My Dad and a Pony

dad on a ponyPonies have been my focus and my passion for nearly two decades.  Every once in awhile, though, I get surprised when they appear in a part of my life where I don’t expect them.

The last time I saw my father, he didn’t know who I was, thanks to the curse of dementia.  He did, though, have quite a collection of postcards that he treasured from the Pony Lady.  I succeeded in connecting with him from a distance by sending pictures of my ponies in a format that encouraged conversation with his caregivers.  I often received feedback from Dad’s visitors indicating how much Dad appreciated my efforts.  Dad never seemed very interested in animals when he was younger, but photographs were a big part of my growing up with him.

Dad has finally been freed from the curse of dementia.  The planning of his Celebration of Life had the unexpected benefit of reconnecting with my aunt, his older sister.  Part of the Celebration was a slide show, and my aunt dove into boxes long stored in her garage and found photographs my siblings and I had never seen before.  As you’ll have guessed, one of those photographs shows my aunt and my father aboard a pony.

Two things struck me about this photograph.  First of course was that Dad was actually in physical contact with an equine, though he doesn’t necessarily look happy about it.  My brother found home movie footage from fifty years ago showing my dad actually riding a horse, with me in the saddle in front of him.  In that case he actually had a smile on his face!  The second thing that struck me about the photo from Dad’s childhood was the size and apparent color of the pony underneath him.  It’s not as obvious in this photo as it is in another one that my aunt shared that also included their cousins.  This pony is about the size and color of my first pony Mya, an 11.2hh silver dapple.  Of all the possible sizes and colors that ponies can be, that my father would be astride a pony so similar to my first one I find truly remarkable.

A day rarely goes by when ponies aren’t somehow part of what I do.  Even when we make one of our twice monthly trips to the ‘big city’ for supplies, we frequently make time for a meal with a pony friend.  I even figured out how to see ponies when I traveled for my father’s Celebration of Life!  These are all things I plan so that ponies can be even more present in my life.  Nonetheless there are parts of my life that are still pony-free.  So when a pony appears in one of those normally pony-free areas, the surprise is a delightful one indeed.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book Fell Pony ObservationsA story about my familial connection to Fell Ponies can be found in Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available on Amazon and by clicking here.

Posted in Partnered Pony (TM)

The Opportunity of a Plastic Glove

Willowtrail Mountain EmmaI’m thankful to be back to doing almost all my pony chores.  I still need to wear a plastic glove to protect the bandage on my injury.  What an opportunity that plastic glove has provided, though!  How each pony has reacted to the sight and sound of crinkling reflective material on my hand has told me a lot about them and a lot about each of our relationships.

Initially of course they all showed that they noticed that my handwear was different.  For some, that was the extent of their reaction.  For a few, though, there was a desire to keep some distance away from my new clothing.  Putting on rope halters has been an especially illuminating task because it requires the plastic glove to be around one eye and up and down between ear and throatlatch.  I’ve felt complimented that some of my ponies have allowed haltering without any change in behavior.  Others have had to get used to the idea.

What has amused me most has been the reaction of my foal Willowtrail Mountain Emma.  When I am in the foaling stall cleaning up manure, she of course comes to investigate.  My plastic-gloved hand is usually on the end of the shovel closest to her, so that’s what she encounters first.  She apparently never got the message that plastic is something to be scared of because from the first encounter she’s been mouthing it.  Now of course I’ve taken the opportunity to stroke her entire body with it.  She thinks it’s entirely normal that a human has plastic on one hand!

I’ve just taken my first (very short) ride since my accident, and I’m very thankful that my mare was accommodating of plastic resting on her withers.  Without thinking, I stroked another mare on her hips with my plastic glove, and I realized in hindsight she could have bucked but she didn’t.  I may not have to wear the plastic glove much longer, but while it’s on, I’ll appreciate the opportunity to learn more about how my ponies perceive it.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

What an HonorThere are lots of stories like this one in What an Honor:  A Dozen Years with Fell Ponies, available internationally on Amazon and by clicking here.

