Color Questions

Moonlit Stargazer LilyThe first Fell Pony herd I ever saw was unusual from a color standpoint.  There were six black ponies and two grays.  What made it unusual was not the dominance of black ponies, which is typical of the breed, but that grays made up 25% of the herd.  Typically grays are much more rare, though they’ve been more numerous in recent years.

When I began with Fell Ponies, my herd was all black and then I added a brown with black points.  When her brown-with-black-points daughter was born, my herd became unusual just like that first herd I saw because I then had more (non-black) color than the breed-wide norm.  My herd has now become even more colorful, with the arrival of Moonlit Stargazer Lily, a three-year-old gray filly.  I’m very excited by all the color questions I now get to ask and, with Lily’s help, hopefully answer.

This morning my husband suggested, rightly, that I need to take pictures of Lily regularly.  The first color question is how fast she will lighten to the color of her dam who is white.  And how will the white emerge?  Right now Lily has white patches on her face that are much lighter than the rest of her body.  It’s already hard to distinguish her star that contributed to her name!

A second color related question was asked by an acquaintance when they first saw a picture of Lily.  Do all gray Fell Ponies eventually turn white?  All the ones I know have lightened with age, but I’ve never researched in the broader Fell Pony population whether this is universally true.  I also don’t know whether there is an equine gray color, genetically, that stays gray – another question to answer!

Another color question was inspired by pictures I saw of Lily several months ago when I was first given the opportunity to bring her here.  She appeared almost lavender in color, especially in her mane and tail.  I think this coloring was because her black hairs were faded.  I have seen other gray Fells her age with a similar lavender appearance.  Now only Lily’s tail shows that coloring, and at her tail’s root it’s looking gray rather than lavender, as you can see in the picture here.  My color question here is whether the lavender color does indeed manifest because of a faded  black background color and if so whether copper supplementation returns the pony to a gray color from lavender just as it makes faded black ponies become blacker.

Another color question is related to our climate here.  I’ve always been biased against gray ponies because I’ve believed that they will be hard to keep clean during our spring mud season, afternoon summer thunder showers, and dusty dry lots in summer.  My black ponies also get muddy and dusty but it doesn’t seem noticeable.  Will a gray pony (especially in the white phase) be any more noticeably muddy and dusty than the blacks?  Another climate question is whether Lily will be able to stay as warm in the winter as the dark-colored ponies whose coats absorb warmth readily from the weak winter sun.

I brought Lily here to breed to my stallion Guards Apollo.  The last color question currently on my mind is related to future foals.  I’ve already made one mistake with foal color when my brown-with-black-points mare had her first.  I thought the foal was brown when it was actually faded black.  Grays may be more tricky since they’re born black and then turn.  The mare Lunesdale Silver Belle whom I owned for a few years fooled her breeder, despite her breeder having decades of experience.  Ellie was named assuming she was a gray, hence the silver in her name, but she never turned and stayed black.  So the color question here is whether I’ll be able to accurately tell Lily’s foal colors. I’m not optimistic!

I love questions that I can learn answers to (the unanswerable ones I find more frustrating.)   I’m looking forward to learning the answers to the color questions I already have and I look forward to any others that may present themselves!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book Fell Pony ObservationsThere are more stories about the colors of the Fell Pony 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

Foal (and Older) Foot Handling

Willowtrail Mountain EmmaA session with my foal Willowtrail Mountain Emma left me pondering the vastly different perspectives people and ponies have about foot handling.  For us humans, the goal is clear: the pony should pick its foot up when asked, hold it in the air as long as we want, let us manipulate their leg and hoof with our hands and tools, and politely put it down when we’ve finished our task.  For a pony, though, having its foot under another’s control represents losing a key defense mechanism – flight – which their instincts tell them must be preserved at all costs.

When we work with foals of course, it’s our job to change their innate perception of foot handling from fear to an opportunity to cooperate.   Because I do my own hoof trimming right now, I’m especially attuned to my responsibility for creating this cooperative spirit since it makes my job as trimmer so much more enjoyable.  A conversation with a client, though, reminded me that foot handling isn’t something to be taken for granted, as sometimes even older equines lack an interest in cooperating in this most basic of equine stewardship responsibilities.

Foot handling of course is not just about lack of fear.  It’s about creating new associations and teaching new skills and introducing the idea of a relationship with a non-pony being.  Nonetheless, I’ve found it does progress in a fairly step-wise fashion.  And I’ve found that with older ponies, sometimes I have to go back a few steps from the ultimate destination to remind them of their part in the dance of foot handling that we’re undertaking together.

The first step in my approach to foal foot handling is to discover where the foal most likes to be scratched.  I then use scratches in their favorite places to communicate appreciation for subsequent cooperative behavior.   With foals I’ve found the first place they usually like to be scratched is the point of the shoulders, then the withers and eventually the ventral line and point of buttocks, a location helpful when working with the hind feet.

I then make sure I can stroke the foal’s body with them remaining calm and accepting, working as necessary from scratches in favorite places to broader strokes across the shoulders, neck, back, flanks, and hindquarters.  If they tense or begin to move off, I return to what they accept calmly while remaining stationary.

