two instead of three, I know some investigation is in order.  Because of alliances, I’m less worried when a single pony misses roll call than I am when it is more than one.  Rarely have I had a single pony go very far on its own when it breaches a fence.  Only occasionally will a mare with foal at foot go far.  Two older ponies, though, that’s a different matter!

At the moment, I have two impressionable ponies, the two newest to my herd.  I am particularly pleased with the alliances they have chosen.  They are each enjoying the company of my two oldest ponies who are my working ponies and are tremendous partners for me.  I like very much that my impressionable ones are absorbing habits and manners from veteran workers.  The photograph shows my stud colt Restar Lucky Joe and Torrin, my Norwegian Fjord Horse gelding.  I’ve done lots of ponying with Torrin and Joe, taking advantage of this alliance.  I’ve also had Joe watch Torrin working in harness.  Willowtrail Spring Maiden is my other new pony, and she has bonded with Mya the Wonder Pony.  I haven’t figured out how to take advantage of this alliance yet, but it’s on my mind every day as I see them together.

There are, of course, cases when alliances are not helpful.  I heard from a client who had begun having trouble catching a pony they’d purchased from me.  I never had problems haltering that pony, but since being in its new home, it’s been sharing a paddock with a pony that is notoriously difficult to catch.  Because the Willowtrail pony is young, it is impressionable and apparently is taking an unwanted cue from its older paddock-mate.

Alliances can be useful, and they can be otherwise.  I am careful in my herd to manage any possible unhelpful ones as much as I can.  While I said I was happy with the choices that my impressionable ponies had made regarding alliances, it’s a little inaccurate to say they ‘chose.’  I had a hand in their choice; my happiness is that my choices worked out so well!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

What an HonorIf yoA Humbling Experienceu 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)

Thank You, Lola

Turkey Trot Sand Lily & Lola Quinlan

Turkey Trot Sand Lily and Lola Quinlan

The most pleasurable public event I’ve ever done with a Fell Pony was in February 2010.  I accepted an invitation from Lola Quinlan to attend a book signing at Jax Farm and Ranch in Fort Collins, Colorado.  It was the first of four book signings that I attended that Lola organized.  I was saddened to learn that Lola passed away last week.

At that first event, Turkey Trot Sand Lily and I (ably supported by my husband) spent five hours answering questions and entertaining crowds while Lola handled all the attendant logistical details.  The photo shows Lola taking a break from her duties to meet Lily.  We didn’t have many lulls in the action that day, but Lola seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.  She even bought one of my books!

Cache La Poudre RiverBetween where I live and where the book signings were, the highway traverses Poudre Canyon, down which the Cache La Poudre River flows.  We never tire of the scenery when we make that trip.  I didn’t know it until last week, but Lola, too, appreciated the Poudre.  Her family has asked that remembrances be given to a Poudre Waterkeeper organization.

Thank you, Lola, for the fond memories of a day spent with Lily talking to the public about Fell Ponies.  And for your passion for the Poudre.  May you rest in peace.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

A Humbling ExperienceBook Fell Pony ObservationsTwo books I’ve signed at Lola’s events are A Humbling Experience and Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies

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