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

Minding the Leaders 2

She’s done it again.  Twice in fact.  In one day.  My very pregnant mare met me at the fence Bowthorne Mattyand invited me to mount for a very short ride to the hay stack.  This offer of assistance is quite a compliment normally and even more so with her already carrying plenty of added weight.  I’ve ridden mares for similar short distances up until the day before they foaled with no adverse consequences.  Still, I find it remarkable that she offered.  Twice.

I read about some research a few years ago showing that equines can learn by watching familiar or more dominant members of the herd. (1)  I saw this research in action at the fence the other day.  My pregnant mare is the leader of the herd, but she wasn’t at the fence that day.  Instead, a younger mare was.  She too had been greeting me at the fence, but typically she put her head across the top rail.  On this day, though, she made me laugh.  She turned sideways to the fence, just like my pregnant mare has been doing, inviting me to mount.  It’s happened more than once now, so I know it wasn’t just random activity.  She’d been watching my pregnant mare being rewarded, and she mimicked the behavior.  I of course accepted the invitation!

This mimicking of behavior is something I take into account whenever I’m with my ponies.  If a herd leader is behaving in ways I don’t like, I know I need to make a change immediately to correct the behavior so that the rest of the herd doesn’t pick up any unwanted traits.  Most of the time, though, mimicking of behavior works out to my benefit, as in the invitation to mount at the fence for a ride to the haystack.  I’ll take help with chores any time!

  1. Morrissey, Jenifer. “Minding the Leaders,” The Partnered Pony:  What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, 2015, p. 127

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book The Partnered PonyThere are lots of stories like this one in The Partnered Pony:  What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available on Amazon.com and by clicking here.

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

A Family Pony

Willowtrail Jonty by Cara MurphyI have had numerous occasions in my Fell Pony career to experience the Fell Pony Society motto, “You can’t put a Fell Pony to the wrong job.”  I am however unable to experience another of the common refrains about Fells as family ponies –  capable for the adults and good with kids – because we don’t have children here.  I feel fortunate, then, to be experiencing this Fell Pony refrain vicariously through a pony I bred and the family that owns him.

Willowtrail Jonty is about to turn eight, and his owner is noticing his maturity.  “I just wanted to check in and let you know how much we love Jonty. He is finally starting to look and act like an “adult,” if that makes sense. He seems to really know his job (working with me and taking care of the kids), most of his spookiness and lack of concentration (minor stuff…normal for youngsters) has passed, and he seems to enjoy his routine. “

His owner went on to describe Jonty’s role in the family.  “I have been taking him on trail rides two or three times per week this spring as our roads are perfect for it right now…muddy and soft and fun to trot on. He will go out by himself but prefers others. He still gets a little worried in new territory by himself and will stop and try to return home (fine for me to handle but not a novice rider yet). However, if we are on a familiar road, he walks nicely on a loose rein by himself and is quite happy.

“He has great ground manners and stands perfectly still and enjoys his grooming. I even watched him stand perfectly still as my daughter used the bristly side of a hoof pick and brushed his belly before I realized what she was doing. He didn’t even care. The kids can oil his hooves and brush his tail and he is great.

“We try not to give him treats except in his paddock, on the ground. Otherwise he starts getting too mouthy. However, no matter how many times I announce throughout the barn that he isn’t to be fed treats, the other boarders simply love him and will forget and hand him something as they walk past. It drives me crazy but they all have these big dressage horses that live on treats and they forget. Everyone adores him and always come over to say hi when he enters the barn.

“We will probably do a few local shows with him this year, and both kids are becoming more active in pony club. He loves to go places and jumps right in the trailer, and stands quietly tied to the trailer at shows.”

I have seen pictures of Jonty competing for the mom in dressage and eventing, as well as giving the kids rides.  It’s clear he is the epitome of a family pony, and for that I couldn’t be more thankful.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book Fell Pony ObservationsThere are lots of stories like this one about what make Fell Ponies unique in the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available on Amazon and by clicking here.