Then it’s time to stroke down the legs, part way at first and eventually all the way down to the coronet band.  One clinician has suggested that for older equines, we’re creating an association of a massage with foot handling.  We don’t just walk up to a horse, bend over, and lift the foot off the ground.  Instead we express our appreciation for our equine friend by calmly stroking them before getting to work.  Again, the goal is not to be able to touch the leg all the way down but to have the foal accept the stroking calmly and without tensing and moving off.  I often return to stroking the leg when I’ve gone too far too fast, which the foal has communicated to me by tensing or starting to move off.

Once the foal readily accepts stroking to the coronet band, I tap the coronet band lightly with my fingers.  Eventually this will serve as an initial communication that foot handling is in the offing.  Now though it is about testing the foal’s acceptance of all we’ve done before this point.  I have found for many foals that it takes a few repetitions for the foal to remain calm and quiet about this step.

One might assume that the next step is to pick the foot up.  I have found however that the smaller the increments between steps the better.  So for me, the next step is to ever so slightly tip the foot forward on the toe.  The second photo in the sequence shows how slight this step is.  Of course this step is immediately preceded by stroking the leg and tapping the coronet band.  I only proceed if the stroking and tapping were accepted calmly and quietly.  Tipping the foot forward onto the toe is the first time where I’m taking control of the foot, and I want to make sure that all goes well.  I’ve found that progressing from tapping the coronet band all the way to picking the foot up is too big a step, and most foals express discomfort with the idea by either tensing or moving off.  Instead, I want to give them an opportunity to experience the next step with only the slightest concern.  So I tip the hoof forward and put it back immediately.

Typically foals will accept this small increment with some tenseness but without moving off, as shown in the last photo of the sequence.  We’ve likely all had equines who will lift their feet fine but then try to kick their foot free from our hands and put it back down themselves.  This step of tipping the foot forward and replacing it immediately is intended to be the first subtle introduction to the idea that proper foot handling is not just about picking the foot up when asked but about putting it down when asked and not before, and on the human’s terms, politely, not theirs.  It is of course possible for the human to be injured if a horse kicks their foot out of their human’s hands, so this step and the next couple are very important to the quality of the end result of foot handling training.

After the foal accepts their foot being tipped ever so slightly forward then returned to the ground, the next step is to tip the foot farther forward onto the toe so that the soul of the hoof is definitely off the ground but not necessarily the toe.  The foot is again then returned immediately to the ground and released.   Scratches in favorite places should of course be utilized to communicate that the desired behavior is recognized and appreciated.  It may seem like all of these small incremental steps make teaching foot handling manners take a lot of time, but in practice they go pretty quickly.  The benefit comes down the road.  I’ve had two year olds in their troublesome phase suggest they’ve forgotten everything they were ever taught about foot handling, but then when I take them back though this sequence, complete with strokes and scratches in their favorite places, they quickly settle into the routine.

I make sure to progress all four feet each session.  We all know that horses learn separately for each side of their body, so we can’t assume that just because things went well on one side, they’ll go well on the other.  I’ve also found that there is always one foot that is more problematic than the rest and takes longer to make progress on.  This was true even on my second ever pony, a Norwegian Fjord Horse whom I acquired as a two-year-old, so the one-problematic-foot issue seems to not to be limited to foals.

After I’m able to tip the foot onto the toe, I take the next step of lifting the foot ever so slightly off the ground.  I immediately put it back down.  Sometimes the foal wants to kick it out of my hand even after all these preparatory steps, so I try to have my other hand ready at the top of the hock to force the lower leg to the ground.  I don’t try to keep the foot in the air very long or manipulate it.  Those steps come later.  I have found that this quick pick up and put down is a crucial step to developing trust in the foal about the foot handling process.

From here the foot handling process begins to look more like the end goal to us humans.  From lifting slightly and putting back down, I progress to lifting the foot higher each time and to patting it on the bottom before putting it back down.  I’m still stroking and scratching in favorite places as prep and thank you, and I’m still emphasizing that the foot is put down on my terms and my timing, politely.  When they have been taught that picking the foot up is automatically followed at some point by putting it back down, with the activities in between taught in increasing increments of time and complexity, the end result is at least more understandable to the foal, as well as being one that I can reinforce every time I handle their feet.

As foals age, I have found they progress from being afraid of having their feet handled to being annoyed about the activity.  The step-wise approach I use works equally well in the face of annoyance, reminding them that their foot will be returned to them politely, with several scratches in favorite places in the mean time.

Shortly after my first pony entered my life, I learned about the natural horsemanship approach to being with equines.  My early attempts to use natural horsemanship techniques with my first pony, however, were dismal failures.  I reached out to a nearby pony breeder asking if they felt the techniques could be used with ponies.  The answer has been one I come back to over and over again.  “It’s important to break things down into the smallest possible steps to help them understand.”  While my experience has been entirely with ponies, I suspect the step-wise approach might be helpful with other equines, too.  It certainly has made a difference for me in foal (and older) foot handling.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

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

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

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 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