Posted in Fell Ponies

What They Offer

Bowthorne MattyIt’s happened dozens of times now, but I still find it amazing, especially since the mare’s pregnancy keeps advancing.  I keep expecting her to quit offering as her foal grows in size, but she hasn’t yet.  She still seems to enjoy it as much as I do, tossing her head and nickering at me.

It’s noon, and I have fed all the paddocks but the largest.  I’m about to crawl through the fence when the head mare sees me and begins walking purposefully in my direction with her ears pricked forward.  When she reaches me, she accepts my initial pet on her neck but then turns sideways to the fence and tosses her head.  The invitation to mount is obvious.  Despite having no tack, I accept, and she carries me across the paddock to the hay yard. (1)

I find that it is what ponies offer that makes them so amazing to be around.  I have walked across that paddock on my own two feet enough times to know that ponies can make other choices.  They can stand at a distance and watch me approach.  They can turn and head the other way.  They can approach and greet me but not invite me to mount.  So when they choose to engage with me or better yet to offer something helpful in getting a chore done, I accept the gesture with profound gratitude.

Of course, it’s not only ponies that offer.  The other day I delivered hay via a plastic snow sled to a paddock of ponies and remembered a photo of something similar.  My friend and colleague Doc Hammill was shown in a photo also with hay in a sled, except that he was met at the gate by his Suffolk mare Anne, and she turned and offered her tail.  Doc grabbed on, and Anne helped him pull the sled of hay to the herd.

On Facebook, the following story was accompanied by a photo of a team of Belgians working:  “Carl and Bobby are very special horses and I was just working them here around the place where they were used to the routine….  I hitched them every morning to feed out around the place and there wasn’t much to do on the lines as mostly I’d talk to them about how to proceed.  Just to make harnessing easier on me I tried them out one morning with no bridles or bits, just buckled lines to the halters and they both worked just fine, so I used them that way through the winter with no bridles.” (2)  I am working a pony in harness on the farm in just a halter with lines, no bridle or bit, so I have a personal appreciation for this teamster’s story.  I am always mindful that my pony can make choices about working with me or not, so that when she does help me with my chores willingly, and in fact seems to enjoy our time together as much as I do, it feels like a gift, giving me the same sense of joy that a compliment or a gift from a human being brings.

Sometimes what equines offer is more subtle of course.  One day I had finished a ride, and I told my gelding what a great guy he was.  He licked and chewed in response, making me feel he’d understood my appreciation.  The same day I’d unhaltered a mare after she finished her feed bucket, and as she stepped away I thought how much I appreciated her presence here.  She stopped and came back to me, again making me feel she’d understood my unspoken appreciation.

I am told many people spend time with equines yet never experience what they offer.  How sad.  Yet I can imagine how it happens.  We get so focused on the goals we have for the future with our equine, whether breeding another foal, preparing for a competition, or getting the day’s job done.  Like so many things in life, it can be hard to slow down enough to appreciate what we already have.  What a blessing that horses live in the present and give us an opportunity to do the same.

Living life has its ups and downs, so I’m always looking for the ups to help me survive the downs.  Having equines requires significant personal investment, so experiencing what they offer seems an important return on that investment.  In my experience, the ups with equines are available to help with all that goes into having them:  manure management, fence repair, feed costs, veterinary care.  At least for me, what they offer provides more than sufficient compensation.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

A Humbling ExperienceBook The Partnered PonyStories like this one can be found in my books The Partnered Pony, A Humbling Experience, My Name is Madie, and What an Honor.  Available on Amazon or by clicking on the titles or covers.

My Name is MadieWhat an Honor

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

Willowtrail Pony Express 2

Willowtrail Pony ExpressIt was a beautiful winter day in the middle of the week, and I had some pieces of mail that needed to go out.  Being the middle of the week, there was likely to be less traffic on the county road, so it seemed the perfect opportunity for another run of the Willowtrail Pony Express.

I try to write my father a postcard a few times a week, usually with a picture of a pony on it.  His advanced age has unfortunately robbed him of the ability to appreciate words, but pictures still are of interest, and I’m told he has quite a collection of all the postcards I’ve sent him.  Our postmaster has also expressed appreciation for the postcards, wishing she had thought to do the same for her father before he passed away.  All of this is added motivation to keep sending the postcards through the mail.

The trip down the driveway with my two ponies, one ridden, the other led (ponied) was routine.   Even better, I didn’t hear the roar of snow machines that is common on many winter days here.  While I have ridden ponies past snow machines at times, usually the one-eyed noisy and smelly monsters cause more excitement than I choose to encounter, so I appreciated the quiet.  As I’d hoped, when we reached the county road, there were no fresh tracks indicating any sort of traffic.  One day I’d taken my pony pair out like this and found the fresh snow in the road similarly undisturbed, so I turned up the road for an extended outing.  Unfortunately I’d forgotten to look both directions, and when we turned around, we came face to face with the county snow plow!  It wasn’t cause for quite as much excitement as snowmachines are.

On the Pony Express day, it was especially quiet.  We encountered just one walker and no vehicles on our two mile round trip on the county road,.  Two trucks went by on the highway where the mailboxes are, and that was it.  We made it to the mailbox on time for the mail to go out, and the only real reason for increased adrenalin was figuring out how to get around the cattleguard.  We use the snow machine trail that travels along beside the road, but the snow bank between the road and the trail was bigger than usual, and while a moose had breached it, the moose obviously had longer legs than we did, so we floundered a bit.

In addition to moose tracks, we saw evidence that the little white tail deer herd that’s been trying to winter here had been on our route, but mostly we saw canine tracks – fox and coyote.  I heard a dog bark as we approached a cabin camp where a neighbor had said she’d had trouble with the employee’s pets.  I dismounted and led the ponies along that part of the road, but we didn’t encounter anyone.

I’ve just finished an article for Rural Heritage magazine about my great-great grandparents’ journey through California by horse and wagon in 1903.  As background research, I’ve done quite a bit of reading about stagecoaches, which they encountered on their trip.  Stagecoaches were of course preceded by pony express riders in carrying mail in our country before the railroads.  My own experiences riding to our mailbox and other places over the years have made it easy for me to visualize what my ancestors encountered on their journey and similarly what stage drivers came across, including the varied terrain of the routes and the unpredictable weather and road conditions.  It’s also easy for me to imagine the close relationship that the riders and drivers necessarily had with their equines.  To do their job, they had to know them well enough to anticipate how they would react to the odd bear or stream crossing or highwayman jumping out from behind a rock, just as I have to anticipate reactions to snowmobiles and pedestrians and moose.

One of the stagecoach drivers that worked the routes my great-great grandparents traveled was Charley Parkhurst.  Parkhurst developed a solid reputation as a coach driver in Rhode Island before being drawn to western opportunities by the gold rush. Parkhurst worked another twenty years on the lines in California.  “Charley drove stage over various California routes and experienced his share of near-death incidents, including a bridge that collapsed moments after he had drawn his team and coach over it.  It is said that after he point-blank shot two would-be stage robbers, he wasn’t bothered with that particular problem anymore.” (1)  Parkhurst was sometimes called ‘One-eyed Charley’ because of losing one eye after being kicked by a horse. (2)  Upon Parkhurst’s death in 1879, Charley’s friends were astounded to learn as they prepared the body for burial that Charley was actually a woman.  “Stout-bodied, homely Charley Parkhurst is mostly remembered for masquerading as a man throughout her entire adulthood so she could drive stage, one of the most physically punishing occupations of her time.” (3)

While there are certainly other ways for me to get the mail to the mailbox, just as there were other ways that Charley Parkhurst could have made a living, I’ll continue to use my Willowtrail Pony Express when I can, enjoying the opportunity to experience a journey through the great outdoors with my equine friends.

  1. Stapp, Cheryl Anne. The Stagecoach in Northern California:  Rough Rides, Gold Camps & Daring Drivers.  Charleston, South Carolina:  The History Press, 2014, p. 83.
  2. “Charley Parkhurst” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charley_Parkhurst
  3. Same as #1.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

More stories like this one can be found in these books by the author, available internationally on Amazon and by clicking here.

What an HonorA Humbling ExperienceBook The Partnered Pony

Posted in Partnered Pony (TM), Work Ponies

Fell Pony Data Scientist

Willowtrail Farm Fell PoniesThe Denver Post newspaper has declared that the hottest job in 2016 is data scientist, with abundant job openings and an attractive six-figure median salary.  The job is described as going beyond ‘collecting and analyzing data.  It’s a job for the curious, for the intuitive and for those who like to not just solve problems but figure out the problem.  It’s part science, part art.”  (1)

When I read these words, I laughed with realization.  I’m a Fell Pony data scientist!  I am perpetually curious about these ponies, I rely on my intuition in my research and writing, and I always look for ways to make constructive contributions whether or not a problem exists.  I have not, however, discovered where the six-figure salary comes from.  Fortunately, compensation comes in other forms.

“Data scientists not only collect and analyze data, they figure out what is important….”  (2)  Figuring out what is important about Fell Ponies is a fascinating journey and so far one without an end in sight.  My first scientific exploration of Fell Pony data was a study of carrying capacity back in 2005.  I’m currently working on another carrying capacity study.  I’m also doing a private analysis of Fell Pony data for a client.  I have another research project underway about influences on foal gender.

I often view my research in terms of geometry.  A single piece of information is interesting, but it’s just a lonely point in the Fell Pony universe.  If a second similar piece of information comes along, the topic becomes more interesting because two points define a line, and a line can be an arrow pointing to something important.  If I am lucky enough to get a third related piece of information, then I conclude that I’m really onto something, because three points define a plane, an area that likely contains some truth that bears consideration.

One characteristic that discerning employers are seeking when hiring data scientists is an awareness of data context. (3)  All data can be misused or misconstrued if the way that it was collected isn’t fully understood.  In the pony world, show results immediately come to mind as an example.  A particular pony is a champion on a particular day in a particular class in a particular grouping of ponies before a particular judge.  That pony isn’t necessarily better or worse than any other pony outside that context.  As a data scientist I shake my head in sorrow when I see a pony advertised as ‘supreme champion’ without the accompanying date and name of show.  (I explore this topic in depth in “The Conundrum of Judging Quality” in my book about the Fell Pony breed.)

Another characteristic that employers look for is the ability to communicate findings clearly. (4)  I received an email the other day from a reader of Rural Heritage magazine appreciating my way with words.  “As always your articles are a joy to read, not only for their content but you put so much life in them.”  I am humbled by such feedback and motivated to continue my craft.

During my schooling, I took several classes that informed my analytic and numerical skills.  It wasn’t until several years later, though, that I was introduced to the difference between quantitative and qualitative research.  Where quantitative research deals with numbers, qualitative research deals with stories.  In the Fell Pony world, there are occasional opportunities to deal with numbers, but it is equally often the case that I am listening to stories and deriving data from them that can then hopefully progress from point to line to plane in terms of importance of the information contained therein.

Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder – E.B. White

If data science is a job for the curious and the intuitive, I also think it’s a job for those on the lookout for the presence of wonder.  In the case of ponies, the gift of a nicker, the partnership in work, the arrival of a foal – all of these and more are awe-inspiring.  Being a Fell Pony data scientist is satisfying when I can put enough data points together to say something important.  But a more complete satisfaction comes from seeing important data manifesting in warm, furry bodies.  I never know where inspiration for the next inquiry will come from – perhaps a pony’s morning greeting or a question from a colleague – but I’ll eagerly welcome the inspiration when it arrives.

  1. Chuang, Tamara. “Science of Data,” The Denver Post, Sunday, January 31, 2016, Business Section K, page 1.
  2. Same as #1
  3. Chuang, page 8K.
  4. Same as #3.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book Fell Pony ObservationsThe results of my first decade of research as a Fell Pony data scientist can be found in the book Fell Ponies:  Observations on the Breed, the Breed Standard, and Breeding, available internationally on Amazon and by clicking here where royalties are higher for the author.

 

Posted in Fell Ponies, Partnered Pony (TM)